Re: [OT] ANN: Site about scripts

From: Lars Marius Garshol (
Date: Fri Oct 12 2001 - 13:43:03 EDT

* Kenneth Whistler
| My greater issue with your type classification has to do with my
| disagreement about how you have defined some of the types.

You've certainly exposed my ignorance here. Before this thread started
I was dissatisfied with my typology on two counts:

 a) I did not understand the abugida/alphasyllabary distinction

 b) I did not understand what a featural script was

You've very precisely detected both weaknesses, and gone a long way
towards clearing them up. Thank you very much for that.

| Issue 1. Abugida and Alphasyllabary
| You've defined abugida as "a type of writing system whose basic
| characters denote consonants followed by a particular vowel, and in
| which diacritics denote the other vowels." [...] But cf. Peter
| Daniels' definition of abugida:
| "In an abugida, each character denotes a consonant accompanied by a
| specific vowel, and the other vowels are denoted by a consistant
| modification of the consonant symbols, as in Indic scripts."

Actually, these definitions are both Daniels'. The one you attribute
to me appears on page xxxix (first page of "Abbreviations,
Conventions, and Definitions") of Bright and Daniels.
| In other words, Daniels is defining an abugida in such a way as to
| include all the Brahmi-derived scripts, which you have *excluded*
| from your definition of an abugida.

I completely missed this point. Thank you for pointing that out.
It troubled me that some of the Indic scripts seemed to me to be
abugidas, and yet, all of those that were given a type explicitly were
called alphasyllabaries. This now makes a lot of sense if the ones
which were given no explicit type are abugidas.
| I think Daniels' definition makes more sense, and we are planning
| to make use of it in the next edition of the Unicode Standard.

I'll switch to this other one as well. It is more precise than the
one I use now.
| Ethiopic is an interesting case. It is the original "abugida"
| in grammatology, but it started out as a Semitic-derived abjad,
| and in many ways it is more convenient now to analyze it as
| a featural syllabary. That is how we ended up encoding it in
| Unicode, how it is generally presented, and how many people
| think and interact with it. While the various flags and loops
| associated with the vowel ranks in Ethiopic obviously have
| a featural consistency, they don't have the kind of independent
| existence that the Indic matras typically have; instead, partly
| because of the complex placement rules for the flags and loops,
| depending on the shapes of the consonant bases, in Ethiopic
| it makes more sense to just see each combination as a syllabic
| unit as a whole, with "hints" about the vowel.

I can't say I fully understand this, but I'll accept it, and see if I
can figure it out as I learn more.

| The Canadian aboriginal syllabics, derived from a shorthand system,
| also should be analyzed as a featural syllabary, in my opinion.
| So I think the right thing to do here is to move your instances of
| "abugida" into featural syllabaries, and redefine your
| "alphasyllabary" as "abugida", more in line with Daniels'
| definition.

This makes eminent sense to me, especially as Tengwar also has clear
featural traits (as I am beginning to understand the term "featural").

Does the definition

  "A type of writing system whose characters denote syllables and
  where the characters are systematically composed from more fundamental
  symbols denoting phonetic features."

sound sensible for a type called "Featural syllabary"?

| Also, regarding your current class of "alphasyllabary", I don't
| think the critical issue here is linear order "that is congruent
| with their temporal order in speech."

I'm not sure I understood this. Is the issue that there is no such
class as "alphasyllabary", or that I haven't been precise about the
distinction between "abugida" and "alphasyllabary"?

If there is such a class, how does one tell instances of it apart from
instances of the "abugida" class?

| Issue 2. Featural script
| You define this as "a type of writing system whose characters
| denote phonetic features," and give one example: Hangul.
| Since Hangul characters (either considering the syllables as
| units or the jamo as units) don't "denote phonetic features"
| per se, even Hangul wouldn't fit that definition.

Here you are disagreeing with Daniels again (page xli).

I think I get what you are driving at here: in a featural syllabary
the syllabic symbols are composed from more fundamental symbols, which
denote segmental features of the phonology of the language being

I only understand this to a certain degree, however. What is it that
makes abugidas abugidas, and not featural syllabaries? Abugidas are
also syllabaries where the symbols are composed systematically. Is the
difference what the basis for that system is? Or is the abugida just a
term for featural syllabaries that follow the /ka/, /ka/ + vowel, /ka/
+ killer B model?

It may well be that this hinges on my lack of understanding of the
phrase "segmental features of the language". The fact that Jamo is an
alphabet seems to imply that those "segmental features" are simply
letters, however.

| The distinction from non-featural syllabaries is that in the
| non-featural systems (Kana, Yi, ...) you cannot point to any
| graphic part of any of the symbols, and parse it off as having
| any systematic correlation with segments of the sound system.

It seems to me that this is what distinguishes pure syllabaries from
all the other kinds of syllabaries, again unless the term "segments"
has some special meaning. Abugidas are also systematic in the way that
pure syllabaries are not, aren't they? If alphasyllabary is not a
bogus class then the same would also apply to it, I presume.

| (Of course nothing is black and white here -- the voicing marks
| of Kana obviously are featural, and the tone marks for Yi are
| also featural.)

Would you say the diacritics, as used in French, are featural?

--Lars M.

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