ONE of the most interesting and valuable innovations in language occurred when people came upon the idea of representing their spoken language in a visual form. This meant that a person’s words could last long after they were uttered or even after the speaker was no longer alive. This enabled humans to have an ever-advancing civilisation with one generation building upon the ideas expressed by their ancestors. Our modern world would not be possible without the widespread literacy that we enjoy today.
Writing did not start in just one society. It arose, more or less independently, in different parts of the world at different times in history. For this reason, the principles upon which various writing systems are based can be quite different.
Because of colonialism, the writing system that is most familiar to Pacific Islanders is the Roman or Latin writing system, which was developed by the ancient Romans and adopted throughout western Europe. In theory all sounds, both vowels and consonants, are represented by their own individual sounds. In actual fact, this idea of “one symbol = one sound” was followed by the missionaries that developed most of the writing systems of Pacific languages, but in Europe itself, some languages needed two-letter combinations for one sound (like English “sh” and “ch”) and some languages ended up with more than one way to write one sound, like “sh”, “ti”, and “ssi” for the same sound in different English words: ship, station, obsession.
The Roman alphabet grew out of the Greek alphabet, which had followed the same principle, but with many letters that have a different form than the Roman alphabet. This alphabet is still used in Greece today. Another variant of the Greek alphabet is the Cyrillic alphabet used in Russia and other eastern European countries, which Greek missionaries developed when they brought Christianity there 1,500 years ago.
Abjads – writing without vowels
All of the alphabets that grew out of the Greek alphabet represent both vowels and consonants. Some other writing systems represent consonants, but not vowels. These are called abjads. Arabic and Hebrew are the best known examples of this type of writing, and both write from right to left, rather than left to right as with the Roman, Greek, and Cyrillic alphabets.
This type of writing makes reading and writing more difficult— compare “I’d like to buy some nails” (vowels and consonants) with “d lk t b sm nls” (only consonants). Today both Arabic and Hebrew use dots below and above the consonants to represent vowels to teach young children and foreigners how to read, but normal writing is still done without vowels.
Some languages have regular consonant-vowel syllables. In some of these languages, consonant shapes and vowel shapes join together to make a symbol that stands for one syllable. These are called abugidas. The Korean hangul writing system is an example of this style of writing. This alphabet is used not only by Koreans, but also by the Cia-Cia people in Indonesia. This occurred when visiting Korean linguists saw that by chance the Cia-Cia language fit into the hangul syllable system and they developed a way to write Cia-Cia using the Korean writing system. Local Cia-Cia leaders saw it as a way to represent their language that was unique to other Indonesian languages.
While Korean joins consonant and vowels components together, other languages with fixed syllable patterns often have one independent syllable for each syllable. These are called syllabaries. The Japanese katakana and hiragana writing systems, for example, use around 50 symbols to represent all the possible syllables in modern Japanese.
One of the most interesting syllabaries is the writing system of the Cherokee language spoken by a group of Native Americans. It was developed by one Cherokee man, Sequoyah, who was illiterate himself, but who had seen how writing helped the Europeans who were invading his lands. He realised his language used only 85 basic syllables and so he developed one symbol for each of those syllables. This is perhaps the only recorded instance in history where an entire writing system was developed by only one person who himself could not read or write any other writing system.
While alphabets and syllabaries use a relatively small number of symbols to represent sounds, it is also possible to use symbols to represent ideas or entire words rather than individual sounds. This is the system that most of the languages of China use. It has the disadvantage that learners need to spend many hours to know thousands of individual characters to be able to read a book, but it has the advantage that each reader can pronounce a character according to his or her own language and be understood by people speaking completely different languages. This has meant that people speaking Mandarin Chinese in Beijing could write a sentence in their own language that could be read by people speaking Shanghainese in Shanghai or Cantonese in Hong Kong, even though those three speakers could probably not understand each other’s spoken language.
There is evidence that some Papua New Guinean societies were on the way to developing this kind of writing before contact with the West. In New Ireland, for example, malagan or kapkap carvers use different symbols to represent different spiritual concepts. These are similar to the early Chinese characters that represented individual concepts. Unlike the Chinese, who developed a way to put these characters into phrases and compose complete sentences, the New Irelanders did not go beyond “writing” a small number of spiritually significant words in isolation.
Nevertheless, it is interesting that in some New Ireland languages, the modern word for “carving” and “writing” is the same, showing that they see a connection between the old and new ways of using visual symbols to represent words.
The fact that so many different societies have developed writing is an indication of how humans feel a need to share their ideas with people they have never met or who may not have even been born yet. Although there are many different ways of writing, all allow us to have the ability to let our thoughts transcend the barriers of time and space.
• Professor Volker is a linguist living in New Ireland, and an Adjunct Professor in The Cairns Institute, James Cook University in Australia. He welcomes your language questions for this monthly discussion at email@example.com. Or continue the discussion on the Facebook Language Toktok page