I found this article over on Language Log fascinating, so I thought I’d share it with you.
The article is about whether a better orthographic writing system – the way a language is written down – hurts or hinders either (a) the economic potential or (b) the literacy of its speakers. English, for instance, is often considered to be a notoriously difficult language to learn because of the inconsistencies of its spelling. (In fact, I believe English is quite consistent in the way things ought to be pronounced – but there are a lot of arcane rules that one must learn in order to understand how things should be pronounced, and there is a series of precedents for which rules are more important. I saw this demonstrated once by someone who created a program for making sound changes to conlang words using systematic formal rules, and used the same program by setting up pronunciation rules for English, running english words through it, and outputting a “pronunciation guide” for the words. It was a powerful demonstration of how systematic English pronunciation really is, and only a few words fooled his codified approach. Alas, I no longer have a link to that site. But I digress… a lot.)
Anyway, the article got me thinking, again, about artificial languages and orthography. I do that sometimes. In particular, it made me wonder about the idea of either an inconsistent lexicography or an apparently inconsistent orthography as a mechanism for hinting at the history of the language. Languages with more recent orthographic developments (such as Turkish, for example, which had its modern orthography set down in the 1930s), it turns out, tend to be more or orthographically consistent. Whereas writing systems that are older – older in the sense that people have been writing in the language for longer – tend to be a bit more varied and muddled – English and Chinese being two prime examples. But that varied language hints at the history and etymology of the language in ways that a simple, straight-forward orthography do not. Which made me wonder – to what degree might this influence how one goes about working on invented languages for fantasy worlds? For instance, I’d developed an alphabet and orthography for a fantasy language that might be spoken in my ever-in-development (i.e. that-which-I’ve-been-writing-since-forever) Project SOA. But the spelling of that language is entirely logical and consistent (the orthography being based, in part, on the IPA). Would it be advisable to, intentionally, make the language less consistent to make it more realistic? Something to think about.
Anyway, if you’re writing a speculative fiction story set in a secondary or otherwise non-contemporary world – or if you enjoy contemplating such worlds – then maybe you’ll get a kick out of thinking about language in that way as well.
[Edit… I found the site mentioned in my earlier digression, thanks to one of the comments on the article I linked… It’s here.]