Thursday, January 20, 2011

Behind the Director's Chair

As any movie critic will tell you, In order for a film to thrill its viewers and garner those rave reviews, it needs a stellar script. And as any linguist will tell you, in order for a written language to successfully meet the needs of its speakers, it too needs a stupendous script. But rather than clever dialogue, witty remarks, and snarky come-backs, a script—of the language variety—has other tools up its sleeve.

But, before we get too far, let’s start with definitions. Moving out of the director’s chair and into the linguist’s office, “script” is the technical word used to refer to the style of symbols in a writing system. What’s a writing system? It’s a set of signs that represent a language in a systematic and symbolic way for the purposes of communication. Pause for a moment: this is not an alphabet, although we commonly use that word in lay English to refer to this concept. An alphabet is actually only one type of writing system (don’t worry if you are confused, I’ll explain it at a different time).  For now, let’s start with scripts.

At this point you are probably ready to start skimming, if you haven’t given up entirely. Hang in there! It isn’t as scary as it sounds, and it actually impacts your life. Let’s start simply (besides, there are cool photos). For example, there is the Roman (or Latin) script:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. (From Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.)
 Disclaimer: I'm not trying to make a point by using this text--rather, virtually all the samples of text you see here are translations of these two sentences. I cannot verify their exact quality since I did not translate them. All text examples are taken from

Look familiar? It might not, if you went back several hundred years. Like the languages they represent, scripts will change over time—English’s own Roman script came from the Etruscan and Greek scripts.


That doesn’t look so terribly scary does it? This text is Russian.
There is also the Cyrillic script::

Now, let’s be more adventurous: the Arabic script (this text is in modern standard Arabic): 
Scripts can be written/read in different directions, such as this one,  from right to left

I love the graceful lines of this script used to write Lao.
Scripts used to write tonal languages, like this language of Lao, are unique challenges for linguists when determining how to indicate the different tones for words.


Read this script from top to bottom
Another fascinating challenge is that of writing down sign languages. Here is a sample text in ASL sign-writing telling part of the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Sign-writing is still a rather controversial topic in the deaf community. The symbols are not simply a pictorial retelling of the story. Rather, they represent complex and specific signs, including detail s of the hand shapes and facial expressions of the signer.

Although one language may only be associated with one script, this isn’t always the case. For example, French, English, Spanish all use the Roman script—when you took French in high school, you, as an English-speaker, probably found it was relatively painless to form the letters.


This is the official script (technically a transliteration) for Mandarin
Here are the beautiful characters, each telling a story in and of itself
In other cases, one language may use multiple scripts—Mandarin Chinese, for example, can be written using traditional characters below (hànyŭ or zhōngwén) or the Roman script above (called pīnyīn).

Three scripts are found in this standard Japanese text
Some writing systems mix two or more different scripts (such as in Japanese, which combines hiragana, katakana and kanji).

This Cree text can be written and read up, down, left, and right!
Scripts often reflect culture—the symbols in the Cree script are traditional and familiar (making it easy to learn for mother tongue speakers).

These are tiny bumps on a paper, read by sensitive fingertips
But what about other forms of writing? Take a look at this sample text written in the Braille script, which is used by people who are blind. Scripts are not necessarily visual; they can also be tactile.

Let’s be clear—a change in font is not a change in script. It is simply a modification of the original script. You could still read this text and recognize it as English even if I switched one of the zillion fonts found in Word 2007 (unless, of course you are using Wingdings)!

Now, before you start lauding the value or ease of reading and writing your script and disdaining all others, let me point out that of course you will prefer whichever script you have learned and your eyes have seen since you first learned how to blink. You also prefer lima beans if your mother cooked them for dessert at every meal, and you prefer a house with a fireplace if that’s where you spent your favorite Christmas memories. Script preferences are learned preferences, and that’s what makes them so important, especially in Bible translation.

So, how do you know what script to use when you start working with an unwritten language?

Although it might seem like a trivial point, a script can have significant political ramifications. If the script used is associated with a lower class, people may not want to learn it, and a translated Bible can simply sit on the shelf. Governments often desire the indigenous languages to use the same script as the state language(s) since that will facilitate an easier time switching between the two. But, in other cases, the indigenous community prefers their writing system look different from the surrounding systems in order to promote individual identity and culture. There are many heated debates on this topic, and disagreements can severely challenge translation progress.

If you’re curious about seeing other cool scripts, I suggest you explore this website (, which even includes fictional writing systems (Klingon, anyone?) and undeciphered scripts.

And the next time you watch a sappy movie, don’t blame the script. It was just a set of symbols conveying a  language poorly written down ;-)