The Lore of Scriptology Lecture 5:


AdamBlatner, M.D.

Posted (provisionally) March 5, 2011):     Given as part of Senior University Georgetown's February  2011 program.
   (This is the first part of the first lecture---an introductory overview. See also the second part as the Very Early History of Writing,   which will then segue into the 2nd lecture The Early History of Writing        3. Mid-History of Writing         4. Other Aspects of Writing (Typograph, Calligraphy, etc.)         5. This is Lecture  5                  6  Codes & Play With Writing         6a  Summarizing Reflections

Note also, written several years earlier, an overall introduction to Scriptology elsewhere on my website, along with further comments,
    and also on its own web-page, a rather full bibliography of books related to Scriptology.

Writing is an invention---a series of inventions, many building on each other, or offering support  from other fields. The growth of writing expanded with the emergence of inexpensive surfaces on which to write---e.g., papyrus instead of stone, and later, less expensive ways to manufacture paper. It has had thousands of people "inventing" this or that refinement---and the names of most of those inventors have been lost, if they ever were known beyond the moments involved in the invention process. As we shall see, many inventions are merely revisions of previous inventions, but some revisions really advance the process. As a comedian once observerd, "the guy who invented the wheel was good, no doubt; but the guy who thought of adding the other three---now he was a genius!"

In the earlier lectures we saw how writing emerged from accounting and marking the heritage of kings some five thousand years ago to become languages for the codification of law, the administration of city-states and empires, the source of legend and sacred scripture, and so forth. The uses of writing have expanded to include innumerable applications, and they continue to expand. As writing becomes more a taken-for-granted part of life, so that kids integrate writing as part of normal early childhood, it also becomes a vehicle for play---about which we'll talk more in the next lecture.

The key phrase is: "Oh, can you do that?" Once an idea takes hold, variations multiply. In the diagram to the right are several forms of communications built upon the idea of an alphabet, but using a different writing system: Morse code was based on a binomial (on-off) foundation of simple electric current---i.e., the telegraph---in the mid-19th century. Braille was for those who were blind and could only "read" through their fingers. Semaphore was for those who could piece together a message (having a paper and pencil helped) from a signal that could be seen but not heard (an era before cellphones).

Invented Writing Systems

Todsay we'll be talking about other invented systems: The Hangul script in Korea; the Cherokee syallabary; the syllabaries of the Indians of Canada and the Arctic; some writng sytsems invented in Africa and Asia in the last two centuries; and miscellaneous other spelling or writing reforms. I'm reminded of an introductory verse from the song, Do, Re, Mi, made popular in the 1950s movie, The Sound of Music: "When you know the notes to sing, you can sing 'most anything!"


Korea had inherited the writing system from China and superimposed it on their language, even though the Korean language has a different linguistic root from Chinese. It didn't fit neatly, but they made do, and for over a thousand years the intellectual class wrote in this Chinese-like-script mixed with Korean words. But one had to spend many years in study to get this, and simple people were thereby excluded.

Around the same time that  Gutenberg was inventing the movable-type printing press in Germany, King SeJong

(1397-1450) (pictured on the left) developed a simpler writing system for the Korean people. (I talked about printing in my lectures on the early Renaissance  last Fall---but note also that moveable type was also used in printing in Korea some decades before Gutenberg ever thought of it, though the circumstances were not right for it to become a thriving, complex industry as it happened in Western Europe at that time.)  King SeJong worked along with a number of scholars in producing what many linguists have recognized as the most rational writing system ever invented!

The edict on the right that established this language as one that was more rational and fitted to the spoken language, notes that the various consonants tend to represent the sounds of the mouth, throat and tongue when forming the consonants. Some linguists have agreed that Hangul is the most brilliant and plausible systems, if one starts with no sense of having to be beholden to the past. Koreans are so proud of this invention that they have celebrated the day this edict was

presented as a national holiday (October 9, HanGul Day), and is the only writing system to have a day  set aside for its appreciation!


Of course, the actual system is more complex---as is any system, so these picture are just meant to give a hint as to how these sounds are constructed and assembled. More about Hangul can be found on thousands of websites. (The writing system is featural, a kind of mixture of consonants and vowels (i.e., a syllabary) that is in a few ways more like Sanskrit or Hindi, as shown in the third lecture. Modern computers have worked out ways to integrate Hangul, and, interestingly, this system has moved forward the integration of this script into the mainstream.

One of the most interesting things about Hangul is that it was resisted by the intellectual elite for five hundred years. In the early years, the elite did not want to endanger good relations with China, and abandoning Chinese letter-forms seem to partake of the then thought-of-as "barbaric" practices of the Mongol empire. Some thought it would lower the standards of literacy and lead people to neglect the study of classical Chinese. So the point here is that top-down innovations don't always succeed, even when the king is deeply respected.
       (As a more modern instance, Chairman Mao Tse-dung early on advocated the promotion of a Roman alphabet with modifications, so that more people could more easily learn Chinese---but for all his supposed power, he was not able to persuade the majority of his party!)

In the interim, there were a number of political shifts and things just were not ready for  a more grass-roots  change in  literacy.  Still, as Japan invaded  Korea as early as 1910,  this  Hangul script became a symbol of nationalism. Still, through the Korean war, Hangul was only somewhat used, and there were many Hanji or Chinese-like characters that stood for general Korean words and concepts. Since then, though, more of the mass media have featured Hangul, and now that the country is the most "wired" or computer-internet-connected nation in the world, that seems to have moved the process of transition along.  (Interestingly, North Korea instituted a straight Hangul writing system from not long after its liberation from Japan and entrance into the communist orbit.)


In the last twenty years---and increasingly, lately---a consortium of software publishers have worked with improvements in speed and power of computers so that instead of 256 possible characters formed from an 8-bit byte or unit, a 16-bit code can account for some 60, 000 or so different symbols. This allows most of the major writing systems and symbols to be included. Look for systems to be "unicode compliant." Email (and spam) have been able to include Arabic, Hebrew, Cyrillic, and other writing sign systems in the last several years---they weren't before---and soon many e-books will be able to do the same---include writing systems from many cultures!

The lesson here is that the technological problem was less challenging than the political, the task of persuading an ever-expanding field of those who use writing systems---such as Kindle and other electronic-book publishers, to join in the process.


Around 1801 European settlers were making increasing incursions into Native American Indian territory, occasionally setting off violent conflicts. Europeans tended to win, because not only did they tend to have more guns, but also they had writing to facilitate their military strategy. Writing was considered somewhat magical by many Indians.

One member of the Cherokee nation, which operated in the area of what is now northern Alabama and eastern Tennessee, thought these "magic leaves" were not magic at all, but rather a technology that the Indiians didn't know how to use. This fellow, Sequoyah (also called Sequoia---and after whom one species of giant Redwood tree is named) devised a writing system specifically for his own people's language. I showed this picture in the first lecture because discovering this story gave me a boost in my interest in the lore of alphabets.

Sequoyah began with an attempt to write an ideographic system with pokeberry juice bark shingles or flat chips of wood, with a sign for everything---as some of the inventors of African writings systems did---but that didn't work. There were too many of them. Meanwhile, his wife, angered over his neglect of his farm and family, became angrier, and perhaps with her complaining to their neighbors, the anger grew. The house

caught (was set on) fire and all these shingles were burned up. Sequoyah took a new track, aligning signs with sounds of the language. What was interesting is this whole process took about 20 years!\

Sequoyah's second or third draft on the left was difficult to read, because the cursive-like letters were too difficult to tell apart!  (To the righ side of these signs there are other letters which ended up in the 3rd and final  that look more like Roman letters.)

Here's how it ended up, with the help of a man who made it into typeface:

This is a "syllabary," with each consonant having a different form depending on which vowel it's paired with.

Another part of the story is fun: When Sequoyah was finished, he called his neighbors to share the invention with him. Of course they didn't believe him. You can see a bird fly and wonder what it would be like to fly, but capturing the complexity of speech in two-dimensional space? Can't be done. Sequoyah set up a demonstration: He said something like, "You dictate something to my daughter, she'll write it down, someone neutral will carry the piece of paper some distance away, I'll be there, in another house, and I will read the message and tell you what you wrote."  It worked, and folks were so impressed that within a year most of them had learned to read and some to write!

Sequoyah became important and played other roles regarding the fate of the Cherokee nation over the following thirty years. Many stories about him, the Trail of Tears, and his unknown fate in Mexico. Thousands of Cherokees learned this writing and there were newspapers published for generations after Sequoyah's death.

Canadian Indian Scripts

Around 1840, a missionary named James Evans worked out a syllabary for the Indians of mid-Canada, the Cree, and from there others adapted the language for related Algonquian languages. It can express in fewer signs the complex sounds of this type of speech. Here's a similar script adapted from the Cree for the Inuit language of far northern Canada (they don't want to be called "Eskimos," which is a word from a foreign tribe). Here's that syllabary:

The stories of missionaries are quite variable. Evans really blended with the people he sought to reach; others in various countries were less enlightened and some were self-righteously oppressive.


A number of writing systems evolved in sub-Saharan Africa, especially in the regions around Liberia and that part of the continent. We'll begin with the Vai script of western Liberia, developed in 1832 by  Dualu Bukele, inspired, he said, by a dream.

The Arabic writing system had been well known in his area, mainly for religious purposes; and English was used for socio- economic roles. Vai has been for more social roles---a writing for the people. Like other scripts, this system evolved over time. Still, only about 20% of the people know this system.


This writing system, sometimes written with an n as in Bamun, was invented around 1897 by King Njoya (1866-1933) of that tribe in the Cameroons, and like Vai was also ideographic, and also revised over time, becoming more associated with sounds---i.e., "Phonemic." And King Njoya also revised his system several times over the decades following the invention of this system.

To begin with, the Bamun script, like other syllabaries and ideographies, had 466 symbols in 1897, and these were reduced over time to 72 signs. I'm not sure of the whole story, but around that time France operated a colonial empire in West Africa and local chiefs may have found that their interests differed from their overlords. As a result, Njoya destroyed his printing press and was exiled, dying soon afterwards. The hunger of people for their own regional and national identity should not be underestimated. ..


Invented by Solmana Kante in 1949 as a writing system for the Mandan languages---which are used by some 20 million people in West Africa, this writing system takes initial, medial, and final forms for the signs---like Arabic---but differs in that it is written from left to right. There have been several others, too, in Africa, such as Bassa, for the Kru language, devised by missionaries. Then there's the Ndjuka script of Dutch Guinea (on the north east of South America---now Surinam), invented in 1910 by Afaka Atumisi..


Chairman Mao, as mentioned promoted a Romanization of Chinese. His desire was to use Pinyin script---and this was somewhat accepted: Thus, in the 1960s we saw increasing uses of Beijing for what used to be Peking (the Wade-Giles late 19th century spelling) ; Nanjing for Nanking; Xinjiang for Sinkiang.  The other thing proposed was a simplified spelling, meaning to change some of the classical symbols to ones with fewer strokes. This has worked some, but also has led to some confusion. Examples on the right, the right hand columns representing the older, more complex "spelling" and the ones on the left simpler, fewer strokes.

Pahawh Hmong

Professor William Smalley did research on this writing system (shown on the left) created by Shong Lue Yang in 1959 and revised four times in the next twelve years, for the Hmong people who lived in the hilly regions of northern Laos. As others, he claimed to have dreamed the inspiration for this invention.  It was not a derivative of other writing systems known in the area, but adapted to the languages spoken by the Hmong people.. Again the dream, the inspiration, the nationalist desire to unite and give significance to the people.  The revisions also reduced the number of sybols to be used and made it more accessible. As you know, the 60s and the 70s became a politically turbulent time for people as various sub-groups were pulled towards the Communist or Western alliances. Shong was finally killed for his efforts.

Now, moving to the Western Hemisphere:

Benjamin Franklin's Spelling Reform

Many people have found the spelling in standard English to be problematic. There are phonemes, like th, with two phonetic values, and also sounds like the zh sound in pleasure, that aren't reflected in the letters. In the late 1700s English spelling war very

disorderly; children who were learning to read had to recognize what was almost an ancient dialect as far as spelling was concerned. What they read did not jibe with what they heard. Ben Franklin decided that speech chould indicate spelling and attempted to reform the alphabet. He wanted to drop C, J, Q, W, X, and Y because he saw them as unnecessary and superfluous. He also deigned some new characters and reassigned limited uses for standard ones:  So back in the mid-18th century---before the troubles of the American Revolution, Ben Franklin wrote a proposal for revising English, making it more readable, or so he hoped, as shown on the right. However, a lady tried it out and noted (below) that it has problems. .

The topic here is spelling reform, and there have been hundreds of efforts to address the many irregularities in the English and other languages. has problems..
      Franklin soon caught up in other things and left this project..

Noah Webster

Webster’s dictionary is based on the work of a man who sought to create an ortho- graphy for American as differentiated from English. The British spell jail as gaol, and gray as (in the UK) grey. Webster also suggested (and some have been accepted as correct spelling in the USA) the following:: 1. "-our" to "-or"  ; 2. "-re" to "-er"  ; 3. dropping final "k" in "publick,"  4. changing "-ence" to "-ense" in "defence,"  ;5. use single "l" in inflected forms, e.g. "traveled" : 6. use double "l" in words like "fulfill"  ; 7. use "-or" for "-er" where done so in Latin, e.g. "instructor," "visitor";  8. drop final "e" to give: ax, determin, definit, infinit, envelop, medicin, opposit, famin, (others) (not accepted). 9. use single "f" at end of words like "pontif," "plaintif" (not accepted) ; 10. change "-ise" to "-ize" wherever this can be traced back to Latin and Greek (where a "z"/zeta *was* used in the spellings) or a more recent coining which uses the suffix "-ize" (from Greek "-izein"). Anyway, now that text-messaging is spelling for as 4 or too as 2, this whole business of the "right" way to spell will come up again.

Brigham Young, the Mormons, and the Deseret Alphabet

Around 1860s, as the new pioneers in Utah were establishing their community of the Church of the Latter-Day Saints, aka the Mormons, there was a mood of separation from the mainstream culture. To that end, he commissioned his secretary, George Watt, who had been trained in the 1847 version of Isaac Pitman's Shorthand.  The beehive at the top was a symbol of cooperative industry.

The point here is to consider (and enjoy) the way folks make up writing systems, alphabets, for a variety of needs, including having a more differentiated group identity.
Another writing system again is based on a dissatisfaction with the many irregularities of English. George Bernard Shaw, the author and playwright, left a bequest after his death in 1951 of 500 pounds, to be given to the person who could design the best improvement. The committee awarded the money to Kingsley Read for the following:

The Shavian script for the Gettysburg address begins part-way in:  "...but in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground....", etc.

William Moon's Alphabet for the Blind

In Brighton, England, before Braille was developed, Rev. Moon (1819-1894), developed this sort-of alphabet for people who had been able to read but then became blind in later life. It was embossed, like Braille, so it could be touched with the fingers; and it had a little of the Roman letter shape.


For people who can’t speak, a fellow named Charles Bliss created a refined logographic- ideographic system. Apparently Bliss was a difficult character, and although ingenious, he  had interperonal struggles with those most inclined to be his allies. I found the symbols he suggested to be evocative, though.

Other Inventions of Alphabets

On the next website (Lecture 6), I'll present codes and alphabets that are made up for fun.  Finishing up, though, a few other categories. My major point is that scriptology is a very inter-disciplinary field, more than a matter of mere linguistics. Or it stretches our sense of what linguistics includes. How about nonverbal communications, smiles, winks, etc.? Several people have proposed symbols for writing associated facial expressions or moods, so that the reader knows how to interpret what is said. One class of these marks has been the emoticon  used in emails since the 1980s:

Straight communication can become dry. Sometimes some of the following add to the fun:

?-(  black eye      :-r  rasberry or phooey on you
:-p   gag me         :->   sarcastic
:-#   my lips are sealed       |-o   bored   |- O  yawn
:-c   real unhappy         8-o    Omigod!        ;^)   smirk     :-/   bad joke or skeptical     :-"   whistling     >:-[   angry
:-O  very surprised    :'-)    happy with tears    [: ]  robot   

"The forward thrust of the antler shows a determined personality, yet the small sun indicates a lack of self-confidence..."


Can people "read" your handwriting and comment on your personality? Some think so, and this idea has been around for over a century. 

80   What about graphology someone is going to ask? Can you tell personality from it? I don’t know that it offers substantial evidence that can or should stand up in court, but lots of people swear by it, and it sort of makes sense...
. . . Well, that's enough for this lecture.

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