Friday, March 4, 2011

Now I know my ABCs!

Is Mc- filed before Ma- or after? You probably don’t think about this on a regular basis, but I do! As a receptionist, I can often be found filing client records (or finding them!), digging through hundreds of folders packed into our twenty-eight drawers, each neatly labeled A-B or O-Pe or Wi-Z. Before I started working in the clinic, I thought I knew my alphabet song pretty well, but now a need for efficiency has burned the English alphabet into my brain as never before! 
But what is an alphabet, actually? A little while ago we talked about scripts (see:, and you’ll remember that scripts are simply the form in which the writing system is communicated. How the sounds of spoken language are communicated through the script is a different concept—and it’s the one that causes preschoolers to sing the alphabet song and me to file records so the other receptionists can find them again!

Curious yet? Let’s go on a tour of writing systems!

Abjads (consonant alphabets)

In this abjad, Hebrew is written both with and without vowels

In an abjad, the individual letters represent consonants. Although it seems foreign to English speakers, indicating vowels is not necessary for readability; however, vowels are sometimes indicated by consonant letters or diacritics (those little marks that look like apostrophes or accents).

Phonemic Alphabets
Korean hangeul was invented in 1444, but didn't find acceptence until later
Say alphabet, and this is the system that typically jumps to mind, where letters represent both consonants and vowels. Although in English one letter can stand for different sounds (card vs. city), in Czech, each letter or combination of letters represents only one sound. The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) operates similarly to Czech, but it’s so fascinating, that this system deserves a post all to itself. Stay tuned!


Abugida (syllabic alphabets or alphasyllabaries)

Burmese is a beautiful example of an abugida!
This system bridges the former and latter systems by a non-exclusive focus on syllables. Syllables are built up of consonants, each of which has an inherent vowel, e.g. ka, ga). The inherent vowel can be changed or muted by those friendly diacritic marks, and sometimes even indicated separately by a distinct symbol.

The writing system for Cherokee was created in 1819 and used today!
Here, each syllable (made up of a consonant plus a vowel or just a vowel) is represented by a different symbol (or a modification of a symbol).


Semanto-phonetic (logophonetic, morphophonemic, logographic, or logosyllabic)

Egyptian Hieroglyphics (top) and Chinese characters (bottom)
The symbols in these systems represent both sound and meaning, which often results in a large number of symbols (some have no upper limit, such as Chinese!). The symbols can represent individual sounds, words (logograms), abstract ideas (ideograms), or concrete things (pictograms), or even a combination of the above. 

All of these details become important in Bible translation as linguists try to form a writing system that is acceptable and useful to the language group.

So, is Mc- or Ma- first? If our cabinets truly followed the English phonemic alphabet, then all those Scottish-sounding names should be filed after Ma-. But, they aren’t. And that’s an alphabet song I never learned.

All images taken from where you should visit to see more cool writing systems!