Writing Systems and Alphabets:
The Lore of"Scriptology"

by Adam Blatner, M.D.

Revised February 6, 2011    (Also see a supplementary webpage on miscellaneous notes on scriptology)
   Also see a series of lectures given for the Spring, 2011 session of the Senior University Georgetown

There is a fascinating, interdisciplinary field that has been developing rapidly over the last several decades, with references in the literature multiplying. I've put an extensive bibliography about writing systems on a related webpage at this website, and it gets periodically updated. (I'm open to your sending me suggestions for new items, updates or comments on the items in this list!)  To me, the evolution of writing and its related phenomena is like a small window on the broader evolution of consciousness. The way it generated other sub-fields of endeavor, such as typography and calligraphy, shows how any development in history tends to spin off new directions. I find the scope of this field intriguing, because it entails so many dimensions:
 linguistics graphology shorthand systems
history aesthetics legibility
translation decipherment child development
religion anthropology  archaeology
typography children's art codes and ciphers
semiotics cartooning & humor various languages
media studies communications cultural criticism
calligraphy psychology literature
graphic design computer science modern education
script reform spelling reform computer fonts
punctuation fantasy alphabets  literacy
order of letters direction of script   politics
movement notation mathematical notation  phonology
map-making musical notation other notational systems

In 2002, I gave a series of six lectures on this subject to our local senior learning program. The common theme was the richness of what happens when a unique technological invention happens--in this case, the activity of representing language in two-dimensional space. I'm especially intrigued with the stories of those who have created their own writing systems, such as Sequoyah, who invented a "syllabary" for the Cherokee Indians around 1821; or J.R.R. Tolkien, who made up two alphabets--one, a Runic variation, and the other, a lovely script, "Tengwar," for the elves. Many others have done so.

Indeed, I wonder if you or any of your friends ever made up an alphabet? Perhaps it was as a kind of code when you were younger? Still, the challenges of designing one are interesting, requiring (ideally) some degree of aesthetic unity among the characters, and yet they must be sufficiently different to be easily distinguished.

I've become aware that there are some websites that deal with writing, such as:

   1. An especially good one is www. omniglot.com    which in turn has links to other websites at   www.omniglot.com/links/writing.htm

Are there any conferences planned? Is there yet any organization that deals with this field?

They Should Teach This Field in School!

I think it would be great to open young people's minds to the varieties of approaches to writing, the better to promote creativity and to explore the underlying issues associated with this dimension of "language arts." I imagine, for example, playing with that process of symbol making even before youngsters learn to read and write. A bit later, making up alternative alphabets and ciphers, just to enjoy symbols.

In secondary school, expose youngsters to a bit of phonemics, especially learning sounds that are part of words in various other languages, just to broaden their role repertoire and prepare them for a multi-cultural world. The interface between a broader exposure to the variety of languages and the variety of writing systems would be exciting.

There is a bit of mystery, secret writing, learning stuff most parents don't know, like codes, that can come with learning a bit about the Hebrew or Cyrillic Alphabet, the Cherokee or Japanese Katakana syllabary, etc.

As youngsters grow up with computers that can generate a wide variety of fonts and symbols, what might be woven into the arts of language that integrate the art of writing, graphic design principles, legibility, etc.?

It seems that only about five to ten percent of people really take an interest in producing a truly attractive and legible handwriting. It might be higher for the older generations. Who are these folks? And of these, how many would love to have a course of calligraphy in their school careers? My hunch is that it's a bit like those who really want to learn to sing or dance or draw with greater accuracy, between five and ten per cent. Is my impression at all accurate? The point here is that it's not just a matter of doing it right or not, there's a peculiar feel for the aesthetics involved, and some folks have this. I wonder why.

Similarly, what percentage of kids make up their own alphabets or writing systems? And I'd love to see what these look like. There are adults now working with creating fantasy writing systems, an extension of the Tolkien stories and Star Trek's Klingon language, etc. Some of these are aesthetically rather interesting.

The Name of this Interdisciplinary Field: "Scriptology"?

One of my avocational interests is the field that has no widely-accepted name, so, in spite of its mixture of Greek and Latin word roots (a practice which is generally shunned), and because I've just found no other word that is close to descriptive, I've called this field "scriptology." On the internet, it seems that the closest category is "writing systems." Just "writing" opens on the all the activities of composition, writing stories, getting published, etc., but not much attention given to the marks on the page.

The technically correct word, "Grammatology" has been co-opted by the Derrida and the postmodern deconstructionists. Also, it suggests grammar, and that's more focused on the linguistic structures. Graphology is handwriting analysis. Graphonomics, maybe, but it's more than what's suggested by -nomics, which draws associations to naming. "-ology" is a broader endeavor. (Of course, we're talking semantics, the feel of things, almost like what folks who have to come up with the trade names of new drugs or products have to think about.

I have a good deal of information on many of these topics, and would be happy to exchange ideas. I hope those of you who share this interest will write me at adam@blatner.com

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