Tuesday, July 19, 2005

The Origins of Writing

Here is one of the really significant new ideas DeFrancis had. (At least he doesn't reference anyone else for it so I will quote him as the source for now. )

He saw that in all languages where full writing developed, "the syllable was usually the unit of meaning." Full writing was the coming together of syllable and morpheme. It is one of the extraordinarily clear ideas which, after you see it, seems obvious, but someone had to be first to observe and record this fact. I believe it was DeFrancis and shall give him the credit until proven otherwise.

"It is probably not accidental that the three seemingly unrelated inventions of writing - Sumerian, Chinese, and Mayan - which we now take up in detail, were all based on the syllabic principle. There can be little doubt that it is easier to conceptulize a syllable than to analyse utterances into their smaller phonemic units. This is especially likely to be the case if the syllabic structure of a particular language, when compared to that of other languages, posesses special features that make it easier to concentrate attention on the syllable.

Such indeed was the case for Sumerian, Chinese, and Mayan. In all these languages, more so than in English and many other forms of speech, the syllable was usually the unit of meaning. It was often even an independent word. To be sure, this semantic feature should not be exaggerated, as is frequently done by those who misrepresent the languages as 'monosyllabic' in the sense of consisting exclusively of words of one syllable. It is only in relative terms that their syllables are more heavily endowed with meaning and that their words consist of one syllable." DeFrancis. Visible Speech. 1989.

DeFrancis claimed that all full writing systems are phonographic, either syllabic or alphabetic, and thereby overthrew Isaac Taylor's previous paradigm of logographic, syllabic, alphabetic. That Chinese, Mayan and Sumerian happen to also have many morphemes of one syllable does not make their writing any less phonographic but only adds the dimension of morpheme to the syllabic units.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

For those who'd like to read more on this by DeFrancis, I have the entire chapter on Chinese from Visible Speech on my site.

7:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Mark,

Pinyin.info is a great site. I read Pinyin News regularly.


8:46 PM  

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