User:Robbiemuffin/L2 Presentation Patterns/Sounds and Writing

Sounds and Writing

Writing systemEdit


Given that there are nearly 7,000 languages in the world today, there are surprisingly few writing systems:

Writing systems of the world today.

* each of the writing systems in the above represent a family of writing systems (and perhaps each color is a type or a prototypical family for a type) used by one or more languages. Each language may add or exclude characters, diacritics, prescriptive use and may change the sounds: additionally within many languages there are regional accents that change the actual sounds represented and their prescriptive use.

And of those few, all of them fit into six types: The three main types, logographic, syllabic, and segmental (e.g., an alphabet); along with the three in between types, abugidas, abjads, and featural.

The difference between a syllabic and a segmental system is that the syllabic system demarks entire syllables. The main thing to notice is how syllabic and segmental are so similar. They break words up into their basic constituent sounds (segmental systems are more of an abstraction of the concept).

Indistinctly Alphabetic and SyllabicEdit

Hangul (Korean) uses a writing system that perhaps appears logographic, but is actually approximate to an syllabary: many Jamo (strokes) for each feature of a sound are combined into a syllablic character using a set prescription. About half of the Jamo are direct equivalents of latin alphabet letters, with the others representing consonant sounds, consonant sounds with vowels, dipthongs, and consonant sounds with dipthongs. The result is a system that gives all the information of an alphabet, abstracting to the level of phonetic features, but whose prescriptive use imparts further information:

In english we write polysyllabic and with this grouping of symbols we associate a definition, which must be separately commited to memory. We also associate a prescriptive remedy for pronouncing words, in this case: pol⁠⁠y⁠⁠syl⁠⁠lab⁠⁠ic |ˌpälisəˈlabik|. However, since there are many irregularities, one generally cannot claim to know how to pronounce a unfamiliar word simply upon its reading: while these features are built into the grouping of Jamo in Hangul, and thus one generally can know its utterance immediately upon scanning the word.

Approximately Syllabic or SegmentalEdit

Chinese is an isolating, analytic language, such that there are many effectively modifying lexemes and the lemma of many words are bare in sentences. For that matter, Chinese and all other living logogramatic languages have only one syllable per character, while most modern chinese words are of course polysyllabic.

Of the segmentals, there are systems that demark only consonants because the vowel sound can be inferred or is allowed to vary. The Latin alphabet comes from an older abjad, the name for this type of system. An abugida necessarily adds the vowels.

Model of abstractionEdit

At a glanceEdit

For living languages, this makes exchanging between the writing systems relatively easy, because one is always fundamentally familiar with the model of abstraction.

Divide each lexeme


* where sound is either an allophone/phoneme, or a syllable

Despite this (which some learners might think of as a veritable holy grail of a mapping, because of the simplicity it implies), most languages only partially support this analogy. According to the phonemic orthography wikipedia entry:

Languages with a good grapheme-to-phoneme[sic] correspondence include Bulgarian, Basque, Estonian, Finnish, Georgian, Hungarian, Macedonian, Mongolian in Cyrillic, Korean, Romanian, Sanskrit, Turkish, Croatian, Serbian and Spanish. Most constructed languages such as Esperanto and Lojban have phonemic orthographies.

Other languages generally map one or more sounds to one or more glyphs or sequences of glyphs, and even the natural languages above usually do not approach true one-to-one correspondence, having a healthy selection of contextual differences. What they do offer, however, is the ability to know, at a glance, what are the phonemes of the written word.

One can think of this presentational model as: Essentially correct (some exclusions apply). Those exclusions are almost always more complex than the writing system; the sounds of the language module will delve into the exclusions.

The PatternEdit

We're going to present two tables for the raw data for our writing system. One table to show the alphabet or syllabary (for large syllabaries, a selection of glyphs required for procifiency, likely on the order of 1,000) in the majescule and miniscule, and on a second table a much smaller list of the "essential" characters. We will map from the essentials to the others on the basis of whatever similarity presents itself. When presenting this information, the large table is the reference, and the small table is the associative, teaching tool.

the Writing System Pattern


1 Complete table for reference of the actual system

1 Small list of “essential” characters

1 Map to show the essentiality of the small list and most importantly to direct the student back to the reference list

Writing System ModuleEdit

* transcluded from the Writing System Module: visit it on that page for the recap section of the module.

Part 1: SyllabariesEdit

One might expect that a syllabary is going to have thousands of characters: in fact Chinese has some 47,000. But only about 4,000 are necessary for native speakers. The rest are specialized, limited use terms. And there are morphographic mappings of letters such that, upon gaining familiarity with basic symbols, a native speaker can approximate what a unknown related symbol would be. 4,000 is a high water mark in the syllabary languages: there are only 142 in use in katakana, of which only 103 are for non-loanwords. In hiragana only 69 make up the primary school table and only about 46 are used in introductory texts for students of the language.

Looking at these numbers, over a hundred for Japanese syllabaries, and still only 47,000 for Chinese, one realizes a common thread of syllabaries: a restricted use of syllables. (Compare to the >1.6 million possible syllables in English.) This either comes from the isolating, analytic nature of the language, or from the dominance of consonant-vowel pairing which is often characterized by rapid, machine-gun like speech (a non-syllabary with this character is Spanish). There are very many syllables, very many exceptions, but there is a small core of simple syllables that are atomic, in much the same way that the simplyfied alphabet below would do almost as a drop-in-place system for English speakers.

Japanese as a whole, makes a very sticky example. It is the most complicated written form of language; which commonly weds three distinct and complete writing systems (one of which, kanji, basically is a ligaturization of all of Chinese, in the sense that it is some 50,000 symbols that show morphological divergence, while only 1,000 are oft-used) along with liberal, and frequent, transliteration (the romanji) and borrowing of loan words in their proper native writing system.

Part 2: SegmentalsEdit

The English alphabetEdit

Main page: Wikipedia:English alphabet

As used in modern English, the Latin alphabet consists of the following characters

Majuscule Forms (also called uppercase or capital letters)
Minuscule Forms (also called lowercase or small letters)
a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z

In addition, the ligatures Æ of A with E (e.g. "encyclopædia"), and Œ of O with E (e.g. "cœlom") may be used, optionally, in words derived from Latin or Greek, and the diaeresis mark is sometimes placed for example on the letter o (e.g. "coöperate") to indicate the pronunciation of oo as two distinct vowels, rather than a long one.

Outside of professional papers on specific subjects that traditionally use ligatures in loanwords, however, ligatures and diaereses are seldom used in modern English. Also, any letter from the extended latin alphabet (that is, the latin alphabet in all the languages which use it), will sometimes be used when that word is or used as a loanword such as naïve.


The extended latin alphabet is a good deal more letters than this: comprised of 53 distinct alphabets, some with diacritics (naïve) and others with ligatures (beißen). There is not a one-to-one correlation between phonemes and letters: There are about 50 distinct sounds just within the English language, or about two for every letter (though it doesn't quite distribute evenly that way). And just as we group sounds together in letters, other languages endorse their own groupings. In Japan, the "l" and the "r" are really the same sound; it is just that we make a funny distinction. Likewise, to English speakers, the elle "LL" of Spanish is (in neutral accent) to us really just the same sound as our "y", and the Irish Eth "ð" is really just "th". Therefore, it makes sense to group letters into abstracted families when transferring from one language to another.

The letters can be grouped together in more than one way, and someone learning english is likely to choose a grouping that maps well onto their own writing system. A transfer from english to english would be how we group letters when teaching our own children, something like the following:

 A E O

* Though not officially ligatures, these characters as used in English are in fact single glyphs representing the combination of two distinct letters. The "X" is a "ks" digraph, and the "Q" a "ku" digraph. Of course in the case of Q, the trailing "u" is almost always explicit in the spelling of the word.

Of particular interest to technicians (and probably very natural to mothers, family and teachers of young children) is the use of "C" instead of "k" and "E" in place of "i". This sort of selection represents the letter-choice bias of English, and if the target language was another latin alphabet, the historic symbols like "k" would likely be a better choice. Review what we just did again. We took our alphabet in a standard, complete form, and abstracted out the simple letters of our language.


 A E O
  I   U
J K   W   Y    Z

* This reads, for example: the J is like the G, the W is like UI, et cetera.

Sounds of the languageEdit

Whereas Japanese may be the most complicated writing system (when taken as a whole), English itself may be the least regular in terms of mapping its sounds to its words. Differences in dialect, differences accounted for by the huge surplus of its users as a lingua franca, as well as a profound set of rules and long lists of exceptions, push English to the verge of offering no phonetic clues at all in the morphology of its written language. In some places such as Guyana and the Caribbean, the meter of spoken language becomes consonant-vowel dominated and loses quite a bit of stress-timing (features wholly foreign to English but in keeping with Spanish and many african cultures), and in general English adopts itself in predictable ways to it's regional, cultural context. However, English only stands out as an extreme example of these features, and generally all languages have wide variation in pronunciation both diachronically and synchronically from dialect to dialect.

IPA ChartEdit

  Consonants (List, table) See also: IPA, Vowels  
Pulmonics Bila​bial Labio​dental Den​tal Alve​olar Post-​alve​olar Retro​flex Pal​a​tal Ve​lar Uvu​lar Pha​ryn​geal Epi​glot​tal Glot​tal Non-pulmonics and other symbols
Nasals m ɱ n ɳ ɲ ŋ ɴ Clicks  ʘ ǀ ǃ ǂ ǁ
Plosives p b t d ʈ ɖ c ɟ k ɡ q ɢ ʡ ʔ Implo­­sives  ɓ ɗ ʄ ɠ ʛ
Fricatives  ɸ β f v θ ð s z ʃ ʒ ʂ ʐ ç ʝ x ɣ χ ʁ ħ ʕ ʜ ʢ h ɦ Ejec­­tives 
Approximants  ʋ ɹ ɻ j ɰ Affricates  t͡s d͡z t͡ʃ d͡ʒ t͡ɕ d͡ʑ t͡ʂ d͡ʐ t͡ɬ d͡ɮ p̪͡f
Trills ʙ r ʀ Other laterals  ɺ ɫ
Flaps & Taps ѵ ɾ ɽ Co-articulated fricatives  ɕ ʑ ɧ
Lat. Fricatives ɬ ɮ Co-articulated approximants  ʍ w ɥ
Lat. Appr'mants l ɭ ʎ ʟ Co-articulated stops  k͡p ɡ͡b ŋ͡m
This page contains phonetic information in IPA, which may not display correctly in some browsers. [Help]
Where symbols appear in pairs, the one to the right represents a voiced consonant. Shaded areas denote pulmonic articulations judged impossible.
See also: IPA, Consonants
Edit - Front Near-front Central Near-back Back
i • y
ɨ • ʉ
ɯ • u
ɪ • ʏ
• ʊ
e • ø
ɘ • ɵ
ɤ • o
ɛ • œ
ɜ • ɞ
ʌ • ɔ
a • ɶ
ɑ • ɒ
Where symbols appear in pairs, the one to the right
represents a rounded vowel.

Survey of speechEdit

Survey of writingEdit


Return to the Contents

see alsoEdit