art with code

2010-04-22

Phonetic writing systems

From the 26 writing systems I've drawn thus far some patterns emerge. There are consonant-based systems, consonant-vowel systems and syllabic systems of different kinds. And these are all phonetic systems, I haven't gotten to the logographic ones yet.


Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Consonant-based systems (abjads) typically encode around 20 consonants. Examples of consonant-based systems are Phoenician, Hebrew and Arabic. Some have optional diacritics for vowels (mostly used for educational texts). They are prevalent in the Middle-East, and apparently are derived from the phonetic part of Egyptian hieroglyphs (also a consonant-based system) through Phoenician. The hieroglyphs were written left-to-right and right-to-left, the characters looking towards the start of the line. And for one reason or another, the derived writing system stuck to right-to-left.

Consonant-vowel systems (alphabets) have around 20 consonants and 5-10 vowels, each having a separate character. The Greeks took the Phoenician system, added vowels, and flipped it around to left-to-right, mirroring the letters in the process. From that you get the Greek-derived alphabets like Etruscan (RTL) -> Latin (LTR), Cyrillic and Coptic. A strange feature in these Greek-derived systems is the existence of lowercase letters. The Mongolian script is also a consonant-vowel system, but it derives from the Uyghur consonant-based system.

The Korean Hangeul is sort of a consonant-vowel system, but it's written in a syllabic fashion: take the letters in a syllable, cram them inside a box, write it down. But a syllable has at least two letters and the second letter is always a vowel. There's a no-sound first letter for doing stand-alone vowels, but no way to do a stand-alone consonant.

Alphasyllabic systems (abugidas) encode consonant-vowel-pairs. Devanagari and Ethiopian Ge'ez are examples of this. They both have a base character for each consonant and a set of diacritics (more like ligatures) to signify the vowel or the lack of one. Devanagari also has separate characters for stand-alone vowels, and some diacritics to change the pronunciation of consonants.

The syllabic Japanese kana system encodes consonant-vowel-pairs, stand-alone vowels and a stand-alone 'n'. The main difference between it and the alphasyllabics is that it uses a separate character for each consonant-vowel-pair instead of the base+modifier-system. The kana system has diacritics for modifying the voicing of the consonants but there's no diacritic for dropping vowels. There are two kana systems, hiragana and katakana. Katakana is an angular script used for transliterating foreign words (by pronunciation) whereas hiragana is a more rounded script used for everything else. They have a slight visual similarity, think of Cyrillic uppercase vs. cursive.

Speaking of cursive, the cursive scripts (e.g. Arabic and Mongolian) have three or four different letter forms, depending on whether it's the initial letter of a word, a middle letter, the last letter, or a stand-alone letter. If you know cursive handwriting with the latin alphabet, you pretty much know how that works. Think of the lowercase 'e': on its own it looks like the typed 'e', in the beginning of the word it's an 'e' with a low tail, in the middle of the word it's a low loop, and at the end of a word it's a low loop with an upcurved tail.
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Built art installations, web sites, graphics libraries, web browsers, mobile apps, desktop apps, media player themes, many nutty prototypes, much bad code, much bad art.

Have freelanced for Verizon, Google, Mozilla, Warner Bros, Sony Pictures, Yahoo!, Microsoft, Valve Software, TDK Electronics.

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