Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

French Letters and Their Uses

This month marks the 100th anniversary of a somewhat obscure event, but one that has had a lasting and probably permanent effect. It's illustrated, somewhat obscurely, by this map of the world:

uploaded to Wikipedia by JWB. - the English language Wikipedia (log). Based on File:BlankMap-World-v5-EU.png., CC BY-SA 3.0

Without a legend you'd be hard pressed to figure out what's represented here, and what, in particular, is represented by gray, which is so often the color for "insufficient data" on maps of this kind. In this case, gray indicates the countries whose main language is written in a derivative of the Latin alphabet. The obscure event that has its centenary this month? It was on the 28th of December in 1918 that Emperor Khải Định of Vietnam (or French Indochina, as it was at the time) abolished the traditional script for writing the Vietnamese language in favor of the Latin script for the Vietnamese alphabet. Thus Vietnam, while ethnically much more akin to its immediate neighbors who eschew alphabetic writing systems, uses an alphabet that originated far away from it, in Europe. Here's the legend for the map:

If we start from the fact that language is first and foremost a spoken activity, the methods by which people have extended its powers to writing offer a fascinating lens into human history from a social, psychological, linguistic, and political perspective. It's intuitive for English speakers that language should be represented graphically by an alphabet, even while English itself seems to maximize illogical use of an alphabet. But as the map and legend show, an alphabet is only one way that the spoken word finds its way onto the printed page or the neon sign. Other languages and language families have adopted different systems. In general, and when political events do not interfere (though they often do), languages seem to evolve writing systems on their native ground that make the most sense for the language.

Take an abjad, for example, for which the showcase languages are Arabic and Hebrew. An abjad represents consonants with graphical symbols, like an alphabet. But abjads represent vowels either not at all or with secondary markings, something like accents. This makes perfect sense for languages whose words are built on consonantal roots with the letters in a particular order. It's counterintuitive to an Arabic speaker that English words like rabbit, rebate, reboot, rebut, and robot are not related, because they contain the same ordered sequence of consonants and are distinguished only by differences in vowel length and quality. By contrast, the same speaker takes it for granted that the words in Arabic for gathering (جمع), university (جامعة), collective (جماعي), association (جمعية), and consensus (إجماع) share some aspect of meaning (in this case, the idea of unity in aggregation) because they contain the same three consonants in the same order, all derived from the verb for "gather".

An abugida combines elements of alphabets and abjads. Its distinguishing feature is that symbols represent syllables that are consonant-vowel combinations The hotbed of the abugida is South and Southeast Asia, as seen in the orange and gold colors on the map. It's typical of the native languages of this area to begin all syllables with a consonant, and so an abugida fills the bill for a writing system perfectly.

Hangul, the writing system for Korean (pink on the map), deserves special mention for uniquely combining the virtues of the systems noted above to represent the sounds and logic of a language. It combines shapes that represent both consonants and vowels that are grouped into syllable blocks, vertically and horizontally, to form words. To the untrained eye, Korean may resemble the logographic system of its gigantic neighbor, China, but its learning curve is smaller by orders of magnitude. Unlike many other writing systems that are the product of evolution over centuries, Hangul is the result of innovation: it was invented by one of Korea's ancient rulers to overcome the problem of widespread illiteracy.

The map above shows distinct areas of contiguous uniformity where people of different ethnicities who speak unrelated languages nevertheless share a type of writing system. This is the result, more often than not, of conquest, empire-building, and colonialism. For the Latin alphabet, this phenomenon is the vestige of centuries of Roman, and later, European power-grabbing and imposition of culture. The same is true to some extent for the spread of the abjad of Arabic, which closely parallels the spread of Islam outwards from the Arabian peninsula. Where Arabic collided with a language that is better represented by an alphabet than an abjad, it's not a big job to tweak the symbols of Arabic in order to make them more alphabetlike. This worked for Turkey for a thousand years, when Turkish was written (quite imperfectly) using Arabic script. In the 1920s, reforms succeeded to implement the 29-letter Turkish alphabet, based on the Latin one, which very accurately represents the sounds of Turkish today.

As literacy and access to printed language increase, it seems likely that writing systems will increasingly become fossilized. Nothing is so appealing to readers as familiarity, and even modest changes to a writing system (like spelling reform) are often resisted. How much smaller then are the chances that an entire population would accede to a complete change in their writing system—like the introduction of a completely new one—when the majority are familiar with the older one, no matter how ill-suited it is to the language it represents. Imposition of new writing systems in the past has always met some resistance, but has prevailed either by force, or by overcoming weak opposition owing to illiteracy. That's not likely to happen again, and Vietnam will likely remain the outlier on the Asian mainland to write its tonal language in a "foreign" alphabet.


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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Monday December 3rd 2018, 5:13 PM
Comment by: Bette F. (ON Canada)
I always enjoy... but with such a racy headline about the uses of French letters, I rushed in. How many ways can one use a French letter? I wondered. OK, probably only the one or two that we all know: disease/child prevention and balloons. You've intrigued me with the alphabetic demographics, tho. So I'm still a happy camper.
Tuesday December 4th 2018, 9:58 AM
Comment by: Michael M.
As for Korean. For me the most fascinating aspect of its invention, is that it is shapes are based on the shape of the mouth while forming the sound. Looking from the left or from the front. The straight lines on the right represent the throat with dots indicating the part of the throat where the vowel is formed.
Tuesday December 4th 2018, 10:53 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks, Michael! I didn't know that about Korean. I give it "best in show" for writing systems, and perhaps it points to the fact that human ingenuity can add considerably to the organic way in which writing systems typically evolve.
Tuesday December 4th 2018, 11:43 AM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)
An extremely interesting article, answering questions that long existed, unvoiced, in my mind. Thank you!
Tuesday December 4th 2018, 3:27 PM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
Michael M. and Oren: This is also true, to a degree, of the Hebrew alphabet. The "he," for example (ה), is pronounced with an open throat, while the "chet" (ח‬) is a guttural consonant. The corresponding letters are open and closed, respectively.

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