Awesome Scripts

4 May

I am a trash talking ass hole. I know this about myself. It’s part of my culture. We, of New Jersey are trash talking ass holes. I trash talk in situations where you would think trash talk would be very strange. I trash talk my opponents when I play Go.

My friend who also grew up in New Jersey called me up the other day to talk about stuff we’re up to and he saw my work on the Mandombe font. He said, “It’s pretty useless.” What an ass hole.

I said, “All art is, dude.”

But I thought, I shouldn’t be so negative, always writing about stuff that sucks in one way or another. I should write about scripts that are awesome. I should write about what makes a good script.

So in this post I will write about some of the best scripts in the world, in terms of the easiest to read and write

First, the most popular scripts in the world.

Arabic

Admittedly, part of the reason that this is the second most popular script in the world is political. It spread with the Qur’an. But that aside, as a system of writing it’s hard to beat.

I remember sitting around in New Orleans with my friend Shirish. He’s Marathi, if I recall correctly, from one of those little towns around Bombay, so he’s seen a few different systems of writing. I asked him how he writes his name, because sibilants in Devanagari confuse me. Once he had written it, I remarked on how many strokes it took to write his name.

I think this is how he wrote it.

And then I wrote this.

From Shirish’s point of view I had just drawn two symbols with a few little extra marks around them that sort of magically meant his name. He would not believe me that all the information of his name could be recorded in such a sparse system, so I actually had to bring what I’d written next door to the Palestinian dude in the next shop and ask him to read it for me, “Shirish. That’s his name, right?”

In fact, I know of no script more efficient than Arabic and its derivatives. This is a script that can be written extremely messy and still be legible. It can be written super tiny, like Pakistanis do, and still be read. It can be written in styles so divergent that one might not immediately get they are the same script. The reason it is one of the most used scripts on the planet is because it is one of the best scripts on the planet.

Trash talk: It does go the wrong way. If a script goes left to right, from the top of the page to the bottom, there is no way a right handed writer will get ink on his hand. If a script goes right to left, as Arabic does, your hand is right below or hovering above, what you’ve just written. The first lesson for a calligrapher would appear to be how not to smudge.

In fact, when the Mongolian Empire commissioned their script, based on Arabic, they turned the whole page counter clockwise, so their text goes top to bottom in lines that go left to right across a page, which is incidentally the only other direction that text may flow across a page that carries almost no risk of smudging.

And it’s probably not the best script for every language. If your language has a lot of words that differ only in short vowels, then you either have to write it with diacritic vowels or accept the ambiguity of homographs. For example, if you tried to write English with an Arabic derived script, you would run into the problem that you would write “setting”, “sting”, and “sitting” exactly the same way.

Latin

Admittedly, part of the reason that this is the most popular script on the Earth is political. It spread with the Bible, and then it spread with European academics. But that aside, as a system of writing it’s hard to beat. It’s an alphabet, so short vowels are represented. This doesn’t totally get rid of the problem of homographs. If you found a strange device that was labeled, “Wind”, but nothing else, would you know if you had to wind it up with a key or crank? Or would you know to find a sail or windmill to somehow power the device and make it work? But if a language uses a lot of consonant clusters and short vowels, an alphabet is definitely the way to go. And someone has to have really horrifying handwriting before their scrawl is totally illegible.

And because it’s an alphabet, it is easily expandable to other languages. Suppose you’re speaking English, and you want to write it, using the Latin alphabet, but you think, “That sound, the one at the beginning of ‘That’… it doesn’t exist in Latin. Should I add a letter to express that sound? (Đ in Icelandic.) Or I could just use two letters that I otherwise seldom write next to each other”, in English, TH. In Welsh, DD. In Swahili, DH.

Trash Talk: The two most popular alphabets on the planet are Latin and Cyrillic (Arabic is an abjad, which is technically different), and for some reason they both require users to learn four different, although related, scripts. Capital Letters, Lowercase Letters, Capital Cursive Letters, and Lowercase Cursive Letters. In order to use a computer you only really need the first two, but in any individual person’s handwriting it isn’t weird to see all four.

I’m not even sure why we have capital letters. They don’t sound any different from lowercase letters. Is it just to start geek fights over? “You capitalize Elven.” “No, elf is a species. You don’t capitalize human, do you? So you don’t capitalize elven.” “But you do capitalize Moroccan, so you should capitalize Elven.” etc.

Also, there are three symbols that are indistinguishable except by their serifs. I cannot tell you how much this annoys me. Because of this I always write the capital letter I and the number 1 with serifs to distinguish them from the lowercase letter l.

And this is perhaps not a problem with the Latin alphabet itself, but it is a problem with my everyday usage of it. The English orthography (spelling rules) in the Latin alphabet is so horrible as to border on child abuse. I remember there was a comedy routine by Gallagher in which he complained about this. He talked about how there was no “w” in the spelling of the word, “one”. But in the word, “two”, there is a “w” that you don’t even need. It would be funny if it weren’t for all the school time wasted learning spelling, when all we need is some simple language reform.

Other Awesome Scripts

Hebrew – You might have only seen the printed forms of the letters, in that strange medieval calligraphic style, but the hand written characters, the so called “cursive” Hebrew is simple, super easy to read and write, and if your Israeli roommate has left a note for you on the fridge, his handwriting has to be absolute crap before its illegible. For some reason, only mystics and hobbyists use Hebrew letters for anything other than writing Hebrew, which is a shame. This is a great script.

Canadian Syllabics (Ojibwa, Cree, Inuit, etc.) – Around 1840 James Evans was working on translating text into indigenous Canadian languages, first Ojibwa, then Cree, etc. The problem he was having is that these languages, insert entire syllables, often more than one, into a word to conjugate for subject, object, tense, number, etc. Let me see if I can remember something weird. I studied Cree for a bit. OK, a formal way to say “thank you” to more than one person is, “kinanaskomitinawaw”. This word is almost illegible in Latin letters. So to solve this problem, James Evans invented probably the most elegant and easy to use syllabary ever. He did this by intentionally associating similarly shaped symbols to have similar sounds. So in English we have the letters, P, q, b, and d, and they don’t really have anything to do with each other despite the fact that it’s all the same shape, just reflected horizontally or reflected vertically. In Canadian Syllabics those shapes mean, ki, ke, ka, and ko, respectively. And as you can see it’s been adapted for several languages. At one point, I even worked up a Lojban orthography for Canadian Syllabics.

Hangul – When King Sejong invented Hangul, he had one goal. His people were illiterate, and he wanted them to read and write. At the time, Korean people used Chinese to read and write, but that was like learning two new languages, the Chinese written language, and Iddu, the system of phonetic symbols to express Korean grammar. In case you didn’t know, this is a huge hurdle to learning to read and write. Chinese is a mess. First you have ideograms, which would be OK if their whole written language were like that. So the symbol for “moon” is sort of a crescenty shape. But then there are symbols that include the symbol for the moon because the person who invented that symbol thought that concept was lunar in some way. And then there are those symbols that include the symbol for the moon because the person who invented that symbol pronounced that word similarly to the word for moon in his particular dialect of Chinese. To a Korean, all of that would be unintelligible.

So Sejong the Great got together with his best and brightest and invented this script. He is quoted saying, “A wise man may learn it in a morning. A simple man may learn it in ten days.” or something like that. I am a great big language geek so I learned how to read and write in Korean at a party, while drunk, because a Korean girl was trying to keep me interested in her long enough to seduce me. She failed, and I’d like to think she failed because the Korean script is so well designed that teaching it requires much less time than would be necessary to seduce someone.

And here’s the thing that really blows my mind. I don’t speak more than two licks of Korean. I have never studied Korean. I have never been to Korea. I learned Hangul at that party and I do not practice it other than to see Korean business signs in the Korean part of town, and I have never forgotten it. Good job, Sejong!

This script is so good that it should be used by lots of languages, not just Korean. It’s amazing. Because it’s written in blocks it isn’t really good for languages that have big consonant clusters, but there are plenty of languages that don’t have much in the way of consonant clusters.

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