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Phonetic Script & How Books of Religion Shape Languages

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Written by   438
5 months ago

I. Alphabetic or Non-Alphabetic

When I call a language "alphabetic, I refer to a language whose script is based on speech sounds. We could call it “phonetic” instead. That is, when the writing expresses the speech, not the meaning. A non-alphabetic language uses some sort of pictography/ideography. The pictographs/ideographs represent things, concepts or ideas as they are, without paying attention to sound or the pronunciation of words.

Since most non-alphabetic systems have been developing in the direction of alphabetism or are completely replaced by alphabetic writing, non-alphabetic writing is often considered as primitive. For advanced non-alphabetic systems, I have to disagree. I have spent a lot of time and attention studying the connection between language and brain, especially brain evolution, and I maintain that the development of alphabetism can be associated with a decline in brain capacity. (I might elaborate more on that on another occasion.)

Everything that is comfortable makes us weaker. Alphabetic writing is comfortable, because its relation to spoken language makes it easier to learn. Yet it is a strange and roundabout way to make a visible representation of sound that represents meaning, instead of a direct visible representation of meaning.

Advanced non-alphabetic writing is much more difficult to learn. The "characters" tend to be numerous, and there is no help from the spoken language. Once learned, however, it is more economical; it conveys more meaning per sign (and more meaning per bit of information passing through consciousness); it saves the reader one step of transformation. It goes from visible sign to meaning, without paying attention to words or their pronunciation.

II. Phonemes

An alphabetic language is supposed to be entirely phonetic. That is, letters represent sounds, and pronunciation is expected to be in accordance with spelling. This might have been true in the beginning, but pronunciation is normally changing faster than spelling - so the gap constantly widens. (The picture is further complicated by the adoption of words from foreign languages.)

It is unclear if it will remain so when most people can read and write, compared to the past, when all people could speak but very few were literate. There is a trend today that written language increasingly influences the spoken – that's historically a new situation. Written language was mainly a way to put down speech. Today written language has a life of its own, and we may find that spoken language becomes merely a way to pronounce text. Then the pronunciation will not so easily deviate from the spelling as it has previously done - and it will not force changes.

Even if it it will not go that far, and it probably won't, perhaps one can expect languages to change more slowly in the future – especially if the current trend of increased literacy continues.

However, it is not entirely new that written language affects the spoken, or how whole languages evolve. See “Section III” below about the influence of the Qur'an and the Bible.

Another problem is that many languages are written with letters from an originally alien alphabet. The Latin one, for instance, is used for a large number of very different languages, whose sounds cannot satisfactorily be expressed by the limited set of letters it contains. In some instances it has been adapted; extra letters have been introduced and diacritical marks are frequently used. The result is far from perfect.

For instance: Latin letters are not only used for many European languages, but also some very distant ones, for instance Vietnamese and Malayan languages. While Bahasa Indonesia and its sibling Bahasa Malaysia are phonetically simple and can be rather well expressed with Latin letters, it is entirely different with Vietnamese.

For a language to be genuinely phonetic, one would have to use characters based on phonemes. A phoneme is the smallest phonetic unit of a defined language that conveys a distinctive meaning. Speech sounds are broken down into their smallest units, and each unit is represented by a letter. One sound for one letter, one letter for one sound. There may never be two (or more) letters for the same sound, or two (or more) sounds for the same letter (like "i" in English "fit" and "first").

Of course there may be no mute letters, like "k" in English "knight", or "e" in "approve."

Most specifically, no single sound may be expressed by a combination of letters; like "th" or "ch" in English, "ch" or "sch" in German, or "eau" in French.

III. The Influence from Books of Religion

Books of religion have played an important role in shaping and preserving languages, and sometimes in dividing a language into two or more distinctly different ones.

One example is Arabic, where Qur'anic Arabic definitely influences as well written as spoken Arabic - despite its many different dialects - and perhaps it has preserved Arabic as a language (it might very well have disappeared otherwise). Even today, when diverging Arabic dialects approaches to be different languages, the Qur'anic Arabic knits it together and holds back a total divergence, which otherwise most likely would have occurred already. (As it has with Latin. Compare how it branched into Italian, Spanish, Romanian, Portuguese, etc.)

An example going in the other direction, where a book of religion has caused a divergence in language, is Old Norse, where in the past the essentially same language was spoken from Iceland in the West, over Norway and Denmark to Sweden in the East. It was probably hard for someone from one end of this area to understand someone from the other end, because dialects were strong, but they were varying gradually, floating over the area; it was impossible to find borderlines. However, during the Reformation in the 1500s, the Danish king and the Swedish king both decided to have the Bible translated to the local language. They used different translators who based it on different dialects and the results were quite different. Thus were born Danish and Swedish as distinct and separate languages, and the language in respective Bibles became normative for these national languages. Subsequently divergence has continued.

Apart from Danish and Swedish, the area today has also Icelandic and Norwegian defined as distinct and separate languages, although the language situation in Norway is complicated (which we do not need to concern ourselves with here and now).

Perhaps Bible translations affected writing more than speaking, since they also set a standard for the spelling, which had not existed before that, including some peculiarities. The most striking one is the spelling of the Swedish word “och” which is pronounced “ock” and means “and”. This spelling is totally alien to Swedish otherwise (the natural spelling would have been “ock”), but it was introduced by the very first Swedish Bible translators and remains to this day.

Copyright © 2008, 2020, 2021 Meleonymica/Mictorrani. All Rights Reserved.

Related articles:

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Words, Consciousness & Beyond

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Transcription & Transliteration: Some Thoughts on Written Language & Foreign Names

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Hello, my friend.

I wonder, is language an evolutionary or involutional construction of man?

There are those who claim that in the past, man communicated more efficiently than today, something like telepathy.

Perhaps, they are based on the non-alphabetical system that you comment on.

I think of the Tower of Babel and its consequences. Confusion and war.

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5 months ago

Very interesting comment. I could write a whole book just by elaborating on what it contains. However, this is not the place for that, so we may take it briefly.

Perhaps one could say that the evolution of language is involution of the brain. It is likely that the brain capacity of humans in the distant past was superior to the capacity of contemporary human' brains . Yet we should be careful about drawing conclusions; we deal with theories based on indirect evidence.

What I said was that the use of phonetic script reduces brain capacity, in comparison to the use of ideographic script. This decline of brain capacity is a still ongoing process. Explaining that would require a detailed discussion about the bicamerality of the brain, its causes and consequences, which is beyond this response.

You mention the Tower of Babel, and then we deal with language in general, not specifically written language. Perhaps even spoken language in particular. I don't think that event has much to do with the development of script, however it might have to do with the dawn of human language, as we know it. What was before? A single meta language? Or a means of communication being more powerful than language? The telepathy, you mention?

Well, IF it was something like telepathy, it certainly conveyed ideas, feelings and meaning, not a description of the sound we would get if we orally describe the idea, feeling or concept in question.

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5 months ago

Hi, my friend.

Thanks for such a complete answer. This is an exciting topic to think about that defines us as humans.

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5 months ago