Alphabets are as simple as…

18/04/2006 London Telegraph

Alphabets are as simple as…

Writing systems may look very different, but they all use the same basic building blocks of familiar natural shapes, reports Roger Highfield

If there is one quality that marks out the scientific mind, it is an unquenchable curiosity. Even when it comes to things that are everyday and so familiar they seem beyond question, scientists see puzzles and mysteries.

Look at the letters in the words of this sentence, for example. Why are they shaped the way that they are? Why did we come up with As, Ms and Zs and the other characters of the alphabet? And is there any underlying similarity between the many kinds of alphabet used on the planet?

To find out, scientists have pooled the common features of 100 different writing systems, including true alphabets such as Cyrillic, Korean Hangul and our own; so-called abjads that include Arabic and others that only use characters for consonants; Sanskrit, Tamil and other “abugidas”, which use characters for consonants and accents for vowels; and Japanese and other syllabaries, which use symbols that approximate syllables, which make up words.

Remarkably, the study has concluded that the letters we use can be viewed as a mirror of the features of the natural world, from trees and mountains to meandering streams and urban cityscapes.

The shapes of letters are not dictated by the ease of writing them, economy of pen strokes and so on, but their underlying familiarity and the ease of recognising them. We use certain letters because our brains are particularly good at seeing them, even if our hands find it hard to write them down. In turn, we are good at seeing certain shapes because they reflect common facets of the natural world.

This, the underlying logic of letters, will be explored next month in The American Naturalist, by Mark Changizi, Qiang Zhang, Hao Ye, and Shinsuke Shimojo from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. The analysis is simplistic but, none the less, offers an intriguing glimpse into why we tend to prefer some shapes over others when we communicate by writing.

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From the Feb 15 New
York Times Sunday Book Review



Unraveling the Mystery of the Alphabet From A to Z. 
By David Sacks. 

Illustrated. 395 pp. New York: 
Broadway Books. $24.95. 

….”Like the wheel or the telephone,” Sacks writes, ”the alphabet was an invention
to change the world.” While it’s true that billions of people use
writing based on phonetics every day, not everyone believes the invention
was an advance in literacy. Darnell, who discovered the earliest known
alphabetic writing, told me in an e-mail message that combining ideographic
and phonetic symbols, as in ancient Egyptian writing, ”provides much
more information than an alphabetic system, and allows for additional
levels of poetic expression” compared with phonetic letters alone. Indeed,
as most e-mailers know, when pictographs known as ”smileys” — horizontal
images that hint at facial expression — are added to text, the nuance
of a sentence can change. A wink-smiley — ; ) — added after ”you are
bad” changes its meaning entirely.