Is English a logographic writing system?

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Is English a logographic writing system?

Post by MoonRightRomantic » Mon 22 Feb 2016, 21:21

During research on English spelling reform (in short: main barrier is vowels, rhotics and voicing in different dialects) I have come to the conclusion that English is at least partially logographic and will only become more so as time passes.

Am I right to conclude this? Is English really logographic rather than alphabetic?
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Re: Is English a logographic writing system?

Post by sangi39 » Mon 22 Feb 2016, 21:43

I'd say the best analysis is that English is an orthographically deep alphabet. The pronunciation of a word can still be worked out to a fair degree of accuracy using a set of rules which were discussed by Zompist over here. Most logographic systems are phonetic to a degree anyway, but also rely heavy on a distinct semantic indicator, which you don't really get in English. Some words are spelt differently depending on their meaning, but it's only the pronunciation that's being indicated, not what the actual semantic difference is.

Sure, you get things like "1" and "&" which represent the meaning of the word in question rather than pronunciation, but they're not used nearly as much as, say, ideograms, rebus compounds and determinatives are used (or were used) in the Chinese and Egyptian writing systems.
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Re: Is English a logographic writing system?

Post by Salmoneus » Mon 22 Feb 2016, 22:42

No, English is not a logographic writing system.
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Re: Is English a logographic writing system?

Post by InquisitorJL » Mon 22 Feb 2016, 22:47

MoonRightRomantic wrote:During research on English spelling reform (in short: main barrier is vowels, rhotics and voicing in different dialects) I have come to the conclusion that English is at least partially logographic and will only become more so as time passes.

Am I right to conclude this? Is English really logographic rather than alphabetic?
You say you have come to the conclusion already. Instead of asking is this right I'd be interested to hear why you think this is right. People can disagree with you at a face level but I think the interesting bit here is your reasoning.
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Re: Is English a logographic writing system?

Post by masako » Mon 22 Feb 2016, 22:51

Salmoneus wrote:No, English is not a logographic writing system.
Welp, there you have it.
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Re: Is English a logographic writing system?

Post by MoonRightRomantic » Tue 23 Feb 2016, 01:02

InquisitorJL wrote:
MoonRightRomantic wrote:During research on English spelling reform (in short: main barrier is vowels, rhotics and voicing in different dialects) I have come to the conclusion that English is at least partially logographic and will only become more so as time passes.

Am I right to conclude this? Is English really logographic rather than alphabetic?
You say you have come to the conclusion already. Instead of asking is this right I'd be interested to hear why you think this is right. People can disagree with you at a face level but I think the interesting bit here is your reasoning.
The spelling "rules" are so complex and inconsistent that the pronunciation and meaning of written words is learned mainly through rote. While most dialect differences are due to vowels and rhotics, some dialects use the opposite voicing of consonants in some words or other unusual differences. The language continues to change in extreme fashion all over the world (most speakers know it as a second language and then only very badly) yet the orthography isn't updated to account for any of this. The gap between the phonetic component of the writing and the pronunciation continues to grow until eventually there is no correspondence: true logograms.

I was considering devising a conscript for English that would address dialect differences by using only two or three letters for vowels and then using diacritics a la Hebrew niqqud if more specific distinctions are desired.
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Re: Is English a logographic writing system?

Post by cntrational » Tue 23 Feb 2016, 16:55

People, including most English speakers, overestimate the inconsistency of spelling. No, ghoti doesn't work.
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Re: Is English a logographic writing system?

Post by Thrice Xandvii » Tue 23 Feb 2016, 17:45

No, it doesn't work per se, but *is* a succinct example of how messed up our spelling conventions are.
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Re: Is English a logographic writing system?

Post by cntrational » Tue 23 Feb 2016, 18:09

No, it isn't. gh is never /f/ initially. ti is never /S/ except before another vowel.

It's based on picking out letters from words without looking at their context, and you can mess up any spelling system that way.
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Re: Is English a logographic writing system?

Post by Thrice Xandvii » Tue 23 Feb 2016, 18:16

The mere fact that f and gh can represent the same sound is unheard of in some writing systems... not to mention o being an i-like sound, etc. As I said, it doesn't work... but it calls out the letter combinations that are perhaps the most deviant even if used in there normal positions. The point of the whole thing is that it's funny and easy to grok for thodr who don't know anything about etymology.
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Re: Is English a logographic writing system?

Post by sangi39 » Tue 23 Feb 2016, 18:25

MoonRightRomantic wrote: The spelling "rules" are so complex and inconsistent that the pronunciation and meaning of written words is learned mainly through rote.
I don't know how true this actually is. To go back to the source I linked to in my first post, Zompist suggests that with around 50 rules (fair enough, still a lot), you can accurately predict the pronunciation of a new word close to 60% of the time, and with only minor errors closer to 90% of the time, with most of the issues arising due to morpheme boundaries in compound words and from words of foreign origin.

Learning by rote all the time, though? That doesn't seem to be the way it works. Eventually you start reading words as whole words, which is why you get those nice little tricks on Facebook saying taht if you can raed tihs tehn you msut be vrey secpail and all that jazz. The same thing happens in languages like German and Spanish, IIRC, which have more "shallow" orthographies. People learning the language still read single words as whole units rather than letter-by-letter.

Spelling a new word by sound, yeah, that's where it gets tricky, but there's nothing particularly logographic about the system. The next time you right it down you can double check the spelling based on the letter-to-sound rules that you apply elsewhere, you've just had to learn that it's spelt according to Rule 34 instead of Rule 12.

In languages like the Chinese languages, it's trickier, at least from what I've read. There are phonetic clues in characters because something like 90% of characters contain a phonetic element to them. However, the phonetic element is another character, and the phonetic value that character had was set at the time the new character was created and due to sound change may no longer apply.

Annoyingly I've lost my dissertation, so I can only do this as a vague description, but in Old Chinese, a character that was read as something like "nga" could be used as a phonetic complement in a new character which would be read as "ngra". At the time, if you knew "nga" and saw it in a new character, you could think "sounds like 'nga'" and then the semantic radical helps narrow it down to something like "word relating to water that sounds like 'nga'? Oo, 'ngra'!". And so on. You could do the same trick as in English, where you learn a new character and then check it back against characters you know the sounds and meanings of to make sure you wrote it out write.

Over time, though, sound change and semantic drift have lessoned the reader's ability to do that, so more and more characters have to be memorised by rote, including their pronunciations and their meanings.

In English, at least, there are no written semantic indicators and we don't use words for their semantic values only. For example, we haven't got to a point yet where we can start using <water> for purely semantic reasons when writing new words, which is a feature of logographic scripts. What's being indicated is the pronunciation so unless that new word physically contains the word "water" in speech, we're not going to use "water" in the writing of a new word relating to water. Similarly, we're not going to use the word <fish> when writing new name for a fish, although you might find it if it also occurs in speech to indicate that this new word is the name of a fish, e.g. "guppy" vs. "guppy fish".

So at the moment, no, English writing isn't logographic in the sense that we understand it to mean when comparing it to examples like Ancient Egyptian, Chinese, Mayan and Sumerian. It's still an alphabet, it's just a tricky one.
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Re: Is English a logographic writing system?

Post by sangi39 » Tue 23 Feb 2016, 18:29

Thrice Xandvii wrote:The mere fact that f and gh can represent the same sound is unheard of in some writing systems... not to mention o being an i-like sound, etc. As I said, it doesn't work... but it calls out the letter combinations that are perhaps the most deviant even if used in there normal positions. The point of the whole thing is that it's funny and easy to grok for thodr who don't know anything about etymology.
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Re: Is English a logographic writing system?

Post by KaiTheHomoSapien » Tue 23 Feb 2016, 18:34

sangi39 wrote: So at the moment, no, English writing isn't logographic in the sense that we understand it to mean when comparing it to examples like Ancient Egyptian, Chinese, Mayan and Sumerian. It's still an alphabet, it's just a tricky one.
I guess the opposite of English would be a language like Finnish, where the spelling is so accurate and consistent with the pronunciation that I don't see how they could even have "spelling bees" in that country--everyone would win. [:P]
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Re: Is English a logographic writing system?

Post by sangi39 » Tue 23 Feb 2016, 18:45

KaiTheHomoSapien wrote:
sangi39 wrote: So at the moment, no, English writing isn't logographic in the sense that we understand it to mean when comparing it to examples like Ancient Egyptian, Chinese, Mayan and Sumerian. It's still an alphabet, it's just a tricky one.
I guess the opposite of English would be a language like Finnish, where the spelling is so accurate and consistent with the pronunciation that I don't see how they could even have "spelling bees" in that country--everyone would win. [:P]
I kind of mentioned that with German and Spanish. I'd somehow forgotten about Finnish. Would have been a much better example.
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Re: Is English a logographic writing system?

Post by cntrational » Tue 23 Feb 2016, 19:01

Even Finns will see things by word, not by letter.
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Re: Is English a logographic writing system?

Post by Thrice Xandvii » Tue 23 Feb 2016, 19:11

sangi39 wrote: Image
I'd never seen this one... But thank you for it!
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Re: Is English a logographic writing system?

Post by sangi39 » Tue 23 Feb 2016, 19:15

cntrational wrote:Even Finns will see things by word, not by letter.
Which was the point I was making (not sure who you were talking to, just in case it seems like I'm jumping on you)
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Re: Is English a logographic writing system?

Post by Salmoneus » Tue 23 Feb 2016, 22:32

MoonRightRomantic wrote:
InquisitorJL wrote:
MoonRightRomantic wrote:During research on English spelling reform (in short: main barrier is vowels, rhotics and voicing in different dialects) I have come to the conclusion that English is at least partially logographic and will only become more so as time passes.

Am I right to conclude this? Is English really logographic rather than alphabetic?
You say you have come to the conclusion already. Instead of asking is this right I'd be interested to hear why you think this is right. People can disagree with you at a face level but I think the interesting bit here is your reasoning.
The spelling "rules" are so complex and inconsistent that the pronunciation and meaning of written words is learned mainly through rote.
The rules are pretty plain and simple. Pronunciation and meaning of written words is not learned through rote.
You'll observe this if you watch someone learning to write. In the UK at least, we now use an extremely phonetically based method for teaching reading. I have a 6-year-old relative, and if there's a word she doesn't know, or doesn't know the spelling of, she can work it out from the letters probably more than 90% of the time, once a small number of common irregular words are out of the way.
Of course, her accuracy would drop slightly if the things she read had a lot more loanwords or technical vocabulary, but for basic vocabulary it's mostly predictable. And of course her accuracy with extended vocabulary could be improved by learning what Greek and Latin words look like, and learning to spot morpheme boundaries, both of which are pretty easy tasks if you're not six.
The gap between the phonetic component of the writing and the pronunciation continues to grow until eventually there is no correspondence: true logograms.
Eventually, yes. But a long, long time in the future, and even then it won't be logographic in the sense we usually mean.
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Re: Is English a logographic writing system?

Post by clawgrip » Tue 23 Feb 2016, 23:56

Salmoneus wrote:Eventually, yes. But a long, long time in the future, and even then it won't be logographic in the sense we usually mean.
I guess it's been said before, but no matter how far in the future we go, English spelling will remain at its core phonetic and not logographic, because the only correspondences between various words will be phonetic, not logographic. No matter how far English pronunciation drifts from the spelling, words like water, tide, sink, pour etc. still won't have any shared semantic element, while words like sink and stink and shrink will still have shared phonetic elements that should at least somewhat match the spoken language.
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Re: Is English a logographic writing system?

Post by KaiTheHomoSapien » Wed 24 Feb 2016, 00:36

sangi39 wrote: I kind of mentioned that with German and Spanish. I'd somehow forgotten about Finnish. Would have been a much better example.
Right. I think what you mentioned about spelling something from sound is what I had in mind: if you provide a nonsense English-sounding phrase like /'feɪli/, there are a number of ways it could be spelled: faly, faley, failee, failey, faily, etc. You can narrow down alternate spellings through knowledge of etymology, roots, and patterns, but even then it might not narrow it down completely. Whereas in a language like Finnish, if you're given a nonsense phrase like /ko:nal:en/, it really can't be spelled any way other than <koonallen> given Finnish orthographical conventions. There's like one possible spelling for each possible sound sequence in Finnish--whereas English is on the opposite of that scale.
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