Anton Sherwood (
Mon, 6 Oct 1997 22:16:02 -0700 (PDT)

The Low Golden Willow wrote:
: The uniqueness [of Semitic-derived alphabets] 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.

mmm, no, because they used the same sign for /me/ as for /mu/;
they ignore vowels like we ignore pitch. They'd say a true
syllabary, like kana, uses five (or three or eight) signs for /m/.

Writers in Hebrew, as you may know, later developed an optional system
of vowel marks called "points", which attach to the consonant letters.
Analogous systems are used (but not optionally) in Ethiopic script
(derived from a south Arabic script) and the large Indic family
(not Semitic), not to mention Quenya.

: 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.

Did: Linear B is archaic Greek written in 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.

Well, not really - it's just that if you want to write a more complex
syllable, you have to live with some redundancy and/or ambiguity. I
imagine that the earliest writing was mainly a mnemonic aid: the reader
already knew generally what the text was about, and so could resolve
ambiguities from context.

The longest known Linear B text, which I find in a book which I'll cite
in a moment, runs as follows. On the left I'll put the transliteration,
and on the right somebody's best guess of the intended words.
Note how many consonants are omitted!

ijereja ekeqe euketoqe etonijo =hijereja hekhej-kwe eukhetoj-kwe eto:nijon
ekee teo kotonookode kotonao =hekhehen theo:j ktojnohokhoj-de ktojna:ho:n
kekemenao onata ekee G3T9V3 =khekhemena:ho:n onata hekhehen [measurement]
erita ijereja eke euketoqe =*eritha hijereja hekhej eukhetoj-kwe
etonijo ekee teo damodemi =eto:nijon hekhehen theo:j da:mos-de-min
pasi kotonao kekemenao onato =pha:si ktojna:ho:n khekhemena:ho:n ona:ton
ekee toso pemo G3T9 =hekhehen tosson spermo: [measurement]

"The spelling rules of Linear B allow _e-ri-ta_ [unknown name of a priestess]
to r*Epr*Es*Ent *Eritha, *Eritta, *Erita, *Erintha, *Erista, *Elitha, *Elintha,
or *Elista, *Etc."

: Souce: Lancelot Hogben, _The Mother Tongue_.
: Disclaimer: That's largely my only source; don't take this as expert
: information.

Hogben is pretty old, no? Try the _Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language_
or, if you want to spend the bucks (thanks Dad), a recent big book from
Oxford: _The World's Writing Systems_, ed. Daniels & Bright, 1996. The
above Linear B is from this book, the chapter "Aegean Scripts" by Emmett
L. Bennett.

Also of interest: Nakanishi, _Writing Systems of the World_ (Chas.E.Tuttle
Co. 1980); where most of the examples for the Oxford book are typeset or
drawn specially, Nakanishi illustrates each major script with a front page
of a newspaper, as well as stamps and the like. Has some errors in Russian
phonology iirc, which is not surprising in a book translated from Japanese,
but not important.

Anton Sherwood *\\* +1 415 267 0685 *\\*