Scientific Strength of Writing Systems – Observation On Major Scripts

There are hundreds of scripts and thousands of written languages in the world. Some of them vary greatly in visual feature and legibility. All the writing systems play a vital role for the people to learn, communicate, and to create. Unfortunately, most people haven’t realized the legibility of a writing system correlate with the its capability of founding science, which constrains their mental power in sequential processing of visual information.

We proposed five aspects for assessing the scientific strength of a writing system in the recent article “scientific strength of writing systems – the aspects”. In this paper, we give analyses of the visual features of some major writing systems, regarding the first through fourth aspects[1]. They could be only briefed, given my limited knowledge of most of them. We focus on their visual characteristics solely, without referring to whatever sounds they might represent.

Let’s start from the complex Chinese characters in the east, and end at the simple Latin letters in the west, two extremes among the most widely used. Together, languages written in their variants cover the vast majority of the world’s population.

1. Chinese

Due to vertical reading, Chinese characters are enclosed in blocks, and growing complex internally. Apparently, the complexity is not good for reading, as radicals and strokes are not readily recognized and often neglected during reading, although a complex character might look clear when focused upon. Consecutive characters are not by themselves connected into bigger units, albeit people intend to use double or multiple-character words.

Traditional Chinese has more internal complexity while simplified Chinese uses more multiple-character words. They both suffer in the first through fourth aspects, with simplified Chinese to a less extent.

2. Kana

Kana, with two forms – hiragana and katakana, has their origin in Chinese characters, limiting the number and form a set of symbols of less complexity. Still, the symbols retain some trace of Chinese characters, emphasizing internal shapes, neglecting interconnection and differentiation. The strokes are not easily discerned, reducing the clarity of and the connectivity between symbols. Some strokes are separate, making the symbols less coherent units. The differences between many symbols are subtle.

Both forms suffer in the first through fourth aspects, to less extent than the Chinese. Furthermore, the mixture of hiragana, katakana and kanji in Japanese makes reading more difficult.

3. Korean

The hangul is hailed as efficient and logical. It is faithful in representing speech by using letters to represent phonemes which form characters in blocks to represent syllables. The letters are relatively simple, systematizing subcomponents of the characters, a merit over traditional Chinese. But the characters still suffer internal complexity problems. To recognize a character, you need to identify multiple letters and apply artificial rules of their combination. Sequentiality is in question. The characters are not supposed to connect by letters. On the other hand, they are too complex to connect with each other easily.

Systematic internal composition helps improve the clarity of and distinction between characters, but still not good enough. It also suffers in the first and fourth aspects.

4. Arabic

The modern Arabic script is written from right to left in a cursive style. Many of the letters share similar shapes. Many share a common base form, and are distinguished by the number and location of dots or other small diacritics. Letters changing in different positions actually increases the number of letters thus harder to memorize and recognize. Letters are joined to form words, such that efforts are needed to separate joined letters during reading. These decrease the legibility of the letters.

It suffers less sequentiality problem, but suffers in the second and third aspects, whilst combination of bigger/higher and smaller/shorter letters might help in the fourth aspect.

5. Devanagari

The Devanagari script, comprising 47 primary letters, some of which are a little complex. The horizontal and vertical lines shared by many letters add to the similarity between letters, although the joined horizontal lines help connect letters. As an alphasyllabary, the script uses diacritical marks to denote non-default vowels. That adds another dimension to consonant letters and complicates recognizability. So do the conjunct consonants. Various rules and features need to pay attention to, increasing the difficulty of reading.

It suffers some sequentiality problem, and also suffers in the second through fourth aspects.

6. Cyrillic

The Cyrillic script looks like the Latin script, particularly in its capital form. Cyrillic uppercase and lowercase letter forms are not as differentiated as in Latin typography. Many Cyrillic lowercase letters are small capitals. Cyrillic writing is at the same level of legibility of all-caps writing in Latin.

Modern Cyrillic letters are simple-shaped with clarity. Most of them are easily distinguishable from others. The letter forms are rarely augmented or altered when forming words. Letters are separate within words while spaces separate words, demonstrating the sequential growth of texts.

It is good in the first through third aspects. But it scores low in the fourth aspect, which is exhibited in lowercase letters of the Latin script.

7. Latin

This paper is written in the Latin script. The majority of the Latin script texts are in minuscule form. There are three segments in lowercase letters – body for all letters, ascender and descender for some. The bodies exhibit characteristic of roundness, which facilitate smooth-running reading. Ascenders and descenders help in differentiating letters. Letters with ascenders or descenders combined with those without help create sub-word units with enhanced recognition, which also facilitate the recognition of words.

Both uppercase and lowercase letters are of simple shapes and evenly distributed variations. The distinction between letters is strong. Minuscules are better for sequential reading, while majuscules are suitable for emphasis.

The script performs well in all four aspects, particularly the written English, which rarely employs diacritics and ligatures.

Conclusion

The surveyed systems display variations in the four aspects. The Latin alphabet appears strongest among the existing systems, laying the foundation of modern science. This survey is brief, aiming to demonstrate our approach and be a starting point for complex analysis.

It appears that writing systems stronger in these aspects usually support more advanced societies, given adequate population, publications and developmental time. The advancement level of a society correlates with the legibility level of its writing system(s). The exact connection and mechanism still need further investigation.

Furthermore, it is unknown if there is a writing system in theory that is totally different and stronger than the Latin alphabet. Will that be invented or evolved from existing ones?

References

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyrillic_alphabets
https://omniglot.com/writing/japanese_hiragana.htm

[1] First, sequentiality; second, clarity of symbols; third, differentiation between symbols; fourth, combination of symbols. The fifth aspect (“other aspects”) are not so essential as the first four.

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