Language vs. orthography

Jun 28, 2010 by

In his comment to my postings about drawing a boundary between language and dialect, Alexander Francis correctly pointed out that another factor that affects people’s perception of whether they share the same language or speak different languages is orthography. This is specifically true of the Chinese. While Chinese varieties, such as Mandarin, Wu and Yue, are manifestly mutually unintelligible and therefore typically considered distinct languages by linguists (cf. the Ethnologue listing for Chinese), many Chinese speakers themselves would insist (according to Alexander Francis, often quite vociferously) that they speak the same language because they use the same characters.

Still, the unifying power of orthography seems to be quite limited to Chinese. Even other peoples who used Chinese writing system in the past (Korean, Japanese) never consider themselves as speaking the same language as the Chinese. This is even more true for speakers of languages that use other, alphabetic scripts. Most obviously, the various peoples who use (some form of the) Roman alphabet do not consider themselves as speaking the same language. Nor do speakers of languages that use Cyrillic alphabet. And even speakers of Hebrew and Yiddish, both of which use Hebrew script, would not think of the two as dialects of the same language.

One good reason why the writing system seems to matter more for the Chinese than for users of alphabetic writing systems is in the nature of the system itself: alphabetic writing represents the sounds of a given language. The same is true of older, syllabic forms of writing (syllabic and alphabetic writing together are referred to as phonographic writing). Phonographic writing systems, because of their nature, can and have been adapted for very different languages, which are historically and typologically unrelated. For example, Sumerian writing system has been adapted for Akkadian and Hittite; Arabic script has been used for Persian, Urdu and (formerly) Turkish; Hebrew script has been used for both Yiddish and Ladino; while the Cyrillic alphabet is used not only for Slavic languages, such as Russian, Ukrainian, Byelorussian, Serbian, Macedonian and Bulgarian but also for many non-Slavic languages of the former USSR.

Furthermore, the writing system may play a divisive rather than a unifying role. For example, while Hindi and Urdu are quite similar structurally (their vocabularies are somewhat different because of numerous loanwords from Arabic and Persian in Urdu), one reason why it’s hard to consider them the same language is writing: Hindi uses Devanagari script, while Urdu uses Arabic script. Similarly, one difference between Serbian and Croatian is in the alphabet used: Roman alphabet for Croatian and Cyrillic for Serbian (Glagolitic alphabet, a precursor of the Cyrillic, is sometimes used for Croatian as well).

The change in the writing system used for a given language may also be temporal rather than geographic: for example, Turkish has switched from Arabic to Roman alphabet in 1928 under Kemal Ataturk. Similarly, Vietnamese has switched from Chinese hierogliphics to Roman alphabet in 1910.

And one final thing to keep in mind: most of the world’s 6,500 or so languages do not have a writing system at all, at least not until recently, when some form of Eurocentric writing has been adopted, not so much for the needs of the speakers themselves as for the needs of the colonizing powers. So the spoken word remains the primary form of language!

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