Alphabets (was Re: Bill Gates)

Wesley Schwein (
Mon, 6 Oct 1997 14:40:18 -0400 (EDT)

On Sat, 4 Oct 1997, The Low Golden Willow wrote:

> 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

Some linguists who study writing systems call the Semitic scripts
"abjads". In Semitic languages, words inflect around not a root but a
series of consonants; if you understand the context, you will know which
vowels apply.

> 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.

They already had (Linear B), and lost it with the collapse of Mycenaean

> 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.

Syllabaries are generally best for languages where the typical syllable is
one consonant and one vowel or just one vowel. Languages like English or
German, where syllables can be CCCVCC (streets), are a little harder to
transcribe without a godawful number of characters.

Some syllabaries fit their languages very well, such as Japanese and
Cherokee. Others don't fit so well, like the Mayan languages and
Mycenaean Greek. Writers in these scripts had various kludges to get by.
The Mycenaeans just ignored the consonants on the end of a syllable, so a
word like Agamemnon might be written A-GA-ME-NO. The Mayans covered the
end consonants by treating them as the beginning of a second syllable, one
with a silent vowel, generally the same vowel as the real syllable. A
word like 'kutz' might be written KU-TZ(u).

The best English text dealing with writing systems is _The World's Writing
Systems_, by Oxford Press, 1996, edited by Peter Daniels and (somebody)