Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A complex model of writing development

This entry is a response to Colin's comment on the last post, and anyone who would like to see the details of his question can look in the comments. He began by asking about naming, and then went on to tell me a little about a project he's doing. These two are actually separate issues.

First, naming. Establishing naming conventions isn't hard - really, it's fun! I've discussed this in a number of places, and my first suggestion is to take a close look at what you know about your planet and people. Physiology can give you some hints as to the sounds they might use. You can also look for inspiration in animal sounds or in existing world languages. Just try to keep the names consistent in sound. There are some sounds that evoke emotions in a hearer, and many of these associations are culturally based, though the principles of onomatopoeia are more universal. Posts to look at in my archives might include:
Does your world/universe include names?
Bow-wow, boom, smash: onomatopoeia
The Feel of a Language
Ideas for Languages: animal sounds
How articulatory phonetics can help you
How morphology can help you

Now, onto the next issue, which is really a question of writing systems. Colin describes a situation in which "runes," which express whole word meanings, resemble letters and can be mistaken for them. It took me some thinking to reconcile these two ideas, in part because historically, rune systems did represent sounds, and because meaning-based writing systems (ideographic systems) and sound-based writing systems (alphabetic or syllabic systems) are so different. But if the Japanese can take the ideographic Chinese system and adapt it into a syllabic system that is then used concurrently with the ideographs (and they do!), anything is possible, right? :-)

My idea was to think of this as a process of language history. Maybe the people originally used an ideographic writing system to express their ideas. Symbols for the names of virtues would have been part of this system. (I do suggest these not be called runes, however, because the automatic associations with the word "rune" could confuse readers.) Then, something happened. Maybe there was an invasion, or perhaps an opening of trade with another country which used similar implements for writing (thus the visual similarity) but instead functioned using an alphabetic system. Or perhaps the opening of trade led to the idea of an alphabetic system and some person of note decided to adapt a set of core ideographs into an alphabet. The ideograph-users as a society would probably see the attractiveness of a system that reduced the education burden for literacy, and while there might be some initial objections, let's say they adopt the new alphabetic method of writing. Generations go by, and the knowledge of the ideographs became more and more esoteric. At a certain point one would see a situation in which ideographs would not be recognized as bearing their original meanings, and might instead be construed as resembling similar symbols from the newer alphabetic system. I'd also suggest that both the systems should have their own names, and the symbols should have identities that are not borrowed from Latin symbols if there is no real connection between them and Latin. Use descriptions of the symbols, and words for the symbols that you create, that you can fit into the same sound system as the names of people and things as mentioned above.

Thanks again for the question!

You might also want to check out Tom Waters' interesting discussion of language building:


  1. Wow. Thank you so much for this post. You've given me a lot to think about. I sort of feel like I'm in over my head with all of this though. I'm the kind of person who has to be very thorough, and yet when it comes to this "rune" system I feel like I'm just kind of making up things that I will need for the story and leaving it at that.

    I never really considered why there is a different system for writing and what that would mean for the history of the culture that uses it. As it stands, it's basically just like an ancient text that only this one sect of "runescribers" knows how to use, and so it acts like an encryption that needs to be broken or decyphered.

    I am curious why you think I shouldn't use the word "rune". What particular associations does that word bring? For some reason I just assumed it was the word for a symbol that is etched into stone or something. In my mind, it carries an association of mystical or magical properties. Of course, that could just be my own interpretation of things.

    I guess I could make up a word to describe this system of writing... but then I'm faced with that same problem I have with coming up with names for things. I feel like I need to make up a bunch of phonetic sounds and throw them in a hat, grab a handful, and place them randomly on a table and that becomes the name I use for whatever it is I'm trying to name... That'd probably be better than me coming up with the name myself.

  2. Colin,

    I'm glad I got you thinking. You could use the word "rune," but some people will think instantly of preexisting rune systems (nordic, Irish), so you may have to do some things to counter that impression when you establish your own runes and how they work. I agree that the association of magic with the word "rune" works in your favor. If there is no invasion in the history of your world, then it makes sense for only a highly educated elite to have preserved the ideographs once someone came up with the clever/easy (subversive? :-) ) idea to use a phonetic alphabet.

    There are two ways to approach making up words. One way is just to start and then adjust and expand your system (see "The Feel of a Language" for hints on how to keep this systematic). You can find animal sounds on the internet and challenge yourself to approximate them using English characters. Another way is to decide on some principles and then start generating words that sound similar. If you look at the workshop material you'll see for example that I told pyraxis to avoid sounds made with the lips, because lizards don't have lips. You can always make up an arbitrary restriction similar to that one and see what you come up with. I don't really recommend the hat method - but one thing you can do is write down random sequences of sounds, and then experiment with how to make them pronounceable and systematic. Try not to stress, and just try a bunch of different things until you land on one you really like.

  3. Juliette, I hope your daughter is better and she gets completely well soon.

    You should look at ancient Egyptian hyroglifs. If memory serves, this is a pictographic system which, in fact, works like an alphabet with each symbol representing a sound or sylable. If you start with a system of this sort, then the progression you suggest of the original picture meaning being lost or subsumed into the concept of the represented sound would work. Also, over centuries and millennia the symbols might be simplified and/or stylized till, by the present day of Collin's story, people would be able to read the alphabetic script perfectly well but only the most highly educated, priests, magicians and the like, would retain knowledge of the underlying picture meanings.

    I was just here a few minutes ago. Donno why I didn't see this new post then. *shrug*

    What I came back to say is: I think we have both been assuming a printing process analogous to that which we are used to, i.e. movable type. Such technology would make a complex system like that I'm imagining difficult to reproduce. But, just think of how we print today, not with printers that are glorified typewriters, not with huge machines that require the employment of typesetters, but with small machines that precision squirt ink pixel by pixel and can produce print (or script) or photographs or maps or, i donno, star charts - whatever we can display on the computer monitor. I gather you are young. Not only do I distinctly remember the introduction of the first Apple micro computer, but I learned to type on a manual typewriter. If you'd told me thirty years ago, when I was fifteen, that in my lifetime there would be a machine that allowed John Q Public to sit at his desk and print color photographs or any alphabetic system known to Man, or even the doodle from the back of a napkin, I'd have thought you were smoking something exceedingly strange.

    If Cacston had starded with a lazar jet printer, just think where we might be today!

    Forget Japanese. The system I'm imagining has nothing whatever to do with Asian writing systems. Rather, I'm imagining a system, a standardized representational system based on drawing and draftsman's type skills combined with symbols, some of which are doubtless what we would call alphabetic, and skematics. Color, shape and texture or shading also play an important part. To be candid, I don't see why Earth-bound ideas of conceptual/linguistic representation need restrict such representation on another planet, developed by another race, even if that race does look almost indistinguishable from Homo Sapiens. At one point, Charlie does write a note with boring old pen and paper, and at another point he spots a magazine on a table, a magazine which he describes as being produced in jumbo print. But, these are merely artifacts of my own dullness and lack of imagination. Oh, and I do have Charlie read the name of a boat printed in neat white lettering around its bow. These examples just prove how thoroughly my own very limited ideas of reading and writing pervade my thought process.

    While it is true that the visual communication system as such doesn't play a large role in the story, still working out the adaptive tech needed by my two female characters, one of whom is not severely visually impaired and the otehr of whom is totally blind, does intail understanding the starting point, what the system is that has to be adapted.

    And, I don't think I'm smart enough. I'm having a very hard time readjusting to the new perspective you suggested. Of course, one can't rethink and rewrite something that has taken many, many months to produce all in a minute. So, I am not going to give up...yet. But, my goodness I'm confused.

  4. Heh, the hat method was just my way of saying I feel like I'm horrible at making up names. Even a completely random system that would likely result in some pretty bad sounding names would be better... But, anyways, I'll see what I can do. Certainly it's a skill I should develop if I plan on writing fiction...

    Another method I thought of using which you have made mention of is basing it on real world cultures. I kind of have an analog for most of the cultures in mind anyways. The older era that the main character originates from would be based on a Celtic culture (which is partly where the idea of runes come from in my head). In the future era, there is a village that I see as being British (from around the 1800's?), and there's a humanoid race of people that I equate with Germanic cultures. My thoughts are using names, or maybe just similar sounds from these cultures... but that will require some research on my part into those cultures.

    And I'm probably moving farther out of the scope of this post... When are you doing another world builing workshop? :D

  5. Thanks Catreona! (Sorry for the double post here)

    In response, I'm not so young, but I see your point. In fact I remember around the age of maybe 10 or so when we got our first computer. Sure I remember a time when things weren't so easily produced, but currently I probably take it for granted and my general mindset is as you have described.

    I guess I haven't really considered what the "current" form of writing (the one developed after the "rune" based system) would look like. I really have just assumed that everyone speaks "english"... that is to say, I haven't put thought into what language the characters are speaking. Being that I have little to no experience with linguistics, I would find it overly difficult to address the issue of different languages being spoken in my story. As it is, this "rune" thing has me questioning my thought process.

    But, as far as your comments on printing process... The rune system at least would mainly be etched into rock/stone/metal. I don't see it as being an ink/paper kind of thing. Because of this, I see it as having straight lines and hard angles for the most part. So I guess I put a little bit of thought into that aspect at least.

  6. Catreona,

    As concerns Colin's question, I think what I said is essentially the same as what you said, though I didn't think of the hieroglyph example at the time. Thanks for mentioning it.

    As far as writing systems go in the Nova Britannia world, I'm psyched to see that you're freeing your mind to imagine new systems. This is very cool. I in no way meant to imply that alien systems would be limited by human models. On the other hand, your description makes me wonder about some things. Did the indigenous people have a writing (or other analogous) system before the humans came? What did they use to convey meanings that could not be delivered directly? Laser printers are exceedingly versatile but writing systems generally predate them by millennia. If the indigenous people of Nova Britannia (do they have a name?) were using symbols etched on bark or other natural materials, and the natural materials themselves were incorporated into the symbolic system that would be fine, and pretty cool. The only reason I suggested a simpler system was that your description of the story didn't seem to include much of a spotlight on the natives and their technologies and language. Part of conveying a story successfully is putting the focus firmly on the core conflict of your choice, and with each variable you change in the surrounding setting (physical, cultural, etc.) the sense of alienness increases. Along with that sense of alienness comes the possibility of reader distraction - so as you mold this story to your vision, consider the amount of time you dedicate to each element so the message of the whole comes through clearly. Good luck with this!

  7. Saw an item on The News Hour that reminded me of a form of cultural expression that seems to have been overlooked in all of our fictional worlds; that is, metalworking and jewelry. Preliterate cultures, and some literate ones as well, put a lot of cultural info into their jewelry and other small, ornimental articles. I seem to recall hearing of an archaeological dig among the Sithian(sp?) barrows where they found a cup with exquisit horses carved all around the rim. Think of the Celtic patterns and designs familiar to us in part from their jewelry and other metal works.

    This is not necessarily a communications system per se, but it could be used as at least a partial one. What if, say, each clan or tribe had its own specific gemstone that members of the upper eshelons(sp?) wore. Sharon Shin uses this idea in her Twelve Houses series. Indeed, the whole idea of color and haraldry, while again not specifically connected with language, nonetheless is a communication system. One thinks also of nautical signaling flags and of semophor (Sorry for all the misspellings. I've never actualy seen some of these words.)

    I don't really have a point, except that language is communication, but communication is much more than language.

    Take Colin's idea of runes, for instance. They are angular, straight lined figures suitable for graving in stone or metal. Over time, one or other, or both, of the following might happen:

    As the characters were adapted for "writing" or drawing with pen or brush, the angles might be smoothed into curves. For a familiar analogy, think of the diference between printed and handwritten English. A person who has never seen the Latin alphabet and who therefore does not know the conventions for transforming letters from print to handwriting might well have no idea that it is the same alphabet at all. The written z bears precious little resemblence to the printed z for instance. So, over time, given enough time, a written form based on the original runes might conceivably come to bear no recognizable resemblence to the original runes.

    It might also happen that after a catastrophe in which literacy was lost*, the forms of the runic characters were nonetheless preserved, perhaps in stylized form, as ornamentation for very special persons or places, times or events.

    *Some scholars think that the civilization depicted in the Iliad actually existed and that some sort of cataclism or combination of disasters occurred in which the people was reduced to a much lower level of culture, including a preliterate state. Don't know if this might apply to Colin's project, but from the sounds of the project, it might. Something to think about, anyway.

  8. Juliette,

    It hasn't been easy to settle on a name for the native Nova Britannians. On the whole, though, I think they are probably simply called Natives, while the descendents of the colonists from earth are called Settlers. Since the two demographic groups cannot interbreed, they remain distinct perforce. Of course, en masse and offplanet, native and Settler alike are referred to simply as Britannians.

    Yes, the Natives do have a highly developed visual communication system when the Settlers arrive. Over generations and centuries, the two systems (the Native representational and conceptual system which uses symbols but is not strictly alphabetic and the Settlers' strictly alphabetic system) become murged into a very rich yet not prohibitively complex system.

    I'm thinking that before the advent of computers and printers (or their local analog), the Native language was drawn This made books very precious, as in the European Middle Ages, yet unlike in the Middle Ages, "literacy" was not restricted to certain privilidged classes. The art of drawing, from which the art of "writing" for want of a better word, was easily and naturally derived was cherished and taught. So that, low tech though the production methods were, visual communications (writing) was very widespread. For educational and scientific purposes, there would need to have been professional drawers and copiests who would have been displaced once the Settlers worked out how to adapt their reproduction techniques to the Native system. That would have been a difficult time, perhaps a time of civil unrest. Something that my characters would have learned about in school. (I'm thinking as I go, here.)

    Another point that needs clarification is this. The Natives are not, repeat NOT primative when the Settlers arrive. They have a thriving, complex, even to some extent technological culture/society at the time of landfall. We're not talking about naked savages who painted themselves blue or thought the bodies in their skies were vengeful deities that had to be appeased with rivers of human sik blood. We're talking civilized people here, if a civilization unlike the Earthmen had ever encountered or heard of. I suspect in some ways the Earthmen seemed savage to the Natives at first. I donno... Who uses chemical propellant for vehicles? Nasty, smelly stuff that explodes at inconvenient moments. That sort of thing.

  9. Catreona,

    Sounds cool. I encourage you, however, to look for a name that the Britannians call themselves. I know that you talked about Vracally, so maybe you already had a word related to that. It would seem very British to call them "Natives" instead of what they call themselves, but that may be the effect you're looking for.

  10. Catreona, thanks again for your response. Everything you have said on that post really describes what I'm trying to go for. I have actually been thinking about the events that occured around the fall of the Roman empire, how almost all of the knowledge and culture was lost and the world mostly reverted to a primitive state. Obviously, what happens on my world will be somewhat different than that, but the general concept helps me to think of what culture used the runes, and what events occured to make things as they are during my heroes lifetime.

    By the way, all last night I had names running around in my head... So far I have a couple of random names for some of the "troll" people, and maybe even an actual name for their race. They still sound kind of funny, but maybe that's just how that race is...

    As for names of anyone or anything else... still drawing a blank. I was actually saying different things over and over in my head, trying out different sounds and piecing them together. I just thought they all sounded weird and didn't really work for the characters I was trying to name. I'll keep trying though.

  11. Colin,

    As to names: One thing might be to think about each character and see what kind of a person she/he seems like. Here's the sort of thing I mean. During the filming of Superman: the Movie Margot Kitter never called Richard Donnan Richard or Dick. She called him Harry. Said he didn't look to her like a Richard or a Dick, but like a Harry. Similar things have occasionally happened to me, where I have thought a person seemed like she/he ought'a have a certain name, and finding out the actual name was a bit strange.

    So, rather than imposing names on your characters, let the names grow out of them. Does this particular person seem like a Jalaberling? Well then, his name or perhaps his title/rank should be Jalaberling. You can work out later what this name means, if the origin and meaning of the name hasn't been lost.

    For myself, I don't often have trouble naming characters. They are people who present themselves to me complete with names and once in a while with some extent of histories as well. Not always, of course, but usually.