Richard Sproat

Center for Spoken Language Understanding, Division of Biomedical Computer Science at OHSU
Talk Title: 
Some Common Misconceptions about Writing Systems and Symbol Systems
Event Type: 
Linguistics Lecture Series
Thursday, March 31, 2011, 6:00 pm - 8:00 pm
Humanities 1006


In this talk I will discuss some common and persistent misconceptions about writing systems and symbol systems.

The first misconception is that non-trivial symbol systems that seem to exhibit structure in their "messages" must be (linguistic) writing systems, since structure is a property of language. This misconception is at the core of recent claims that the Indus Valley symbols must have been writing: The system clearly shows what appears to be syntactic structure, so it surely must represent language.  I show that some obviously non-linguistic symbol systems also show quite rich structure. Hence the demonstration of structure in a system tells us absolutely nothing about its function.

The second misconception is that syllabaries are somehow more "natural" than segmental writing systems, because they directly encode syllables, which are themselves more intuitive phonological units than
segments.  The implication is that syllabaries require little abstraction on the part of users, something that I argue ignores how syllabaries typically work in practice.

The third misconception is that Chinese writing is logographic. If this claim is to be taken at face value, it means that Chinese writing represents an arbitrary mapping between symbols and words (or
morphemes). This is surely true of part of the system. But as DeFrancis and others have argued, it misses the point that a major portion of the Chinese writing system is based on phonology. Nor is this a mere taxonomic quibble: the phonological component of Chinese writing can be shown to have "psychological reality".

Finally, there is a common belief that if one wants to increase literacy in a society, it helps to make the writing system simpler. Commonly cited examples are Korean Hangul and Chinese character simplification. I will argue there is no basis for this belief. Indeed it is rather simple to show that while literacy rates correlate well with a number of socio-economic factors, the correlation between literacy rates and the complexity of the writing system is effectively zero.