The writing’s on the wall

When you’re used to using the Latin alphabet, it can be easy to overlook one of the central questions of any language – how we write it down. A look at some of the more interesting ways in which languages have put pen to paper.

Phrases such as “Every book you’ve ever read is just a mix of 26 letters” may sound profound, but they don’t take into account the vast swathes of people who don’t happen to read in English. (“Just a mix of 50,000+ characters” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.) And there are plenty of options beyond your everyday A-Z.

Here are some of the more interesting ways in which languages have put pen to paper.

From Saint Cyril: Cyrillic

Yes, Cyrillic really is as etymologically straightforward as it sounds. It wasn’t the direct work of the Byzantine monk Saint Cyril, but his students named it after him to honour his influence. When he and his brother were sent to Slavic-speaking areas to spread Christianity in 863, they wanted to translate liturgical books into the local language – and since that language didn’t have a written form, Cyril decided the easiest course of action was simply to invent a new writing system. He came up with Glagolitic, and his students then combined elements of this with the Greek alphabet to form Cyrillic.

Of course, a tailor-made script is not enough for some languages. Serbian hedged its bets and uses both the Latin and Cyrillic scripts – most Serbs can read and write both, and which one you use is largely a matter of personal preference. Other languages have seen even more writing systems come and go. Azerbaijani, for example, has been written in Arabic, Latin and Cyrillic, before switching back to the Latin script again.

Hangul: say what you see

Much like Cyrillic, Hangul – the Korean writing system – didn’t evolve naturally. It was designed in 1443 on the orders of King Sejong the Great to promote literacy among a population that was largely illiterate. And they did a good job; Hangul is considered to be one of the most efficient alphabets in the world.

The way each letter is written shows you how it should be pronounced. For example, to pronounce “N”, you press your tongue forwards against your teeth. In Hangul, “N” is written as “ㄴ” – which is roughly the same shape as the tongue makes. For “G”, meanwhile, the tongue is to the rear of the mouth: . Letters that sound alike are also designed to look alike, so all plosives (consonants where the flow of air is stopped, such as “p”) all have a horizontal stroke along the top.

Koreans are justifiably proud of their writing system – both North and South Korea even have a public holiday to celebrate it.

Calligraphy through technology

Chinese is one of the oldest continually used writing systems still in use – the earliest examples date back to around 1200 BCE. For a script with such a long history, however, it hasn’t ironed out all its problems. In the 20th century, it was divided into two forms – simplified and traditional – as a way to make the characters easier to memorise and faster to write.

More recently, a different problem has emerged – how can you write a language with thousands of characters on a computer? In a number of workaround ways, apparently. You can use a QWERTY keyboard to spell out words using Pinyin, a spelling system that uses the Latin script. Wubi is a less time-consuming but harder-to-learn technique that involves hitting a sequence of keys corresponding to pen strokes. Interestingly, although Chinese input methods are less intuitive, Wubi argue that these “code-conscious” approaches mean the Chinese are readier to take full advantage of the possibilities of software developments and shortcuts than those of us stuck typing literal Latin letters on a QWERTY keyboard.

Ye olde English

Since we use the standardised version every day, it can be easy to forget that the Latin alphabet is full of its own quirks, from the development of the letter þ (which was replaced by th, but continued to be used until its lowercase form looked just like “y” – hence that old-fashioned “ye” for “the”) to the fact that we have two parallel sets of letters in upper case and lower case. (Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised by a script with a mythological origin involving the Roman god Mercury seeing a flight of cranes form letters.) Perhaps we simply need our own Saint Cyril to find the perfect alternative alphabet to cut through English’s tortuous spelling and pronunciation conventions.

cover image via unsplash (CC0)


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