- - Wednesday, December 11, 2019

It’s a safe bet that as you read this — and everything else in the paper — you are absorbing the meaning, but not thinking about the letters used to spell the words.

Where do those letters come from? Who invented them? When? And what are they based on?

English and most other European languages use Latin alphabet letters that reflect the sounds we make when we speak. Some letters are therefore symbols for consonants, and some for vowels. Obviously.

Or maybe not so obviously. Many languages are written in scripts that have no vowels, merely assuming that readers will add them as needed. Other languages use scripts built of syllables or logograms that originate in stylized pictures. Some combine more than one system.

“The Art of Language” describes 26 of the scripts used to record languages around the world. It details the origins of each script and its organizing features on one page, with all its characters set out on the facing page. 

Many scripts go back millenia. According to “The Art of Language,” the oldest known systems of writing are logograms used in the hieroglyphics of ancient Egypt and Mayan texts. Both are now defunct, but not Chinese, the second most common writing system in the world after the Latin alphabet that we, among many others, use.

The earliest Chinese writing dates back to the middle of the second millennium B.C. The earliest symbols were pictograms: A simple sun, a mountain or an arrow pointing up or down. Later, scribes used such symbols to denote words that had different meanings but similar sounds, changing the system from purely logographic to partially phonographic so a symbol can be both a sound and a concept. The characters for “black” and “heart” written together thus mean “ruthless.”

Over their many centuries of use Chinese characters have changed so they now no longer look like little pictures, but an estimated 1.34 billion people use them, and those of us who can’t understand a single character are nonetheless familiar with it in restaurant and other signs. 

Similarly, most of us recognize Arabic script, the third most common writing system, used in one form or another by 660 million people. It dates back to the third century of our era, and was devised using letters from earlier Phoenician systems as a way of remembering oral poems. It became fully phonetic — the letters representing spoken sounds — as a means of recording the Koran. Phonetics were necessary because Muslims believe it to be the literal word of God and therefore must be reproduced with the utmost precision.

Islam barred iconography so calligraphy became a major art form. This is the case also with Chinese and some other languages. “The Art of Language” helps its readers get into this art by providing a page for each language in which you can trace its forms out for yourself. If you succeed, the text you have written will be a proverb such as the realistic Japanese “Even monkeys fall from trees,” or the optimistic Ethiopian: “Little by little, even an egg will walk.”

Ethiopian and some other African languages are written in the Ge’ez script developed in the fourth century and attributed to St. Frumentius of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Likewise, the ninth-century saints Cyril and Methodius are credited with creating Cyrillic, the script of Greek Orthodox church, and in an adapted form of Russia as well as Greece, Bulgaria and some other Slavic countries.

Some scripts developed more recently. The most heart-warming story in the book is of George Gist — Sequoyah in his own Cherokee language. In the early 19th century, he marveled at the letters and papers that enabled white Americans to communicate over long distances. Calling them “talking leaves,” he invented a script of 85 characters, each representing a syllable of Cherokee.

When this proved hard to print, he adapted it to include some Latin characters that printers would have on hand. Thanks in part to his script, his language is still spoken. He also inspired a Methodist missionary in Canada to invent a Cree script that indicate spoken syllables. Today, 200,000 people speaking various aboriginal languages use it. 

Nowadays, many American children are not even taught cursive writing because putting actual pen to actual paper has been superseded by fingers on a keyboards. So, looking ahead, there may be no tutored hands to write our languages. The calligraphy possibilities offered in this book may perhaps persuade some to practice the art of writing by hand.

Certainly, every page of this fascinating volume has something of interest, ranging from historical description to explication of different ways of recording what we say. If this season of perplexity about what to give to friends and family, look no further for a brilliant solution.

• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

• • •


By Zora O’Neill

Lonely Planet, $14.95, 128 pages

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