Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Albertine Gaur

A few years ago I wrote elsewhere about the assumption that the alphabet was the writing system most suited to literacy. I countered this by saying that "The most obvious argument against this interpretation is the example of Japan." So I was interested to find the same sentiment in Albertine Gaur, 1984, The History of Writing.

After the end of the Second World War a mission consisting
of twenty-seven educationists recommended to General
McArthur a drastic overhaul of the Japanese
system. They called especially for the abolition of the
'Chinese-derived ideograms', since otherwise Japan could
never hope to achieve parity with the West. Today Japan
has not only achieved this parity, but seems
uncomfortably close to overtaking the west, and this
despite the fact that the Japanese still use their
'Chinese-derived ideograms", and that it takes Japanese
schoolchildren two years longer than their Western
counterparts to learn how to read and write. As we
move towards the 21st century, the 19th century concept
of the alphabet as a Platonic idea towards
which all writing (and information storage) must by
necessity progress becomes less and less tenable. p. 34

I find this use of the phrase alphabet as a Platonic idea fascinating. I was thinking the other day that current keyboarding practise seems to follow the notion that there is an underlying abstract alphabetic idea and that this provides the basis of keyboard input. Will this ever become less tenable?

Before leaving Albertine Gaur, her basic writing system classification is worth noting for how it varies from others. She identifies the nature of a script as one of 5 types, alphabetic, consonantal, syllabic, ideographic, and mixed. None are pure ideographic, but Chinese is listed as mixed. What is interesting to me is her listing of all the following scripts as syllabic - Cherokee, Cree, Japanese, Tamil, Devanangari, etc. as syllabic. She does not differentiate between the syllabaries and the alphasyllabaries. Indic scripts are from their recorded beginnings clearly syllabic. p. 108

Many would disagree with her but I do not find her in any way uninformed on the segmental composition of the Indic syllable. It seems a matter of emphasis. Do you call a script syllabic first and then mention the composition of the syllable, or do you call a script segmental and add that, by the way, it is organized into syllabic units?


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