Monday, March 23, 2009

My experience with alternate orthographies

I think the first non-Latin alphabet I learned to read was Japanese, when I moved there back in 1998. I perused some Japanese in rōmaji books, but when confronted with having to get by in Japan, one of the first things I learned was the kana. It's certainly the most important thing to do if you want to learn a language—to learn the script that best represents its speech and grammar.

Learning the script takes a week or so. Learning the language is much harder, and takes some years and hundreds of hours of study.

When I left Japan, I could get by in ordinary conversations, read the kana, and understood about 300 of the 2,000 or so jōyō kanji.

Rather than flying home, I took a boat from Ōsaka to Shanghai and spent two months travelling around China third class. The Chinese ideographs are the lingua franca of East Asia, and although I could barely speak any Chinese, I was able to get around the country, reading maps and place names and train destinations, deciphering menus in a basic way. It wasn't my understanding of the Chinese language that helped me get around China, so much as my understanding of the script shared between the Chinese and Japanese languages.
  • 東京 means "East Capital." In Japanese, it's pronounced "Tōkyō." You could pronounce it "Dongjing" in Mandarin.

  • 北京 means "North Capital." In Mandarin, it's pronounced "Beijing." You could pronounce it "Hokkyō" in Japanese, although most people don't.

  • 台北 means "Platform North." The capital of Taiwan is pronounced "Taibei" in Mandarin and was "Taihoku" under Japanese administration.

  • 仙台 means "Wizard Platform." It's the Japanese city "Sendai."

I've been fascinated with Central Asia for some time: the steppe, the Altay Mountains, the Gobi Desert, to Siberia and the coldest places on Earth. I went to Tibet on my trip to China, and I'd like to traverse the Silk Road from Beijing, to Mongolia and Kazakhstan, and to Tehran and points south. One of the things I find so fascinating about this region is that the terrain is similar in many ways similar to the dramatic Western landscape of my childhood, the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains, but has a completely different cultural history which has been recorded for hundreds and thousands of years.

Uyghur is a Turkic language spoken around the Tian Shan, the mountains of heaven, from Kashgar to Ürümqi. Over the centuries, it had been written in Old Turkish runes, a variant of the Sogdian alphabet derived from Aramaic, variants of the Perso-Arabian script, several variants of the Latin alphabet, and Cyrillic. The Old Uyghur alphabet was adapted by the Mongols during the time of Genghis Khan to write Mongolian, and Nurhaci adapted the Mongolian alphabet to Manchu before laying some of the groundwork for the Qing Empire; the Manchu alphabet is one of the world's loveliest scripts.

In other words, Uyghur has been written in most of the dominant scripts of Eurasia, and some original ones besides. I wondered: why shouldn't English be so diversely written? What would English look like if it were written in a truly phonemic orthography? What would it be like to write poetry in a script in which words that rhyme, like "mate" and "weight" were written in a way that looked similar?

I have been a fairly digitally-oriented person in this decade, but I came to be interested in the book as a physical object about a year and a half ago after reading about the surprisingly many tomes bound in human flesh.

In a thousand years, all our DVDs and hard drives will be as blank, meaningless stones. The historians of the future will look back for individual objects to interpret to corroborate what data survives, as they look back to the baked clay tiles the Sumerians scratched, the carved obelisks of Egypt, the ink-scrawled bamboo strips of wartorn China. No book can be more uniquely individual than one bound in the skin of a person, and such a precious work would deserve to be handwritten rather than blogged or printed on an inkjet.

So I got some calligraphy pens to see about writing insular miniscule, perhaps the most attractive script used to write English in the years before Charlemagne made it Europe's standard Latin script. I also set about learning to write in the Read alphabet.

It was interesting going at first, trying to re-discern the phonemes of my idiolect, using guidebooks keyed to Received Pronunciation and northeastern dialects. First I had to figure out that my basically Oklahoma dialect, mixing Western and Southern elements, had undergone all the vowel mergers one might guess, including "pin-pen," "Mary-marry-merry," and "cot-caught."

Writing it has become fairly easy, although most everything there is to read is stuff I wrote myself or things written by people with very different dialects. Except for copying back notes, I have little practical reason to read it, so writing is actually much easier than reading. I want to see what can be done scribing it with some proper calligraphy tools.

While Quikscript is an easy-to-write and attractive script, useful for many purposes, a truly phonemic script has some drawbacks. It's problematic to create a universal English dictionary when dialect and pronunciation varies so. And I wonder if there is a more appropriate way of representing English vowels.

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