Multiplicity in writing systems: terminological troubles

Consider the alphabetic principle: each letter represents one sound—or, to get technical, each grapheme (a symbol of writing) represents one phoneme (a linguistic sound).

/tɪn/: /t/ /ɪ/ /n/
‹tin›: ‹t› ‹i› ‹n›

So there’s a nice 1-to-1 mapping. But sometimes the mapping can get multiple, both in the direction of writing (1 sound is represented by N letters)…

/θɪŋ/: /θ/ /ɪ/ /ŋ/
‹thing›: ‹th› ‹i› ‹ng›

…and in the direction of reading (1 letter represents N sounds):

/ɛksɪt/: /ɛ/ /ks/ /ɪ/ /t/
‹exit›: ‹e› ‹x› ‹i› ‹t›

Cases like ‹th›→/θ/ or ‹ng›→/ŋ/ are called digraphs. This is a widespread term, so I’d like to use it in my thesis. We can generalize, when N>2, to plurigraphs.

And cases like ‹x›→/ks/ (when from the rule of the system we’d expect a grapheme to represent one sound, but this particular one represents two) could, by the same token, be called pluriphones. (Continue reading for why I decided against “polygraphs” and “polyphones”). Continue reading “Multiplicity in writing systems: terminological troubles”

Annals of the Great Hanzi Debate: Handel’s response to Unger

Here’s one more contribution on the DeFrancis/Ungerian proposal that all writing systems are fundamentally phonographic: Zev Handel, Logography and the classification of writing systems: a response to Unger (2015).

I think we can all agree that the DeFrancis research programme has successfully proved that hànzì and kanji are not ideographic, that they represent language, and that they (also) encode phonological information and are decoded (also) into sounds. The remaining question is largely a matter of emphasis: do we think that this phonographical component is so important and fundamental that hànzì, or even kanji, should be understood as, ultimately, a kind of phonography (and a poor one at that)? Or, is it productive to consider its non-phonographical components important enough so as to classify them as “another kind” of writing (and perhaps not so poor at all)?

Handel above reviews psycho- and neurolinguistic studies, and argues for the latter position.