Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Scriptology Notes (about Alphabets and Writing Systems)

Originally posted on April 9, 2010

Also: see Bibliography on Scriptology

Aspects of Scriptology

The History of Writing in General: The history and rich cultural lore of specific writing systems and languages

Contemporary political influences in changing writing systems
Ancient Writing: Decipherment, Archaeology
The Evolution of Specific Developments in Writing: Numbers, Punctuation, Standardized Forms,
Direction of writing., Calligraphy, Typography
Writing Materials: Papyrus, Parchment, Paper, etc., Pen, Stylus, Pencil
Erasers, White-out , Typewriters, Computers
Teaching Writing & Reading: Cursive, penmanship, italics, printing; Educational psychology
Dyslexia and other Reading Problems Dysgraphia, and other writing problems
Neurology of Writing Special alphabets for beginners?
Orthography: Spelling reform; Adapting alphabets to other languages; Phonetics and phonetic alphabet
Different Kinds of Alphabets: Letter order, direction, punctuation, Stenography (shorthand)
Extensions of Writing as Codes: Semaphore Flag Alphabets Morse Code for Telegraphs Codes and Cryptography
Braille for the Blind Hand Alphabet for the Deaf Graphanalysis Other Mathematical Symbols Other Symbols in General
Chemical, Astrological, Astronomical, Electronic, Cartographic (maps), etc.
Musical Notation Dance Notation New symbols on computers– smileys, backslash, “emoticons,”
Letters as Symbols
Magical and religious ideas, sacred or magical alphabets Other quasi-letter-symbols
Play and Making Up Alphabets
Fantasy and Science Fiction Children’s Literature Comic Strip Art
Art with Letters Steinberg, etc. Style & Self-expression

Scriptology as an Interdisciplinary Field

Classes on aspects of scriptology are offered within a wide variety of academic departments internationally, such as departments of—or in the component studies of— :
linguistics art history archeology education
psychology communications history computer science
calligraphy typography graphic design graphology
rehabilitation cryptanalysis anthropology philosophy
cartooning poetry semiotics fantasy literature
sociology stenography political science
Studies of specific languages and cultures–
Ancient and modern Near Eastern, Oriental, Anglo-saxon
Slavic …or other regional cultures
Education: penmanship, reading
Notational systems: music, math, chemistry, maps, electronics, astronomy, proofreading, meteorology
Non-Phonemic Writing: Semaphore, Morse Code, Braille Hand Alphabets

Some Functions of Writing

(In contrast to oral communication)

– Broadcasting: Spreading information beyond the reach of the voice, over space.
– Preserving: Holding information for future reference, over time.
– Instructions and technical books: Combining the previous items.
– Self-expression: Opening a wider range of speakers for a wider range of audiences.
– Entertainment: Enjoying the previous item.
– Law and Standards: Establishment of consistent norms and enhancing the sense of fairness in and among communities.
– Persuasion: Political propaganda, commercial advertisements, public health
– Reflection & Analysis: Carefully reviewing subjects regarding coherence, difference.
– Civil Participation: Combining the previous three items.

Thus, writing makes it possible for a culture to include more knowledge than a single mind can encompass. The arrival of written language creates an architecture for a civilization to become “sticky,” making it possible to transmit knowledge more effectively, in greater volume and detail, and to build on advances.

Some Issues Related to Literacy

Primary Education When is the best time to begin the teaching of reading? Of writing? What is the best method for teaching reading or writing? Printing or Cursive? In what way should computers be used in this process?

Secondary Education Should learning about linguistics and, more particularly, different kinds of alphabets and writing systems be included in the language arts programs of middle or high schools?

Higher Education What kinds of “literacy” should be emphasized? How much traditional “literature” should be part of the core curriculum? What about classes in semantics, public speaking, critical analysis of propaganda, rhetoric, etc.? Certainly, media studies should, I think, become a core subject.

Computers How much should we expect from this new technology, and how much is excessive “hype”? Can computer literacy substitute for ordinary “book learning”?

New Ways of Thinking The growing prevalence of Power Point, used not only by lecturers, but also by students in making up their reports, and its increasing use in a wider range of fields, all structures the way people engage in discourse. Similarly, the presence of hypertext makes for a different mode of “interactive reading,” following sub-directions and discovering cross-linkages as it fits the individuality of the reader.

A Rough Chronology in the History Of Writing

Humans make flint tools, fire, probably begin to talk 200,000 years ago

Culture complex enough for petroglyphs and cave paintings 30,000 years ago

Beginnings of agriculture, first towns (in Middle East ) 10,000 years ago

Beginnings of trade, exchange of tokens in Middle East 7,000 years ago

Beginnings of first written tablets, scrawled markings (in the Middle East, on clay) @ 5,200 years ago (i.e.,@ 3,200 BCE) [BCE is the abbreviation used by modern historians: “Before the Common Era” instead of BC (Before Christ); and many also use CE instead of AD (Anno Domini).]

? Precursors to Cuneiform in Mesopotamia (Today, Southeastern Iraq) Tokens, etc. @3300 BCE

Egypt picked up idea and began Hieroglyphics @ 3100 BCE

Sumerians in Mesopotamia developed Cuneiform and first cuneiform numerals @2700 BCE

Development of Papyrus, Brush, and Hieratic (first cursive) (In Egypt) @2600 BCE

Applications expanded beyond trade and religion, to include legends, letters, poetry, government @2400 BCE

Akkadians supplant the Sumerians in what is today Iraq, adapt numerals to base 10: @2300 BCE

Diffusion of idea of writing through Persia to settlements in West India, the early “Indus Valley” settlements, where they began their own form. @2300 BCE

Early Assyrian empire, “Code of Hammurabi,” other texts in Mesopotamia. @1800 BCE

In Egypt, flowering of many aspects of culture. @1800 BCE

Beginnings of pre-Alphabetic scripts in Levant @1800-1100 BCE
(from the Sinai peninsula up through Canaan to Syria.

Civilizations in Crete (Minoan), Cyprus, Mycenae in Greece and their special writing systems–still being deciphered– @1800-1100 BCE

Beginnings of writing in China @1500-1200 BCE

Development of alphabetic systems in Levant, rise of @1200- 900 BCE
Phoenicians as traders in the Mediterranean Sea

Beginnings of Greek Alphabet, adding vowels! @900-800 BCE

Diffusion into northern Italy, Etruscan Writing @700s BCE

Aramaic spreads as “lingua franca” of Middle East 900 BCE-200 AD

Beginnings of Latin-Roman script, from Etruscan sources 500s BCE

Papyrus a big industry in Egypt, trade and literacy growing in 2000-200 BCE
the Mediterranean

Spreading down the Nile, into Spain @500 BCE

Beginnings of writing in Central America @400 BCE

Development of Brahmi Script in North India–derived from Aramaic, developed 300s BCE
Many scripts develop from this root throughout South Asia

Latin takes in increasing Greek influences, letters 300-100 BCE

First specimens of Square Hebrew, derived from Aramaic @180 BCE

Roman Empire spreads writing into Northern Europe, elsewhere 100 BCE-200AD

Paper invented in China (Tsai-Lun) 105 CE (A.D.)

Development of Mayan Script @100-200 CE

Block Printing in China 400 CE

Spacing between words 600 CE

Charlegmagne organizes more legible writing @790
“Carolingian miniscule”

1100-1300s, introduction of the zero sign in the West, appearance 1100-1300 CE
of calculations with pen & paper using Hindu-Arabic numerals

Gutenberg invented movable type printing 1454
(Printing spreads rapidly throughout Western Europe 1457-1500!!

Korean Popular Script Designed @1450s

Type Designs Developed 1470s-present
Type design and manufacture separated from Printing 1600s

Glossary of Words Relating to the Study of Alphabets and Writing Systems

Acrophonic. Refers to the principle in which a certain sound is represented by a symbol the pronunciation of which begeins with the sound. Example: representing the sound h with the picture of a house.

Alphabet, alphabetic. Terms referring to symbols like our English letters which represent phonemes. Examples:the letters p, a, t, h, and d in pat, hat, pad, had.

Aspirated. Marked by release of a puff of air. Example, notice the difference between the sound of p in pie as differentiated from its sound in spy. There’s a slight h sound with the former.

Boustrophedon. (Literally: “turning like oxen in plow.”) Refers to writing alternate lines in opposite directions.

Calligraphy The making of writing an art form.

Cartouche. An oval or oblong frame used in Egyptian hieroglyphics to enclose personal names.

Cursive A quick and superficial form of writing used for daily, practical purposes. (Sometimes cursive becomes monumental when used calligraphically.)

Cuneiform. Wedge-shaped symbols used in Sumerian and other writing systems. (Derived from Latin cuneus ‘wedge.’)

Cyrillic alphabet. An alphabet widely applied to the Slavic languages, as in the case of the thirty-three-letter Russian alphabet. Since the 1930s, it has been used for most of the languages of the former Soviet Union. (Named after St. Cyril, a ninth-century apostle of the Slavs.)

Demotic script. (Lit. “people’s script”) Egyptian writing that evolved from the hieroglyphic and hieratic scripts into a linear script tending strongly toward alphabetic representation.

Diagraph. Two letters used to represent one sound. Example: ph in phase.
(Trigraph = three written symbols representing one speech sound (e.g., manoeuvre)

Dipthong. A vowel containing two distinct qualities. Ei sound of weigh, ou as in ouch
(Tripthong: A vowel containing three distinct qualities (e.g., “fire”)

Hangul. Korean alphabetic system of writing created in the fifteenth century.

Homonyms. Words which have the same pronunciation and written form but different meanings. Example: can which may mean either a metal container or to be able to.

Homophones. Words having the same sound but different spellings: Ex: right, wright, write; to, too, two.

Ideograph, ideogram, ideographic. Refers to symbols that represent meaning without indicating pronunciation–often opposed to “phonetic”. E.g.: ☺ ♂ ♀

Logographic. Refers to symbols that represent words. Thus, & is a logograph that represents the word “and”or $ represents “dollar”. A bit more specific and word oriented than ideographic.

Mnemonic Something that aids in remembering in a non-phonetic fashion, either iconically or non-iconically.

Orthography. A conventional writing system used for a specific language. (Implies conventions of spelling, they types of letters included, etc.)

Phoneme. The smallest unit of speech that can distinguish one word from another.

Pictographic. Symbols which depict things or actions.

Pinyin. An alphabet based on Latin letters that was adopted in the People’s Republic of China in 1958.

Polyphony A characteristic of a single written sign representing more than one phoneme in a language. E.g., in English, [a] sounds different in man, mane, malt, mark

Quipu. Knotted cords used by the ancient Peruvians for record-keeping–as a mnemonic device.

Rebus. Representation of a word or syllable by pictures of objects whose names resemble the sounds of the words or syllables. Example: a picture of a bee representing the syllable be.

Schwa. The name of the most neutral vowel, a sort of dull uh represented by the phonetic symbol ə.

Solidus An oblique stroke: / also called a virgule, slash, slant, or oblique.
(The “backslash” = \ is a relatively new form that relates to computer file addresses.)

Syllabary A writing in which a sign normally stands for one or more syllables of the language (in contrast to an alphabet or a logography).


To convert the flow of language into written form becomes more problematical when the language is heavily accented:

It’s amazing, you will understand the above word by the end of the conversation below. Read aloud for the best results. Be warned, you’re going to find yourself talking “funny” for a while after reading this. (This has been nominated for best e-mail of 1999.)

The following is a telephone exchange between a hotel guest and room-service at a hotel in Asia, which was recorded and published in the Far East Economic Review….

Room Service (RS): “Morny. Ruin sorbees”
Guest (G): ” Sorry, I thought I dialed room-service”
RS: “Rye ..Ruin sorbees..morny! Djewish to odor sunteen??”
G:”Uh..yes..I’d like to order some bacon and eggs”
RS: “Ow July den?”
G: “What??”
RS: “Ow July den?… pry, boy, pooch?”
G: “Oh, the eggs! How do I like them. Sorry, I’d like them poached, please.””
RS: “Ow July dee bayhcem…crease?”
G: “Crisp will be fine.”
RS: “Hokay. An san toes?”
G: “What?”
RS “San toes. July san toes?”
G: “I don’t think so.”
RS: “No? Judo one toes??”
G: ” I feel really bad about this, but I don’t know what ‘judo one toes’ means.”
RS: ” Toes! Toes!…why djew Don Juan toes? Ow bow singlish mopping we bother?”
G: “English muffin!! I’ve got it! You were saying ‘Toast.’ Fine. Yes, and English muffin will be fine.”
RS: “We bother?” G: “No…just put the bother on the side.”
RS: “Wad?”
G: “I mean butter…just put it on the side.”
RS: “Copy?”
G: “Sorry?”
RS: “Copy…tea…mill?”
G: “Yes. Coffee please, and that’s all.”
RS: “One Minnie. Ass ruin torino fee, pooch ache, crease baychem, tossy singlish mopping we bother honey sigh, and copy…rye??”
G: “Whatever you say”
RS: Tendjewberrymud”
G: “You’re welcome”


In ordinary English, though, we have many sounds that must be known, not guessed. Here’s a fun poem about that:
(A Fresh Hack at an Old Knot)
By Charles Battell Loomis

I’m taught p-l-o-u-g-h s‘all be pronounce “plow.”
Zat’s easy w’en you know,” I say, “Mon Anglais I’ll get through!”
My teacher say zat in zat case, o-u-g-h is “oo”
And zen I laugh and say to him, “Zees Anglais make me cough.”
He say, “Not ‘coo,’ but in zat word, o-u-g-h is ‘off.’”
Oh, Sacre bleu! Such varied sounds of words makes me hiccough!
He say, “Again mon frien’ ees wrong; o-u-g-h is ‘up’
In hiccough.” Zen I cry, “No more! You make my t’roat feel rough.”
“Non, non!” he cry, “you are not right; o-u-g-h is ‘uff.’”
I say, “I try to spik your words, I cannot spik zem though!”
“In time you’ll learn, but now you’re wrong! O-u-g-h is ‘owe.’”
I’ll try no more, I s’all go mad–I’ll drown me in ze lough!”
“But ere you drown yourself,” said he, “O-u-g-h is ‘ock.’”
He taught no more, I held him fast, and killed him wiz a rough.

Wherefrom come the standards that rule our lives?

Much of what follows applies also to the evolution of conventions and norms in other fields, such as in the history of writing and what seems to be acceptable (even if it doesn’t make much sense):
(This is for people who have a hard time understanding engineering:)

The US standard railroad gauge (distance between the rails) is 4 feet 8.5 inches. That is an exceedingly odd number. Why was that gauge used? Because that’s the way they built them in England, and the US railroads were built by English expatriates.

Why did the English build them that way? Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the pre-railroad tramways, and that’s the gauge they used.

Why did “they” use that gauge? Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they used for building wagons, which used that wheel spacing.

So why did the wagons have that particular odd spacing? Well, if they tried to use any other spacing, the wagon wheels would break on some of the old, long distance roads in England, because that was the spacing of the wheel ruts.

So who built those old rutted roads? The first long distance roads in Europe (and England) were built by Imperial Rome for their legions. The roads have been used ever since. And the ruts in the roads? The ruts in the roads, which everyone had to match for fear of destroying their wagon wheels, were first formed by Roman war chariots. Since the chariots were made for (or by) Imperial Rome, they were all alike in the matter of wheel spacing.

The US standard railroad gauge of 4 feet 8.5 inches derives from the original specification for an Imperial Roman war chariot. Specifications and bureaucracies live forever. So the next time you are handed a specification and wonder what horse’s backside came up with it, you may be exactly right, because the Imperial Roman war chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the back ends of two war horses.

Thus we have the answer to the original question. Now for the twist to the story. When we see a space shuttle sitting on its launching pad, there are two booster rockets attached to the side of the main fuel tank. These are solid rocket boosters, or SRB’s. The SRB’s are made by Thiokol at their factory in Utah. The engineers who designed the SRB’s might have preferred to make them a bit fatter, but the SRB’s had to be shipped by train from the factory to the launch site.

The railroad line from the factory had to run through a tunnel in the Rocky mountains. The tunnel is slightly wider than the railroad track, and the railroad track is about as wide as two horses’ rumps. So, a major design feature of what is arguably the worlds most advanced transportation system was determined over two thousand years ago by the width of a horse’s backside!

Don’t you just love engineering?

From Pre-Literate to Literate

In the December 2, 2001 New York Times Magazine, an article titled “A Plunge into the Present,” (by Ron Suskind, pages 84-90), described the rapid modernization process of a pre-literate tribe on Babuyan, a small island about a hundred miles north of the Phillippine Islands. The key word here is pre-literate. They didn’t even know there was a way to communicate other than by mouth, through speech. After a missionary went there in 1977, and after many adventures, was able to help them put their language, Ibatan (which is also the name for themselves collectively), into written form. Then they wrote books: One was titled: Stories concerning us here on Babuyan. Another was an Atlas Book–Drawings of the island, another larger frame which showed its relation to the Phillippines, another of the Pacific Ocean and surrounding countries, then of the whole World, and even the solar system. A third book was a cookbook with recipes of the indigenous foods.

Of course, there is much more to this story about many other aspects of modernization that came with the arrival of this missionary, but the point I want to emphasize is the power of writing: After a few years, one native said, “Written language gave us a way to capture our history and compare ourselves to people everywhere… Now that we have a past, I find that I think only of the future. I always feel a clock ticking and time rushing by… But the old ones live always in the present. Theay hear no clock. Once, that’s the way we all were.

Scholars say that the arrival of written language creates an architecture for a civilization to become “sticky,” making it possible to transmit knowledge more effectively, in greater volume and detail, and to build on advances. Another interesting thing. In that peaceful community, the Ibatan have no words for war, envy, jealousy, property, to buy, to sell, or to own! Imagine then the impact of Western culture when they began to trade, have visiting teachers from the Phillippines, etc.

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