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Optimum number of symbols

From:Raymond Brown <ray.brown@...>
Date:Sunday, May 19, 2002, 16:44
We've recently been arguing whether an optimum number of root morphemes
might be something like Dublex's 400 or Duton's 491 (I don't recall if
Javier given a number for Futurese or not).  But what about the optimum
number of _symbols_?

Futurese, like most con-IALs, adopts the modern Roman alphabet (so do both
current versions of BrSc); and there's been some argument whether that
compromises Javier's aim of being culturally neutral or not.  But obviously
the main reason for both Javier & myself adopting the Roman alphabet for
our conlangs is pragmatic: that's what the majority of keyboards provide
and we're still often restricted by ASCII.

But nearly 40 years ago in "Language and Symbolic Systems", Yuen Ren Chao
called the number of letters in the Roman alphabet 'paltry'.  In one place
in the book, he wrote:
"I often speculate whether an ideal system of writing would not be some
golden mean between the unwieldy thousands of arbitrary units [of the
Chinese characters] and the paltry few letters of the Latin alphabet.  To
make a wild guess at an optimum number of symbols, if we take say the
geometric mean between the number of letters of the Latin alphabet and the
number of one of the sets of basic characters of 1000 or 1100, it will come
out to a list of roughly 170 symbols, which seems to be a list of
manageable size."

Later in the book, in a chapter discussing the "10 requirements for good
symbols", he writes:
"Ideally, in the quest for a universal system of symbols, be it for the
natural languages or for an artificial international language, we are bound
to be pulled in various directions by the partially conflicting
requirements, as we have been considering.   If vested interest could be
discounted in favour of end efficiency, my guess for an ideal system of
visual and auditory symbols for general purposes of speech and thought will
involve neither the extreme paucity in elementary units nor the extreme
luxury of thousands of them, but probably about 200 monosyllabic symbols,
such that a string of "seven plus or minus two" of them can be easily
grasped in one span of attention."

I do not BTW understand the "200 monosyllabic symbols" to be the same as
'200 monosyllabic root morphemes'.  In neither of these passage does he
mention morphemes.  But the second paragraph quoted would seem to me to
suggest a phonology of 200 basic monosyllables.

Obviously, 200 simple symbols would make for greater compactness than the
26 letters of the Roman alphabet [or the approx. 70 symbols used by Lin]

Most westerners seem to take it for granted that a script where each
grapheme = 1 phoneme is best, i.e. an alphabet of a some 'paltry few' 20 to
30+ symbols.  That view is clearly not universal.  It would interesting to
know if Hanuman Zhang regards our Roman/Latin script as paltry; and Mathias
has shown a healthy questioning of western assumptions.

1. What is the optimum number of symbols?
2. If the optimum number is in the hundreds (or thousands!), what would
each symbol represent?

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?

5. Have any designers of auxlangs and/or engelangs devised a special set of
symbols for their languages? If so, why?

Ray (in questioning mode)

Speech is _poiesis_ and human linguistic articulation
is centrally creative.
                                 GEORGE STEINER.


Mike S. <mcslason@...>
And Rosta <a-rosta@...>
Nik Taylor <fortytwo@...>
taliesin the storyteller <taliesin@...>
Wesley Parish <wes.parish@...>
Clint Jackson Baker <litrex1@...>Cherokee and--Re: Optimum number of symbols
Raymond Brown <ray.brown@...>