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THEORY Ideal system of writing

From:Ray Brown <ray.brown@...>
Date:Monday, August 9, 2004, 17:17
The recent digression from Chinese parts of speech into the question of
Chinese writing has, I guess, prompted Patrick to ask his questions about
' "Ideographic" writing systems for the Millions'. It now also prompts me
to ask two questions that I have asked before. When I've asked before,
I've had little response. Maybe, now that our minds are exercised by the
'Chinese script' thread and by the ' "Ideographic" writing systems for the
Millions' thread, I'll get some more replies.   :)

First, the background. It really goes back to my reading Y.R. Chao's
"Language and Symbolic Systems" way back in the early 1970s. Let me just
quote three passages:

1. "As we have noticed, reading is not by letters nor by words but by much
larger units. From this point of view, a morphemic or a word-sign system
of writing can be taken in faster than a system based on smaller units.
One does to be sure take in English by words and sentences in one glance
too, but since there is less individuality in the shapes of letters, the
words do not stand out as prominently as in a text of Chinese characters.
In looking for something on a page of English you have to look for _it_,
but in doing the same on a page of characters the thing looked for, if it
is on the page, will stare _you_ in the face."

2. "I often speculate whether an ideal system of writing would not be some
golden mean between the unwieldy thousands of arbitrary units 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 in 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."

3. "Ideally, in the quest for a universal system of symbols, be it for the
natural languages or for an artificial 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 luxury of thousands of
them, but probably about 200 monosyllabic symbols, such that a string of
"seven plus or minus two" of them can easily be grasped in one span of
attention. A previous guess, made on a slightly different basis, came out
as 170."

We westerners tend to think the alphabetic system is obviously the best.
It's refreshing to see this challenged by someone brought up in a very
different tradition   :)

My two sets of questions are:
A. Do you agree that the ideal set of symbols to express language is in
the region of 170 to 200? If not, why not and what do you consider to be
the ideal number of symbols?

B. Obvously, 170 to 200 is too small an inventory for all the morphemes of
a language, yet it seems rather high for a syllabary. Y.R. Chao does not
elaborate on what each of the 170 to 200 symbols would represent, except
the brief reference to monosyllables in (3). Any ideas?

===============================================    (home)   (work)
"A mind which thinks at its own expense will always
interfere with language."         J.G. Hamann, 1760


John Cowan <jcowan@...>
Andreas Johansson <andjo@...>
Gary Shannon <fiziwig@...>