Monday 19 October 2009

the Seoul olympics

The event that took me to Korea earlier this month was the ambitiously named First World Alphabets Olympics, held in Seoul.
The idea was that representatives of various different writing systems from around the world would each give a lecture-length presentation of their system. A panel of judges would then award gold, silver and bronze medals to the best systems. I thought it had the potential to be a very interesting event.
Accordingly, there were presentations on the Latin alphabet (as applied to Italian), on the Greek alphabet, on the Hebrew, Arabic and Armenian writing systems, on Devanagari and a number of related Asian scripts, on the Chinese and Japanese writing systems and of course on Korean hangeul.
The subtext was that the Korean writing system is the best in the world, a sentiment with which I can actually agree (subject to various provisos).
Unfortunately the moving force behind the Alphabet Olympics, Soon-Jick Bae, despite his enthusiasm and hard work, had no specialist knowledge of phonetics or linguistics and did not think to consult phoneticians until very late in the day. Had we been consulted earlier, we would have explained to him that in order to discuss writing systems (not just “alphabets”) it is not sufficient to be a literate native speaker of the language whose writing system you wish to describe. You can’t discuss how well letters (etc.) correspond to sounds unless you can describe the sounds. You can’t describe the sounds properly without some knowledge of phonetics.
A few of the speakers had this necessary phonetic background (notably those dealing with Thai, Lao, Japanese and Korean), but most did not. Most of the speakers (and for that matter several of the judges) appeared to have been chosen on the grounds of their being specialists in Korean or acquaintances of Mr Bae.
Sometimes I happened to have picked up enough knowledge elsewhere to be able to fill in the missing facts. Sometimes I didn’t, and the other judges didn’t either. For example, I am aware that the Greek alphabet as applied to modern Greek, admirable though it is, has the serious shortcoming that the five vowel sounds of the language can be written in twelve different ways (the worst is /i/, which can be spelt η, ι, υ, ει, οι, or υι). But I don’t actually know how well, say, the Myanmar “alphabet” reflects the sound system of Burmese (though I know a man who does).
We duly awarded the gold medal to the Korean alphabet.


  1. Burmese spelling followed the values of the Brahmic alphabet when it was applied to it way back in Pali times; massive sound changes of various kinds mean that whilst the old spelling reflects the historical pronunciation, it matches the modern pronunciation rather bady.

    So it's a bit like English and Tibetan.

  2. There have been some interesting attempts to devise a sort of Hangul IPA. Mostly they failed as they took no account of actual calligraphy in terms of letter derivation.

  3. I think the gold medal should have been awarded to Mkhedruli (the Georgian alphabet) as applied to Georgian. There is no distinction between upper and lower case, and there is a one-to-one correspondence between letters and phonemes.

  4. Even then you'd have to argue the case of alphabetic systems. And there are aspects such as whether it's machine-readable, or topology in general, then aesthetics, how common it is now, maybe how good it works for other languages &c.

  5. I don't know Korean, but Devanagari as applied to Hindi is not far from a one-to-one corespondence of phonemes to graphemes. Unfortunately the huge number of "conjunct" characters, each representing a sequence of two consonants, make learning the script a far harder task than it needs to be.

  6. I think Burmese is better off than English (I can't judge Tibetan), especially for monosyllabic words. Although the letters no longer all have their historical values, they still have largely predictable values (you just have to learn that KY and KR are pronounced /tʃ/, C is pronounced /s/, S is pronounced /θ/, etc.). The problem is mostly polysyllabic words, where you can't tell from the spelling whether or not a nonfinal syllable has been reduced to /ə/.

  7. Personally I think that casing scripts are nicest. :-)

  8. I might be mistaken, but I believe I read somewhere (possibly in Daniels's The World's Writing Systems) that Burmese is saddled with a certain number of scholarly words that are spelled as the original Pali loanwards, but are pronounced with Burmese equivalents. The result is that for these words, the pronunciation is absolutely unpredictable; it bears no relationship to the spelling at all. The situation reminds me of the entry in Kenyon and Knott for "e.g.", which it says may be pronounced "exempli gratia" or "for example".

  9. Too bad the Korean speaker wasn't equipped to give a good presentation of Hangul. The system is a miracle of morphophonemic representation.

    If a prize were to be given for the least user-friendly script (apart from the ideographic scripts), it would most likely go to Tibetan, which probably reflects with some accuracy the way Tibetan was pronounced a thousand years ago. It makes English and Scots Gaelic spelling look like models of consistency.

  10. Lance: read again. The Korean speaker did OK - as indeed he ought to have done, given that he was professor emeritus of phonetics at Seoul National University.


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