LINGUIST List 7.400

Sat Mar 16 1996

Review: Daniels & Bright The World's Writing Systems

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  1. Richard Sproat, Review of Daniels & Bright The World's Writing Systems

Message 1: Review of Daniels & Bright The World's Writing Systems

Date: Fri, 15 Mar 1996 15:09:52 EST
From: Richard Sproat <>
Subject: Review of Daniels & Bright The World's Writing Systems

Peter T. Daniels and William Bright (Eds.) The World's Writing
Systems. New York, New York. Oxford, England: Oxford University
Press. 1996. Pp. XLV + 920. ISBN 0-19-507993-0

Reviewed by Richard Sproat (Bell Laboratories)

Previous books on writing systems that can claim to be comprehensive
have invariably been single-authored volumes, where the author is a
specialist on a particular writing system, and has only second-hand
knowledge of others. For example DeFrancis (DeFrancis 1989) is a
specialist in Chinese, and his discussion of writing systems as a
whole stems ultimately from his irritation at common misconceptions
about the nature of Chinese writing. Gelb, the father of modern
studies of writing (Gelb 1963), specialized in ancient Near Eastern
writing systems. Coulmas (Coulmas 1989) is evidently a specialist in

Daniels & Bright is different, in that it is an edited volume
consisting of contributions from a large number of specialists (too
many to mention by name here). Discussions of particular writing
systems are typically written by experts on those systems, and one is
fairly confident that one is getting reliable information.

The book is divided into thirteen main parts. In the first part,
Daniels introduces the field of grammatology, giving a brief history,
and a broad typology of writing systems. The typology includes some
familiar terms: "logosyllabary" for writing systems like Chinese where
the individual characters of the script simultaneously represent both
morphemes and syllables; "syllabary", where the individual characters
represent syllables (or at least CV morae, following on Poser's 1993
LSA presentation, which is lamentably unavailable in written form);
and "alphabet", where the individual characters represent
phonemes. Less familiar terms are: "abjad" ("formed from the first
letters of the most widespread example, the Arabic script, in their
historic order"), where the basic characters of the script denote
consonants (and only peripherally, vowels), typical examples being
Semitic scripts as used for Semitic languages (adaptations of Semitic
scripts to other languages such as Hebrew for Yiddish, Arabic for
Uyghur or indeed Phoenician for Greek, often end up functioning as
alphabets); and "abugida" (derived from the first four vowels and
first four consonants of the traditional order of the Ethiopic script)
where the characters denote consonants with a designated inherent
vowel, and other vowels are denoted by diacritics on the basic
consonant symbols. Examples of abugidas are Indian and Indian-derived
scripts; and of course Ethiopic. Finally there is a "featural"
script, namely Korean Hankul, where "the shapes of the characters
correlate with distinctive features of the segments of the language"
(cf. Sampson 1985). It is actually not clear from the above
definition in what sense Daniels means that Hankul is featural, and
thus constitutes a separate type of script. There is no question that
that some of the basic Hankul symbols are derived graphically from
aspects of vocal tract shapes, and that they are combined to form the
basic letters of the script in a somewhat compositional way. On the
other hand it is certainly not the case that Hankul represents
features in the same sense as a phonologist represents them in a
distinctive feature matrix (DeFrancis 1989). Indeed, Koreans (at
least non-linguistically informed Koreans) evidently think of Hankul
as being composed of segmental letters (again, DeFrancis 1989), so it
may perhaps make the most sense to view Hankul as being an
intelligently constructed alphabet. Note that Daniels' terms "abjad"
and "abugida" are only somewhat consistently used in contributions to
this volume: the term "alphasyllabary" (which is Bright's preferred
term) is often used instead of "abugida".

The second part deals with Ancient Near Eastern writing systems:
Mesopotamian cuneiform in all its various forms and functions;
Egyptian writing; Anatolian scripts; Aegean scripts such as Linear B;
epigraphic Semitic scripts; and others such as Berber and Iberian

Part three turns to decipherment, giving short accounts of some of the
better-known as well as less well-known accomplishments in deciphering
ancient scripts. Also presented in this section are scripts which are
only partly deciphered (Mayan) and scripts which are largely or
completely undeciphered (Proto-Elamite, Indus Valley, Rongorongo).

Part four deals with East Asian writing systems. In addition to
Chinese, Japanese and Korean, various "Siniform" scripts -- Tangut,
Kitan and Jurchin are discussed, along with the Yi script which was
originally a logographic system and then developed in modern times,
with extrinsic planning, into a syllabary. There is also a chapter
devoted to Asian calligraphy. A particularly useful addendum to this
part is a comparative table of Chinese characters, giving traditional,
simplified, and Japanese forms; pronunciations in Mandarin, Korean,
and various On (Sino-Japanese) and Kun (native Japanese)
pronunciations; and glosses. In addition, some examples of wholly
Japanese creations are given.

Part five concerns European writing systems. Various theories of the
transmission of Phoenician script to the Greeks are
discussed. Discussion of the Greek and Anatolian alphabets is followed
by discussion of the Coptic and Gothic alphabets; Italian scripts, and
the Roman alphabet itself; Runic and Ogham; Glagolitic and Cyrillic;
and Armenian and Georgian. The history of the Roman alphabet is
given in somewhat more detail than the history of other writing
systems, with particular attention being given to the various forms
that the letters took on in different scribal traditions.

South Asian writing systems are discussed in the sixth part. The
discussion starts with Kharoshthi and Brahmi, the latter being the
forebear of most of the modern scripts of India, and many of those
of Southeast Asia. The remainder of the part includes detailed
discussions of Devanagari and its relatives -- Gujarati, Gurmukhi and
Bengali; and South Indian scripts Oriya, Sinhala, Kannada, Telugu,
Malayalam and Tamil; and the Tibetan scripts. Two points that are
striking about Indian writing that are brought out well in this part
are the following. First, unlike in many cultures, in particular
Muslim cultures, the written word in India is not considered to be
particularly sacred: sacred texts in (non-Islamic) India were
typically intended to be memorized, and the written form was
considered to be secondary. The second point, which is also peculiar,
is the notion that each language should have its own distinctive
script (cf. also Section 65 in part 11). This view of the intimate
relationship between language and script has carried over even into
Southeast Asia: one of the forces helping to promote the Pahawh Hmong
script (Smalley et al., 1990, and Section 57 of Bright & Daniels), was
the notion that Hmong, should have its own distinct script. I was
somewhat disappointed in the discussion of Tibetan. Tibetan script is
extremely unphonemic: the written form of a word seems only abstractly
related to its pronunciation. What was not made clear is whether the
written form actually corresponds to an earlier stage of the language.

Part seven continues the story of Indian writing systems into
Southeast Asia. Scripts covered in detail are Burmese, Thai and Lao,
and Khmer. An interesting overview of various insular Southeast Asian
scripts is also given. Mention is made of the curious practice in
South Sulawesi of marking the first glyph of personal names in red
ink, the only instance I've seen reported of a distinctive
conventional use of color in writing systems.

The eighth part discusses Middle Eastern Writing systems --- Aramaic,
Jewish, Arabic and Ethiopic; there is also a short discussion of the
curious Dhivehi (Maldives) writing system, whose most interesting
feature is that its symbols are derived from Arabic and local numeral
symbols. (A curious point in the discussion of Arabic is the
following: while the form of Arabic numerals is given, no mention of
the fact that the order of writing numerals is left-to-right, rather
than right-to-left, contrary to the rest of the script.) The most
extensive discussion in this part involves the adaptations of Aramaic
writing to languages of various groups, including Altaic, and Iranian
Indo-European languages. The latter display one of the more
interesting phenomena among writing systems, namely "heterograms",
words or morphemes which are spelled as in Aramaic, but are pronounced
as in the Iranian language being written. Furthermore, these
heterograms may combine with "phonetic complements", which spell
grammatical endings. For example, the Parthian word "bawaand" `they
shall become' would be written "YHYEnt", where the "-nt" is a
phonological spelling of the third person plural ending, and the
"YHYE" is the phonological spelling of the Aramaic verb "become", to
be pronounced as "bawaa". The situation is, of course, highly
reminiscent of Japanese adaptation of Chinese script, or Assyrian
adaptation of Sumerian script, except that here we are dealing not
logographic or morphosyllabic symbols, but with segmental ones. This,
to my mind, is one of the phenomena that is most telling about the
nature of writing. Much of the literature on writing, both popular and
professional, has been devoted to the question of whether writing
systems like Chinese represent language in a fundamentally different
way from obviously phonologically-based systems. Lost in this debate
is the fact that the primary purpose of writing is not phonetic
transcription, but the representation of words and morphemes; purely
phonologically-based systems are arguably merely the most efficient
way of achieving this goal. Iranian scribes of the late pre-Christian
era knew how to write in Aramaic, since it was the chancery language
of the empire. The use of heterograms was not due to any lack of
understanding of the phonological basis of Aramaic script; the
phonetic complements discussed above, as well as the many Iranian
words which were spelled phonologically show that the principle was
well understood. Rather, in adapting Aramaic script to writing their
own languages, the scribes apparently simply saw no reason to change
the spelling of some common and familiar morphemes.

The ninth part discusses the invention of writing in modern times,
both by experienced linguists, and by previously illiterate
individuals. In the latter case, the possibility of writing was either
imparted to the individual by direct contact with a culture which
possessed writing; such was the case with Sequoyah, the inventor of
the Cherokee script. Or else, the inventor of writing was supposedly
inspired by a dream, as in the case of Momolu Duwalu Bukele, the
inventor of the Vai (West African) script, or by a vision as in the
case of Shong Lue Yang, the inventor of the Pahawh Hmong
script. Discounting the scripts (such as Cree) invented by linguists,
most of these writing systems are not particularly remarkable, qua
writing system; this, of course is not to say anything about the
remarkableness of their invention. Most are syllabaries representing
simple core (largely CV) syllables; Ol Cemet' is alphabetic (but note
that the inventor was familiar with Roman writing). Pahawh Hmong, on
the other hand, is typologically unique. The system is often termed
demisyllabic (Smalley et al. 1990), though this is somewhat of a
misnomer, at least given the way the term "demisyllable" is typically
used in work on phonetics and phonology: each syllable is represented
by maximally two symbols, the first [sic!] representing the rime plus
tone, and the second [sic!] representing the onset consonants. The
second feature has to do with the ordering of the two subsyllabic
units noted above. While many Indian-derived scripts have a few vowels
which are written before (or surrounding) the consonant clusters they
follow, no writing system besides Pahawh Hmong is consistent in this
reversal of the "natural" order (cf. Poser 1994)

Part ten deals with the adaptation of scripts, in particular Roman,
Cyrillic, Hebrew and Arabic. Needless to say, a good many writing
systems discussed in other sections --- Akkadian, Japanese, Iranian
languages written in Aramaic script --- could easily have been
incorporated into this section. Adaptations of Hebrew and Arabic are
of particular interest since they often involve a change in the script
type over and above any changes there may be to the inventory of
symbols. Hebrew script used for Judeo-Arabic still functioned as an
abjad; Hebrew script used for Yiddish or Sephardic Spanish functions
as an alphabet. Most adaptations of Arabic are basically abjads,
except for Uyghur, Kurdish and Kashmiri, which are alphabets.

The eleventh part is a very short section dealing with a few
sociolinguistic issues surrounding scripts. Issues discussed include
the rise and fall of Fraktur script in Germany; a very brief sketch of
some psycholinguistic results from Serbo-Croatian a language which was
(until very recently) taught in two scripts; the coexistence of
scripts in India; Christian missionary activities; and script reform
in and after the Soviet Union. Interesting in the latter discussion is
the number of languages that have undergone at least one change of
script, such as Roman to Cyrillic, Arabic to Roman to Cyrillic, or
even Cyrillic to Roman to Cyrillic.

Part twelve gives a useful overview of notational systems for purposes
other than the normal conventional encoding of language. These include
systems, such as phonetic notation or shorthand, whose purpose is
certainly to encode spoken language, but for special purposes (i.e.,
speed or scientific accuracy); and they include numerical notation,
music notation, and the notation of movement. The latter topic
includes some discussion of the notation of signed languages, and a
fairly detailed analysis of a passage of Plains Sign Talk transcribed
into Labanotation is given. Mention is made of systems for ASL, but
unfortunately no details are given, except for a table of signs, which
is not very interpretable to readers who don't know ASL.

The book ends with a part entitled "Imprinting and Printing", which
comprises a single, largely speculative section on imprinting
technology from Sumer to the present digital age.

One particularly nice feature of this work, which is adopted fairly
uniformly throughout, is short sample texts in each of the scripts and
languages discussed. For modern languages, one is given the original
text, a fairly abstract Roman transliteration (where necessary), a
phonetic transcription (though it is not always clear what dialect
this represents), a word-by-word gloss, and a translation. For
ancient languages the phonetic transcription is generally skipped, for
obvious reasons, and in general deviations from the ideal sketched
above are found where there is insufficient information about the
script or language in question. Left arrows and up arrows are used to
draw one's attention, respectively, to a script's right-to-left or
(very rarely) bottom-to-top direction.

While this book is clearly the most comprehensive treatment of writing
systems available, there are of course still questions that it does
not really address. One question that is not entirely answered
relates to a posting of mine to LINGUIST on the "Phonemicity of
writing" (6.1094). In that posting I asked the question of how many
languages had writing systems where one could accurately predict the
pronunciation of a written word, presuming only a general set of
phonological rules, and minimal or no lexical or morphological
information. In a posted response to my query (6.1096), Daniels stated
that "the number of languages with a `phonemic' orthography approaches
zero." There is no question, given the detailed descriptions in the
book, that this statement seems to be true, in that writing systems
tend to represent phonological structure that is certainly not
"surfacey". On the other hand, without a more detailed phonological
description of all of the languages sampled in the book -- something
that is certainly outside the scope of the collection -- it is hard to
judge exactly to what extent writing tends towards the
"morphophonemic" rather than strictly "phonemic". It is also hard to
judge exactly what this all entails for my original posted query: it
is perfectly possible for a writing system to represent a fairly
abstract level of phonological representation, but at the same time be
quite "phonemic" in the sense I meant, in that the mapping between
this abstract phonemic representation and a more surface phonemic
representation is accomplished by regular phonological alternations
that are not dependent on morphological structure. Put another way,
having established that a script is morphophonemic, what that entails
for how easy it is to predict pronunciation from spelling depends in
large measure on how the phonology of the language behaves. On top of
this problem, there is the additional problem that in some sections of
the text, one is not given information which is crucial to knowing how
"phonemic" a script for a particular language is. So in the discussion
of the adaptation of the Roman script to African languages, mention is
made of fact that the designers of those scripts attempted fairly
phonemic systems, and usually succeeded, modulo some problems with the
representation of vowels in vowel-rich languages. But no mention is
made of the fact that while a large number of African languages have
phonemic tone, tone is essentially never indicated in the orthography.

I also missed a discussion of Daniels' objection to the use of the
term "grapheme", something he also raised in his posted Linguist
response. In that posting, he cited some articles in LACUS, and these
articles are again cited in Daniels & Bright. Lamentably, these papers
have proved inaccessible to me, but in any case room could have been
made in a 920 page volume for a short summary of the arguments against
the use of this rather common term. Note that some of the
contributors to the volume use the term "allograph", which seems to
suggest that not everybody is uncomfortable with the notion of

Finally, an unfortunate omission from the book is any description of
electronic coding schemes, or of electronic fonts. There is discussion
in various places on the technology of writing, but nothing of
significance on the topic of the electronic representation of text.
This is particularly ironic, since the beautiful electronic
typesetting of this book would have been impossible without this
technology. Multiscriptal computing owes a great deal to early work
at Xerox PARC by Joseph Becker (cf. Becker 1984), and to Xerox "Star",
the first truly multilingual desktop publishing system. Certain
aspects of this work have continued in the development of the UNICODE
multilingual character-coding standard (Unicode Consortium, 1991,
1992). Just as important as the coding of multilingual text are
methods for the creation of fonts, and some space could have been
devoted to this matter. Needless to say, the computational
representation of writing is of immense importance in today's world,
not only for obvious technologies such as word processing, but also
for computational systems --- machine translation systems,
text-to-speech systems --- that interact with people using human
language and speech. It would certainly have been appropriate to
include a discussion of the electronic representation of text in this


Becker, Joseph. 1984. Multilingual Word Processing. Scientific
American. July, 96-107.

Coulmas, Florian. 1989. The Writing Systems of the World. Oxford:

DeFrancis, John. 1989. Visible Speech: The Diverse Oneness of Writing
Systems. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Gelb, I. J. 1963. A Study of Writing. Chicago: University of Chicago

Poser, William. 1994. Review of Smalley et al. Phonology, 11, 365-369.

Sampson, Geoffrey. 1985. Writing Systems: A Linguistic
Introduction. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Smalley, William; Vang, Chia Koua; Yang, Gnia Yee. 1990. Mother of
Writing: The Origin and Development of a Hmong Messianic
Script. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Unicode Consortium, The. 1991. The Unicode Standard, Version 1.0. Volume
1. Reading MA, Addison-Wesley.

Unicode Consortium, The. 1992. The Unicode Standard, Version 1.0. Volume
2. Reading MA, Addison-Wesley.

- --------

Richard Sproat is a Member of the Technical Staff in the Speech
Synthesis Research Department at Bell Laboratories. His research
includes multilingual text processing for text-to-speech synthesis;
his interest in writing systems is thus guided to some extent by the
practical problem of designing working computational models that map
between written language and linguistic representation.
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