Intelligent design of Written Language?

Discussion in 'Linguistics' started by Carcano, Dec 1, 2007.

  1. Carcano Valued Senior Member

    Is there any such thing as a language that is spelled exactly as its pronounced...that is intelligently designed?

    Seeing as most languages are the product of a slow evolution they tend to contain letters and syllables which are no longer required...just as parts of many species (including us) count only as artifacts of lost adaptations.

    English I'd say is due for a universal overhaul...being a composite of many tongues, all thrown together into the great cauldron.
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  3. Gustav Banned Banned


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  5. James R Just this guy, you know? Staff Member

    I think the problem is that writing a language down "freezes" it in the form it was written, but the spoken language continues to change.

    But all writing is conventional, anyway. All of it is just squiggles on a page. It is only by agreement that we see some combinations of squiggles as representing certain sounds. Which particular combinations represent which sounds is kind of arbitrary.
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  7. maxg Registered Senior Member

    Esperanto was designed so that one letter is one sound and it closely follows the International Phonetic Alphabet, so perhaps that qualifies. I don't know if it counts as intelligently designed but German is the most like that of all "natural" European languages.
  8. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    To score perfectly, I demand that the exactness work in both directions: It's spelled as its pronounced and it's pronounced as it's spelled. Many languages fall short in two ways:
    • In reading, you can't tell which syllable is accented. German requires you to know a set of prefixes that can never be stressed, and it also leaves you guessing with words of foreign origin.
    • In writing, there is more than one way to transcribe one or more sounds. To pick on German again, which as noted further down is indeed one of the more phonetically accurate European languages despite these nits, a long A can be A, AA, or AH, and Ä is somewhat interchangeable with E.
    Off the top of my head, I'd nominate:
    • Hungarian. Each vowel can be "long" or "short," and a parallel set of graphemes was invented for the long ones (with an accent ague). There are also two pairs of umlauted vowels, written with an umlaut for short or a double accent ague for long. A few digraphs were added to cover the shortfall of consonants in the Latin alphabet: SZ, ZS, CS, GY, NY, TY. I don't believe there is any ambiguity in deciding how to render an unfamiliar spoken word into speech, or vice versa. However, I don't know enough about the language to say whether the accented syllable is uniform, since there's no provision for indicating it.
    • Bulgarian. The Cyrillic alphabet has more letters and Bulgarian, with its modest set of vowels, makes do without any diacritical marks or digraphs. It's a little weird to have a separate letter for SHT, which AFAIK is not a separate phoneme, but at least they're consistent with it. Like Hungarian, there's no indicator for accent and I don't know if that's a problem in reading.
    • Finnish. I don't know much about this language but I believe it does a perfect job with long and short vowels including umlauts, and even doubles consonants to correspond to their pronunciation. I don't know about accented syllables.
    • Turkish. Again I'm out of my field of expertise, but I believe there's a one-to-one correspondence between phonemes and graphemes, with no digraphs. I'm not sure syllabic accent is strong, important or irregular in Turkish, so the lack of an indicator may not be a problem.
    • Korean. Its phonetic alphabet, Kan ul, was invented in the 15th century, but due to elitism on the part of the ruling class who had the time to learn Chinese, it did not become official until the end of the 19th century. Placing letters sometimes adjacent and sometimes one above the other looks strange to a foreigner but the rules governing it are invariable. Phonetic writing is required by law in North Korea, but in South Korea surnames and a few other words can be written in Chinese characters.
    • Czech. Long and short vowels are clearly differentiated, although not each in the same way. Palatalization is noted, although again there are several methods depending on the combination of consonant and succeeding vowel. Accent is uniform, always on the first syllable. It uses an unnecessarily large set of diacritical marks, but it uses them consistently. My only complaint is that, in writing, after a vowel that's incapable of being palatalized, you can't tell whether to write Y or I for the I sound.
    French is probably the worst for letters that are no longer pronounced. Almost every word seems to have at least one, and many have two or more, such as the inflection -ent for the third-person plural verb form, which is never pronounced. Worse yet, some final letters can be silent or not, depending on the next word in the sentence. This is one of the most difficult features of French for a foreigner to learn: You always have to think one word in advance when speaking. Its transcription of vowels can only be called haphazard, with only five graphemes for both long and short vowels as well as the umlauted vowels it retains from the original Germanic language of the Franks.

    In addition, almost all languages that use the Latin alphabet have more phonemes than letters. English is near the top of this list and we stubbornly make do without diacritical marks. Some consonant digraphs like SH and NG work well. Others like CH and TH require knowing the source language of the word. But our vowels are utterly hopeless.
    The Norman invasion was a disaster for our writing system. (Although I'm sure a historian would not include that in his top ten list of its impacts on England.

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    ) First we borrowed thousands of French words with their original spelling. Then as the French occupiers assimilated and adopted English, the phonetics of the language changed and the pronunciation of both French and English words veered away from their spelling. Scholars kept bringing in Greek words with their Y's, PS's, PH's and CH's, and today we happily borrow words from every culture we come in contact with, each with its own spelling or "standard" romanization. Thus we now need Ê and Ñ in our fonts for "tête-a-tête" and "cabaña," We spell "glasnost" with an O even though the Russians pronounce it as an A, and we write "Peking duck" when it's really "ba-ging." Not to mention, Ba ging is the Cantonese name for the city; American newscasters seem to think the Mandarin name is French so they pronounce it as "bei zhing" when it really is "bei jing."
    That's the least of our problems. TH is one of our most uniform digraphs. The only confusion is in deciding whether it should be voiced or voiceless in a given word. We have a very simple rule for that:
    • It's voiced between two vowels: lather.
    • Even if one of those vowels is silent: bathe.
    • It's voiceless in words of foreign origin: mythology, maranatha.
    • Well, in some foreign words it's just a T: Thailand
    • But in all other cases it's voiceless: thing, three, bath.
    • Oops, in words derived from Anglo-Saxon pronouns, it's voiced: the, thou, that, they, those, there, thus, then.
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    Every language needs to reform its writing system once in a while. The Germans and Italians did it a little over a hundred years ago. Italian can be read flawlessly and the only problem with German is the accent. Neither is quite so easy to write, but a dream compared to English and French, which haven't been overhauled in hundreds of years. I don't know which is stoopider: our seven ways of pronouncing OUGH or the French digraph OI for the sound WA. In both languages, those E's at the end of words became silent long ago. We know they were pronounced once because we can still hear them in poetry.
    Unfortunately it was invented by a man whose native languages were Polish and Yiddish, so his choices of phonemes seem a little strange. For most of us it's hard to remember to write the sound TS as a single letter C. It's impossible to pronounce the combination SC, pronounced STS, at the beginning of a word, including the everyday word scii, "to know," which must also be pronounced as two distinct syllables.
    As I've noted, German has quite a few inconsistencies but I agree that by the standards of anglophones and francophones it looks like a perfectly phonetic alphabet. It's phonetic in one direction: You can read a page of written German out loud without making any mistakes, at least once you learn to recognize those pesky prefixes like be- and ge- which never take the accent. Otherwise the accent is always on the first syllable.
    Last edited: Dec 2, 2007
  9. Carcano Valued Senior Member

    How did the Germans and Italians manage to pull that off? Seeing as English is going to be THE international language I'd say its now time for a major re-write of dictionaries.

    Eliminating the apostrophes in words like *haven't* might be a good idea. The word probably didnt even exist in dictionaries two hundred years ago.

    I agree that French is possibly the worse. There are fewer words available than English, but more space on the page is required for the same sentence.

    I dont like the way French words tend to have soft or silent endings...they just fade out. The word for butter is particularly annoying.

    Hitler made great use of German's abrupt endings by rolling his Rs and clipping syllables for a staccato effect.
    Last edited: Dec 2, 2007
  10. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    I think they came at it from totally different directions. The Germans have a reputation as lovers of authority. So when the government said to them, "You will throw out your old dictionaries and begin using these new spelling rules," they just said, "Jawohl, mein Herr," in unison and probably completed the conversion in a year or two.

    The Italians were quite the opposite and didn't even really have a national language. The various cultural centers had their own dialects and wrote the way they spoke. Although for the most part they were intercomprehensible (that's what "dialect" means as opposed to "language" and that's why Cantonese and Mandarin are not "dialects" while Dutch and Flemish are, political correctness be danged), it made activities chaotic that we take for granted, like looking something up in an encyclopedia. It's been a while since I read about this but basically the Romans, Florentines, Venetians, Bolognesi, etc., who saw the future coming wanted Italy to be respected as a major nation and understood that wasn't going to happen if it didn't behave like a nation. I don't remember the details, which I'm sure are fascinating, but some amazingly brilliant and persuasive people synthesized a national standard language and got it accepted by a population that described themselves succinctly with the observation that it took a ruthless fascist dictator just to standardize their railroad schedules. They accomplished such amazing feats as dropping the H that had not been pronounced in about 1,700 years from all words like uomo (man) and oggi (today).
    Absolutely. Spelling should be a transcription of pronunciation. I see the value in punctuation marks like periods, commas, ellipses, quotation marks, colons, question marks, etc., because they represent features of tone and cadence which are not precisely phonemic but nonetheless are elements of language. Apostrophes are okay for transcribing missing phonemes in colloquial speech or dialect, such as comin' for coming, but nobody pronounces the missing O in haven't. The apostrophe in possessives is even dumber. Horses, horse's and horses' are pronounced the same and in spoken language it's up to the listener to figure out which one we mean.

    BTW, it's an interesting task to try to Google the etymology of a word like "haven't." I have no idea when it first appeared in writing, although it was surely spoken for a few generations before the conservative lexicographers of yore would have deigned to write it down.
    I'd rank French with English for the concision of the spoken language. In either you need a lot fewer syllables to express a thought than in, say, Spanish or Japanese. As a result they tend to be spoken more slowly, making it easier for students and foreigners to parse the sentences and pick out the words they know. As I've mentioned before, Chinese is even more concise; my informal tally says it uses seven syllables for ten in English, and indeed in my experience is spoken even more slowly, making it a student's dream.
    That's just the northern French guttural R, one of the many things in the language that were inherited from the Germanic Franks, like the umlauted vowels and the preference for the present perfect tense over the preterit. In the south--the land of the Celtic Gauls--you're a little more likely to hear the flapped R of the other Romance languages, Gaelic, and most of the Indo-European family.

    BTW, reading your post with its deliberate elimination of apostrophes illustrates why you can't get much support for spelling reform. We're used to seeing the words written the way they've always been written, and to recognize a new spelling slows us down. Kaen yuu imaejin wuet it wud bii laik tuu riid ingglish if evrii wrrd wrr speld in a nuu wee, iiven if it wuez prrfektlii foonetik? How long would it take you to regain your current reading speed? I can't enter diacritics so I'm just using the Finnish system of doubling long vowels and making up my own when necessary. But however you do it, it's going to be worse than the metric system--which we also refuse to adopt over here. It's been established that people recognize words in a partially holographic way. As long as the first and last letters are in the correct place, the rest don't matter, as long as they're all there with no extras. Changing just one letter in half the words in a sentence will send us all back to the first grade, learning to read all over again (through trifocals for some of us

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    ). Considering the dismal state of English orthography, my made-up example is probably closer to what would really happen, with several letters changed in almost every word!
    Every language has its phonetic idiosyncrasies that orators exploit. Spanish people sometimes roll their Rs for effect, even though they're only a single flap except at the beginning of a word or when doubled. Great orators in English like Winston Churchill use our language's vast selection of monosyllabic words to add stress to their speech: "blood, sweat and tears." That just doesn't have the same impact in Spanish: sangre, sudor y lágrimas.

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  11. Billy T Use Sugar Cane Alcohol car Fuel Valued Senior Member

    Correct, but point is it would be nice if there were a "one-to-one" correspondence between the sounds and the squiggles, at least when first associated.

    The school's language teachers could then do something more useful that drilling stupid "rules" (such as English teachers telling not to end sentence with a preposition). - See GB Shaw's example of the silliness that can cause in the following:

    "Ending sentence with a prepositon is something up with which I will not put."

    instead of the natural:

    "Ending sentence with a prepositon is something I will not put up with."

    (The natural form has TWO prepositions as the last two words.)

    "Not spliting your infinites" is stupid emulation of Latin, where that is impossible.)
  12. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    A common misconception. "Up" is an adverb in many cases and this is one such case. The sun will come up. My dog is throwing up. Your kid was acting up. A police car just drove up. Write this up. Zip your pants up. Pull the shades up.

    If you put up with a lot of hecklers in a lecture, one of your supporters will tell you, "You sure did a great job of putting up!"

    So it would be bookish but permissible to say, "This is something with which I shall not put up," but it would be pseudoeducated to separate the UP from the PUT. Churchill was being deliberately silly when he wrote that.
  13. Billy T Use Sugar Cane Alcohol car Fuel Valued Senior Member

    As you are much better informed in language than I am (at least in its use, perhaps not in Chompski's transformation of the field) I will accept your correction and thank you for it.

    I was worried about "up" being a preposition so had actually looked it up in the dictionary and found it can be one (also can be an adjective). I think, but do not know, that in genergal prepossitions require (at least implied) an object. My dictionary gave one such example in which I think "up' is a preposition. - "The cat is up the tree." "Tree" being the object as I see it.

    Perhaps you can clarify what makes a preposition a preposition. Is my "can have an object" rule silly or reasonable?

    I always just trust my memory. Was it really Churchill and not GB Shaw who invented that sentence poking fun at English teachers? I know (well have a stong memory) that Shaw did spend considerable effort at trying to get more rational spelling and in general was quite concerned with language, as most writters are.
  14. Carcano Valued Senior Member

    I think perhaps we need a linguistic revolution of the same magnitude as the switch from Roman numerals to Arabic numerals.

    Its amazing to me that in a thousand years the brilliant architects of roman civilization were still using a full page of scribbling to do long division.

    There are more people learning english in China than the entire population of north, now is the time!

    The first rule should be that one character equals one sound. That means th and ch will have to be replaced with one letter...and also that additional letters will have to be added for the alternate forms of vowels. No more silent letters, and letters will have to be formed of one continuous more i, f, or t.

    A new alphabet for a spoken language yes!

    Tolkein did it single handed...with the most aesthetically beautiful letters ever

    I understand he sometimes spliced bits of Finnish words together to make new names for his fantasy world, because they dont sound as familiar as most european languages. Clever!
  15. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    A preposition expresses a subordinate relationship between two nouns, so it must have an object. We allow our grammar to get pretty twisted in English, so the relationship is still there and "to" is still a preposition when the child says, "I want to be read to."

    "Up" was originally a preposition in Old German, as auf still is in Modern German, meaning "on" or "atop." But somewhere along the way the Anglo-Saxons let it start serving double duty as an adverb. In Modern English I'm not sure which usage is more prevalent. It's time to get up, start the car up -- or -- up a creek, up the kazoo. Note that it's ambivalent in "climb up the stairs." We can just as easily say "climb the stairs," so "up" could be construed as an adverb clarifying the direction of the climb, rather than a preposition expression a relationship between the act of climbing and the stairs. After all we can also say "climb down the stairs."

    We seem to have an engine that turns prepositions into adverbs. Now we can "eat in" or "eat out."
    I had to look it up to proof my earlier post. It was Churchill and he was poking fun at an editor who, in print, had criticized the legendary orator for violating what he assumed incorrectly was a rule.
    Hold on there. You're talking about an age of both illiteracy and innumeracy. Only a tiny fraction of a percent of the Roman population could read, and how many of them could do complicated arithmetic? Roman numerals were arguably an improvement over the Greek system of using a different letter of the alphabet for each numeral and then another set for multiples of ten, because they only require you to know seven letters: C, D, I, L, M, V, X. For all I know there may really have been people who could write numbers but not words! The Greeks did some pretty fancy math with that older system.

    When Fibonacci brought the Indo-Arabic positional numbering system to Europe in the 1300's, literacy and numeracy may have been even less common than in the Roman Era, but for sure, for 99+ percent of the population it was irrelevant.

    Still, your example is instructive. Merchants continued to use the older system for centuries! Only mathematicians adopted the new numerals.

    So an alphabetic revolution (please not a linguistic one, unless everyone agrees with me that the language of choice is Chinese) would be of far greater magnitude than the switch to positional numbering.

    Suggest the details of this revolution. The British had to post prices in both shillings and decimal currency for at least ten years IIRC. Auto speedometers still measure both mph and kph, because the consequences of guessing wrong could be to lose your life instead of a few guineas. Almost every consumer-market scale switches from pounds and ounces to kilos and grams with the flick of a switch. Everyone recognizes that it takes years to learn something this simple and that the transition is chaotic.

    How are you going to do it with something as commonplace, complicated and important as writing? Is the daily newspaper going to have two parallel columns and become twice as thick? The phone directory too? Is every library going to have to stock two versions of every book for two or three generations, until children grow up knowing only the new alphabet?

    Perhaps this revolution will be more practical when paper is outmoded and all writing is electronic. Then a flip of a switch will do it.
    Duh? All of those Chinese people can read and write a minimum of 2,000 han zi. Don't invent a phonetic alphabet on their account!
    How do you account for the difference between British and American standard English? Our vowels don't have a one-to-one mapping. Their R's are silent. They pronounce bedding and betting differently; we don't.

    I suppose the British as always will presume that they're in charge and start writing the language the new way, using their phonetics, just as they did with the metric system. And we'll tell them where to stuff it and keep writing it the old way, just as we do with yards, quarts, acres, and Fahrenheit.

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    This is the reason there's no phonetic alphabet for Chinese. It looks like one language in writing, but in speech the words are pronounced so differently that they're unrecognizable between Mandarin, Cantonese, Shanghai, Fujian, etc.

    If a Brit writes "call" phonetically, it looks like "coal" to us.
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  17. Billy T Use Sugar Cane Alcohol car Fuel Valued Senior Member

    to Fraggle Rocker:
    Thanks. You knowledge in this area is most impressive, but I had come to that conclusion long ago. Are you an Teacher in some sort of compartive language field? Or just very interested in the area?
  18. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    It's just something I've been interested in for more than fifty years, since I had my first class in Spanish. I have taught writing and ESL (English as a second language) and lately I've been making a living as a writer and editor.
  19. Billy T Use Sugar Cane Alcohol car Fuel Valued Senior Member

    I just got around to reading this part of your post.

    Personally, the arab invention of zero (I think they did it) is IMHO one of mankind's greatest advances. Without any symbol to indicate "None" in the modern postional notation numbering system it would not be possible to distinguish between eleven and one hundred and one. I.e. in this example, we use a zero to indicate that there are not any tens in the ten's place in the positional numbering system.

    If you care to explain in more detail why you think Chinese is the "language of choice" I would like to learn more from you. I am sure you have good reason for saying that and bet it is not just that there are a lot of Chinese.
  20. Carcano Valued Senior Member

    They already had to invent one when they started using keyboards.

    In Taiwan they use a system whereby they have to hit several keys to create one graphological Chinese character.

    But in mainland China the system most widely used is the pinyin (spell-sound) method using latin letters to create Chinese words phonetically.

    Maybe theyre like the Germans you mentioned. The Chairman just stood up and said "let it be thus"...and the people answered with one voice.

    Jawohl!!!...or whatever.

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  21. Carcano Valued Senior Member

    Good choice...the sounds of the letters are also the names of the letters, making it easy to sound out any given word.
  22. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    China is the world's longest-running continuous civilization, so the linear development of its language was never interrupted by dissipation like Greek or conquest like Anglo-Saxon. For thousands of years the people have been steadily modernizing their language to keep up with the modernization of their civilization. They discarded relics of the Stone Age (like a pitifully small and almost unenlargeable set of prepositions for expressing all relationships--that were possible when living in a cave), meaningless noise words (like articles), morphemes that take up a lot of bandwidth but add little value (like inflections) and, finally, entire paradigms that constrain their way of thinking into predetermined formats (like parts of speech: Chinese has only nouns and verbs).

    The result is an incredibly adaptable language. They effortlessly coin words for new concepts like telephone (two syllables) and computer programmer (four). With the low syllable count (my informal effort tallied an average of seven Chinese syllables to ten in English, which is a very concise language itself) it can and is spoken rather slowly, making comprehension easier, especially for students and foreigners.

    The phonetics are also easy. Each morpheme is a single syllable, with a mandatory vowel (which could be a diphthong, triphthong, or even R or Z, but still there aren't as many as in English), an optional single consonant at the beginning, and only two possible final consonants, both nasals. There are no words that twist the tongue of a native speaker like "nuclear." Yes it has tones but only four, they're exaggerated and not at all difficult to say correctly--and it gives them the advantage of not being able to express feelings vaguely with tone of voice: they have to express them precisely in words. An additional advantage of this phonetic parsimony is that it's virtually impossible to borrow foreign words--only someone who's studied a foreign language could even come close to pronouncing them. All words are Chinese and formed more or less logically from Chinese roots. (With amusing exceptions: "thing" is dong xi, "east-west.")

    To an outsider it seems like a disadvantage that this phonetic compression results in an average of four morphemes being compressed into the same spoken syllable. But most "words" contain at least two morphemes, giving two and a half million possible combinations, so at the level we would consider a "word," there are no homonyms.

    With the obvious exception of musicians, sculptors, etc., the majority of our thoughts are formed in language. The limitations of our language limit our thoughts. Chinese has few limitations. If you can think in Chinese, your thoughts will have few limitations.
    Well sure, but the 28 keystrokes that manifest as seven one-syllable characters are equivalent to ten syllables of English, which require roughly the same number of strokes. (Remember, we have to type spaces; they don't.) Our way has no clear advantage. The deconstruction of the characters comes naturally to any literate Chinese because it's the same system they use for looking them up in a dictionary.
    That will only work when they've Mandarinized the whole country. The various Chinese languages use the same words in the same sequence (about 99% anyway) but pronounce them much differently. ("Five" is wu in Mandarin but ng in Cantonese.) These are not dialects like British vs. American English, these are separate languages like Polish vs. Croatian. There's no possible phonetic writing system that will be legible to speakers of all of them.
    The communist government has indeed made it a goal to stamp out all languages except Beijing-standard Mandarin. 1984 arrived early and stayed late there, so everyone has been forced to go along with it. There aren't very many Chinese under age fifty who don't speak Mandarin at least passably well.
  23. Gustav Banned Banned

    i love you frag

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