Best Writing System?

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Re: Best Writing System?

Postby ZLVT » Thu Apr 08, 2010 6:07 am UTC

if your uni has a basic phonetics course I'd highly recommend taking one. I did and it cleared up so much for me.
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So what characteristics do you like in an alphabet?

Postby Logomachist » Sun Jun 20, 2010 2:38 pm UTC

Inspired by the "Coolest Asian writing system" thread:

I'm considering creating my own script for a conlang, and I'm having mixed feelings about it. A new script throws up sizable barriers to adoption, and will make it harder for me to type, let alone anyone else. Reinventing the wheel is not something I really want to do unless I can demonstrate a real improvement over the Latin alphabet much of the world already knows and loves.

So what characteristics do you like in an alphabet? How do you balance your priorities? Some of the issues I am curious about:

  • Improving readability It seems to me that alphabets with a strong linear component make for an easier read than alphabets where the letters are not connected- for example compare the straight vertical lines Tibetan and regular horizontals of Kalmyk with unconnected cammelCase of English.
  • Diversification vs. aesthetics Characters with diverse geometries are easier to tell apart but it has been my observation that they look "fake". For some reason I like the aesthetics of hanunoo where most characters kind of look like 'v's. Tengwar characters repeat many of the same shapes- 'b' and 'h' looking things. Arabic repeats a lot of shapes too. The jagged lines and diverse shapes in Bassa somehow make it look artificial to me.
  • simplicity vs. aesthetics- Scripts composed of simple geometric shapes are easier to learn and write, and characters which require fewer strokes, faster. But, again, I find characters with complex calligraphy more aesthetically pleasing. I wonder if this is my personal quirk or something more universal?
  • The effect of the medium- Runes were designed to be carved in wood, and so utilized straight lines (to not go against the grain of the wood). Bengali was designed with curves so the palm leaves they were written on wouldn't tear when they were inscribed. Curriform, if I'm not mistaken, was designed to be imprinted in clay, and other scripts were designed to be painted with a brush. Today, most of our writing is done on computers, so we are freed from the constraints of the past. How can we best make use of this freedom? Can we make a script that is easier to read without sacrificing the aesthetics mentioned above?
  • Size- What can we do to keep a script compact and use space efficiently without sacrificing aesthetics or readability? Are Hangul's morpho-syllabic blocks a useful innovation, or would they take up the same amount of space just in a different sequence? I admit I have a preference for vowels over diacritics, but is this really a rational approach?

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Re: Best Writing System?

Postby Makri » Sun Jun 20, 2010 6:00 pm UTC

Curriform


Since it doesn't have anything to do with the yellow-colored spice, the script is actually called "cuneiform".. :mrgreen:
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Re: Best Writing System?

Postby martinkunev » Tue Dec 31, 2013 2:20 am UTC

Each language has specific needs and so there is no "one script to rule them all". For example cyrillic goes pretty well with the slavic languages but not so much for others.

Monika wrote:Latin <-> Cyrillic: They are both equally easy, hard or fast to read and write. Cyrillic as the advantage to have some more letters to signify e.g. a "sh", "soft sh" (as a j in French journal), "tz" or "tsh" sound, to name only a few. Because Cyrillic was designed for writing Russian, Russian has a pretty phonetic / phoemic spelling (almost all letters have only one possible pronunciation), though not completely (e.g. unemphasized o sounds like a, there are occassionally silent letters). The additional letters for ya [ja] and ye [je] are an interesting concept, but I don't feel they make things easier ... maybe Russians feel different. I like the hardening and softening signs, but as I cannot hear the difference between a hard and a soft L they make spelling for me harder - not for Russians I suppose. Cyrillic handwriting has drawbacks in that the handwritten letters sometimes differ significantly from the printed once. E.g. a printed lower-case t looks like a small T, but a handwritten or cursive one looks similar to a very edgy lower-case m ...


Cyrillic is used by more than just russian. It was created far before russian existed as a language. The letter я [ja] exists for historical reasons (originally ѧ). The letter е [je] is pronounced differently in some languages (in bulgarian it's always [ɛ]). For me (a native bulgarian) the softening of the L is the most obvious one (it's actually the only one that still exists in modern bulgarian, even though some people claim other soft consonants exist). I don't feel like handwritten cyrillic is harder than handwritten latin - it all depends on how much you are accustomed to it (for me latin is harder).

The russian alphabet has its glitches (vowel reduction, г pronounced as [v], etc.). Bulgarian is to some extent different but has similar problems. From what I've seen the serbian alphabet is very phonetic.

At the end it all depends on the language. I'm really only familiar with the european alphabets - latin, кирилица (cyrillic), ελληνικά (greek) and they are all similar. They are simple but each one suits only a limited number of languages (polish's latin comes to mind as something ugly). The diversity of the existing writing systems is fascinating. عَرَبِيَّة (arabic) is interesting because it can (mostly) be understood only from the consonants. I like the idea behind 漢字 (hanzi) even though I read it has a lot of problems in practice. I don't have the necessary dedication to learn it, otherwise I probably would. 한글 (hangeul) is cool but I don't see any use of it outside the korean language (which I hear is quite hard for europeans).

I personally would rate the japanese combination of writing systems as the worst.

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Re: Best Writing System?

Postby Derek » Thu Jan 02, 2014 6:40 am UTC

Latin, Cyrllic, and Greek are all alphabets. While the number and shapes of letters differ, they work on the same principal. So if one of them "works" for one language, any of them will work with the proper adaptations.

Alphabets are very flexible, they can represent almost any language (see IPA), though I think they can have some trouble with suprasegmental features. They are not necessarily the most efficient representation of a language, but I suspect they are close enough in practice. Arabic and Hebrew (and some Indian systems) are abjads, they mark consonants but not vowels. I don't have experience with these languages, so I can only assume that they work well enough. I can't see an abjad working for a language like Enlgish though. Hangul is pretty interesting, it's basically an alphabet but written in a compact form (intentionally designed to resemble Chinese). It could work with any language with simple enough phonotactics to fit in it's squares (if I'm reading Wikipedia's hangul page right, CVVCC is the most complex syllable in Korean?). Chinese is a poor writing system, and Kanji is an even worse interpretation of it.

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Re: Best Writing System?

Postby WanderingLinguist » Thu Jan 02, 2014 4:31 pm UTC

MrHan wrote:i cast my vote on hangeul.


For the original criteria (ease of learning, writing, reading), I'm with you 100% on this.

The only disadvantage I can think of when it comes to hangeul is that it's a bit annoying from a software engineering standpoint, because of the combination of individual characters into syllable blocks. That makes it non-trivial to, for example, programmatically filter a list of words for everything starting with ㄱ. You have to make sure the text is in decomposed form first, and even then, there are multiple code points for ㄱ depending on whether it's syllable-initial or syllable-final, etc. So from an IT standpoint, it's a little bit of a mess.

Something like hangeul with syllable blocks composed linearly would be completely awesome. They could even be composed vertically linearly. The problem is you have blocks that are composed horizontally (ex: 가), vertically(구), an both (귀) and that's not counting the final consonant on the bottom. It LOOKS great, it's not really hard to learn, but it's a pain in the neck from a programming standpoint.

I guess that's a relatively minor gripe, since most people don't need to code. But then, what about tools like grep? I can do something like "grep a" to look for all lines containing the letter "a", but I cannot do "grep ㅏ" to look for all lines containing ㅏ in a syllable block.

Other than, hangeul is awesome.

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Re: Best Writing System?

Postby gmalivuk » Thu Jan 02, 2014 8:34 pm UTC

Yeah, despite being completely unrelated to any script or language I already knew, Hangeul was possible to mostly pick up over the course of a dedicated afternoon or two.
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Re: Best Writing System?

Postby Derek » Thu Jan 02, 2014 9:54 pm UTC

WanderingLinguist wrote:
MrHan wrote:i cast my vote on hangeul.


For the original criteria (ease of learning, writing, reading), I'm with you 100% on this.

The only disadvantage I can think of when it comes to hangeul is that it's a bit annoying from a software engineering standpoint, because of the combination of individual characters into syllable blocks. That makes it non-trivial to, for example, programmatically filter a list of words for everything starting with ㄱ. You have to make sure the text is in decomposed form first, and even then, there are multiple code points for ㄱ depending on whether it's syllable-initial or syllable-final, etc. So from an IT standpoint, it's a little bit of a mess.

Something like hangeul with syllable blocks composed linearly would be completely awesome. They could even be composed vertically linearly. The problem is you have blocks that are composed horizontally (ex: 가), vertically(구), an both (귀) and that's not counting the final consonant on the bottom. It LOOKS great, it's not really hard to learn, but it's a pain in the neck from a programming standpoint.

I guess that's a relatively minor gripe, since most people don't need to code. But then, what about tools like grep? I can do something like "grep a" to look for all lines containing the letter "a", but I cannot do "grep ㅏ" to look for all lines containing ㅏ in a syllable block.

Other than, hangeul is awesome.

This just means we're encoding it wrong. It should be encoded linearly, like an alphabet. Rendering the characters into syllable blocks should be the job of the font, like kerning.

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Re: Best Writing System?

Postby Flumble » Fri Jan 03, 2014 2:37 am UTC

WanderingLinguist wrote:The only disadvantage I can think of when it comes to hangeul is that it's a bit annoying from a software engineering standpoint, because of the combination of individual characters into syllable blocks. That makes it non-trivial to, for example, programmatically filter a list of words for everything starting with ㄱ.

You should do some research before making such a claim. :wink:

http://gernot-katzers-spice-pages.com/var/korean_hangul_unicode.html wrote:Code point of Hangul = tail + (vowel−1)*28 + (lead−1)*588 + 44032

Searching only requires that all elements are either composed or canonically decomposed. And decomposition (to find a match) is trivial as shown in the quote. (subtract 44,032 from the character, divide by 588, add 4,352 and check if it's equal to ㄱ; alternatively decompose all text and search by equality like you're used to or require searching for syllables)

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Re: Best Writing System?

Postby D-503 » Sat Jan 04, 2014 12:58 am UTC

Meteorswarm wrote:
ZLVT wrote:Regarding hanzi, I think you're underestimating the value of characters which while vastly different in pronunciation across different languages, all share a common meaning. Also for kanji, they have many pronunciations in different situations but the glyph and meaning remain constant which written communication as long as you don't try to force written communication to reflect the spoken 1:1


Do you actually speak one of these languages? Sure, the gross meanings are usually the same, but please don't underestimate what 2,000 years of divergence does to a language. 本 in Chinese means "root" or "origin," as in 本來-"originally." In Japanese, it means "book."


本 is also the measure word for books in Chinese.

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Re: Best Writing System?

Postby WanderingLinguist » Sat Jan 11, 2014 10:32 pm UTC

Flumble wrote:
WanderingLinguist wrote:The only disadvantage I can think of when it comes to hangeul is that it's a bit annoying from a software engineering standpoint, because of the combination of individual characters into syllable blocks. That makes it non-trivial to, for example, programmatically filter a list of words for everything starting with ㄱ.

You should do some research before making such a claim. :wink:


Errm, I do know what I'm talking about. It's what I do for a living.

Flumble wrote:
http://gernot-katzers-spice-pages.com/var/korean_hangul_unicode.html wrote:Code point of Hangul = tail + (vowel−1)*28 + (lead−1)*588 + 44032

Searching only requires that all elements are either composed or canonically decomposed. And decomposition (to find a match) is trivial as shown in the quote. (subtract 44,032 from the character, divide by 588, add 4,352 and check if it's equal to ㄱ; alternatively decompose all text and search by equality like you're used to or require searching for syllables)


That's non-trivial.

Here's a challenge: Write an SQL query that returns a result set based on a prefix match in Hangul, where the prefix contains incomplete characters. For example, 가 would match as a prefix for 가다 and also 갑니다. (This is a very common problem if you have to implement a match-as-you-type search). Easy if you can specify that the entries in the database are all decomposed form. But what if you can't? What if you're trying to implement a search on a very large 3rd party database where you only have read-only access, and it's Unicode but wasn't designed specifically with Korean in mind? In my experience, it seems to be a much more common convention to store text in canonical composed form rather than decomposed form (or to simply not bother with it at all). It's actually possible to do it and get decent performance (depending on the dataset, you can do a two-stage filter, for example; or worst case you a build a big list of all possible candidate characters) but I wouldn't call it trivial.

Sure, sometimes you have the luxury of being able to just do something like:

Code: Select all

[w for w in words if decompose(w).startswith(decompose(prefix))]


...but it's still a special case, and it means it doesn't just automatically work if (for example) the programmer didn't know about Hangul and wrote the obvious:

Code: Select all

[w for w in words if w.startswith(prefix)]


Not the end of the world, but I think I can stand by my claim that it's "a bit annoying" :wink: And if you're ever stuck having to write a prefix match on a live search via AJAX where you don't control the server... ugh (So many people think... if it's the database layer, "supports unicode" is enough; any language-specific stuff will happen in the UI layer. Meh.)

Still, it's easier than trying to do prefix matches on mixed English and Arabic text...

[edit: typo city]

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Re: Best Writing System?

Postby Flumble » Wed Feb 05, 2014 1:53 pm UTC

Ah, I'm sorry, I assumed you didn't know about hangul's decomposition.

WanderingLinguist wrote:But what if you can't? What if you're trying to implement a search on a very large 3rd party database where you only have read-only access, and it's Unicode but wasn't designed specifically with Korean in mind? In my experience, it seems to be a much more common convention to store text in canonical composed form rather than decomposed form (or to simply not bother with it at all).

Thanks for showing, because that's a situation I hadn't thought of at all. :o If you're dependent on a 'mis'configured external database, then searching indeed becomes a hassle.

WanderingLinguist wrote:Not the end of the world, but I think I can stand by my claim that it's "a bit annoying" :wink:

Yes, I can relate with that now.

If only unicode hadn't incorporated composed characters... :P

PS: That reminds me: why would the average collation table include things like e←é but not ㄱ←겓?

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Re: Best Writing System?

Postby sb2702 » Mon Feb 10, 2014 2:52 am UTC

I'm not claiming polyglotism, but I'm at least intermediate (can take care of most daily tasks and express opinions on familiar and some unfamiliar subjects) in 7 languages, and I've studied a few more. In studying those languages, I've come across a number of scripts, including the roman alphabet (for English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Nahuatl, Quechua and Navajo), Arabic Scrpt (not for Arabic, but for Urdu), Hazi (for mandarin), and Devnagari (for Hindi), and I can kind of read the Bengal script (Bengali), but it's quite similar to Devnagari.

I'd like to learn more about the Korean script, as I hear it's a marvel of linguistics, but I can't comment on that system because I haven't learned it.

Thoughts:

1) It's definitely 'more' possible to objectively compare writing systems, but it's never gonna be 100%. Writing systems developed to represent written speech, but in some cases (notably chinese), the writing system has affected the culture and the language, in the sense that the use of characters can be used to remove ambiguity given the number of homophones in many chinese languages. Otherwise though, Hanzi is a terrible writing system for writing anything but a chinese language, and would come near last place.

2) In addition to the original measures of easyness to read, you also need to factor in how flexible / adaptable the writing system is to the language it tries to represent.Looking first at european languages, a number of "extra" marks have been added to adapt the roman alphabet to those languages - features not evident in the 'standard alphabet'. This is more evident, though, (from my experience) looking at Native American languages - which pretty much solve this problem by 1) adapting gramatical marks to represent sounds (think of ! representing a click, or ' representing a glottal stop), 2) By adding groups of letters together (sh/ng/tch/dge in english, tl in nahuatl) 3) By taking letters from the international phoenetic alphabet (Navajo has this really fun sound ɬ, which really can't be expressed in the roman alphabet in any combination of letters or marks).

3) English is a complete mess with it's alphabet. Words aren't spelled phonetically anymore, and we associate multiple sounds with the same letters.

I don't want to be a cultural imperialist (in fact, I feel I'm quite the opposite), but looking objectively, I'm gonna have to say that the Roman alphabet is the best existing writing system commonly in use for representing languages in general, but still far from perfect.

Pros of the Roman alphabet:
Letters and Vowels represented with a small number of actual symbols
Small, powerful, flexible set of diacritics to represent a wide variety of sounds

Cons:
Small number of letters doesn't represent a lot of sounds, and leads to combining letters to represent new sounds (among other things) - which is specific to the language
Even with a small number of letters, there is a lot of redundancy (K/C in english for example) (C/S/Z in Spanish (Zero, Sero, Cero would sounds the exact same in spanish).
upper case letters are pretty stupid. you shouldn't need to double the number of symbols to learn to represent trivial things such as the beginning of the sentence.

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Re: Best Writing System?

Postby Aleksander » Sun May 11, 2014 12:13 am UTC

Meteorswarm wrote:Do you actually speak one of these languages? Sure, the gross meanings are usually the same, but please don't underestimate what 2,000 years of divergence does to a language. 本 in Chinese means "root" or "origin," as in 本來-"originally." In Japanese, it means "book."


To be fair, 「本来」 means "originally" in Japanese too.

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Re: Best Writing System?

Postby alessandro95 » Sun May 11, 2014 9:42 am UTC

In chinese 本 is used also as a classifier for books (even though "book" is 书)
The primary reason Bourbaki stopped writing books was the realization that Lang was one single person.

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Re: Best Writing System?

Postby eSOANEM » Sun May 11, 2014 10:51 am UTC

sb2702 wrote:Even with a small number of letters, there is a lot of redundancy (K/C in english for example) (C/S/Z in Spanish (Zero, Sero, Cero would sounds the exact same in spanish).


This is dialect dependent. In standard Castilian, only Zero and Cero would be pronounced the same (because they're lisped) and, of course, c isn't equivalent to z because it has a hard pronunciation (although that's equivalent to qu).

The other problem with spelling reform is that it masks etymologies. There's a reason all the Germanic words in English are the ones it's hard to guess the meaning of if you don't already know.

Anyway, pretty much everything you said just argues in favour of an alphabetic script with diacritics so, why not Greek? Why not Glagolitic? Coptic? Cyrillic? There's an awful lot of scripts which meet your criteria.

And, as you note, what's useful for one language is not so useful for others. Abjads are pretty much only good alphabets for Semitic languages or other languages where consonants are generally preserved but vowels may be affected morphologically. Logographic scripts are good for isolating languages like, as you say, Chinese. Syllabaries only really work for things with pretty restrictive phonotactics and a limited phonetic inventory like Japanese.

The alphabet and the abugida are the Jacks of all trades. They work pretty much equally well for any language but don't do so anywhere near as well as native scripts often do. It shouldn't be surprising that pinyin and romaji have never been able to contend as a dominant script in those countries. Likewise there are non-political reasons why Hebrew and Arabic are both still written with Abjads.

Lastly, if we do want an alphabet as our "best script", it really ought to be featural. Featural scripts just make more sense. Surely Hangeul (possibly supplemented with a standardised series of diacritics borrowed from Roman script) makes more sense?
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Re: Best Writing System?

Postby Lazar » Sun May 11, 2014 11:03 am UTC

eSOANEM wrote:The other problem with spelling reform is that it masks etymologies. There's a reason all the Germanic words in English are the ones it's hard to guess the meaning of if you don't already know.

I feel like this would be an obstacle to major spelling reform in French, because so many words have "hidden" phonemes that are only realized under complex rules of liaison, in some cases optional.
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Re: Best Writing System?

Postby Monika » Sun May 11, 2014 8:59 pm UTC

eSOANEM wrote:The other problem with spelling reform is that it masks etymologies. There's a reason all the Germanic words in English are the ones it's hard to guess the meaning of if you don't already know.

The spelling of Germanic words makes it harder to guess their meaning? How?
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Re: Best Writing System?

Postby Derek » Sun May 11, 2014 9:32 pm UTC

eSOANEM wrote:It shouldn't be surprising that pinyin and romaji have never been able to contend as a dominant script in those countries.

I'm sure this has far more to do with cultural inertia than any actual advantages of Chinese character or kanji. I mean for one, kanji are themselves borrowed from a completely unrelated language. If Chinese characters are optimized for Chinese, then there is no reason to expect them to also be optimal for Japanese. I think Japanese would unequivocably be better off with a syllabary, and romaji is definitely superior to kanji. I know there are also Chinese proponents for using pinyin to write Mandarin, Language Log has some good posts on this topic, as well as the difficulty that Chinese characters cause for Chinese speakers.

But in both Japan and China, there is a large amount of cultural inertia behind the existing system. People already know how to read or write, and even if it took them ten years of schooling to reach a proficient level, it's easier for them to keep using the existing system then to switch. The existing system also ties them to their history and culture, and I'm sure many people would not want lose that even if it meant a vastly easier writing system. It's basically the same reason why we still spell like Late Middle English.

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Re: Best Writing System?

Postby eSOANEM » Mon May 12, 2014 1:32 pm UTC

Monika wrote:
eSOANEM wrote:The other problem with spelling reform is that it masks etymologies. There's a reason all the Germanic words in English are the ones it's hard to guess the meaning of if you don't already know.

The spelling of Germanic words makes it harder to guess their meaning? How?


Modern English spelling generally reflects Middle English pronunciation, by that point in history, the germanic words from OE have had plenty of time to undergo sound change and diverge from their etymologies (particularly under French influence) whilst the romance words brought over by the Normans were less affected by the germanic substratum.

The later latin and greek borrowings have completely transparent etymologies as they're almost all derived from the same period of classical greek and latin.

So yeah, it hardest to guess the etymology (and therefore related words) with germanic roots than romance ones (in English). Note that, seeing as germanic roots are over-represented in the most common English words, guessing etymologies is less likely to be relevant for them.

Derek wrote:
eSOANEM wrote:It shouldn't be surprising that pinyin and romaji have never been able to contend as a dominant script in those countries.

I'm sure this has far more to do with cultural inertia than any actual advantages of Chinese character or kanji. I mean for one, kanji are themselves borrowed from a completely unrelated language. If Chinese characters are optimized for Chinese, then there is no reason to expect them to also be optimal for Japanese. I think Japanese would unequivocably be better off with a syllabary, and romaji is definitely superior to kanji. I know there are also Chinese proponents for using pinyin to write Mandarin, Language Log has some good posts on this topic, as well as the difficulty that Chinese characters cause for Chinese speakers.

But in both Japan and China, there is a large amount of cultural inertia behind the existing system. People already know how to read or write, and even if it took them ten years of schooling to reach a proficient level, it's easier for them to keep using the existing system then to switch. The existing system also ties them to their history and culture, and I'm sure many people would not want lose that even if it meant a vastly easier writing system. It's basically the same reason why we still spell like Late Middle English.


Oh yeah, kanji's a stupid script for Japanese (which is why it developed into the kanas), the fact it's still used (generally in preference to the much more sensible hiragana) is indeed down to cultural inertia.

Chinese characters are still quite good for mandarin (although Mao's spelling reform made it worse by making a lot of the phonetic clues less obvious and, well, they were less than ideal anyway because of sound changes since the spelling became formalised and rigid) but not good for other languages, mostly because the rebuses don't work very well.

The main advantage to logographic scripts for isolating languages is that they allow a much greater information density (although of course, density isn't unambiguously selected for in language because redundancy's also often useful) so, some sort of adaptation of the principles behind the traditional Chinese characters (i.e. redoing all of the rebuses) should be pretty damn good for most of the Chinese languages.
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Re: Best Writing System?

Postby aoeu » Thu Jul 24, 2014 2:07 pm UTC

Silas wrote:
Makri wrote:Кириллица isn't slower to write than Latin, and I don't see why it would seem to be. There's a good cursive of it that works very similarly to Latin cursive.

No, it's not slower to write, but it is harder on the eyes. In print, there are only eight lowercase letters with features below the baseline or above the x-height. A string of text is too frequently a featureless ribbon of thick vertical strokes, with occasional diagonals or loops.

I doubt there is much truth to that. As I understand all these "rough outline recognition" theories have been debunked. Just on aesthetic grounds I would prefer to use very regular characters for main text, and scripts that are all over the place for titles. Compare (in decreasing order of blockiness):

http://ko.wikipedia.org/wiki/%EC%9C%84% ... 0%EB%AC%B8
http://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia: ... 6%E9%A1%B5
http://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D0%97%D0% ... 1%86%D0%B0
http://el.wikipedia.org/wiki/%CE%A0%CF% ... E%B9%CE%B1
http://et.wikipedia.org/wiki/Esileht
http://ar.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D8%A7%D9% ... 9%8A%D8%A9


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