On alphabets and scripts

August 11, 2016

Stuck in our little bubble, we rarely look beyond our own Roman script. I’ve been fascinated by other ways of writing ever since I was quite small, when, very occasionally, letters would arrive from my father’s family in what was then the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. They were addressed in Cyrillic script, and somewhere along the postal chain the address was crudely and inaccurately transcribed into ours in crayon, in the gaps between the lines on the envelope. And when he replied, my father wrote his brother’s address in Cyrillic script. I was curious. And why did the Russians need 35 letters in their alphabet, when we only had 26?

I made an ill-fated attempt to learn classical Greek at secondary school. It was horrendously difficult, not because of the script, but for its grammar, which rivalled Polish in its tortured complexity. Again, another script, and of course, related to Cyrillic.

Even among Western European languages, a variety of accents are required to produce all the different sounds each language requires. But European scripts do all resemble each other; there are overlaps, although sometimes there is confusion, as with the Cyrillic ‘CCCP’ which are actually the letters ‘SSSR’ in Russian, standing for Union of Soviet Socialist Republics… And then there are some letters that just don’t exist in English. There’s enough similarity, though, for anyone interested to begin to explore the differing scripts and to make some sense of what’s there – until you get to handwriting. I was speechless when my father explained to me that handwritten Russian used quite different letters! So, for example, our capital letter ‘T’ is also ‘T’ in Russian. But our small ‘t’ actually looks very like ‘m’ in Russian. Got a headache yet?

I came across the Arabic alphabet quite early on, too. There, we Westerners are utterly clueless: there’s nothing vaguely resembling our script to give us any clues. And, although we call our numeral system Arabic, the actual numbers in Arabic script don’t look much like ours at all. Plus everything goes from right to left, rather than left-right. Books and newspapers open from the ‘back’ and work in reverse direction to ours. I found that a copy of an Egyptian newspaper made an excellent prop whilst teaching GCSE poetry, when we had to study a token few poems that came from other cultures and traditions. I could pass it around the class; we could all agree we could make no sense of anything at all unless there were recognisable visual clues in photographs or advertisements. And yet: there were millions of people who could access that newspaper, and read it as effortlessly as we read ours. Cultural relativism in a nutshell.

There are some visually quite gorgeous scripts in the languages of South East Asia, flowing like water on the printed page. I found it very sobering being put in my place, as it were, by languages that I couldn’t even begin to approach.

And then there are the ideographs of Chinese – picture writing, perhaps not quite in the same vein as the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt, but on similar lines: a whole word as a concept picture, rather than being structured of a series of sounds built up into a word as we do. How can this work? And the use of the same ‘word’ but said in a different ‘tone’ having a totally different meaning! It was later along the line that I learned that in the different varieties of Chinese, although the pictograms representing an object or concept remained unchanged, the word – as said – was different. And in former years, they wrote in lines from top to bottom of the page rather than across it like we do.

I revel in all this diversity; I find it fascinating. I collect newspapers from all over the world, and enjoy staring at the scripts. If anyone out there is off to Mongolia, there’s one language I don’t have…

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