March 16, 2004

Problems with pictographs

Spurred by SC's passing observation that "he expects no sympathy from readers of pictographic alphabets", I can't resist linking to Rudyard Kipling's Just So Story about why pictographic writing is Not a Good Idea. "Pictographic alphabet" is an oxymoron of sorts, and for reasons that Rudyard's story explains, the orthographic systems sometimes called "pictographic" (writing pictures) or "ideographic" (writing ideas) are usually in fact "logographic" (writing words), and generally specify words (or morphemes) using some mixture of semantic (meaning-based) and phonological (sound-based) features. See this set of lecture notes on Reading and Writing for more details, if you're interested. As I expect SC will remind us, his monicker stands for "Semantic Compositions" and not "Orthographic Compositions" or "Morphophonemic Compositions." But still.

[Update: Bill Poser suggests that "morphographic" would be a more accurate term than "logographic" for the writing system of Chinese and Japanese, since (where there is a difference) the characters represent morphemes rather than words. This is entirely true, and maybe we should join Bill in trying to get "morphographic" into general usage in place of "logographic". However, we'll have to fight off the biologists, who think that "morphographic" means "pertaining to morphography", which in turn means "the scientific description of external form; descriptive morphology."]

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 16, 2004 10:19 PM