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#7: Writing Systems

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2019 issue.

While it can perhaps be argued that you can have a civilization without writing, few would try to make the argument that you can develop a technological civilization without it. But writing comes in many forms. This post is a brief discussion of the various types, and should be noted to be drastically oversimplified in some – likely most – explanation.

A good starting point to follow up on this post is Omniglot.com. It has many articles about and examples of writing systems, both attested in the real world and created for fiction, for conlangs, or for “encoding” natural languages, and will generally be more accurate and elaborate than what is written here. Wikipedia, naturally, is also a good starting point.

In a previous version of this article, posted on-line, I lumped together ideographic, logographic, and pictographic writing systems and discussed them as though the terms were mostly interchangeable. Further research has shown that this was an error; I go into a bit more detail here.

There is a great deal of overlap between pictographic and ideographic scripts; both tend to abstract meaning into symbols, and do not truly map written symbols to spoken words in a fixed one-to-one manner. Pictographic scripts rely on physical resemblance of the written symbol to the real-world concept/object that it represents. Ideographic scripts, however, rely on broad common recognition of the association between the written symbol and the concept, without there being a necessary physical resemblance. Often, pictographic and ideographic elements are combined in message presentation; an example would be many road signs: In the US, a sign that is shaped like a diamond, and colored a particular shade of yellow, is itself an ideogram representing the concept “be aware of an important and possibly hazardous situation”. One can place on this an arrow pointing toward the top of the sign: another ideogram, meaning “the condition is ahead of you; you are moving toward it”, and below this, a red octagon: a pictogram representing a STOP sign. Taken together, you have the message “Cautionary warning: You are approaching a STOP sign”. It would be fair to say that ideographic and pictographic scripts are not written representations of spoken languages, but instead are of ideas that must be interpreted rather than “read”. Other examples of this type of writing (mixed pictographic and ideographic) would be Blissymbolics, emoji, Ron Cobb’s Semiotic Standard, and Dave Redington’s adaptation of the latter for Traveller.

Logographic scripts differ from pictographic/ ideographic scripts in that the symbols of the writing system represent words or phrases, but are often arbitrary. While some logographic scripts – most notably Chinese characters and Japanese kanji – appear to have evolved at least in part from older pictographic or ideographic symbols, others have been created out of whole cloth for specific purposes (for example, the International Code of Signals [ICS] flags used for inter-ship communications). Where logographic scripts are not intended as systems to bridge communication across entities not sharing a common spoken language (the ICS is so intended), they are frequently (it would not be unfair to say ‘universally’) extended to having some symbols contextually represent phonetic elements of the spoken language. Even where other writing systems entirely predominate, it is not unusual to see logographic elements in specific uses – for example, most currency symbols and mathematical notation are logographic in nature.

Syllabaries (example: Japanese kana, both katakana and hiragana) may have arisen from older pictographic/ideographic or logographic scripts, through simplification and increasingly using them as logograms to represent phoneme clusters. By limiting those clusters to combinations that occur in the spoken language, one represents the sounds of the latter, rather than the meanings, and reduces the number of symbols that must be learned as one’s vocabulary grows. In the case of Japanese, the older Chinese ideographic script is adapted to occasionally select among possible meanings of a written word (but also see furigana/ruby and bopomofo). Cherokee and Modern Yi are also syllabaries in current use; other known syllabaries are extinct. Syllabaries almost universally require fewer distinct symbols to represent a greater number of words than picto/logo/ideograms, and in that sense represent the spoken language “more efficiently” than such scripts.

Abugidas are somewhere between an alphabet and a syllabary. In an abugida, written symbols represent a single consonant and an “inherent” vowel; to modify or remove the vowel, one adds additional indicators. Hindi (Devanagari) and Bengali are probably the most immediately recognized abugidas in Europe and the Americas (though in Canada, especially Yukon, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut, the various usages of the Canadian Aboriginal syllabics will also have high recognition), but most other Indian (subcontinent, not Native American) languages follow similar patterns, as do some languages on the Malay peninsula and throughout Malaysia and Indonesia. Abugidas are more efficient (by the definition above) than syllabaries in representing the sounds of language where the number of possible syllables in a language is large. (There are only about 125 katakana.)

Abjads can be viewed as an intermediate step between abugidas and alphabets. The primary difference between abugidas and abjads is that in an abjad, the unmodified symbol represents a consonant without an “inherent” vowel; the difference between an abjad and an alphabet is that in an alphabet, vowels receive their own letters, while in an abjad, vowels are indicated by diacritics (and may be optional). Arabic and Hebrew are probably the best-known abjads; when used in traditional Quenya mode, Tolkien’s Tengwar could be considered an abjad. Abjads and abugidas appear to be nearly the same in terms of “efficiently” representing the sounds of written language, and in learning to read and write.

The Canadian Aboriginal syllabics are formally classified as an abugida, but there are characteristics that could allow it to alternatively have been classified as an abjad for some languages.

Alphabets represent consonants and vowels separately, on an “equal” footing. Depending on the language and the development of the writing system, each letter can represent a single phoneme, or perhaps a limited set of phonemes. Alphabets may be slightly more “efficient” at representing the spoken language than abjads or abugidas, but the difference appears to be small. Most European languages are alphabetic, with variations on Latin and Cyrillic being most common; the vast majority of languages that did not gain a written form until after European contact use variations on those two alphabets as well. The best-known (and longest-lived) example of a con-script for a natural language, Korean Hangul, is actually alphabetic, in spite of the general European perception that it's more like Chinese than anything else. In the mode of the Sindar (in Beleriand), Tolkien’s Tengwar is definitely alphabetic. The flags of the ICS (see Logographic Scripts above) are also used as stand-ins for the Latin alphabet.

The only extant information on Traveller scripts is the Vilani script, which is not only alphabetic, but appears to be a straight substitution cypher for the letters from English that appear in transliterations of Vilani words. While convenient, it’s unrealistic, and probably shouldn’t be considered canonical. It’s a natural “error” for non-linguists to make, and it’s equally natural to focus script development on alphabetic scripts, as that’s what English-speaking Traveller players will be most familiar with.