it’s not written in stone

“OK, yalla, it’s time for reading, because reading out loud is very important for you to practice. It will help you in your reading on the DLPT.” Our teacher’s rationale strikes me as dubious, and I’m tired and irritable already. I try not to catch her eye, and hope class will end before she gets to me.

Majdi goes first — Majdi always goes first during reading practice. The son of a Jordanian immigrant, he has a Tennessee accent and played high school football, but he also lived briefly in Amman as a child and went to an Arab school. He remembers nothing of the meaning of Arabic, but he can still read — that is, translate the marks on the page into sounds — as easily as any Arab child. (Numbers and counting are also easy for him, for some reason.) We time him; he reads as many words per minute as our teacher, though he occasionally makes mistakes on words whose pronunciation is ambiguous without diacriticals. This in itself, of course, shows that he doesn’t know what he’s reading; he’s functionally equivalent to Apple’s cool “Speech” function in its word processing software, and makes about the same number of mistakes.

A few more people read, but time doesn’t pass nearly so quick as it should, and finally, looking around and settling on me, she says, “Jamal? اقراء “

I sigh and look down at the page. The letters swim and jumble maliciously. They’re so small! I suddenly hate them — hate the whole enterprise of reading in Arabic.

Knowing I can’t read anywhere near as fast as Majdi, or even some of the other guys in class, I decide to go to the other extreme — I read excruciatingly, obnoxiously slow. One… word… at… a… time…. After about fifteen seconds of this, my teacher, with her excellent teacher’s combination of irritation and disappointment, says tersely, “Okay, you don’t want to do it. Sa’id….”


I love studying Arabic, love speaking Arabic, love hearing Arabs speak — but I hate reading out loud. When I studied other languages, I was no master at reading them out loud, either; reading aloud is one of the most complex tasks of foreign language study, requiring real-time translation from newly-learned visual symbols into unfamiliar combinations of sounds. I can remember shyly stumbling through prayers in Portuguese in Brasil, and even having to slow my roll reading Korean, whose alphabet is notoriously simple.

But Arabic weds a particularly (to the foreigner) obtuse set of visual symbols to a set of sounds some of which are literally not used anywhere else in the world. That I, who will normally jump through any hoop to prove myself a teacher, was reduced to two-year-old levels of churlish behavior to avoid reading it out loud says something about the nuisance of reading aloud. But it did get me thinking, in the weeks and months afterward, about what might be required for an easily “scannable” alphabet.


That the world has gotten so close together as to be claustrophobically small is now a matter of accepted cliche, and the need for a common auxiliary language has become increasingly obvious. Although several languages have become de facto common tongues (notably French and English, and in the Americas Spanish), there is the trouble of perceived or actual cultural imperialism if we ever decide to officially adopt one of them as the de jure auxiliary language of the world and require it to be taught everywhere.

On the other hand, inventing a whole language is not only an incredibly daunting task, but an unrewarding one, for the simple reason that people don’t like to be early adopters of something they can’t use. Heck, I love learning languages, and even I can imagine myself having a conversation with an Esperanto enthusiast that would go something like this:

Esperanto guy: Hey, Jamal, wanna learn Esperanto? It’s the wave of the future — soon we’ll all be able to communicate in this new language, without denying our own linguistic heritage or having to have other people’s language imposed on us.

Me: I see. And how many native speakers of Esperanto are there right now?

Esperanto guy: Several hundred!

Me: Oh.

You always get the feeling, with things like Esperanto and Interlingua, that it’s essentially a weird hobby for nerds with a lot of spare time — a feeling not helped by the fact that many people have wasted valuable neurons learning Klingon. Who wants to spend the years required to master a language that nobody speaks except other people who have also spent years imperfectly learning it? Although it seems like it ought to be liberating, there’s frankly something off-putting about a language wholly divorced from culture — a language with no Shakespeare or Homer, a language that has never been calligraphized and blazoned round the crowns of the great mosques or halls of government, a language which has never been chanted in sacred reverie. You can’t invent a language and hope that it will become useful later — language is useful not only because of its literal meanings but because of all the history it carries with it, and all the people whose lives are bound up in it right now.

Anyway, God only knows how and when we will end up dealing with the question of an international language. But there’s another interesting challenge, and one that might be easier to deal with: is it possible to make a universal script — i.e., one which could accomodate, if not all languages, at least the major groups?

Starting with a universal script — if such a thing were possible — is appealing on several points. First, an alphabet is comparatively easy to learn. (Even the Arabic alphabet, which has on occasion tortured me, is easy to pick up in its rudiments; only the vowelling is troublesome, but that is because the Arabic script leans on the user’s knowledge of the language itself — particularly his or her stored database of vocabulary — to resolve ambiguities.) Even a thoroughly thought-out alphabet contains at most a few dozen symbols, which makes it possible for even adults to master it on a reasonable timeline — a feat not possible when it comes to actual languages, unless, like me, you are lucky enough to be able to take a year or two to devote exclusively to study.

Second, creating a universal script would lower the barrier for people to learn one another’s languages. Just because learning the alphabet is usually the easiest part of learning a language doesn’t mean it’s not a nuisance (see personal anecdote above). Moreover, there’s a sense of alienation that we feel when approaching a language with an unfamiliar script — the psychological barrier is perhaps greater than the actual difficulty. Although it must be acknowledged that for an intellectually curious minority, the strangeness of a foreign script works a certain kind of charm, for the vast majority familiarity is a greater aid to learning.

Third, a reasonably rigorous and universal method of writing at least the major languages has all sorts of applications in business, government, law enforcement, and information management. Consider, for example, the problem of creating a universal database of known terrorists. Right now, there is no standard way in which Arab, Persian, Dari, Hindi, Thai, or Korean names are transliterated into the Latin alphabet — or, for that matter, Western names into other alphabets. So, in the words of this blurb from USA Today, quoted in a report by the Association of Former Intelligence Officers:

[O]ne search of databases on Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi found more than 60 different spellings of his name. Just because a suspected terrorist is obscure and being tracked in several countries does not mean his name is any more clear than Gadhafi’s….

The name is perfectly clear in Arabic — معمر القذافي — but to attempt to “spell it like it sounds” is to wander into a quagmire, especially since English spelling is, at best, quasi-phonetic.

Members of the 9/11 Commission suggested in their report (note 40 on chapter 12):

Among the more important problems to address is that of varying transliterations of the same name. For example, the current lack of a single convention for transliterating Arabic names enabled the 19 hijackers to vary the spelling of their names to defeat name-based watchlist systems and confuse any potential efforts to locate them. While the gradual introduction of biometric identifiers will help, that process will take years, and a name match will always be useful. The ICAO should discuss the adoption of a standard requiring a digital code for all names that need to be translated into the Roman alphabet, ensuring one common spelling for all countries.


The 9/11 Commission, writing for the United States Congress, necessarily considered the problem of transliteration into the Roman alphabet. But is that necessarily the most desirable thing? The Roman alphabet itself, after all, is not used consistently. Spelling rules among the Romance languages, though consistent within each language, vary widely. What makes a final “O” sound, as in “go”? In Spanish it’s just “o” — but in Portuguese, that letter by itself makes more of an “oo” sound, requiring an addition “u” (that is, “ou”) to make the sound we English and Spanish speakers expect. Meanwhile, the French are off in their own world with the inexplicable “eau” and “eaux”…. And of course, as I wrote previously, English spelling has largely sacrificed consistency for flexibility.

We have likewise noted above, indirectly, that the Arabic script is probably unsuitable as a universal script, because it relies heavily on one’s knowledge of the intended word to fill in vowel sounds that are not written. The other problem with vowelling in Arabic is that it is intensely precise — even the short, unwritten vowels can almost never be slurred or turned into a comfortably unspecific schwa; doing can dramatically change the meaning of the word. Unless there were a way to build a certain amount of flexibility into that system, it’s highly unlikely that speakers of messy, vowel-lazy languages like English would adopt it.

Among the other widely used writing systems, I am not qualified to comment on the Hindi alphabet, although it is quite lovely. The Chinese system, of course, is not an alphabet at all, while the Japanese system has two alphabets (really syllabaries) and a limited set of Chinese characters used for specialized purposes. One of these syllabaries could be used to give approximated sounds of other languages, with some modification and expansion to include sounds from most of the major languages. But I would like to propose that the model we follow is that of another East Asian syllabary — the Korean system, hangeul (한글).

[This article under construction.]

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4 Responses to it’s not written in stone

  1. grinchymom says:

    Why not use the International Phonetic system that linguists use? We could use it for everyday and then have artists design a fancy version for calligraphy and dress up.The sound system already exists. It isn’t pretty but it works. One symbol, one sound. And it covers most languages, or all. I am a bit far from formal linguistic study, but I have used IPA and it is precise, does just what you want it to.

  2. The Camel says:

    Ah, the perils of composing online, and then leaving for two weeks to go on pilgrimage!Where I was going with this essay was to say that we should create a new simple script, in the way that Hangeul was created, and also to recommend that we consider Hangeul, which breaks words down into syllables, as a model for written language in general.I have to be honest, I have a strong prejudice against the IPA, because it’s ugly. Beyond that, however, here are some arguments against using it as a universal script:It has, according to Wikipedia (citing the IPA itself), in "its unextended form… approximately 107 base symbols and 55 modifiers." That is appropriate for an alphabet intended to encompass every language in the world with scientific precision, but I would like to propose a working, everyday script that would be flexible enough to cover the most-used languages but not so rigorous that it would be off-putting to casual users.The syllabification of a script like Hangeul should not be underestimated. I think it would enable non-native users of a given language to parse that language more effectively, once they understood the system. And it would be of particular value in transliterating Chinese, which is conceived and written in syllables as well.Because of the combination of several alphabets in the IPA, too many letters look far too much alike — for example, the eta (η) looks too much like an "n," the chi (χ) looks too much like an "x," and so on. That presents a steep learning curve for ordinary people, especially when dealing with handwritten texts.It would be nice to have an original, well-designed script rather than an imitation of the Roman and Greek scripts, partly because it would have a more unified sensibility and not feel so cobbled-together (i.e., not be so hideously ugly), but also partly because it would feel less like one more example of cultural imperialism from the West.We would, at the very least, need to find a better set of names for the letters than "voiceless uvular fricative" and "palatal lateral approximant."I may still try to finish this essay in more detail soon, but those are my thoughts in brief.

  3. grinchymom says:

    As for English spelling. It is the fault of the French. They invaded England and Old English and tried to apply Latinate rules to a Germanic language. And language being flexible and hetroglossic tried to respond. Of course without dictionaries and with lots of monks scribbling away in their cloisters, spelling willy-nilly, the orthography underwent a vast change from its Anglo-Saxon consistency to,well,to what we have today. Language has to be vibrant and alive. I hate the idea of change or regularization. That would make English like Esperanto, fixed, static, dead in a way. Ok, so I am stuck in some linguistic romantic past that isn’t modern or progressive. I am also stuck in the mire of the language, as it is, as it has developed with a long history. So what if it is difficult? Why should it be easy? Language is one of the most sophisticated things we do. It is a literal representation of the Word, the gift of abstraction and creation given us by the Creator. I like the way our language keeps on evolving and adding vocabulary. Our spelling is, as the old grammar teachers would say, irregular. All language is irregular. The Koreans have a perfectly sensible orthography,but what about their language is so irregular and difficult aa to qualify it as a Class 5 language at DLI?We can’t regularize language and have it remain the organic,living thing it must be represent our thoughts and ideas. I understand the urge–who wouldn’t want to get rid of the ‘i before e’ mess and replace those little dipthongs with a single character? Still, there they are, with a history that leads us back into the depths of our tongue.And their they should stay. Change things too much and think about what we will lose-Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Austen. We have all ready lost _Beowulf_ and Chaucer except to specialists.We could just transliterate everything, but then again,we lose the historicity of the written forms and it becomes a literary equivalent of OCR. Flattened out, lesser in some way than it was. More accessible? I don’t think so. Just dumbed down like those Good News, slangy, ‘modern’ translations of the Bible that may appeal to lazy readers, but do nothing to convey the maginificence of the language of the original.Maybe that isn’t a good comparison and maybe I am a linguistic Luddite. How would you spell that in IPA?

  4. The Camel says:

    Actually, I think those new, lazy translations of the Bible can turn off readers by removing the complexity and subtlety of the text and enforcing a single, simple interpretation.Korean is considered Cat IV because, even though its orthography is easy, you do still have to learn a new alphabet; its sentence order is hard for English speakers to get used to; its simple set of syllables is actually a code for various Chinese characters, but without the tonality to make the distinction between them; and it has a highly complex set of verb endings to convey everything from the social relationships of the speaker and hearer to mood and tense to the distinction between questions and answers.Arabic, despite its subtle and frustrating script, is actually, I think an easier language for English speakers to grasp.I’m not against language being difficult, but I think it should be difficult where it’s necessary — in the ambiguities of poetry, in the shared non-literal codes of a given cultural bloc, in the expression of highly abstract ideas. I’m in favor of shades of meaning, of near-synonyms and imperfect antonyms, of our ability, in rhetoric, to say the same thing three different ways.I am not one of those people who thinks the best auxiliary language is a simplified one; on the contrary, I think one of the primary purposes of an auxiliary language is to provide a universal medium in which we can explore and discuss the guidance of Baha’u’llah, ‘Abdu’l-Baha, Shoghi Effendi — not to mention Al-Quran and the Bible. This requires, not a dumbed-down language, but a language capable of the greatest sweep and the most perfect refinement.

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