What are some examples of completely unique writing systems?
February 27, 2014 10:48 AM   Subscribe

I'm fascinated by writing systems. I've seen this wiki page about different types of systems in real and fictional languages. As I understand it, there are generally three kinds of systems: logographic, where symbols represent entire concepts or words; syllabaries, where symbols represent syllabic sounds; and segmental, where symbols represent phonemes or small units of sound. Is there any other way to write? I'm having a hard time coming up with how it would even work, but I'm sure some clever author somewhere has tried. Is there another way to write a language other than the above?
posted by RobotNinja to Grab Bag (14 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
In the short story Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, an alien language based on "semagrams" is discovered, which requires a whole sentence to be embedded in one character. It's difficult to explain, but I think it's what you're looking for.
posted by dilaudid at 11:21 AM on February 27

Yes, definitely the kind of thing I'm looking for!
posted by RobotNinja at 11:29 AM on February 27

This may not quite be what you're looking for, but Labanotation is a way of writing "movement" developed by choreographer Rudolph Laban for Laban Movement Analysis.
posted by brookeb at 11:37 AM on February 27 [1 favorite]

What about Incan Quipus - knotted strings used as a form of writing (recording information)
posted by Flood at 12:05 PM on February 27 [1 favorite]

This may not quite be what you're looking for, but Labanotation is a way of writing "movement" developed by choreographer Rudolph Laban for Laban Movement Analysis.

Well it is what I've been looking for! I've been working up something on information systems and the arts and a) this fits the bill nicely and 2. I'd never heard of it before. So thanks, Brookeb!

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My two favourite unfamiilar writing systems are the Cherokee.syllabary and the Amharic.alpha-sylllabary or abugida: the latter because it is so beautiful and elegant and because it was introduced to me by an Ethopian friend at just the right time; the former (in part) because it is a work of singular genius by one person to solve a specific problem for his people.

Human language is a method of encoding concepts into sounds, so as long as you're dealing with that, your orthogonal representation is going to be one or the other. All of these writing systems do one or the other, but the encoding schemes are different.

If you're sticking with marks on a page, you could employ colors to encode either concepts or sounds. That's not been done much.

Morse code re-encodes a writing system back into sounds. 25 wpm is really cookin', so lots of shortcuts are used. Experienced operators begin to perceive whole words in chunks rather than mentally translating each "didah" into the letter A and "dadididit" into the letter B and so on. Like sign language, sometimes it's whole concepts being conveyed in a series of beeps, and sometimes it's necessary to spell out the corresponding symbols for the alphabet letters.

Braille re-encodes the alphabet into a system of raised dots. It would be possible to cut out the middle-man so to speak and create a tactile encoding scheme on the conceptual level rather re-encoding visible sound symbols. Even Chinese Braille re-encodes pinyin transliteration into a tactile system rather than directly from written Standard Chinese.

In Red Dwarf, the Cats had a system of recording permanent scents (in what looked like blank paper books).

An episode of Star Trek Next Gen involved "Binars" who communicate via sounds using only two symbols. Presumably, their written language has the same feature.

Chinese has four 'tones', but nature contains an infinite sweep of frequencies that can be individually perceived. Western musical notation organizes each octave (doubling of frequency) in to 12 distinct tones cross-encoded on eight named tones (ABCEDEFG) or solfege. Other systems have different numbers of identifiable tones per octave: 5, 7, 19, 22, 49 . . . . many have unique notation systems. The various musical modes (starting on a different degree of the scale ) are said to communicate different emotions.

Tablature, mainly for lute and guitar, encodes sounds into positions on the fingerboard.

posted by Herodios at 3:23 PM on February 27

Maybe part of the problem is thinking about writing systems as a method of encoding a spoken language. That leads directly into making symbols that represent sounds. But a language could also be written only, in which case there's no requirement to have graphemes that represent sounds. I think that's how the language works in the short story noted above. Are there other languages that are written only? How else might you get away from "one symbol per concept" kinds of writing systems?
posted by RobotNinja at 3:26 PM on February 27

But a language could also be written only. . . . Are there other languages that are written only?

Well, no, not really.

We are born with ears, tongues, and brains. Language is part of nature.

Writing systems involve technologies. They have to be invented and they have to be based on some kind of prior organic communication system.
posted by Herodios at 5:08 PM on February 27

Language is part of nature.
True, but does that mean that they can only exist to record human speech patterns.
Aren't computer languages written only. They are not spoken.

a method of encoding a spoken language
Alphabetic languages mimic speech. An alphabet is a method of recording sounds, and those sounds make up words. But not all written language works that way.

Pictographic languages do not work that way. Those languages record concepts and ideas directly, and not speech. Thus, speakers of Mandarin and Cantonese can (and do) share the same pictographic writing system, even though the grammar and syntax of their spoken languages are not identical.
posted by Flood at 5:30 PM on February 27

The is wide variety in logographic systems. Some are pictorial and some are abstract. A word might be represented by a picture of something the name of which is a homophone (sort of like using K9 for canine). Chinese uses one character superimposed on another.

There are many special purpose languages such as musical notation, schematic drawings, etc.
posted by SemiSalt at 6:46 PM on February 27

We are born with ears, tongues, and brains. Language is part of nature.

Some of us are born without functioning ears. The fact that written language is based on spoken language makes it more difficult for non-hearing people to learn to read. This is particular true of writing systems that are phonemic.

I don't know if there is a writing system that is native to American Sign Language or International Sign Language. If so those writing systems wouldn't be based on spoken language, they would be based directly on signed language.
posted by alms at 9:05 PM on February 27

Aren't computer languages written only. They are not spoken.

Computer 'languages' aren't languages in the same sense that English, Mandarin, etc. are languages.

Alphabetic languages mimic speech

There aren't any alphabetic languages, only alphabetic writing systems.

Pictographic languages . . . record concepts and ideas

There aren't any pictographic languages, only pictographic writing systems.

Don't confuse language (the ability to use symbols to represent thoughts), languages (specific formal arrangements of symbols), and writing systems (technologies for recording language).

Some of us are born without functioning ears.

Sign language, like spoken language, uses the brain and body one is born with to express thoughts using symbols. For purposes of the question at hand, sign language is speech. It is expressive, takes place in 'real-time', and requires no technology.

Writing and writing systems on the other hand, are not language. They are technologies for recording language, be it sounds, gestures, or the bio-luminescence of hyper-intelligent cephalopods under the ice of Europa.
posted by Herodios at 10:15 PM on February 27 [1 favorite]

A good introduction to writing systems is Writing Systems, by Geoffrey Sampson. Lots of details on each of the major writing types. The one type you may not be aware of is featural, exemplified by Korean, where the basic graphical elements represent sound features-- e.g. all the dental sounds look similar.

People like to talk about ideographs or pictographs, but these are extremely limited, though at least you can install your Ikea furniture with them. With apologies to flood, Chinese is not pictographic; it's a purely logographic system, where each symbol represents a Chinese word, and most characters, moreover, contain a phonetic component. The system can represent Chinese dialects because these are related languages which share the inherited lexicon. (It was adapted to Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese with all sorts of makeshifts and complications; Sampson gets into some of these.)

Daniels & Bright's The World's Writing Systems is the definitive guide to all known writing systems-- it's expensive but check your university library.
posted by zompist at 1:01 AM on February 28 [2 favorites]

Writing and writing systems on the other hand, are not language. They are technologies for recording language...

Why couldn't a language be written only? I could imagine an alien species that can't generate any sounds, and develops written symbols as a way of communicating thoughts. I'm not sure that writing systems have to be relegated to "recording". Couldn't they be native languages?
posted by RobotNinja at 7:44 AM on February 28

I could imagine an alien species . . .

I'm a little unclear here -- are we helping you to plot a SF story?

. . . that can't generate any sounds, and develops written symbols as a way of communicating thoughts.

You would have to explain how our aliens got there:
  • You said 'develop' but humans didn't develop language, we evolved it.
  • How did they come to rely on writing?
  • What did it evolve from?
  • What evolutionary pressures caused them to use their appendages to create all the paraphernalia of writing instead of using them to signal to each other?
  • How did the first cave-being to try to communicate via writing persuade the others that all the scribbling was intended to send a message?
  • What evolutionary fluke gave them the ability to cooperate on the development of all this technology prior to having a language to express and communicate their thoughts? (Because, remember, they don't have language until after they've built all this stuff.)
  • How do they explain to each other the relationships between the symbols and the physical world? By pointing? Wouldn't somebeing a few 100,000 years earlier have done the same thing, only without the writing?
  • How do their young acquire it?
There's an episode of Get Smart where Max and Chief are inside the "Cone of Silence" and Larrabee comes in to ask a question. For "security" reasons, instead of lifting the Cone to speak, they communicate with him via decks of cards with words printed on them. Once Larrabee has his instructions, he digs back into his deck and holds up a card with a picture of the OK hand gesture on it.

I don't want to be a wet blanket, but it seems to me that that is the world you are postulating.

I think you need more information about:
  Language Acquisition
  Sign Language
  The Origin of Speech
  The Origin of Language
  The Neurobiological Origins of Language
posted by Herodios at 12:46 PM on February 28

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