Last time on Linguistics and SFF: Language and Exoticism
In part one of this post, I will be giving a short introduction to several linguistic concepts relating to writing systems. This is somewhat technical, but that’s kind of the point of the post series. The actual application of these concepts to speculative fiction will take place in the second post.
 shows a phonetic representation
// shows a phonemic representation
<> is the identifier for a gramphemic/orthographic representation, but I’ll be using double quotes for simplicity.
The technical term for the way a language is presented visually is a “writing system.” Writing systems are made up of pieces called “graphemes”. Each grapheme represents a discrete element of the written language–generally they each represent one of the smallest semantically distinguishable unit of the written language. Together, the set of graphemes used to visually represent a language make up that language’s orthography. Technically speaking, an orthography is a standard system of graphemes, but there are plenty of non-standard systems.
Graphemes, and therefore orthographies tend to come in three major types:
1. An alphabet is an orthography where each grapheme (at least theoretically) represents a single sound, or phoneme, in the language.
2. A syllabary is an orthography where each grapheme represents a syllable in the language.
3. A logography is an orthography where each grapheme represents a word or morpheme in the language. It’s also a word I just made up–although it might exist somewhere–through derivational morphology.
Now, since a lot of people have trouble with this and many lay people use a non-technical form of linguistic terminology, I’m going to explain what phonemes, syllables, and logograms are.
A phoneme is the set of phones–individual sounds formed by articulation of the human mouth–that a language considers to be the same “sound” for the purposes of distinguishing words. The two major types of phoneme are the consonant and the vowel. They are demonstrable by a minimal pair, a pair of words considered to have different meaning which can be used to show the phonemic difference between two phones. For example, “mitt” and “kit”, with the phonetic representation of [mit] and [kit]. The difference in meaning is distinguished by the two phones at the beginning of the words.
The symbol for a phoneme is called a letter.
A syllable is a collection of sequential sounds made up of a vowel and the consonants associated with it. Every language on earth has a set of rules–called phonotactics–which describes the possible structures of syllables in a language. Japanese, for example, has a syllable structure consisting of (C)V(N), where C represents any consonant, V represents any vowel, N represents a nasal consonant–in the case of Japanese, these are /n/ and /m/–and parentheses mean the phoneme is optional in that position. Thusly, “kan” is a legal Japanese syllable of the structure CVN, and kar is an illegal syllable, because the structure is CV!N, where the “!” means the following consonant type is not accurate.
A few technical notes on syllable structure: The group of consonants before the vowel is called the onset. The vowel is called the nucleus. The group of consonants following the vowel is called the coda. The combination of the nucleus and the coda is called the rhyme–hopefully obvious reasons. You’ll understand why I mention this in the analysis post.
The symbol for a syllable is called a syllogram for the purposes of this series.
A logogram is a grapheme representing a word or morpheme in the language.
Now, these types of system are theoretical constructs. Very few systems are exactly as described above. For example, English has an alphabet, but there is not a 1-to-1 correspondence of letter to phoneme. So, despite what you may hear, English is not a phonetic or even phonemic writing system as the various IPA(International Phonetic Alphabet) alphabets are. And Japanese makes use of both syllograms and logograms. And even then, some words in Japanese that are written in syllograms(kana) use a seemingly incorrect syllogram. For example, the topic particle “wa” is spelled with the syllogram for “ha”.
English is an example of a type of non-phonetic(phonemic) alphabet called a morphophonemic alphabet. For example, the English words “electric” and “electricity” are spelled with the same letters, even though phonemically, they should be represented as “elektrik” and “elektrisity” The same is similar for many morphemes with Greek or Latin roots where derivational inflection–the creation of a new word by the systematic addition of morphemes–is applied. This is because advanced reading is not done by sounding out each letter, but rather by recognizing the shape of the word. This is why the two gimmicks or removing the vowels in a word, or scrambling a word while keeping on the first and last letters the same don’t interfere significantly with the readability of the text. This is a valuable tool in a writing system, even though it may make learning that system more difficult.
Another example of the oddity of English spelling is the famous “alternate spelling” of fish–“ghoti”, often attributed to George Bernard Shaw. It was used to highlight perceived “irregularities” in English spelling. However, it is based on mis-understandings of how spelling works, in English and in general.
“gh” only makes the /f/ sound in the coda of a word. “enough”. It still makes a /g/ sound in the onset position: e.g. “ghost”. In the so-called word “ghoti”, the “gh” is in the onset position, where it makes a “hard g” like in ghost.
The “ti” is supposed to represent the “sh” sound. However, it does so only in the “medial” position–that is, between two other syllables. It always makes the “ty” sound in the final position as in the word “ghoti”.
Finally, the “o” is supposed to make the “i” sound, as in “women”. However, that is not a regular pattern of English, but the fault of some other very simple rules. In an unstressed syllable, such as the “-men” and “-man” of “women: and “woman”, the sound represented by the letter “e” becomes a schwa instead of an /e/ or /a/ as in the stressed syllables of the male forms “men” and “man”. This causes the words to be indistinguishable in spoken English. So, because the rule of a vowel becoming a schwa in an unstressed syllable has priority, the “o” in the stressed syllable is altered to distinguish between the singular and plural forms.
But as we learned above, English writing is a morphophonemic alphabet, meaning that it works to preserve the clear relation between two allomorph–different forms of the same morpheme–over maintaining phonemic accuracy.
Further, writing systems in general are made static at a certain time in the languages development. So, because writing systems care less about the accurate phonemic representation of a word than of readability, when the spoken language evolves, the written language does not, creating these odd orthographical artifacts. And this is visible in many writing systems, not just English. Something to consider in the follow-up post, and while deciding on the orthographic representation you choose to use in your story.
Next time on Linguistics and SFF: Orthography and Vowel Systems