Phonetic alphabet[wasRe: Bill Gates]

Dan Clemmensen (
Sun, 05 Oct 1997 11:49:28 -0400

The Low Golden Willow wrote:
> Er, the Latin alphabet was pretty derived itself. Alphabetic systems
> (allegedly unique in origin, unlike hieroglyphic systems or syllabries)
> are traced back to the Semites. So I could mean an original Semitic
> inventor.
> Digression:
> The uniqueness is in using phonemes as elements, rather than syllables or
> words. The other two types of systems have been independently invented
> multiple times; all true alphabets can be traced, in probable
> inspiration if not in design, to the Semites. The original alphabet
> didn't have any vowels in it, and recently I've wondered if from the
> Semitic point of view it was functionally a syllabary. In which case
> the true alphabet was actually invented by some Greek(s) who adopted the
> Semitic symbols, realized that none of them coded for vowels, fixed
> that, and thus accidentally created a phonemic alphabet whereas left to
> their own devices they'd probably have created a syllabary.
> Significance: English uses over a thousand different syllables, but 26
> letters. We could use a few more, but still fewer than 50. Syllabaries
> often have 50-75 symbols, meaning their language is restricted to that
> many syllables.
> Souce: Lancelot Hogben, _The Mother Tongue_.
> Disclaimer: That's largely my only source; don't take this as expert
> information.

I consider this subject to be very relevant ot transhumanism. In
particular, it may relate to the "how the west was won" thread,
and more generally to how we encode what we think.

I don't know about syllabaries in general, but I do know a little
about Japanese. The Japanese syllabary, or Kana, is called
"the 50 sounds." It has 50 symbols, and is formally arranged
in a five-by-ten matrix. There are 5 vowel sounds, and each column
of the matrix corresponds to a vowel. There are 9 consonant sounds,
the first row of the matrix contains syllables for the vowels, and
each of the remaining 9 rows contains the syllables for a consonant
followed by the vowel.

Three of the syllables in the "w" row have fallen into disuse, so
when Japanese school children sing their version of the alphabet
song they replace these syllables with the vowel syllable to retain
the 5-sound pattern, and when they write out the matrix they leave
the entries blank.

The syllabary actually contains a great many more syllables, because
there are several ways to modify each syllable:
1) there is a mark that lengthens the vowel, yielding a total of 10
2) there is a symbol that adds an "n" to the end of a syllable
3) There is a mark that changes the consonant to another consonant,
so there are actually 18 consonants, not 9.
4) there is yet another mark that converts a few (2?) of the consonants
to get consonants for foreign words yielding a total of 20 consonants.

So, japanese has 10 vowels and 20 consonants, for 210 syllables, each of
which can be used with or without the trailing "n", for about 420
syllables. All syllables are either vowel, consonant-vowel, or

There are a few exceptions, but they relate to variations of the way
you pronounce a particular syllable in context with another. For
the trailing "n" is pronounced as an "m" in some cases, and when the
syllable "shi" is followed by a syllable starting with "t", the "i" is
dropped. However, you cannot create new syllables as we do in English:
you are stuck with the 420 syllables of the Kana (The mis-named 50

Why is this relevant? isn't it just a coding convention? I don't think
A person whose first language is japanese apparently has a grat deal of
difficulty thinking about syllables that do not fit into this scheme.
Does this constrain the way the japanese think? If so, how are english
speakers constrained? Will we need some other representational method
to relieve these constraints?