the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world















Writing is a graphical means of representing human speech or, occasionally, ideas. A script is a writing system, a set of symbols and rules which allow writers to express speech or ideas and readers to interpret them correctly.

The most straightforward method of representing speech is a single symbol for each phoneme; in any case, most scripts represent phonemes in one way or another. At the other end, the original Chinese script represented only ideas. But the earliest writing was pictographic. Writing began with simple drawings of objects, which evolved into pictograms, in which the objects are directly represented (as in drawings), but the drawings are standardized and eventually simplified. Pictograms can evolve into either ideograms (symbols for ideas) or phonograms (symbols for sounds). An example of ideographic development from a pictogram would be a pictogram for “sun” coming to mean “bright”. A typical phonographic development from a pictogram would have the pictogram for “sun” come to represent the initial sound of the spoken word for “sun” — in English, then, [s].

The largest portion of the world’s population uses a script derived from the original Northwest Semitic script, itself probably a descendant of Egyptian hieroglyphics, which were used to represent a dialect (Ancient Egyptian) that was related to Semitic, and shared numerous features. The Northwest Semitic script represented only consonant phonemes, which was appropriate to the consonant-root structure of the Semitic dialects, a variety of which were widely spoken around the ancient Near East. This consonantal pattern is still followed (more or less) by those descendants of the Northwest Semitic script which evolved for other Semitic dialects — Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic. Arabic script, under the influence of Islam, has been widely adopted by non-Semitic dialects, while still largely retaining the consonant-oriented representation. The other descendants of Semitic (excluding possibly Brahmi) come through Greek, which, as an Indo-European dialect, had different needs, and introduced a regular system of vowels. Both the Latin script and the Cyrillic script are close descendants of Greek.

The Brahmi script is a product of India (possibly itself adapted from the Semitic script), and was developed for the common Indic-Dravidian phonology, but especially for Sanskrit. The Indic and Dravidian dialects that share this phonology mostly use the script unchanged in structure, such as the inventory of sounds represented and the differing methods of representing consonants and vowels, though the scripts are dramatically altered in appearance, and bear little obvious resemblance to each other. Through the spread first of Hinduism and then of Buddhism, the Brahmi scripts have spread into mainland Southeast Asia, where the dialects are unrelated to either Indic or Dravidian; the structure has been largely retained, but the sounds represented are usually quite different. Brahmi scripts are one of the defining features of Indo-Asian cultures.

The Chinese script (漢字 « xan51 ci51 ») was originally ideographic, with symbols representing concepts — meaning not primarily abstract concepts, of course, but rather the meaning of speech, rather than the sound of it. In its use for modern Chinese dialects, it has also become partially phonographic, thus representing sounds as well. However, it remains primarily an ideographic script in its employment for other Sino-Asian cultures — Japanese, Tai, Korean, and Vietnamese. In Japanese, the Chinese script is used in a mixed system with Japanese symbols, many adapted or inspired by the Chinese script itself. Korean use of the Chinese script was traditional, but has been supplanted for most purposes (or, in North Korea, all purposes) by an indigenous alphabet. Vietnamese use of the script was also traditional, but has been mostly supplanted by the Latin script. Chinese script is used by the Tai speakers in the far northeast of the Tai range.

Orthography is the standard or commonly-practiced arrangement of symbols in a given system of writing — in English usage, “spelling”. In writing systems with a strong phonetic linkage between symbol and speech sound, dialectal differences could be represented in writing; but under the principle of orthography, there is a single standard way of writing anything considered to be a word, even where the word may have various dialectical pronunciations. Typically, the orthography represents the pronunciation of the standard or most prestigious dialect. English orthography is highly conservative, which has weakened the linkage between symbol and speech sound and resulted in spelling that doesn’t well represent any dialect of English.

Transliteration is the representation in one script of something originally written in another, with the intention of showing how the original is written. It differs from transcription, which is the representation in a script of something originally written in another, with the intention of showing how the original word is pronounced.

For more:
Transcription protocols — the method used for consistently transcribing and transliterating non-Latin scripts on this site
Multilingual glossary to native forms — a list of names and words rendered in their original scripts, with transliteration



Home of the Stewardship Project
and O.T. Ford