Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A complex model of writing development

This entry is a response to Colin's comment on the last post, and anyone who would like to see the details of his question can look in the comments. He began by asking about naming, and then went on to tell me a little about a project he's doing. These two are actually separate issues.

First, naming. Establishing naming conventions isn't hard - really, it's fun! I've discussed this in a number of places, and my first suggestion is to take a close look at what you know about your planet and people. Physiology can give you some hints as to the sounds they might use. You can also look for inspiration in animal sounds or in existing world languages. Just try to keep the names consistent in sound. There are some sounds that evoke emotions in a hearer, and many of these associations are culturally based, though the principles of onomatopoeia are more universal. Posts to look at in my archives might include:
Does your world/universe include names?
Bow-wow, boom, smash: onomatopoeia
The Feel of a Language
Ideas for Languages: animal sounds
How articulatory phonetics can help you
How morphology can help you

Now, onto the next issue, which is really a question of writing systems. Colin describes a situation in which "runes," which express whole word meanings, resemble letters and can be mistaken for them. It took me some thinking to reconcile these two ideas, in part because historically, rune systems did represent sounds, and because meaning-based writing systems (ideographic systems) and sound-based writing systems (alphabetic or syllabic systems) are so different. But if the Japanese can take the ideographic Chinese system and adapt it into a syllabic system that is then used concurrently with the ideographs (and they do!), anything is possible, right? :-)

My idea was to think of this as a process of language history. Maybe the people originally used an ideographic writing system to express their ideas. Symbols for the names of virtues would have been part of this system. (I do suggest these not be called runes, however, because the automatic associations with the word "rune" could confuse readers.) Then, something happened. Maybe there was an invasion, or perhaps an opening of trade with another country which used similar implements for writing (thus the visual similarity) but instead functioned using an alphabetic system. Or perhaps the opening of trade led to the idea of an alphabetic system and some person of note decided to adapt a set of core ideographs into an alphabet. The ideograph-users as a society would probably see the attractiveness of a system that reduced the education burden for literacy, and while there might be some initial objections, let's say they adopt the new alphabetic method of writing. Generations go by, and the knowledge of the ideographs became more and more esoteric. At a certain point one would see a situation in which ideographs would not be recognized as bearing their original meanings, and might instead be construed as resembling similar symbols from the newer alphabetic system. I'd also suggest that both the systems should have their own names, and the symbols should have identities that are not borrowed from Latin symbols if there is no real connection between them and Latin. Use descriptions of the symbols, and words for the symbols that you create, that you can fit into the same sound system as the names of people and things as mentioned above.

Thanks again for the question!

You might also want to check out Tom Waters' interesting discussion of language building: