Saturday, July 02, 2005

Sproat and Faber

Richard Sproat's article on Indic scripts relates directly to reading theory. However, I was not able to find a direct quote which I felt explained his position on reading and script type. He sent me this clarification in an email earlier this spring. Thanks, Richard.

"My classification of scripts is based on purely formal properties at an abstract level. From that point of view, Indic scripts, as well as Amharic or Hangul are all segmental, just as much as or almost as much as English or Spanish. In every case you combine symbols for consonants and vowels together. This sets them apart from things like Japanese kana or Sumerian or Linear B or Vai.

The only difference is that in scripts like Indian scripts the combination is more complex than a simple left-to-right (or right-to-left) concatenation of symbols. And of course in Indian scripts there's the issue of the inherent vowel, which makes them slightly less than fully segmental. But at least the directionality of the combination is, inmy view, a purely surface phenomenon. Hence my classification.

But having said that, there is no question that things like directionality, reduction or modification of symbols (e.g. thediacritic vowels vs. their full form), fusion of symbols (as in TamilCV), transparency of the phonology (e.g. Tamil expression of voiced vsvoiceless stops), are all going to have an effect on phonemic awareness. Also, as I suggested above, the way the scripts are taught. We know that some of these things do have an effect: amount of reduction certainly is relevant as shown by work of Padakannaya on Kannada and Devanagari (for Hindi).

But I don't think this relates directly to the classification of scripts. Faber tried to do something like this in her 1992 article, but she ended up with the, in my view, mistaken conclusion that this was an all-or-nothing thing: either you had a purely linear segmental script and total phonemic awareness; or you had one of these other phonographic systems and no phonemic awareness. This is just wrong, as finer grained studies have shown. One of the things Padakannaya and I are hoping to do is continue these finer grained studies and tease apart what factors are relevant for determining phonemic awareness."

This is the title of Alice Faber's 1992 article, which I have yet to find online. However, I feel that she has significantly influenced reading theory and writing system classification. I look forward to reading more of her work when I can.

A. Faber, "Phonemic Segmentation as Epiphenomenon: Evidence from the History of Alphabetic Writing," The Linguistics of Literacy (Typological Studies in Language, 21), S. D. Lima, M. Noonan & P. Downing, eds. Amsterdam: Johns Benjamins, 111-134, 1992. (Also: Haskins Laboratories Status Report on Speech Research SR-101/102: 28-40, 1990.)

Rather than focusing on any actual disagreement between the ideas of Sproat and Faber, I tend to value the contributions both are making to the field of reading theory.


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