Theiling Online    Sitemap    Conlang Mailing List HQ   

The "best" system of writing

From:Gary Shannon <fiziwig@...>
Date:Thursday, September 14, 2006, 20:30
What is the "best" system of writing? Of course such a broad question cannot be
answered in any absolute sense. For a system of writing to be judged good or
bad it must be judged in reference to some specific set of criteria. For
example, a system of writing might consist of delicate and ornate flourishes of
great artistic beauty, but be virtually unreadable due to its complexity. Such
a system could be called "good" when measured for artistic merit, but
"terrible" when judged according to its legibility. So before I share my
thoughts on the "best" system of writing I should clearly state my criteria.

1. Of first importance (to me) is reading efficiency. A thing written once can
be read again and again, so the ease and quickness with which it can be read
outweighs the ease of writing.

2. It should be relatively compact, without sacrificing readability. If the
same novel can be printed in one writing system on 30% fewer pages than with
another writing system, then the eye can scan it 30% faster, and 30% fewer
trees need to be cut down to make paper.

Any other criteria are, to me, of negliable significance and can be ignored.
Thus it doesn't matter if the system is consistent, easy to learn, or
phonetically accurate. We read by visually identifying the shape of the word
(or ideograph) as a whole, and once those shapes are memorized by the fluent
reader it doesn't make a bit of difference whether those shapes are constructed
from systematic phonetic elements or made up of arbitrary squiggles.

The first criteria, readability, means that a particular word should be easily
distinguished from all other words, without the need to examine minute details
of the symbol that encode that word. Two words of twenty letters length which
differ only by one vowel somewhere deep in the interior of the word would
violate this principle. Words should be recognizable at the briefest glance.
For this reason "eccentric" spelling is better than regularized spelling in
that it lends more unique shapes to the words. "hit" and "bit" differ only by
whether the bottom of the "h/b" shape is open or closed. This could be too
subtle a difference if the ink is smudged or a speck of mud stains the page.
Suppose, instead, that we spelled them "hit" and "bjt". Never mind that 'j' is
phonetically wrong in that context, after all we have no trouble with the "gh"
in "light", or the "L" in "walk". Once the word shape is memorized it doesn't
matter that some element of that shape is "phonetically wrong".

We do pretty much the same thing with "kite", "light" and "height" spelling the
long-I sound "i-e", "igh" and "eigh", which does a good job of creating less
ambiguous word shapes. We might even distinguish further between "night" and
"right" (which differ only by how far down the upper loop of the "n/r" extends)
by spelling them "right" and "nijt". This would be better because it would
create more varied and less confusable word shapes. "right" and "nijt" are
visually very different, which, once those shapes are thoroughly internalized,
aids speed of recognition.

Viewed in this light the "problems" of English spelling are actually virtues,
and having recognized that fact, my next conlang is going to have extremely
irregular, non-phonetic, and eccentric spelling aimed at making the written
words as compact and individually unambiguous as possible, thus rendering them
readable at a faster rate and with less error, (once those shapes are
internalized of course).