Friday, July 22, 2005

A Universal Writing System

My head has really been off in the clouds. While writing about DeFrancis and Chinese, I have really been thinking about the desire in 17th century Europe to create a universal writing system. I hope this quote from Diodorus about Egyptian will give an idea of what a universal system would be. "Not syllables to render an underlying sense" but "drawing objects whose metaphorical meaning is impressed on the memory." (see below) That would mean bypassing the spoken word.

That is a description of what westerners thought Egyptian and Chinese writing was. It turned out that Egyptian and Chinese writing does, in fact, represent, consonants or syllables to give an underlying sense. However, the notion that they might represent thought directly had a profound effect on Western thought - one that is not easily relinquished.

(This is my last DeFrancis quote for the month since I will soon be offline for a few weeks.)

"Up until two hundred years ago the prevailing view about Egyptian was that it simply was not a phonetic system of any kind. This was the opinion of a Greek historian, Diodorus Siculus, who visited Egypt in the first century B.C., a time when the traditional script was still in use. He was the first to describe the writing. Obviously impressed chiefly by its appearance, and not understanding how the script really worked, he said that the Egyptians called their peculiar symbols "hieroglyphs" and that "their script does not work by putting syllables together to render an underlying sense, but by drawing objects whose metaphorical meaning is impressed on the memory" (Pope 1975:17) For two thousand years decipherment of the script was held back by the tenaciously held belief that the signs were symbolic and not phonetic.

The signs certainly do give the impression of being mere pictographics, Many, strikingly iconic, depict recognizable objects - a hand, an eye, an owl, a snake, a giraffe, and many others. Some symbols are more stylized, but, they too, often suggest things or actions. The belief that these symbols conveyed thought without regard to sound was reinforced when Westerners came in contact with the Chinese system of writing. Here was another system that was believed to be symbolic and nonphonetic, a property credited with giving to Chinese characters a timelessness and universality unmatched by scripts that were acknowledged to be tied to particular forms of speech. The discovery of another system with such marvelous communicative power helped spark an interest, shared by Leibniz and other leading thinkers, in developing a universal writing system." DeFrancis. Visible Speech. 1989. 151.


Blogger Alivox said...

I couldn't help reacting to your dismissive reference to the 17th century European desire to create a universal writing system, since I still feel that desire.

I would also say that the extension of the Latin alphabet to cover languages for which it was not designed and is not well-suited (like English!), the extensive use of romanization (like pinyin), the IPA itself, and the conversion of central Asian orthographies from Cyrillic and Arabic to Latin-based are all examples of the need for such a system.

So why not design one for this need? I admit I have an axe to grind:

10:41 AM  

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