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Optimum number of symbols (repost)

From:Mike S. <mcslason@...>
Date:Sunday, May 19, 2002, 19:25
I am reposting this due to the inadvertant line breaks
in my first attemopt.  Apologies to the group.

Here is my two cents...

I think that the first question should proceed from the second
rather than vice-versa.  In other words, what the symbols optimally
represent will dictate their numbers.

The first choice is whether you want the symbols to represent
sound or idea.  Representing ideas with symbols turns out to
be the more natural approach for humans:  symbols, being visual
units, much more readily conjure up a mental image than suggest
a sound.  In is no accident that the first writing systems were
essentially series of little drawings.  The innovation to use
symbols to represent sound is a highly abstract idea that was
actually quite an important advancement in the history of humans,
and we often neglect to realize that it took centuries for these
systems fully to develop.

But of course they did develop.  The problem with having symbols
represent ideas, aside from the daunting size of the symbol set,
is that in all languages to date, words do not display a one-to-one
correspondence with ideas, primitive or otherwise, and thus using
a true idea-based writing system to represent actual linguistic
constructions is extremely problematic. Any such system will be
riddled with complexity and irregularity, in addition to its
daunting size.  It remains to be proven whether a constructed
language could be designed to overcome these shortcomings. However,
if one *could*, it might turn out to be most elegant-- imagine,
going full circle back to ideograms, and using writing to directly
represent pure thought, while at the same, not forsaking a direct
correspondence to linguistic expression.  Pleasant to contemplate
indeed, but not necessarily feasible.

This seems to make a sound-based system inevitable.  In this case,
there are three options for symbols:  morpheme/word level
representation, syllabic representation, or phoneme representation.
Morpheme/word representation is a practical improvement over
idea-based graphemes, but shares the same problem of daunting size.
In addition, new borrowings will always precipitate new symbol
creation, or some modification/combination of existing symbols.
Thus, I think complexity and irregularity are inevitable, and
that this system will probably never be the optimal choice.

The next step down is syllabic representation.  The efficiency
of this system will depend directly on the phonological structure
of the language.  In languages with no more than thousand basic
syllables, I would arbitrarily say that this system should be
considered.  Better would be the 200 syllables mentioned by
the author, although this figure clearly represents an unusually
simple phonology.  Obviously, languages like English simply do
not lend themselves well to this kind of system, and probably
not many others do either.

Thus, in most cases, I would have to say the phonemic system is
probably optimum; except for languages with very simple syllable
structures, I think the simplicity and efficiency of the phonemic
system easily trumps all contenders.  If you are inclined to
think this is mere bias, consider this: many conlangers have
designed their own alphabets, but how many have designed syllabic
sets?  If anyone *has* designed a complete syllabic system,
I'll bet my hat that it implements markers or some similar
regular device to correspond directly to final nasal, vowel
length, or some other phoneme-level distinction.  Possibly
without knowing it, they are, in fact, conceding the superior
efficiency of the phonemic system.

> I know some artlangers have devised their own scripts. > 3. Have such scripts been alphabetic (like JRRT's Tengawr and Dwarvish > runes), or have you used some other system? > 4. Were you motivated by any thoughts of 'optimality' or just doing it for > the fun of creating? > > Finally: > 5. Have any designers of auxlangs and/or engelangs devised a special set
> symbols for their languages? If so, why? > > Ray (in questioning mode)
I never went beyond the Roman alphabet, except that I have looked at the cyrillic out of curiosity to see how my creations would fare there. Regards