Last time on Linguistics and SFF: Orthography and Exoticism
Last time, I discussed some basics on orthography and its function in writing systems. I’ll be doing a bit more of that in this post, but in the context of using that insight for the purposes of writing speculative fiction. I’ll be focusing, as the title suggests, on what the vowel system in a language suggests about the best orthography for that language.
First, considering the structure of the three major types of writing system, they have advantages and disadvantages, and these are in part based on the structure of the language to be represented.
The difference between alphabets and syllbaries is much smaller than the difference between them and a logography. They both represent the sounds of a language rather than its meaning. So I’ll be focusing first on them, and why you might want to us one over the other.
An alphabet is best for a language with a large number of sounds(phonemes). English, for example, has a great many sounds, and not only that, it has far more vowel sounds than most languages. English is most commonly described as having about 16 distinct vowel sounds. The most common system of vowel sounds in the world is a system of 5: /a/ /e/ /i/ /o/ /u/. English has equivalents of all those vowels. I bet you can guess what they are.
The number of vowels matters for a very specific reason. Vowels differ from consonants in that a consonant phone or phoneme has a very limited variety in its articulation. Consonants have four major features:
1. Place of articulation describes where in the mouth you place your tongue when making the sound. These are generally divided into laryngeal, the back of the throat, velar, the soft palate, palatal, the hard palate alveolar, the ridge behind the teeth, dental, the teeth, and labial, the lips.
2. Manner of articulation describes how the breath is released during speech: stop/plosive, when the tongue/lips create a closure or “stop” of air, and the air is then released, affricate, where there is a stop, followed by a protracted release, fricative, where there is no closure, but rather a proximity of the tongue/lips to the place of articulation and a protracted release of air, and sonorant, which (basically) is everything else.
3. Voicing describes whether the vocal folds(vocal chords) are vibrating during sound production. The major voicings are voiced, a clear vibration, unvoiced/voiceless, no vibration, and some other, less common voicings.
4. Aspiration describes the strength of the airflow. It’s generally divided into aspirated, with a noticeable puff of air, and unaspirated, with no noticeable puff.
Now, these features are in general fairly binary, either “on” or “off”. And that means you can’t vary your phones too much without changing your phonemes. But vowels are different. Vowels have basically two features. However, there is quite a bit of room for variance, and so a sound that one speaker would perceive as an English short “e” might be considered by another to be an English short “i’.
The point being, that most languages have smaller systems of vowels because they divide the space up less finely. It is possible to have a language with as few as two vowels, and three is not uncommon. There are also many systems with seven vowels. So, English is rather uncommon in the number of vowels it has.
You might have figured out already why the number of vowels is significant: even English with its many vowels and large number of consonants has only about 50 phonemes at most. Fifty letters is not an over-large number to memorize. But what about syllables? With 12 vowels, 25 consonants and just using a (C)V syllable structure there are about 300 possible syllables. And English has fairly permissive structural rules for syllables, so the real number is much greater. By contrast, Japanese, a language which uses a syllabary, has that five vowel system we mentioned before, and about 12 consonants. That’s a little over 60 possible syllables with its (C)V(n) structure. And even then, Japanese has shortcuts. Consonant voicing uses a diacritic mark rather than a whole second set of syllables, and rather than having syllables with the coda (n), uses a single symbol for it, which is simply added after the (C)V syllable variant. So in order to have a syllabary, a language must have relatively simple phonotactics, few phonemes, especially vowel phones, since vowel and consonant numbers are multiplicative under a syllabary. Hawaiin, for example, has five vowels and 12 consonants and a (C)V syllable structure, and is thus perfect for a syllabary, whereas German, with its vowels and complicated consonant clusters is not.
A logography, of course, has no such issues, since it doesn’t care about sounds. Logographies are great for languages with little morphology, since they aren’t alterable for tense or number, but require separate symbols for each. They do, of course, have the same issues with massive memorization that an English syllabary would have.
Since writing systems tend to develop based on the languages they represent, you can do some fun and efficient world-building based on how you choose to represent a language orthographically. Obviously you can’t really do much about an actual writing system in a novel, but it is something to keep in mind, especially when using a real-world language that doesn’t actually use English orthography. When you think about that language and how the various characters feel about it, you can use that in description.
For example, many people think Chinese orthography is particularly beautiful or elegant, and the discipline of Chinese calligraphy arose from the type of writing system Chinese uses. Whereas though English has forms of calligraphy and also medieval illumination, it is not seen in quite the same light.
In the next post, I’ll be discussing two things: etymology and orthography’s effect on the reality and perception of it, and also how you can use your chosen orthography to illuminate language and culture and also how when writing a real-world language you aren’t a native speaker of, you may mis-understand or mis-represent it because of your own prejudices and pre-conceptions based on your own language having a different writing system.
Next time on Linguistics and SFF: Orthography and Etymology