Beginnings: Simon Ager & Omniglot
Did you have any childhood
experiences which particularly sparked your interest in language and writing
systems? Your father's family is
from Suffolk and your mother's family is from Wales; Did the different linguistic ancestry of your parents create an environment in which you were encouraged to view the world from more than one perspective? Did you occupy the mediator or communicator role in the family dynamic? As a child were you particularly drawn to stories or books written in other languages?
Simon: Both my parents speak more or less RP ["Received Pronunciation"] English so there were never any communication problems at home. My mum grew up in England and doesn't speak Welsh, neither did her parents, though her grandparents did. My dad's family moved around the country a lot so he has never picked up any particularly regional accent.
I grew up speaking English with a slight Lancashire accent.
My default accent is closer to RP now, though I tend to adjust the way I speak
to suit whoever I'm talking to. This process is partly conscious and partly
We used to go on holiday to various parts of England, Wales
and Scotland and I was interested by all the different English accents I came
across, and enjoyed, and still enjoy, trying to imitate them.
I only had limited exposure to foreign languages as a
child. I remember occasionally overhearing my mum's Welsh language lessons on
records and tapes. I was also interested in the foreign languages and alphabets
on the stamps I used to collect, and on product labels and instructions. I was
also fascinated by the strange alphabets in the Hobbit.
Ever since I learnt to read I've been a very keen reader,
though I didn't come across books in foreign languages until I started studying
French and German at secondary school.
How has your perspective on
English and English-speakers shifted because of your studies of other
Simon: Learning other languages has given me a better
understanding of the complexities of English. I can now appreciate why foreign
students of English struggle with certain aspects of the language. Monoglot English speakers seem to have difficultly grasping the idea that English is
difficult to learn.
Do you think exclusively in
English, or do you sometimes think in other languages? Are there any useful concepts
represented by a single word in a non-English language for which you wish there
was an English equivalent?
Simon: When speaking, I tend to think in whatever language
I'm speaking. When not speaking, I generally think in English.
There are many concepts for which there are no exact
English equivalent. They aren't necessarily "useful" but are
interesting. For example, the Chinese word "tangjie" means "a
female cousin on your father's side who is older than you". There are
another seven other words for cousin in Chinese.
Chinese kinship terms are much more precise than the
English ones - they specify whether the relative in question is male or female,
older or younger than you, and on your father's or mother's side of the family.
In Japanese and Korean you have all this, plus a different set of terms for
talking about other people's relatives.
On your Frequently Asked Questions page you explain that Omniglot originally developed from the multilingual section of a website you were building to promote a translation service. Do you have a feel for what particular aspects of writing systems caught your interest so strongly? Is there a high-level way to describe what you're learning as you study new languages and writing systems?
Simon: I think it was the appearance of writing systems that
first interested me in them: I found them strange, beautiful and exotic. As far
as I know, there isn't a word for the study of writing systems and languages.
Grammatology and graphology are both used to refer to the study of writing,
though graphology usually means the study of handwriting in order to
How many hours of labor would
you estimate you've spent so far in developing Omniglot? What motivates you to invest so much
energy in a public service without getting paid?
Simon: I reckon I've spent at least 2,000 hours working on
Omniglot over the past four years. I enjoy the research and writing and have
learnt an enormous amount from it. Explaining writing systems and languages to
others helps me to understand them better myself.
Many people write to me simply to say how much they like
the site, how useful it is to them and how much they've learned from it. Others
write with corrections, suggestions or new information and also praise the
site. It's great to hear that my
efforts are useful and appreciated.
The site is now visited by about 150,000 people per month
and generates a modest income from a number of affiliates programs and from
What's the most enjoyable part
of Omniglot for you? Discovering a
beautiful new script? Extending or
clarifying your existing articles?
Simon: Discovering a new writing system is particularly exciting. So is finding significant new information about a writing system already featured on Omniglot. I also enjoy answering the language-related questions from people who contact me through the site.
Evolution: How Writing Developed
Since Egyptian Hieroglyphics
were invented around 3,500 BCE, when did they start using the hieroglyphics
phonetically (as an abjad)? When
did the Sumerians begin using Cuneiform phonetically? How long is the typical lag time between the invention of a
logographic writing system and the reuse of that system phonetically?
think the Egyptians were using hieroglyphs for their phonetic values from a
very early date. There is evidence for limited use of cuneiform symbols for
their pronunciation from the earliest stages of cuneiform.
of using symbols phonetically seems to have occurred to users of writing
systems not long after the writing systems were invented. They probably
discovered the rebus principle fairly quickly and the acrophonic principle
is a picture of something used to represent a word with similar pronunciation.
For example, a picture of a sheep (ewe) could represent the word
acrophonic principle involves using only the initial sound of a word. For
example, a picture of the sun could represent the sound /s/.
Which tools were originally used to write with? How did paper develop?
Sumerians wrote with styluses either on clay tablets or on wax-covered wooden
writing boards. The Ancient Egyptians wrote on papyrus, a plant which grew
along the Nile in Egypt during biblical times. Papyrus scrolls were made by
cutting and pressing sections of the papyri plant together at right angles.
The typical maximum length of a scroll was about 35 feet. The scribe, when
using papyrus, would often use the natural horizontal fibers of the papyrus
plant as guidelines. He would take a blunt instrument and score horizontal
lines and then score two or more vertical lines as margins for the edge of the
sheet or to define columns on it. We get the word "paper" from the Egyptian word papyrus, which literally means "that which belongs to the house" (of official court scribes).
to Chinese historical records, paper was invented in China in 105 AD when the
emperor Ts'ai Lun came up with the idea of making it from the bark of paper
mulberry tree, Broussonetia papyrifera. A material known as 'barkcloth' had
been in use in Chinese for many centuries before then and Ts'ai Lun probably
adapted it to make it suitable for writing on.
popular writing material was parchment, which is made from the skins of sheep
or cattle, and sometimes pig, goat, and other animals. It was invented in the
2nd century BC in Pergamum (modern Bergama in Turkey); hence the name parchment
from the Latin pergamena (of Pergamum). Skin had been used as a writing
material before this, but the refined methods of cleaning and stretching
involved in making parchment enabled both sides of a leaf to be used, leading
eventually to the supplanting of the scroll by the bound book. Vellum is a fine
kind of parchment made from delicate skins of young animals. Paper began to replace parchment from about the 14th century, but parchment is still used for certain
kinds of documents, and the name is often applied to high-quality writing
Is it true that Greek was the
first phonemic alphabet (meaning it includes vowels, as contrasted with an
Abjad, or consonant-only script)?
What prompted this development?
The Jewish mystic tradition of Kabala emphasizes "doubles," or
Hebrew words which could be pronounced two different ways depending on which
vowels one intones. Ergo, a single
written word could be spoken aloud as two different words. This was thought to prevent non-initiates
from understanding Kabalistic texts without training. Also, early Hebrew scribes believed that a written word with
two often contradictory meanings contained magical power. What was lost when vowels began to be
Greek was indeed the first phonemic alphabet. When the Greeks adapted the
Phoenician script they used consonants which had no equivalent in Greek to
write Greek vowels, which play an important role in the language.
Phoenician, Hebrew, Arabic and other Semitic languages, most words are built up
from a core of three consonants. Vowels are used to indicate tenses, plurals
and other grammatical baggage. Full vowel indication is generally only used in
religious texts and poetry. Those familiar with these languages can easily
figure out which vowels should be in a word. English can also be written in
this way - txt msgs r a gd xmpl f ths.
Did Native Americans have a
written language before coming into contact with Europeans? If not, why didn't the Olmec/Mayan
writing system ever migrate up from Mexico and Central America?
There is no physical evidence for pre-European usage of written language in
North America as far as I know, though the Cree claim their syllabary was
based on a pre-European Blackfoot syllabary, rather than having been invented
by James Evans in 1840.
Interestingly, there's evidence that the Chinese visited and settled in
parts of both North and South America between 1421 and 1423. Some scholars
believe that the Chinese were visiting the Americas long before then and that
perhaps the Mayan, Aztecs, Olmecs and other people of Central America were
inspired to create writing systems after seeing written Chinese.
know why there was a lack of contacts and culture transmission between the
peoples of Central and North America. Perhaps geography was a factor - the
Mayans, for example lived in central Mexico, a long way across difficult
terrain from the native peoples of the southern parts of North America.
Do you think English lost
something valuable by not inheriting the Greek and Latin technique of noun
declension? Do we lose something
by not gendering nouns?
Simon: English is not related to Latin or Greek - it just
has absorbed a lot of vocabulary from both languages. Old English/Anglo-Saxon
originally had noun declensions and a complex gender system. Modern English
still has the remnants of both and they mainly affect the choice of pronoun.
The gender system in English is logical - male people and animals are all
assigned to the masculine gender (he), female people and animals to the
feminine gender (her), and everything else is neuter (it).
Logic is conspicuously absent from the gender systems of
other languages. Which makes them hard for English speakers to learn. We expect
gender to correspond to sex like it does in English. Unfortunately this is not
the case in most languages which have gender. I don't think gender systems are
useful or necessary - plenty of languages manage perfectly well without them.
Asia: Chinese & Japanese
Chinese and Japanese are
particularly difficult written languages for English-speaking people to
learn: European languages tend to
use our familiar Roman characters, or a slight variation on them. Chinese and Japanese aren't even built
on the same system of abstraction — both writing systems are
logographic (characters represent words) rather than phonetic (characters represent sounds).
Japanese then adds at least two layers of phonogrammatic writing systems. And though China has a single system of writing, the Chinese still use hundreds of spoken languages. What attracted you to such a challenging field?
Simon: I was sure I wanted to study foreign languages at
university but it took me a while to decide which ones. At first I was planning
to continue studying French or German and maybe another language. Then I
thought that my employability might be enhanced if I chose a lesser-studied
language. I considered Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Arabic and various other
languages and eventually settled on Chinese. I'm still not entirely sure why.
It just seemed like a good idea at the time. Not long before I started the
course, one of the lecturers at the university wrote to ask me if I was
interested in doing a new course in Chinese and Japanese. I jumped at the
Once I'd decided to study Chinese, I find out as much as I
could about China by reading newspaper articles, guidebooks and any other information I could find. I knew next to nothing about the language but this didn't worry me. The opportunity to spend time in China was a major reason for choosing the course.
By the way, Chinese characters represent both sound and
meaning, though they aren't very good at doing either. Written Chinese is based
on spoken Mandarin. Other varieties of Chinese, of which there about a
thousand, are rarely written. The linguistic situation in China is a bit like
the medieval Europe where Latin was the main written language and there were
many spoken languages.
Does that mean the Mandarin Chinese language evolved simultaneously with Chinese logograms? What about Cantonese?
Simon: Cantonese is sometimes written in informal contexts,
and occasionally appears in newspapers and magazines.
The written and spoken forms of Chinese developed in
parallel and affected one another. In written Chinese each character represents
a syllable and has a meaning. This gives Chinese the appearance of being
monosyllabic. In spoken Chinese however, many words are made up of two or more
syllables. The characters can be rearranged to create new words, many of which
don't appear in dictionaries. As a result, readers sometimes have to guess the
meaning the writer is trying to convey.
Chinese written language often
expresses abstract ideas by using two logograms representing concrete objects,
one placed atop the other, to create a metaphor. Will the Chinese system for dealing with abstract comments
change as logograms are phased out?
Will this fundamentally change the thought-process of the Chinese?
Simon: Only a few Chinese characters represent abstract
ideas. Most consist of a part which gives a clue to the sound and another which
hints at the meaning. Chinese people tend to learn characters by rote and don't
generally analyze the individual parts of characters, at least not until they
reach the higher levels of education. I don't know if the thought processes of
the Chinese would change significantly if the characters were abandoned.
Do phonogrammatic languages
encourage the creation of new words more than ideogrammatic languages?
Simon: I don't think the type of writing system used for a
language encourages or discourages the creation of new words. One thing for
which the complex scripts like Chinese are ill suited is absorbing new words
from others languages.
If alphabetic writings systems
are more efficient than logographic writing systems, are Syllabic writing
systems more efficient still? Why
haven't they caught on more? How
difficult would it be to create a syllabic writing system for English?
Simon: Syllabic scripts work well for languages with
relatively few syllables, such as Japanese, Inuktitut and Cherokee - Japanese
has about 50 syllables, for example. Creating a writing system for English or
most other European languages would be difficult due to the large number of
symbols needed: for English there'd be over 8,000. A syllabic script for
Mandarin would need over 400 symbols.
Young people in Japan are
gradually learning less and less Kanji (logographic characters) and focusing
more on Hiragana, Katakana and English (phonetic characters). Since sounds-based writing systems nearly always evolve from word-based and idea-based writing systems, and this shift always dramatically reduces the amount of effort necessary to gain basic fluency, does this mean that phonogrammatic systems are necessarily superior? Or is something essential lost when ideogrammatic systems are discarded? Do you think Japanese Kanji might eventually be phased out
entirely? Your site includes a spoof article in which the Chinese government announces that Chinese writing will be replaced with Hànyŭ Pīnyīn; do you think logographic writing systems are gradually nearing extinction?
Simon: I wrote the spoof article about the phasing out of
Chinese characters in China after reading Asia's Orthographic
Dilemma by Wm C. Hannas, who argues convincingly that Chinese
character-based writing systems are too complicated and are likely to gradually
be replaced by alphabetic or syllabic systems. Hannas explains the usage of Chinese characters in China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam and shows why attempts to reform or simplify the characters have not succeeded in the past and will not succeed in the future. Characters take a long time to learn, are difficult read and write, and using them on computers is far too complicated.
Alphabetic and syllabic writing systems are much easier to
learn then logographic scripts. They are also easier to read, write and type.
Chinese characters look pretty but are not a particularly practical way of
writing in the modern world.
You agree with Wm C. Hannas'
suggestion that the logographic writing systems of China, Japan, Korea and
Vietnam are likely to be gradually replaced with alphabetic writing
systems. What will be lost when
the original written languages are phased out? Will literary classics written in those languages lose their
power? Will it be the equivalent
of Shakespeare in some future world in which English has become a dead
language? The three most
widely-translated books in the modern world are the Bible (Hebrew & Greek),
The Ghita from the Mahabharata (Sanskrit) and the Tao-te-Ching (Chinese
ideograms). What will become of
the Tao-te-Ching once the language is no longer living? Will mankind's perception of the book
drift further and further from the original meaning?
Simon: The Chinese literary classics were written in Classical Chinese, the main written language used in China before the 1920s. Classical Chinese has a similar status to Latin in Europe or Sanskrit in India: it is no longer used as a spoken or written language and requires special study in order to read it. For Chinese speakers, reading the Tao-te-Ching is roughly
equivalent to English speakers reading Beowulf. If the characters are phased
out, Modern Chinese translations of literary classics would probably be published. Anybody wanting to read the original texts would have to learn to read Classical Chinese.
During the 1920s a new form of written Chinese based on
spoken Mandarin emerged. It has been used ever since though some writers still
use Classical Chinese constructions. If the characters were abandoned, new
phonetic versions of 20th century literary works would most likely be
published. Chinese written with a
phonetic script would be essentially the same language as Modern Chinese
written with characters, with a few minor adjustments.
Logos: Language & The Mind
The Greek word logos (lovgoz), means both language and consciousness. Prominent philologists including Max Müller, Owen Barfield, and J.R.R. Tolkien have advanced the notion that it is language which allows us to sort sensory data into useful categories, and thus become "conscious" of the world. For example, Tolkien's Ents aren't magical talking trees; they're everyday trees who were taught language by the elves, and so became thinking beings. Is your experience with languages consistent with this perspective? Could language acquisition be described as an expansion of consciousness?
Simon: I think language and consciousness are closely
linked. Without language some form of consciousness probably exists, but with
language it is vastly expanded and enhanced. Learning a foreign language
provides you with a different way of describing and thinking about the world,
though I'm not sure if it can change the way you perceive the world.
Foreign languages which I don't know sound to me like
continuous streams of sound - all I can understand might be the names of people
and places and possibly a few other words. As I learn a language, I gradually
get better at distinguishing the words, even if I don't know what they mean.
It's a bit like tuning in a radio. The language hasn't changed but my
perception of it has.
Philologist Max Müller is
generally regarded as the founder both of comparative mythology and the idea
that philology (the study of the evolution of language) and mythology (the
study of the evolution of stories) are misleading distinctions for what is
really a single field. That is, he
demonstrates that language-evolution and story-evolution are interchangeable
names for a single process; "My day was excruciating" is a shorthand
which conveys the same information as "My day was unpleasant in a way
comparable to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ." To what degree do you focus on a culture's history and
mythology while acquiring the language?
Do you agree with Müller's idea that language and mythology strongly
Simon: Language and mythology are closely related. Learning
a culture's history and mythology gives you a better understanding of the etymology of words and of the origins of proverbs and sayings. If you want to
acquire more than a superficial knowledge of a language, learning about the
history and mythology is essential.
Leonard Shlain's 1998 book
The Alphabet Versus the Goddess hypothesizes that the development of alphabetic writing systems may have reconfigured the human brain to favor men and diminish women. Do you agree with this theory?
Simon: I'll have to read the book before I can comment on
Why are some languages
right-to-left, others left-to-right?
Is this to do with dominance of a brain hemisphere? If not, does it encourage a dominance
of a brain hemisphere?
don't know why languages are written in the different directions. It could be
something to do with the writing surfaces and tools originally used, and/or
with the structure of the writing systems.
writing systems, such as Sumerian Cuneiform, Egyptian Hieroglyphs and Linear B,
were often written in boustrophedon fashion - alternatively right to left then
left to right. The choice of writing direction was to some extent determined by
the writing surfaces and tools used. For example, Sumerian scribes wrote on
clay tablets with styluses and when they got the end of a line they flipped the
tablet and wrote the next line in the opposite direction.
know if the direction in which you write has an affect on your brain.
Logographic writing systems tend to imply a lot of information contextually, while English and other western languages tend to be more explicitly spelled-out. Does this suggest a different way of thinking? Is this why the Japanese have a reputation for subtlety? Is it true they rarely say
Japanese language can be just as explicit as English or other European
languages. Most Japanese people don't use their language in this way though -
they tend to omit a lot of information and approach subjects in a roundabout
way. They're not keen on saying "no" either, instead they say things
like "that would be difficult". There is a similar aversion to
negativity in Korea and China.
Murasaki Shikibu's Genji
Monogatari (The Tale of Genji, 1011 CE) is often called "the world's first novel." The book makes
frequent mention of notes sent between lovers, which are usually described not
only in terms of explicit information content, but also in terms of the
emotional information conveyed by the "hand," the manner in which the
characters are written. Sometimes
a curt, brisk hand can say more than ten pages of courteous pleasantries. Presumably this "emotional
layer" of written information was eliminated because the printing press
and related writing technologies standardize character depiction. However, now that writing
takes place more and more via computers, and computers have the capacity to
reintroduce emotional information to the written word, do you believe this
layer will gradually be reintroduced?
Will keyboards develop that register not only the keystrokes, but the weight
of each keystroke?
Simon: Long after the invention of printing, most documents
were handwritten. This remained the case really until the use of typewriters
and computers became widespread. People have developed various ways of showing
their moods or emotions in typed text: punctuation marks, bold, italic,
different fonts, pictures, similes, etc :). Possibly a system registering the
weight of keystrokes will also be developed, and if it is, I'm sure people
will find interesting ways to use it.
By the way, The Tale of Genji and similar books were
written by the wives of Japanese nobles for an audience of other women. These
women were denied opportunities to learn the vocabulary used by men with its
many Chinese-derived terms. Instead they developed a type of written Japanese
almost entirely stripped of the Chinese terms and they wrote it with the
hiragana syllabary, which was known as "onnade" (women's hand).
Ornamentation: Colors & Serifs
Ancient Egyptian, Japanese, and
Hebrew often used black ink for normal writing, and red ink to record the
utterances of the gods. What is
the significance of this? Is red
ink used merely because it's easy to make, or does it symbolically represent
blood? Are there other writing
systems which use color-coding?
Since most modern reproductions of ancient writing omit color
differences, are we discarding an essential layer of meaning?
Chinese is usually written with black ink on white paper, but on festive
occasions, such as weddings and birthdays, red paper is used. Red ink is
usually used for Chinese name chops and Chinese emperors used to write their
edicts in red ink.
considered a lucky color in Chinese culture, however it is considered unlucky
to write your name in red ink because in Buddhist tradition the names of dead
people are written in red. How red acquired all these associations is a
mystery. Color symbolism and usage is similar in Japan and Korea.
a Color Symbolism Chart, an essay on color symbolism and a page on the color-based writing system used by the Edo and Benin people of southern Nigeria.
The serifs of roman characters
help lead the eye. Do other
written languages have similar devices?
How old are serifs? Who
Here's some possible origins of serifs: Nobody can say with any accuracy how serifs suddenly arrived on the scene. The most plausible explanation has to do with the lettering in Rome.
time, letters were carved into stone columns and so on. These letters were
carved after a scribe, using a brush, "painted" the letters onto the
stone. The serif appeared when the scribe stopped the brush and lifted it,
leaving a bit of a brush edge on the letter. The carver, not seeing the error,
simply chiseled that edge out of the stone as well. Thus the serif.
explanation is the serif was developed by scribes adding a stroke when the hand
drawn letter was finished.
The origin of serifs and other useless information
writing systems, including as Greek, Cyrillic, Hebrew, Georgian and even
Chinese, have typefaces with serifs or serif-like bits.
Grammar: Sentence Construction
Many languages, including
English, create a "hierarchy" of nouns, by making the subject primary
and the object secondary. That is,
the subject acts upon the object, which is passive. "I eat paste." Do languages exist which imply a different relationship
between nouns, such as peer-peer?
("The ship/shore approach each other.")
subject (S), verb (V) and object (O) are arranged in various ways in different
languages. English is a SVO language, Japanese and Korean are SOV languages,
Welsh and Irish are VSO languages, though the parts of a sentence can be
rearranged to emphasis a different element.
eating chocolate (SVO)
ga chocoreto o taberu (Japanese - SOV)
Tá mé ag ith seacláid (Irish - VSO)
even a few languages with OSV word order - Jamamadi, Apurinã, Kayabí and Nadëb which are spoken in Brazil. Languages like Latin and Greek which mark every word to show the role it plays in a sentence have fairly free word order.
Verb Tense: Expressing Time-of-Action
A "tense" is a way of
indicating the time an action occurred through verb conjugation. English uses past, present and future
tenses. Other layers of
information expressed through English tenses include Continuousness ("I
will have been waiting for over an hour by then!"), Nonlocalization within
past/present/future ("I have seen that movie"; general past, not any
particular day or time, called "perfect" tense), or Conditionality
("My ideal house would have a pool"), plus the Imperative tense
("Go get my slippers").
Some languages also use different verb conjugations depending if the
subject is singular or plural.
Logographic languages, like Mandarin Chinese and Japanese, tend to imply
tense through context rather than state it explicitly, as English does. This is because there is usually one or
two logograms per verb, and no way to "conjugate" the verb by writing
it differently. Are there any
exotic tenses or other layers of meaning expressed through verb conjugations in
other languages which seem lacking in English? Do most other languages use a "tense" system, as
English does? What other ways do
languages transmit information such as time-of-action? Are there any writing systems which
indicate time-of-action through modification of the characters, rather than the
arrangement of characters (that is, indicating past tense with a hash mark on
the verb, or similar)?
Each language has different ways of indicating tense: affixes (suffixes,
prefixes or infixes); internal vowel changes; auxiliary verbs; separate
particles, or a combination of these methods. To
illustrate this, here are a few examples:
I write a
letter to my friend once a month. (present habitual - no change to verb)
writing a letter. (present continuous - auxiliary verb, plus suffix on main
I wrote a
letter yesterday (past - internal vowel change)
write a letter tomorrow (future -
sentences in a few other languages are:
meige yue yici wo xie xin gei wo pengyou.
(lit "every month once I write letter give I friend)
xie xin. (lit: "I at write letter")
zuotian xie xin (lit: "I yesterday write letter")
mingtian xie xin (lit "I tomorrow write letter")
case the verb to write, xie, doesn't change. Chinese is in fact a isolating
language with a partly logographic script rather than a logographic language.
Tense is often indicated using time phrases, such as yesterday, next week, etc,
though this is optional. You can also use particles to indicate past, future or
completed action (time of completion isn't indicated).
wo xie le
xin - completed action
guo xin - past action
xie xin - future action
ichidou watashi ga tomodachi ni tegami o kaku. (lit: "Every month once I
[subj] friend to letter [particle] write")
ga tegami o kaiteiru. (lit: "I [subj] letter [particle] writing")
watashi ga tegami o kaita. (lit: "Yesterday I [subj] letter [particle]
watashi ga tegami o kaku. (lit: "Tomorrow I [subj] letter [particle]
is an agglutinative language and has two main tenses - past and non-past. There
are different verb endings for various levels of politeness. For example:
/ kaku - non-past
/ kakanai - non-past, negative
/ kaita - past
/ kakanakatta - past, negative
/ kakou - volitional - "would like to write"
conditional - "would write"
- causative - "cause to write"
imperative - "write!"
kakemasu - potential - "can write"
/ kakanakuchanaranai - "have to write" - non-past
/ kakanakuchanaranakatta - "had to write" - past
The first syllable, ka, is written with a kanji character. The remainder of the syllables are written with hiragana. Other Japanese verbs work in the same way.
sgwennu llythyr at nghyfaill unwaith y mis. (lit: "Am I [particle] write
letter to myfriend once the month")
sgwennu llythyr. (lit: "Am I [particle] write letter")
O'n i'n sgwennu
llythyr ddoe. (lit: "Was I [particle] write letter yesterday")
sgwennu llythyr yfory. (lit: "Will I [particle] write letter
you usually have a part of the verb 'to be' (bod) at the beginning of a
sentence, followed by the subject, then a 'verbnoun', which indicates what's
happening. There are different verb forms for negative sentences and questions,
Dw i ddim
sgwennu llythyr. (lit: "Am I not write letter") - negative
sgwennu llythyr? (lit: "Am I [particle] write letter") - question
above sentences are written in colloquial Welsh. In formal literary Welsh the
verb to write is ysgrifennu rather than sgwennu.
has hundreds of forms for each verb, including some quite strange ones. For
Dubitative Continuous Compound Tense (used for hearsay) - geliyormusum; It's
said that I'm coming
Compound Reportative (used in literature) - geleymisim; I wished I had come
More information is available on the Turkish verb conjugations page.
know of any languages which use a modification of characters to indicate tense.
Conlangs: Contructed Languages
A popular hobby for language
enthusiasts is to create an original "conlang", or "constructed
language." The two most
well-known conlangs are probably Quenya, created by philologist J.R.R. Tolkien
beginning in 1917, and Klingon, created by linguist Dr Marc Okrand in 1984
(based mostly on some nonsense syllables actor James Doohan invented and actor
Mark Lenard spoke in Star Trek; The Motion Picture). What are the primary differences
between conlangs and the real languages that develop organically over thousands of years? Do conlangs
feel simplistic, or unfinished, or too orderly to occur naturally?
Simon: The main difference between natural languages and
conlangs is that the natural languages are usually passed on from parents to
children whereas conlangs are created and usually learned by adults. As a
result, conlangs often include structures and features which may seem perfectly
logical to their creators, but which make little or no sense to others.
Some conlangs are designed for use as international
auxiliary languages (IALs), some as linguistic experiments, and others just for
fun. IALs are generally based on Latin or modern Western European languages and
tend to look and sound fairly natural. While they tend to be more regular than
natural languages, this doesn't make them seem unnatural. Some natural
languages, such as Swahili and Turkish, have no irregular verbs, or at least
Quenya could be mistaken for a natural language, though the
likelihood of meeting anyone who speaks it fluently is remote.
Other conlangs can look and sound very strange. Those
written with the Latin alphabet often include lots of accented letters,
apostrophes and other orthographic complexities. Few of the alphabets and other
writing systems invented for conlangs look like natural scripts.
Esperanto, the only conlang with significant number of
speakers and a literary tradition, feels and looks like a real language to me.
Most people learn Esperanto as adults so few sound entirely at home with it.
Because there are no communities where Esperanto is used as an everyday
language you have to make a special effort to seek out other Esperanto
What's your reaction to 12480,
the conlang from the proposed Ecclemony videogame?
Simon: The various 12480 scripts are quite interesting
though look very difficult to read. I don't understand why he makes the claim
that, "A writing system based on phonemes will only last as long as the
human voice is used." He seems to be suggesting that at some point in the
future we'll abandon language and use some kind of number-based communication
system. Language is a fundamental
part of being human and I don't think we're ever going to stop using it.
George Bernard Shaw left a
portion of his inheritance to creating Shavian. He believed that the Latin alphabet was a poor vehicle for the English language and would be replaced if a more efficient script were
created. Typographer Kingsley Read
invented a script which met Shaw's criteria, yet it failed to catch on and
replace Latin characters as Shaw had hoped. Why? Was Shaw's
Simon: Kingsley Read's Shavian alphabet is more efficient than the Latin alphabet in some ways - the symbols are simpler, faster to write and there is a one-to-one phoneme to grapheme correspondence. On the other hand,
many of the letters look similar which makes them difficult to read. People who
use the Shavian alphabet all seem to agree that it's writing it is quick and
easy but reading it is tricky.
To date no efforts to reform English spelling have
succeeded, with the exception of the minor adjustments made to American
English. Advocates of spelling reform all agree on the need for reform but not
how to go about it. Few spelling reformers propose the adoption of a completely
new alphabet, recognizing that this would most likely be unpopular, and
expensive and difficult to implement.
Another problem with spelling reform is that it is usually
based on one particular variety of English, for example Shavian is based on
British English. Speakers of other varieties of English would find it difficult
von Bingen (1098-1179 CE) is believed to
be first person to ever construct a synthetic language from scratch: her
Lingua ignota (Unknown Language).
What's your take on her? Do
you believe she may have influenced J.R.R. Tolkien's creation of original
languages for his Middle Earth books?
Hildegard von Bingen created an alphabet, Litterae ignotae (Unknown Writing),
and used it occasionally for titles in her correspondence. She also invented a
language, Lingua ignota (Unknown Language), which consisted of about 900 words,
mainly nouns, including the names of plants and herbs. Her language appears to
have been based on German with Latin-like grammar. She used the language only
in one of her works: Symphonia, and encouraged her nuns to speak it to enable them to communicate in secret.
was particularly interested in language, both written and spoken. Words, their
origins, and their meanings fascinated him. He studied Latin, Greek and Gothic
as a child, and then studied Finnish, Welsh, Old English and a number of other
Germanic languages at Oxford University.
apparently first created the languages and alphabets to amuse himself, then
wrote the Hobbit and other Middle Earth books to give him somewhere to use
them. His Elvish languages, Quenya and Sindarin, were based largely on Finnish
and Welsh, while his Tengwar script appears to be an original invention, with
perhaps some influence from the alphabets of India. His other alphabets were
based on the Latin, Greek and/or Runic alphabets. There's no mention of influence
by Hildegard von Bingen in any other information about Tolkien I've read.
Looking Ahead: The Future of Writing
Do you see the world moving
towards a single written and/or spoken language?
Simon: I don't think there will ever be a single world
language, at least I hope not. Many of the languages currently spoken are
likely to disappear during this century, but hundreds, if not thousands of
languages will remain in use. The "big" languages like English and
Spanish will continue to spread and new varieties will probably develop.
Cuneiform is structured around
tools: chisels and rocks. Later
languages developed from brush-and-ink tools. As the printing press and computers gradually replace the
physical act of writing ink on paper, what new direction do you see written
languages going in?
Simon: On a computer you can write in many different
languages and choose from numerous font styles, sizes and colors, as long as
you have the relevant fonts, keyboard layouts, etc. In most programs you can
only write horizontally from left to right or right to left (depending on the
language you're using). Scripts written in other directions, such as from top
to bottom, are poorly catered for.
Complex scripts like Chinese and Japanese require special
input software and fonts. One of the reasons why Wm C. Hannas suggests that
Chinese characters will be abandoned is the difficulties of inputting them into
computers, and the complexities of word processing, indexing, and storage and retrieval
When writing by hand there are no restrictions, other than
your own knowledge and skill. You can write in any combination of languages,
writing systems and directions. You can add notes, corrections or pictures
anywhere on the page.
Taking into account all that
you've observed about the evolution of written language to date, how do you
think written languages might continue to evolve?
Simon: During the past few decades there has been a
significant increase in the use of icons and other symbols in writing. This is
particularly noticeable in computer programs. There has also been an
significant increase in the use of abbreviations, acronyms and unconventional
spellings, particularly in txt msgs, chatrooms and email. Some of these
abbreviations are widely recognized and used. These trends are likely to
What are your ultimate
ambitions for Omniglot?
Simon: I hope that Omniglot will one day include details of
all writing systems, both those currently in use and extinct ones. I'd also
like to add details of as many languages that have a written form as possible.
I plan to expand the foreign phrases section and make it
possible for site visitors to add new phrases and to edit existing
phrases. Ultimately it would be
great if the site could generate enough income to live off.