Posts Tagged ‘alphabet’

The DoGs on Winter Circuit: Endangered Languages

November 28, 2014 Leave a comment

It’s snowing in Martinsburg, and the Dragons of Grammar have started pestering RT, making a racket as they clamber all over the modest duplex he inhabits, blowing plumes of smoke at his sealed windows, and generally trying to cause an uproar in the neighborhood, which would be worse, except that nothing much is getting done in Martinsburg today (except last-minute preparations for Thanksgiving). People are paying the polite, if fiery and colorful, creatures no mind.

File:Zitkala Sa Sioux Indian and activist 1898.jpg

Zitkala Sa, “Red Bird”; English name, Gertrude Simmons (1876-1938). Sioux author, musician, composer, activist.

Now, RT is well aware that the DoGs love winter–it’s their favorite season, in fact–and at first he thought he also knew the subject that they wanted him to post on–Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics. Now CAS are certainly a worthwhile topic of exploration, but it turns out that that is not the DoGs’ primary concern on the day before Thanksgiving. Rather, they have a weighty matter they want RT to ponder: the definition and ways of helping endangered languages around the world.

Well, RT already knew that there are a lot of endangered languages out there, and a quick browsing of the net suggests that half of all languages, which numbered 6,900 in 2005, are in danger of going extinct (i.e., losing their last native speaker) within the next generation. About half of all languages spoken, moreover, are located either in Asia or Africa, but please take note, Oklahoma also constitutes a hot spot.

RT recollects that on occasion he has posted on endangered languages in these pages, but he thinks that a new post, especially one that contains a listing of items that help reflect the vitality of a language, would be quite useful.

Here is RT’s list:

1) Official Status. Does a language receive political or cultural support, and, in particular, is it taught in schools?

2) Writing System. Does a language have a writing system that was either created or evolved for its use? If so, is there a standardized orthography for the language? How easy is the language’s script to learn?

3) Child speakers. Are children learning the language?

4) Everyday transactions. Do people use the language in their daily routine?

5) Number of speakers. Last, and maybe least, how many people speak the language worldwide, whether as a first or second tongue? To which RT appends perhaps the most vital question: Is the number of speakers growing?

Now we come to subtler considerations.

6) Prestige. Do members of the cultural elite speak the language? Does everyone else in a society regard knowing the language as worthwhile or even as a cultural attainment?

7) National or Personal Identity. Is the language strongly linked to historical or national identity? A good example of this are the Gaelic languages in western Europe.

8) Variant of a Regional Language. Is the language a member of a widespread language family? Can a speaker travel to other areas where his or her native language is to some degree intelligible to others?

9. Global Status. Has a language become a lingua franca? Is it in danger of corruption through overuse? English immediately comes to mind as the lingua franca currently used by the largest number of speakers. How many people would speak English if it weren’t so closely tied to the current power elite?

10. Written and Audio/Video Materials. Here is a vital concern: to what extent is the language recorded in writing? In particular, do any of these materials include native legends and mythology? And do recordings of native speakers exist? Not only do these help preserve the language in the most direct way possible, but they also put a face on the language, another intangible but vital concern.

More than half the world’s languages are located in eight countries (in red): India, Brazil, Mexico, Australia, Indonesia, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, and Cameroon. These countries and the areas around them (in light blue) are the most linguistically diverse regions in the world.

 Now RT will try to sort out various languages by their vitality:

1) English, Spanish, French: the current global lingua francas.

2) Chinese (1.2 billion native speakers) and Hindi (800 million ns) : the most widely spoken single-nation languages.

3) Basque (720,000 ns, north-central Spain) and Mapundugan (250,000 ns, Chile and Argentina): language isolates (i.e., not related to any known language). Neither language is listed as endangered; both have been officially recognized. To give some idea of how different a language isolate can be, the Basque word for “father” is “aita,” and the word for “welcome” is “ongi.”

4) Insular Celtic: spoken in the British Islands (Welsh (580,000 speakers in Wales), Irish (130,000 ns), and Scottish Gaelic (57,000 ns)) and Brittany (Breton, 210,000 ns): protected minority languages; full to limited instruction in schools; the number of speakers is relatively small but growing. And here, to give some idea of the music of these languages, RT offers a link to a YouTube video on Scottish Gaelic, the IC language with the fewest native speakers:

5) Cree: limited official recognition within Canada; written in a system constructed for the language; limited instruction in school; 170,000 native speakers. Here is a brief sample of the language via YouTube:

6) Sioux: No official recognition in the U.S.; school instruction, including immersion classes; 44,000 native speakers.

7) ‘Amkoe:  This is a click language found in Botswana. 30 native speakers. Here is RT’s final video, on Xhosa click language:


Meanwhile, the snow has stopped and the DoGs have flown off elsewhere to spread their warmth in icy climes… More on all this later.   RT

 PhotoA Quebec stop sign in Cree/English/French. Author: P199. CC3.0 BY-SA. Map: Linguistic Diversity in the World. Author: Davius. WikiCmns; Public Domain.


Two Simplified Spelling Resources–Unifon and Cut Spelling

September 27, 2013 Leave a comment



The Dragons of Grammar are as amenable as anyone to RT’s history essays, but of late they feel a bit slighted in RT’s writing schedule (RT reminds them that, not so long ago, they were sunning themselves lazily on the rocks outside their caves). Still, RT feels obliged to add a post on spelling and alphabet reform, a thread he will admit he has neglected of late. So here are two systems that RT thinks could help us develop a simpler, kinder spelling.

1) Unifon. Designed by Dr. John R. Malone in the 1950s, the original market that the script was designed for disappeared, and gradually the modified alphabet has drifted off the public’s radar.

Here are the pro considerations for Unifon

a) it’s clearly based on the current English alphabet.

b) it visually relates each new letter to the traditional English letter that represents its sound.

c) it’s easy to learn; in 1960, Dr. Margaret S. Ratz used Unifon to teach three children how to read “in 17 hours with cookies and milk.”

Here’s the con:

a) Unifon would require the modification of keyboards and public signage


Here is the Unifon Alphabet, weighing in at 40 letters:








2. Cut Spelling. Designed by Christopher Upwood, this spelling simplification was advocated for a time by the Simplified Spelling Society.  Here are CS’s main substitution rules:

  1. Letters irrelevant to pronunciation. This rule deletes most silent letters, except when these letters (such as “magic e“) help indicate pronunciation. Omitting or including the wrong silent letters are common errors. Examples: peace → peceexcept → exeptplaque → plaqblood → blodpitch → pich.
  2. Cutting unstressed vowels. English unstressed syllables are usually pronounced with the vowel schwa /ə/, which has no standard spelling, but can be represented by any vowel letter. Writing the wrong letter in these syllables is a common error, for example, seperate for separate. Cut Spelling eliminates these vowel letters completely before approximants (/l/ and /r/) and nasals (/m/, /n/, and /ŋ/). In addition, some vowel letters are dropped in suffixes, reducing the confusion between -able and -ible. Examples: symbol → symblvictim → victmlemon → lemnglamour/glamor → glamrpermanent → permnntwaited → waitdchurches → churchswarmest → warmst,edible → edbl.
  3. Simplifying doubled consonants. This rule helps with another of the most common spelling errors: failing to double letters (accommodate and committee are often misspelled) or introducing erroneously doubled letters. Cut Spelling does not eliminate all doubled letters: in some words (especially two-syllable words) the doubled consonant letter is needed to differentiate from another differently pronounced word (e.g., holly and holy). Examples: innate → inatespell → spel.


Here is a sample sentence written with Cut Spelling:

Th Space Race was th competition between th United States and th Soviet Union, rufly from 1957 to 1975. It involvd th efrts by each of these nations to explor outr space with satlites, to be th 1st to send there a human being and to send mand and unmand missions on th Moon with a safe return of th humans to Erth.


CS Pros:

1) Introduces no new letters into the alphabet

2) Requires no modification of current keyboards or pubic signage

3) Reduces the length of words by 8-15%.

CS Cons:

1) Doesn’t follow the one-letter, one-sound principle.


If RT had to hazard a guess as to which of these two reforms is likelier to be implemented, he would vote for Cut Spelling. On the other hand, he’s sure that the better long-term reform would be Unifon. The simplest reform might be to gradually introduce Unifon.     RT

(and incidentally, the Dragons of Grammar have let RT know they like this post)


RT’s Related Posts: 1) Learning Alphabets; 2) Mighty Mice Redux–The IPA for English Speakers


Sample Script: Lord’s Prayer in Unifon. Author: William Skaggs. WikiCmns; Public Domain. Sample Alphabet: Unifon Script. WikiCmns; CC 1.0 Generic.

The Russian Alphabet (Part 2)–A Brief History

June 30, 2013 2 comments



The story of an alphabet is in large part the story of the area(s) where it is used, and the Cyrillic alphabet, the writing system of Russia and other countries across northern Eurasia, reflects the many changes that have taken place in that vast region since its introduction. And readers should note: Cyrillic is used by an estimated 252 million people today.

In fact, Cyrillic has gone through at least three stages of development: 1) the Glagolitic Alphabet (introduced in the 860s AD); 2) the Early Cyrillic Alphabet (developed at the Preslav Literary School in the late 800s); and 3) Modern Cyrillic–the “civil script” mandated by Peter the Great in 1708. Finally, the most recent change in Russian orthography took place in 1918, shortly after the Russian Revolution. As one might suspect from studying the development of other writing systems, the 1708 and 1918 reforms both involved simplification, and specifically the elimination of obsolete letters. Glagolitic had at least 41 letters; modern Russian has 33. 

Further Facts

1) Saints Cyril and Methodius, missionaries from the Byzantine Empire, are traditionally credited with devising Glagolitic and introducing it into Great Moravia, a large Slavic state that existed in the late 9th century. Following the disintegration of Great Moravia, the script was adopted by the First Bulgarian Empire in the 880s, and its use spread with the expansion of the Bulgarians through the 10th century. After the destruction of the Bulgarian Empire, when missionaries from its liturgical schools helped convert Kievan Rus to Christianity in the 980s, they introduced the Gospels in Cyrillic script.

2) Glagolitic is based on the Greek Alphabet, but also contains letters derived from Hebrew and perhaps even Coptic.

3) Glagolitic and Early Cyrillic were used with Old Church Slavonic, the first Slavic language recorded in writing and many liturgical texts were composed using them.

4) And please note that the simplification of Glagolitic involved not just the number of letters, but their shapes as well.

1. Glagolitic Letters

2. Early Cyrillic Letters

а б в г д е ж ѕ з и і к л м н о п р с т ѹ ф х ѡ ц ч ш щ ъ ь ѣ ю  ѥ ѧ ѫ ѩ ѭ ѯ ѱ ѳ ѵ

3. Modern Cyrillic Letters

Ge upturn
Dotted I
Short I
Short U
Hard sign (Yer)
Soft sign (Yeri)


There is much to puzzle over here, and of course RT suspects that more is coming on this subject…


RT’s Related Posts: 1) Glagolitic-Starting a Great Tradition; 2) Moscow–Memories


PaintingSaints Cyril and Methodius, wall mural (1848); Troyan Monastery. WikiCmns; Public Domain. Glagolitic, Early, and Modern Cyrillic Alphabets: from their respective Wikipedia articles; Public Domain.


letter “E”


RT couldn’t resist this exotic initial…

(reposted from Types of Typography)


letter “E”.

A Writer’s Revolution

October 25, 2010 Leave a comment
“Wi” in Hangul letters

 When you say you want a revolution, what you mean is, you want an alphabet revolution.

Seriously, if we look at every major cultural transformation, behind it lies a revision or replacement of the writing systems already in use. The great cultures that originated writing (Sumer, China, and the Mayan states) all have undergone at least one such transformation.

The problem was that the original writing systems developed over the course of centuries through trial and error. While this process often made the mature system stunning to look at and full of nuance and poetry, it also meant that these systems consisted of thousands of characters, some of which represented ideas (ideograms), some of which represented phonemes (sounds), and some of which represented both. Learning to read and write any of these character systems was the achievement of a lifetime.

Which made all ancient cultures ripe for revolution. How do you change a culture? You change the way it writes.

The most drastic example of this process occurred in the Middle East, not once, but twice. The first transition occurred at a very specific moment: 612 BC, the year that Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, was sacked. The ancient cuneiform system, which at that time had been in use for 2,000 years, lost its principal patrons, the Assyrians, and the use of alphabets, already centuries old, accelerated. The compilation of the Hebrew Bible took leaps forward when the J and E texts were combined. And in the far away beard of Anatolia, Homer was writing and Sappho composing the first lyric poetry of genius–both in the Greek alphabet.

(And need I add that the size of the literate population, starting at a tiny fraction with the old system, probably doubled or tripled? Alphabets offer the possibility of an elementary command of writing, something that character systems don’t.)

All of which lead to the eventual adoption of the Greek alphabet and language as the international koine, or language of commercial exchange. The Aramaic and Hebrew languages (and scripts) went into decline, since they were used by a small percentage of the region’s population.

But not forever. The indigenous alphabets of the Middle East went underground, eventually reemerging as the Arabic alphabet with the advent of Islam–a religion made possible in no small part by the sublime music of the Q’uran when recited. This was the second alphabet revolution in the cradle of civilization.

In China, things were even more abrupt, focusing on the rise of the First Emperor & the unification of China’s old feudal states in about 200 BC. The First Emperor swept away the old states and the variants of the Chinese characters that they used. He banned the use of all variants except the one that had been used in Chin–the state he had ruled before unification. The so-called small characters are still in use in Taiwan, and they are the basis for the simplified characters adopted in mainland China after the communist revolution.

And that isn’t all, folks: we still have to consider what reforms were made in Japan and Korea in more recent times…..  RT