(Writing Systems: An introduction to their linguistic analysis, Florian Coulmas)
Until its decipherment by the French philologist Jean François Champollion (1790-1832) in the early 1820s, the nature of Egyptian writing system eluded European scholars. The impressive naturalism of the pictographs as well as a number of misconceptions handed down from antiquity led them to believe that the script was symbolic and that each one of the so-called 'holy characters' - which is what 'hieroglyph' means - was to be interpreted as a word, if not an entire sentence. As it turned out, only few Egyptians signs are logograms. Champollion arrived at the conclusion that Egyptian hieroglyphs were a phonetic rather than symbolic script when he analysed the Rosetta Stone, a stele dating from 196 BCE, which is inscribed in two languages, Greek and Egyptian, and three scripts, the Greek alphabet, and the hieroglyphic and demotic varieties of Egyptian. Counting Egyptian signs and Greek words, he found that there were 1,419 signs for 486 words. Since the 1,419 were made up of only 66 different signs, he correctly concluded that the script was phonetic, at least in part.
After Champollion's path-breaking discovery, the detail of the system were worked out. It is a mixed system consisting of phonograms of various sorts and signs that are interpreted for meaning rather than sound. All in all some 700 signs were used to write the language during its classical period in the second millennium BCE, although the total number increased significantly in later periods. However, more than 400 signs were rarely needed at any one time. In addition to the pictorial hieroglyphs that are always used to monumental inscriptions, the Egyptians developed two more cursive script forms for manuscript writing, which allowed for greater speed and efficiency: the semicursive 'hieratic' and the cursive 'demotic', both so called by the Greeks. The iconic properties of the hieroglyphs were lost in these cursive scripts, but structurally they remained fairly close to the hieroglyphic model.
One important difference between the hieroglyphic script and the two cursive scripts has to do with the grouping and combination of signs. While hieratic and demotic writing is always linear from right to left, there is often no such clear correspondence between the flow of speech and the linearity of the hieroglyphic script. The arrangement of hieroglyphs makes more liberal use of the two dimensions of the writing surface, often closely integrating the written text with graphic images relating to its contents. Both the orientation of the hieroglyphs and their spatial arrangement in columns and horizontal lines is more varied and flexible than hieratic and demotic writing. Hieroglyphs are sometimes switched in their order for reasons of better spacing (Davies 1987: 13).
A defining feature of the Egyptian writing system is that it provides no overt cues for the interpretation of vowels (Schenkel 1984). Egyptian belongs to the Hamito-Semitic family of languages, which is characterized by triconsonantal word-roots. Other writing systems for Semitic languages also focus on consonants but like the North Semitic cuneiform systems and the consonant alphabets of the Phoenician family of scripts, the Egyptian script has no auxiliary means of vowel indication. On the basis of consonantal frames readers supply the contextual appropriate vowels to interpret the full body of the word.
To this end they make use of the three classes of signs that, as all available evidence suggests, were present in the earliest stages of the Egyptian script around 3000 BCE (Fischer 1989) and used continuously until the end of its long history in the tenth century CE. There three classes of signs are logograms, phonograms and determinatives.
When the art of writing spreads across language boundaries from literate to non-literate cultures, it is common that the written language is adopted along with the writing system. This is what the Akkadians did when they mastered Sumerian cuneiform, and this is what the Japanese did when they learned Chinese characters. Language and scripts cannot be separated easily at first. To both the Akkadians and the Japanese writing for a long time meant writing a foreign language, Sumerian in one case, Chinese in the other. Once they began to write their own language, they adapted the existing system rather than creating a new one. Yet, the resulting new system departs from the structural make-up of its model in fundamental ways. Although there are many differences in detail between the adaptation of Sumerian cuneiform and Akkadian and that of Chinese characters for Japanese, some basic parallels are also in evidence. Since, with the exception of a handful of original creations (cf. chapter 10), all writing systems past and present are adaptations, it is of general interest to see what these parallels are.
The scribes who first used cuneiform signs to write Akkadian, and Chinese characters to write Japanese adjusted a fully developed writing system to a typological different language. Three mechanisms are involved in this process.
(1) Extant signs are reinterpreted. This is of some importance for the perspective on writing that informs this book. That is, the graphic sign precedes its linguistic interpretation. As we have seen in the previous section, the Akkadians took Sumerian logograms and assigned them an additional lexical interpretation, typically the Akkadian translation equivalent of the Sumerian word. The Japanese did exactly the same, providing Chinese characters with Japanese interpretations, while holding on the Chinese interpretation, too. Notice that assigning an extant sign an extra interpretation is conceptually quite different from using a sign to represent a word. In the latter case the underlying question is, 'How do I write this word?' But this is not primarily what the Akkadian and the Japanese scribes asked themselves. Rather, their point of departure was the sign, which they changed by giving it an additional interpretation it did not have in the original system. As a result, Chinese characters have a Chinese reading, called Sino-Japanese, and a Japanese reading in Japanese, just as cuneiform signs have a Sumerian reading and an Akkadian reading in Akkadian.
(2) Sings are used for their phonetic interpretation only. Conditions are a bit different here, because the Sumerians were using cuneiform signs both as logograms and as syllabograms before the Akkadians adopted the system, while purely phonetic usage of Chinese characters was more limited in Chinese. Yet, like the Akkadians the Japanese used the adopted signs for their syllabic values only, disregarding their meaning in Chinese. But while the Akkadians left the form of Sumerian syllabograms unchanged, although they made some adjustments for their sound values, the Japanese gradually changed the graphic shape of the Chinese characters they used for their syllabic values only, eventually developing a set of signs immediately recognizable as syllabograms. These are the two kana syllabaries discussed in chapter 4. Once again it is clear that extant signs were reinterpreted and subsequently graphically modified so as to mark them off as a functionally distinct set of signs not to be confused with Chinese characters.
(3) New signs modelled on those of the adopted systems are created. There are some cuneiforms logograms in Akkadian that do not exist in Sumerian. They were created by the Akkadians and are sometimes called 'artificial' Sumerograms (Krebernik and Nissen 1994). In the same manner, the Japanese created some new characters, applying the principles of graphic composition of Chinese characters. In contradistinction to the Chinese characters that were reinterpreted, these 'kokuji' or 'native characters' have no Chinese reading (although there are some exceptions where a pseudo-Chinese reading was invented). Many 'kokuji' were created for Japanese words that lack obvious Chinese translation equivalents, thus bearing witness to the writer's need to adapt the system to the Japanese language. Obviously, the same words can be written syllabically, but in many regards logographic writing was more appealing to the Japanese scribes, as it was to their Akkadian colleagues. Some examples of 'kokuji' are given in table 9.5. Notice that readings consists of two to four syllables, as a typical of Japanese words, whereas Chinese characters are consistently interpreted as one syllable in Chinese.
In contradistinction to Japanese, the English writing system has a defining unit, or so it would seem. On the face of it there is just one class of signs, alphabetic letters. But this is deceiving, because an analysis of English writing gets nowhere if it starts out with the assumption of individual letters having uniform canonical interpretations. In fact, the English writing system has long been recognized as a mixed system, although this has only rarely been pointed out explicitly (Stubbs 1996). It is mixed in the sense that there are units of different kinds and that the conventions for their interpretation are diverse. Albrow (1972), for example, identifies three sets of rules that operate in the English orthography: basic, romance and exotic. Chomsky and Halle's (1968) important work on the sound pattern of English is often quoted as hailing English writing as a near-optimal morphophonemic orthography, but building on this research Klima (1972) argued that there are at least six ways of analysing the English writing system, ranging in abstractness from phonetic to morphophonemic. Thanks to the multifaceted history of English writing (Scragg 1974) several different sets of rules combine, and sometimes compete with each other. And when all rules are exhausted, a considerable area of unpredictable spelling remains. (...)
Since the English writing system makes use of the Latin alphabet, the most common approach to its analysis is to figure out how these letters are to be interpreted. Attempts at compiling a comprehensive list of correspondence between sound and spelling of English have yielded various results. According ti Dewey (1971), the typical vowel can be spelt around twenty different ways. Later researchers such as Nyikos (1988) have found that the forty-odd phoneme of English correspond to 1,120 different graphemes. That is, on average twenty-eight different different letters and letter combinations are given the same phonetic interpretation. It is often assumed that letter-to-sound correspondences and sound-to-letter correspondences are mirror-image processes.
As a general rule, spelling conventions, once established, are more resistant to change than speech, which is another way of saying that written words tend to have an autonomous existence and phonetic interpretations are adjusted. Since sound changes, though regular, are contextual, not all words in which a certain sound occurs are affected in the same way. Individual letters are, therefore, bound to become more polyvalent in the course of time. Graphic autonomy is, indeed, quite important in English spelling where morpheme constancy is often given priority over phoneme constancy.