Thursday, September 22, 2005

Is Syllabics an Abugida?

In early August I noticed this new webpage at Chris Harvey’s Native Language, Font, and Keyboard Page –

Chris begins,

"I have seen, with increasing frequency online, statements proclaiming that Canadian Syllabics (often under the name “Cree Script”) is an Abugida. I would like to list some reasons for why this may not be an accurate description of the writing system."

Here is the offending statement from Wikipedia,

"Canadian syllabic writing schemes are for the most part abugidas, where consonants are always marked in a manner which implies a specific vowel."

After a lengthy discussion on the topic, where he argues passionately that Syllabics is not an abugida, Chris concludes,

"I would appreciate comments from others interested in this subject."

Feeling his pain, I promptly emailed him the following information, which he has posted. I add my further reflections in brackets.

"Peter T. Daniels, who invented the term abugida, calls Cree a ‘sophisticated grammatogeny’, certainly not an abugida. (I asked him this question myself!)

W. Bright and Robert Bringhurst have labeled syllabics an ‘alphasyllabary’.

(I made an error here - it should read 'RB has labeled syllabics an "alphasyllabary", a term coined by WB.')

John Nichols has called it both ‘syllabics’ and a ‘mixed alphabet and syllabary’. (cautious man)

James Fevrier and Marcel Cohen, writing in French, developed the idea of the ‘neosyllabary’, or ‘secondary syllabary’. They also use the term 'alphabet–syllabaire'. (Very interesting books by these authors)

Henry Rogers, in a new book this spring on writing systems, is calling syllabics ‘moraic’. (not good )

I have personally tried out the term ‘compositional syllabic notation’, a term I picked up from an Indic writing systems group." (how about 'systematically composed syllabary'?)

Chris replied to my email,

"This is of course the great danger of Wikis and such. .... It ends up being like an urban legend, that spreads quietly until it becomes common knowledge. When I have free time, I think I'll rewrite the Wiki page. "

Chris is a very busy person and may not have time to rewrite the wiki page. Aside from the use of the term 'abugida' , there are many other peculiar details on this page. The Pitman shorthand reference here is another urban legend. Sigh.

Addendum: I just remembered that Unicode version 4 labels Syllabics a 'featural syllabary.' I have no idea what the logic or justification is for this term, nor have I ever heard it used before.

Addendum 2: I then asked the question about 'featural' in qalam and got this reply from Michael Everson.

"I said:"If you think about it you might suppose that it must have been because someone thought that regular rotations and superscription of base characters was a regular way of indicating relationships."

This is just me trying to interpret what "featural" might mean if applied to Syllabics. I did not apply the term to it. I don't think it is a particularly useful term with regard to the taxonomy of writing systems."

Well, there it is - maybe definitions are best left alone.


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2:01 PM  

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