Writing Systems Research Paper

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The term ‘writing system’ specifically denotes a set of symbols   which  is  used   for   the   graphic   (written) recording  of language.  Its use is commonly  synonymous with that  of the term  ‘script,’ and  the two are used  interchangeably; however,  the  notion   ‘writing system’ may additionally include the conventions  (or spelling practices)  which dictate  how the symbols of such  a  system  can  be  used.  Forms   of  graphic  expression  which  may  have  some  semantic  content— such as cave drawings,  petroglyphs,  icons, and  even sophisticated picture  messages—but which do not or could  not  record  a linguistic  utterance  directly,  are thus excluded from the realm of writing. This is not to suggest that all writing systems are capable of recording language with equal precision, but that  by definition writing systems are fundamentally linguistic.

1.    Types Of Writing System

Writing systems are of three fundamental types. Logographic systems consist of symbols, called logograms, which represent entire words. In opposition to the two remaining types, a logographic  system is said to be nonphonetic to the extent that its minimal elements record the pronunciation of an entire word, rather  than representing  the individual phonetic  components  (consonants and vowels) which make up the word. The reality of the phonetic opacity of a logographic system becomes obvious when, for example,  one  works  with  an  ancient  language  written with logograms. It may be possible to identify the meaning of a logogram by its context and other clues, but if the word which it represents is not also attested by a more revealing, phonetic writing system, its pronunciation will remain uncertain  or unknown.

In contrast to logographic scripts, syllabic and segmental writing systems are said to be phonetic.  A syllabic system consists of symbols, syllabograms, which have the value of a single syllable (although the syllables of a word spelled with a syllabic script may not  actually  line up with the syllabograms  used in a one-to-one fashion). Syllabaries most commonly possess symbols of the value V (vowel) and CV (consonant + vowel); CCV, CVC, VC, among still other permutations, also occur, though  less frequently.

Segmental writing systems are those which are composed of symbols representing  individual sounds, and are themselves of two types. Consonantal scripts (or alephbeths) have symbols for consonants only. Alphabets  are characterized by both  consonant and vowel symbols.

The relationship of the three types of writing system to  one  another   is in  large  measure  of  a  historical, developmental  nature.  Consequently, the ensuing discussion  will roughly  follow a chronological scheme. As will be seen, most writing systems are not  purely logographic  or phonetic,  but  display some degree of hybridization.

2.    The Birth Of Writing

On the basis of presently available evidence, it is clear that  human  beings first began  to record  language  in the ancient  Near  East.  Until  quite  recently, the very earliest examples of writing were to be found  among the archaeological  remains  of ancient  Mesopotamia. However, recent discoveries may place the appearance of writing in Egypt at approximately the same time as its first attestations in the Fertile Crescent.

2.1    Mesopotamian  Writing

Writing appears among the Sumerians of southern Mesopotamia in the late fourth millennium BC, and it is the  Sumerians  who  are  usually  credited  with  the invention of writing, although it appears to be attested not much later in Syria (at Tell Brak) and in Iran  (in texts  preserving  the  poorly  understood language  of Proto-Elamite). The events which led to the advent of Sumerian  writing  are  of course  unknown, although there are various theories regarding its appearance. In the view of some scholars,  the Sumerian  invention  of writing was a deliberate  act, probably  occasioned  by the needs of palace administrators, and most likely in the city of Uruk where it is first attested. Others would see the process as being more of an evolutionary, in effect accidental,  nature.

Regardless  of the nature  of the crucial step which led to the appearance of a system of writing  on the Sumerian  Plain, it seems undeniable  that  a precursor of the script is to be found in the clay tokens which had been in use for record keeping in Mesopotamia  since at  least  8000  BC.  Some  of  these  tokens   actually resemble the commodity  which they depict; others are of an arbitrary shape. By the latter half of the fourth millennium BC, some tokens had begun to be used as stamps, being impressed into moist clay tablets to produce administrative ledgers. Other tokens, those of more complex design, began to be etched freehand  in the clay using a stylus. Schmandt-Besserat (1996) has argued that  the appearance of Sumerian  logographic writing was a natural evolutionary step following from the  practice  of  inscribing  token  images  (a  process linked, she argues, to the development  of symbols for abstract numerals).

As suggested by their conjectured  association  with tokens,  the  earliest  Sumerian  symbols  are  pictographic; in other  words, the symbols have a picture-like appearance. The curved lines of the pictographic characters   began,   however,   to  give  way  to  more angular, conventionalized shapes. Such conventionalization of symbols is a common process in the evolution of writing  systems, but  in this instance  that  process and the direction of development were dictated by the medium and instruments of writing. The chief medium used throughout the history of Sumerian  writing was clay. Sumerian scribes incised their pictographic characters   in  wet  clay  tablets   using  pointed   styli. These, however, were replaced by a stylus with a triangular-shaped  head   which  was  simply  pressed down  into  the clay, allowing  for more  efficient production  of the symbols. Characters produced  in this way  have  a  characteristic wedge-shape  (quite  pronounced  by the middle of the third  millennium  BC), and   are  hence  called  cuneiform   (from   the  Latin cuneus, meaning ‘wedge’).

The value of early Sumerian symbols is logographic: each symbol represents an entire word. This logographic system is characterized by extensive homophony and polyphony. Homophony refers to the existence of multiple logograms having the same pronunciation, as they spell phonetically identical but semantically different  words  (homophones).  Polyphony   is,  in  a sense, the very opposite; the term denotes the practice of using a single logogram to spell two or more conceptually  related but phonetically  different words. For  example, a single logogram  is used to spell both DINGIR ‘god’ and  AN  ‘heaven’ (by Sumerological convention, Sumerian words are transcribed using capital letters).

A  subset  of  the  Sumerian  logograms  did  double duty as semantic markers, called determinatives. These were written  in conjunction with  another  logogram and were used, in effect, to provide the reader  with a clue as to  the  meaning  of that  logogram,  although their use is both  conventionalized and  optional. For example, the logogram GIS, ‘wood,’ is used as a determinative with  logograms  denoting  items  made of wood and tree names, such as gisERIN, ‘cedar’ (determinatives are  commonly  transcribed as superscript). Similar devices also occur in the logographic Egyptian   and   Maya   scripts,   and   in  a  somewhat different form in Chinese writing as well.

Sumerian is an agglutinating language with complex word structure involving the joining of multiple affixes in sequence. Logographic spelling thus obscures much word-internal morphology. Perhaps it was chiefly this inherent  shortcoming  which led to a significant typological alteration in the Sumerian logographic  writing system—the   introduction  of  syllabic  symbols   (by about  3000 BC). The  method  employed  in devising such symbols was that of a rebus. Just as in an English rebus, a picture of the sun, for example, could be used to ‘spell’ the word ‘son,’ so Sumerian logograms began to  be  used  to  represent  syllables  having  the  same sound. Sumerian scribes used the syllabic symbols not only for representing grammatical elements but also as phonetic complements, syllabic characters used to distinguish between polyphonous logograms.  For example, the logogram  KA was used to spell ‘mouth’ as  well as  related  notions  such  as  ‘word,’  ‘speak,’ ‘voice,’ and still others; attaching  the phonetic  complement -ma (i.e., KA-ma) signals that the logogram  is being used to spell INIM  ‘word.’

Late  in  the  third  millennium  BC,  texts  begin  to appear   in  the  Mesopotamian archaeological   world which are written in the cuneiform script of the Sumerians,  but  which are composed  in a completely different  language,  the  Semitic  language  Akkadian. The  Assyrians  and  Babylonians, speakers  of Akkadian, greatly  extended  the use of syllabic symbols, but continued to utilize Sumerian logograms and determinatives as well. The Akkadian cuneiform script was transmitted to  other  peoples  of the  Near  East, providing writing systems for the Hittites and Luvians, the Hurrians and  Urartians, the Elamites,  and,  in a significantly streamlined form, the Persians. The latest known  Akkadian cuneiform  texts were produced  in the first century AD.

2.2    Egyptian Writing

While the pictographic symbols of the Egyptian hieroglyphic script are clearly graphically distinct from those of Sumerian,  and the internal  operation of the two scripts shows appreciable  differences, similarities are  undeniable.  Both  possess a logographic  component; both have a phonetic  component, which is commonly  used for phonetic  complementation; both expand the use of symbols through the rebus principle; both use a subset of logograms as determinatives. As it has appeared  that the Egyptian script is first attested a bit later than the Sumerian (about  3100–3000 BC), as there is evidence for a precursor  to the Sumerian logograms,  and  as Egypt  was otherwise  being influenced by Mesopotamia at the end of the fourth millennium  BC,  it  has  been  commonly  conjectured that at least the idea of writing, if not a writing system itself, came to the Egyptians from Mesopotamia. One possible difficulty with this scenario is that  the Egyptian  writing  system  appears   well  developed  at  its earliest  attestation, perhaps  suggesting  some earlier, undocumented period of use.

Quite  recently,  moreover,  small tags  of bone  and ivory, about postage-stamp size, have been discovered on which are carved symbols that, in some cases, bear similarity to later-known hieroglyphs. These have been dated to around 3400–3200 BC by the German archaeologist, Gunter  Dreyer,  who discovered  them, and  the symbols have been interpreted by Dreyer  as writing. The dating of the tags and, perhaps more crucially,   the  interpretation  of  their   markings   as writing requires further  investigation.

The most striking  difference between the Egyptian and  Sumerian  systems is the nature  of the phonetic component. In Egyptian writing the phonetic symbols do not have syllabic value, but represent consonants—either  single consonants or sequences (although not necessarily phonetically contiguous strings) of two or three consonants. Twenty-six monoconsonantal symbols  occur  (including  two variant  forms),  representing  the  individual  consonants of  the  language; there are almost 100 biconsonantal symbols, and somewhat  fewer  triconsonantal. Biconsonantal and triconsonantal phonetic  symbols are often themselves accompanied by one or more monoconsonantal phonetic complements.  For  example,  the triconsonantal symbol   nfr,  spelling  the  Egyptian   word   meaning ‘good,’ is commonly  used in conjunction with one or two monoconsonantal complements, as in the spelling sequence nfr f r.

3.    Consonantal Writing Systems

During the early second millennium BC, a Semitic people living and laboring in Egypt developed a script for their own language by exploiting a single component of the Egyptian  writing system. With the inspiration provided by the monoconsonantal Egyptian symbols,  these people  designed a fully phonetic  and greatly simplified writing system which consists entirely of symbols for individual  consonants. The first evidence of the script,  called Proto-Sinaitic, came to light in the early twentieth  century  with Sir Flinders Petrie’s excavations  of Egyptian  turquoise  mines  at Serabit el-Khadim in the Sinai; hence the name. Quite recently, additional examples of Proto-Sinaitic writing have been discovered near the ancient city of Thebes, at  Wadi  el-Hol,  perhaps  dating  back  to  as early  as 1900 BC.

The method which the adapters employed in turning the Egyptian  script to their own use was dubbed  the acrophonic principle  by the British  Egyptologist Sir Alan  Gardiner. The values assigned  to the phonetic characters of this earliest Semitic script—characters of pictographic  form—were  determined   by  the  initial consonant of the Semitic word for the symbol depicted, rather  than by any phonetic  value associated  with a corresponding Egyptian  symbol.  For  example,  the Egyptian  hieroglyphic  symbol  resembling  waves  of water and used in the Egyptian system as a monoconsonantal  symbol with the value  /n/  was assigned the value  /m/   in the Proto-Sinaitic script, as the word for ‘water’ in the  Semitic language  of that  script  began with  /m/ . The Proto-Sinaitic character  for /n/, on the other   hand,   was  based   on   the   Egyptian   symbol representing  /dZ/, a hieroglyph  depicting  a serpent, and  received  its Semitic  value  from  the  initial  consonant  in the Proto-Sinaitic word for ‘snake.’

Proto-Sinaitic is one particular form (the earliest by the interpretation of an origin within Egypt) of a more broadly, if meagerly, attested consonantal script called Proto-Canaanite, found at several sites in SyriaPalestine. This Proto-Canaanite script is the immediate ancestor of the Phoenician  script (appearing  in the eleventh century BC), which is in turn the source of the ancient Hebrew (ca. ninth  century)  and Aramaic  (ca. eighth century) writing systems (the Hebrew language began to be written with the Aramaic script during the sixth century  BC, although the Samaritan sect continued to use the old Hebrew letters, and continues its liturgical use to the present day). The Aramaic  script gave  rise  to  the  writing  system  of  Syriac  (ca.  first century AD, and late enough to be influenced by the Greek alphabet)  and, through the particular Aramaic script  used  by  the  Arab  Nabateans, to  the  Arabic writing system (ca. fourth  century AD).

Proto-Canaanite writing also served as the inspiration and model for the script of the ancient Levantine city of Ugarit.  The Ugaritic  writing system, however, departs  markedly  from the other Canaanite scripts in that its symbols are of cuneiform shape. It thus represents something of a hybrid writing system, combining the consonantal nature of Proto-Canaanite with the graphic  form  of the Mesopotamian scripts, although some scholars have argued that the shapes of the Ugaritic  consonantal characters  were themselves modeled on the Proto-Canaanite symbols but executed with the cuneiform stylus. The Ugaritic writing system also differs from other Canaanite scripts to the extent that it does not consist wholly of consonantal characters, but includes in its graphemic inventory three CV syllabic symbols, representing  a glottal  stop followed by the vowels /a/ , /i/, and  /u/.

Yet a different Semitic writing tradition would descend from the Proto-Canaanite script. In the south of the Arabian  peninsula a distinct consonantal script had  appeared  by at  least the sixth century  BC, and certainly had begun to develop several hundred  years earlier.   An   interesting   feature   of  the   Old   South Arabian  script is that  the order  of its letters departs from that of Phoenician  and the consonantal script of Ugarit.  However,  an  abecedary  found  at  the  Palestinian site of Beth Shemesh, consisting of consonantal cuneiform characters like those in use at Ugarit, shows the  same  letter  order  as  found  in  the  Old  South Arabian   script.   The  consonantal  script   of  South Arabia  spread  northward to  be adapted for  use by early North Arabian  languages (distinct from Arabic) and westward to the horn of Africa, where it was employed for writing the Semitic language of Ethiopic. Interestingly,  the consonantal script of Ethiopic  had undergone  a  significant  metamorphosis by the  fifth century AD, becoming a syllabary of almost 200 CV symbols.

4.    Mediterranean Syllabaries

4.1    Crete

At about  the time a Semitic people resident in Egypt were fashioning  a consonantal script out of Egyptian hieroglyphs, three writing systems emerged among the Minoans of Crete. Probably the first to appear was the pictographic script called Cretan Hieroglyphic. Dating back to about  the eighteenth  century  BC is a second Minoan script, attested on only a single document,  the Phaistos  Disk.  A third  script,  also  appearing  in the eighteenth  century  and  likely to  be descended  from Cretan   Hieroglyphic,   is  the  one  that   was  dubbed Linear  A  by  Sir Arthur   Evans,  the  British  archaeologist  who  excavated  the  Minoan  city of Knossos early in the twentieth century. The name refers to the linear nature of this script’s symbols in contrast  to the pictographic  quality   of  symbols  in  the  other   two Minoan  scripts. None of these ancient Minoan  scripts has yet been deciphered by modern investigators, although recent work on Linear A may suggest that it records an Indo–European language of the Anatolian subfamily (an idea first proposed  in the mid-twentieth century  by  the  British  classicist  and  linguist  L. R. Palmer).  Cretan  Hieroglyphic  is possibly  a  syllabic script, as is probably  that of the Phaistos Disk; Linear A is certainly a syllabary.

In his excavations at Knossos, Evans unearthed documents written in yet a different script. Bearing an obvious similarity to Linear A, this writing system was labeled  Linear  B. In  1952 the  Linear  B script  was successfully deciphered  by Michael Ventris, a British architect  working  in collaboration with the classicist John  Chadwick.  The language of the Linear B documents turned out to be Greek—that dialect used by the Mycenaean  Greek  culture  of the  second-half  of the second millennium BC. The identification of the language of the Linear B script was made particularly difficult by the seeming unsuitability  of the script for spelling  that   language.   The  great  majority   of  the symbols of this syllabic writing system are of the type CV. As Greek has many word-internal CC sequences and  word-final   consonants, spelling  practices  were devised which in some cases required  the use of CV symbols  for  spelling  consonants only  (with  no  following  vowel),  and   in  some   cases  resulted   in  a consonant not being spelled at all. The basic strategy for spelling consonant sequences is one which coopts a phonological property of the Greek language, namely the relative sonority  of consonants. It is the general case that  a consonant is written  when it precedes  a consonant of greater sonority (such as a stop occurring before a fricative), utilizing the CV symbol whose vocalic component is identical  with the vowel which follows the consonant sequence, but is not written  if the ensuing  consonant is of less sonority  (such as a fricative before a stop). In either case, the second consonant is written  (with the appropriate CV symbol). Word-final  consonants are not written  and this practice appears to be a further expression of the sonority-based strategy.

4.2    Cyprus

There is evidence for writing on the eastern  Mediterranean  island of Cyprus  as early as the middle of the second millennium  BC. The writing  system in use is preserved in distinct forms called Archaic CyproMinoan, and  Cypro-Minoan I, II, and  III (although the last type is actually  attested  in the documentary remains of the city of Ugarit, on the neighboring Levantine coast, and not on Cyprus itself ). In spite of the fact that none of the three has yet been deciphered, the formal similarities between these scripts and those of Minoan  Crete clearly suggest that  the Bronze Age Cypriot  writing  system had  its origin  in the  Cretan scripts.

Cyprus was a key locale lying along the trade routes which stretched from Greece to the east, and certainly for  this  reason  there  had  been a Greek  presence  in Cyprus during the Mycenaean era; however, the Greek population of Cyprus  increased dramatically as refugees fled the conflagration which brought an end to the Mycenaean  civilization  in the Greek  homeland.  The earliest remains of Greek writing in Cyprus come from the middle of the eleventh century BC, and the system of writing used was that of the Cypriot Syllabary. This syllabary,   while  probably   based   graphically   upon Cypro-Minoan 1, is obviously  closely affiliated  with the Mycenaean  script. Like Linear B, the Cypriot Syllabary is composed predominantly of symbols having  the value CV. The same problems  of representing word-internal consonant sequences and wordfinal  consonants which  Linear  B scribes  faced  also plague the Cypriot Greek writing system; and the solutions  to these problems  are virtually  identical  to those utilized by the Mycenaeans, being based upon the relative sonority of Greek consonants. The notable difference  between  the two  systems in this regard  is that the Cypriot writing system makes much more limited  use  of  the  CV-deletion  strategy  than  does Linear  B. In most instances  in which the first of two consonants is of greater sonority, the Cypriot strategy is to  write that  consonant (and  not  to  refrain  from writing it, as in Linear  B) using a CV symbol whose vocalic  component is identical  to  the  vowel  which precedes the consonant sequence.

5.    The Alphabet

5.1    The Greek Origin

It  was  the  Greeks  who  created  the  first  segmental writing  system to represent  not  only consonants but vowels  as  well.  The  raw  material   for  the  Greek alphabet was provided by the consonantal script of the Phoenicians. As there was both  a significant Phoenician presence on the island of Cyprus,  and a vibrant tradition of Greek literacy, Cyprus is a de facto likely candidate for the place at which the Greek  alphabet came into existence, probably  in the early eighth (or possibly late ninth) century BC. There are, moreover, particular features of the early Greek alphabet which are  not  motivated  within  that  segmental  script,  but which are motivated within the Cypriot Syllabary. For example,  the  biconsonantal symbol  xi,  representing the  sequence  of  /k/ + /s/,  is unnecessary  within  a segmental script that has both a k-symbol (kappa) and an  s-symbol  (sigma). Within  the  Cypriot  Syllabary, however,  ksV  symbols  are idiosyncratically required by the strategy of consonant cluster spelling which is based   upon   the   relative   sonority   of  consonants. Cypriot Greeks appeared  to have transferred this and other  features  from their  syllabic script to the newly devised alphabet.

For vowel symbols, the Greeks utilized Phoenician consonantal characters  which were not  required  for writing Greek.  Thus, Phoenician  aleph, symbol for a glottal stop (which sound Greek did not possess phonemically)  was assigned the Greek value   /a/   (the Greek letter alpha). Phoenician  he, spelling the glottal fricative  /h/ , was used by the Greek adapters to record mid front  (e) vowels (epsilon; for writing Greek  /h/ , Phoenician   het  was  employed,   the  symbol   for  a voiceless pharyngeal fricative  /h/ ). To write mid back (o) vowels (omicron), the Greeks  tapped  Phoenician ayin, which represented  a voiced pharyngeal fricative /?/ . Phoenician yod, spelling the palatal glide /y/ , and waw, representing  /w/, were assigned the Greek values  /i/  (iota) and   u/  (upsilon) respectively.

5.2    The Etruscan Alphabet

Following rapidly upon its creation,  the alphabet was widely disseminated  throughout the Greek world, developing many local varieties. In the south of Italy, Greek colonists  passed their western Greek  alphabet on to a non-Indo-European people of Italy, the Etruscans, in the seventh century BC. As the Etruscan language lacked voiced stops, the Greek letters representing  such  sounds,   beta  (/b/),  delta  (/d/),  and gamma (/g/), were not needed for that  purpose.  The first  two  letters  would  disappear from  the  Etruscan alphabet, although gamma was retained  and used for spelling the voiceless stop  /k/  when it occurred before a front  vowel. The Etruscans used Greek  kappa for  /k/  before /a/ and  Greek  qoppa for  /k/  before  the high  back  vowel /u/. In  turn,  the  Etruscans transmitted the alphabet to other peoples of Italy.

5.3    The Roman Alphabet

Among  those  places  to  which  the  Etruscan writing system came was the city of Rome—a singly significant step  in the  history  of the  alphabet. For  a time,  the Romans   continued   the  Etruscan  practice  of  using three different symbols to represent the velar stop  /k/ in its various  phonetic  contexts.  However,  C (from Greek gamma) was eventually used regularly for  /k/ as well as for /g/ (K, Greek  kappa, continued  to be used for a very few words and  Q, Greek  qoppa, was employed  before  V  for  spelling  /kw/ ). By the  third century BC, a variant form of C had been introduced, namely  G,  for  writing  the  voiced  velar  stop /g/. However,  as G was assigned  the alphabetic  position held by Greek zeta (spelling the early Greek sequence  /zd/, later  /z/), which was not  required  for spelling Latin,   it  has  been  argued   that   zeta,  not  gamma, provided  the raw material  for the creation  of the new letter G. Later,  in the first century BC, with the influx of much Greek vocabulary, both Y and Z (for Greek /u/ and /z/ respectively) were appended to the Roman alphabet.

5.4    The Alphabet Abroad

The alphabet would make its presence known, directly and  indirectly,  throughout the  European continent and   beyond.   The   fragmentary  remains   of  Celtic writing  from  continental Europe  are  attested  in alphabetic  scripts—Etruscan, Roman, or Greek  (aside from  the  Hispano-Celtic  inscriptions   written   in  a curious script which is part syllabic, part alphabetic). Moreover,   the  ‘native’ writing  systems  of  both  the ancient   Celts  of  Britain   and   Ireland,   and   of  the Germanic peoples of Europe are alphabetic traditions, although formally  distinct  from both  the Greek  and Roman  scripts, and strikingly so in the case of Celtic Ogham, with its characters  of oblique and right-angle lines.  Nevertheless,  it  is undoubtedly the  case  that both Ogham and the Germanic runes found their inspiration and model in the Mediterranean alphabets. When  in the  fourth  century  AD  the  Gothic  Bishop Wulfila translated portions  of the Bible into his Germanic language, he used an alphabetic script of his own design, based chiefly on the Greek alphabet.

The spreading of the Christian faith and the effort to ground believers in the biblical texts were—far beyond Wulfila—fundamental factors in the evolution  of alphabetic   writing   systems.   The   Roman   Catholic Church  played  a  key  role  in  the  introduction and eventual establishment of the Roman  alphabet across much of the European continent. Carried  by the colonizing   European  nations,   this  writing   system would be transported around the world, being utilized for writing European languages on all six of the populated  continents, and  adapted for  spelling  indigenous  languages  of  Asia  and  Africa,  as  well as providing   raw   material   for   the   symbols   of   the Cherokee  syllabary of North America.

In the ninth century AD, Greek missionaries led by Saint  Cyril  and  Saint  Methodius developed  writing systems, based on their own Greek alphabet, for translating the Bible into the language of south Slavic converts.  One of these scripts,  the Cyrillic alphabet, thrived and is the predecessor of the alphabetic  scripts of various modern Slavic languages, most notably Russian.

The alphabets of both Armenian  and Georgian  are traditionally attributed to the fifth-century cleric, Saint Mesrop. These writing systems were based at least partially on the Greek alphabet, but their creator may have also drawn upon a Semitic consonantal script.

6.    Writing In South And East Asia

6.1    The Indian Syllabaries

The  earliest  attested  writing  system  of  India  is the script of the Indus  Valley civilization, dating  back to ca. 2500 BC. Many of the symbols are of a pictographic nature,  and the number of symbols identified suggests that   this   writing   system   is  logographic,  possibly partially syllabic. It is, however, presently poorly understood and  does  not  appear  to  have  been  the source of the Indian  syllabaries  which appear  in the third  century  BC. These scripts, Kharoshthi and Brahmi,  probably  developed  from the Aramaic  consonantal  writing system. Of the two, only Brahmi appears  to  have  survived  late  antiquity; its perhaps best-known    form   being   Devanagari,  the   writing system of Sanskrit,  as well as that of Hindi and other modern  Indo-Aryan languages.

Devanagari differs notably from the Mediterranean and  Mesopotamian syllabic  writing  systems  in that rather  than having a distinct symbol for each possible consonant  +  vowel combination, Devanagari consists of a basic set of CV symbols having the vowel value -a  (i.e.,  Ca  symbols).   These  CV  symbols  can  be assigned  different  vowel values (Ci, Cu,  etc.) by the addition of diacritic strokes (this is essentially the same strategy   utilized  by  the  Ethiopic   syllabary,   which traces its origins to a Semitic consonantal writing system, as apparently do the Indic scripts). Devanagari also has the capacity  to transform basic CV symbols into ones representing more complex consonantal components (CCV,  CCCV,  etc.) through the  use of conventionalized ligatures.  Such ligatures  consist essentially of a Ca symbol (representing  the final member of the consonant cluster) to which a form, often highly abbreviated, of one or more other Ca symbols is attached. Word-final consonants are spelled utilizing the appropriate Ca symbol beneath  which a diacritic mark, called virama, is placed, revealing to the reader that  the  symbol  is to  be  read  with  no  vowel component.

The Indian syllabaries were spread through much of Central  and  Southeast Asia,  giving  rise  to  writing systems for numerous  languages.  Not  only does the Tibetan  script  trace  its roots  to  India,  but  also  the writing systems of Javanese, Thai, Burmese, Lao, and Khmer.

6.2    Chinese Writing

The earliest evidence for writing in China is provided by the Shang-dynasty oracle-bone  inscriptions  of ca. 1200 BC. There is no clear evidence that writing developed  in China  under  the influence of any then existing writing system; as in Mesopotamia (and perhaps  in Egypt), writing seems to have appeared  de no o. Like the earliest Mesopotamian writing system, the  early  Chinese  script  is  pictographic  with  each symbol representing  an entire word. Moreover,  as in both  Mesopotamia and  Egypt,  the  Chinese  writing system   is  one   which   multiplies   the   value   of  its characters  utilizing the rebus principle; and one which utilizes semantic  markers  to minimize graphic  ambiguity.  In  China,  however,  these markers  were commonly combined with the associated characters to produce compound symbols of two components—one signaling pronunciation, the other meaning. The fundamental logographic  nature  of Chinese  writing has  been  preserved   to   the  present   day,   and   the inventory of logographic characters has steadily increased. While approximately 60,000 distinct characters  are currently  identified,  about  2,500 occur in common  use.

6.3    Japanese Writing

The modern Japanese writing system is quite complex, probably  the most so of modern  scripts. The earliest attested   examples  of  Japanese   writing  (ca.  eighth century AD) are executed in Chinese script. However, by  the   end   of  the   ninth   century,   two   Japanese syllabaries had appeared, evolving out of the practice of using certain  Chinese characters  as phonetic  symbols. Both of these syllabaries remain in use alongside kanji, essentially logographic symbols originating in Chinese  characters;   in  the  contemporary  script,  a single such symbol can have multiple values. The syllabary   called  katakana  is  utilized  for  scientific terms,  for  foreign  loans,   for  indicating   emphasis, among  still other  uses. Modern  hiragana is used for spelling grammatical particles  and  affixes associated with kanji.

6.4    Korean Writing

As in the case of Japanese,  the Korean  language was first  written  with  Chinese  characters. It  was  in  the fifteenth century AD, according  to Korean  tradition, that the Korean  alphabetic  writing system of Han’gul was invented. Credit for this script—the  world’s only alphabetic   writing  system  which  may  not  trace  its roots  to  the  Greek  alphabet—is given to  Sejong,  a Korean  king. Han’gul  is a highly efficient and  phonetically  transparent script.  Its  various  consonantal symbols are purported to have been designed to represent schematically the articulatory position of the tongue in producing the consonant sounds of Korean. While  Han’gul  is alphabetic, consonant and  vowel characters  are  written  together  in such  a way as to form orthographic blocks corresponding to phonetic syllables.

7.    Writing In Mesoamerica

There is at least a third region of the world, in addition to  China  and  the  Near  East,  where  human  beings appear  to have designed a means of writing without prior knowledge of any such thing, namely Mesoamerica. While the study of ancient Mesoamerican writing is still at an early stage, significant strides have been made since the 1970s. Of the several Mesoamerican  scripts  currently  known,  the  best  attested and  best understood is that  of the Maya,  who were writing by at least the third century AD. In its fundamental characteristics, the Maya writing system is much  like those  of the Sumerians  and  Egyptians. The script’s pictographic symbols, or glyphs, are logographic  and  syllabic in value. The latter  type is used both in conjunction with logograms as well as for the phonetic  spelling of words. In addition, the Maya system makes use of determinatives, like the Sumerian and  Egyptian  systems, to provide  semantic  guidance to the reader.

Writing Systems Research Paper

Writing Systems Research Paper

Writing Systems Research Paper


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