Saturday, March 17, 2007

Writing systems and learning to read

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Over at Language Log, Bill Poser oversimplifies things somewhat when he writes,
If you have a straightforward phonological writing system and teach children to make use of that structure, most children will learn to read and write without great difficulty. The idea that learning to read and write is a lengthy and painful process is a pathology of our writing system and educational system, not a universal truth.
There are certainly grains of truth in there, but in the case of English, the phonology of the language is largely to blame for our less-than-transparent writing system. Bill puts forward the eminently sensible "frog's feet" syllabic writing system for Carrier. Would such a system work for English?

Frog's feet has roughly 200 characters representing the intersection of 6 vowel sounds and 33 consonants (not 6 x 33 because not all can be used together). By contrast, if we take the counts from the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary by John C. Wells for General American English, we have 25 consonants and 19 vowels, with one additional consonant and three additional vowels for foreign words. With a few exceptions, all of these can be used in isolation (i.e., word-initially for vowels or, for consonants, before another consonant or as the final letter in a word.) Furthermore, most of the consonants can be followed by any of the vowels. (See here for more phonotactic rules.) I can't be bothered to count the exceptions, so I'll estimate by reducing the counts by 20%. Under this estimate, you would need somewhere between 300 and 350 characters to replicate the frog's feet system for English.

Moreover, the elegant simplicity of the Carrier system is impractical for English. My understanding is that frog's feet uses a basic shape for each consonant, and simply rotates these to indicate the relevant vowel (diatrics are also emloyed). When you have only 6 vowels, this works beautifully. When you have 19...

Finally, the Carrier system, with its occasional isolated consonant is mostly syllabic, but with alphabetic elements. And it is well documented that syllables are something that humans can fairly easily notice and learn to read. On the other hand, the English system, with its higglety-pigglety consonant doubles, triplets, and even quadruples (e.g., sixths), would remain largely alphabetic. Alphabetic systems require phonemic awareness, and this is harder to attain than syllabic awareness.

So, Bill's right about frog's feet being easy to learn, but to suggest that a similar system would actually be practical for English, let alone make it any easier to read, strikes me as unlikely.

[Japanese also employs a syllabic writing system (actually two parallel systems) along with the kanji logographs. The Japanese system is even more compact than the Carrier one as Japanese has a smaller complement of phonemes and all syllables are either V or CV except for tsu and n. Consequently, they have only 52 characters (along with one major and one minor diatric mark).]

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