CHAPTER 12
WRITING:
THE ABCs OF LANGUAGE
by Don L. F. Nilsen
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Written language is
more conservative
than spoken
language!
(Fromkin Rodman Hyams [2007] 521)
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BRITISH AIRWAYS PAMPHLET
(cf Fromkin Rodman Hyams 532)
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HISTORY OF WRITING SYSTEMS
1500 BC: Cave Drawings as Pictograms
4000 BC: Sumerian Cuneiform
3000 BC: Hieroglyphics
1500 BC: West Semitic Syllabary of the Phonecians
1000 BC: Ancient Greeks Borrow the Phoenician Consonantal
Alphabet
750 BC: Etruscans Borrow the Greek Alphabet
500 BC: Romans Adapt the Etruscan/Greco Alphabet to Latin
(Fromkin, Rodman &Hyams [2011] 553)
Later Cyrus and Methodius invented the Cyrillic Alphabet taking
some symbols from the Greek Alphabet, some from the Roman
Alphabet and inventing some of the own.
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RECYCLING OF SYMBOLS
A Pictographic writing system has the
advantage of looking like what it
represents, but it requires a different
picture for every different concept, and
some concepts are so abstract that
pictures are problematic.
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PICTOGRAMS
Invent a pictogram for each of the following
words:
eye
boy
library
tree
forest
war
honesty
ugly
run
Scotch tape
smoke
(Fromkin Rodman Hyams [2011] 545-546)
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Cuneiform writing was wedge shaped (from
Latin “cuneus” meaning “wedge”).
Darius, a King of the Persian empire, used
cuneiform writing on rocks to write about
the people and countries he had conquored.
In Avestan (Old Persian) this is called
“resmaelxaet mixi” or “nail writing.”
(See Fromkin Rodman Hyams [2011] 543-545)
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The term “hieroglyph” comes from Greek
“hiero” meaning “sacred” and
“glyphikos” meaning “carvings.”
For a long time, Egyptian heiroglyphs
were a mystery, but then in the Rosetta
Stone it was noticed that some words
were highlighted as cartouches.
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Linguists figured out that these cartouches were
reserved for the names of royalty, and they figured
out that one of the names was “Cleopatra.”
Since these hieroglyphics were alphabetical in nature,
this told them how the following sounds were
written: /kleopætra/ were written.
Another clue in the Rosetta stone is that there were
three translations of the same story on the stone, so
linguists could compare the versions.
(cf. Fromkin Rodman Hyams [2011] 546-547)
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THE REBUS PRINCIPLE
Since a person can’t draw a picture of an
abstract concept, people discoverered that
they can draw a picture of words that sound
the same.
So for “I can see you” it is possible to draw a
picture of an eye, a can, the sea, and a
female sheep.
(cf. Fromkin, Rodman & Hyams [2011] 545-547)
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A Syllabary System requires fewer symbols than does a
pictographic or ideagraphic system.
But it would a different symbol for every consonant-vowel
combination, not to mention that in English there are long and
short vowels and consonant clusters, etc.
So a syllabary would still require too many symbols.
An alphabet would require far fewer “letters.”
(Fromkin, Rodman & Hyams [2011] 544, 5490-550)
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CONSONANTAL WRITING SYSTEMS
Hebrew and Arabic are in the same language family
(Hamitosemitic, named after Ham and Shem in the Bible).
In Hebrew and Arabic the vowels are often not written. People
who speak the languages can figure out the vowels.
Furthermore, words in these two languages are mostly based on
three-consonant radicals, so that “SLM” meaning “peace” in
Arabic can end up as “Salaam,” “Islam,” or “Mulsem.”
Compare Hebrew “Shalom.”
(cf. Fromkin Rodman Hyams [2011] 552)
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English spelling is
morphophonemic.
It represents both the
sounds and the
meanings of words.
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OUR ENGLISH ALPHABET HAS ONLY 26 LETTERS TO
REPRESENT 45 DIFFERENT SOUNDS
AND SOME OF OUR LETTERS (LIKE C, Q, H, AND X)
AREN’T VERY USEFUL
ENGLISH HAS 5 VOWEL LETTERS TO REPRESENT
13 VOWEL SOUNDS
AND WE USE THEM ALL UP FOR OUR SHORT
VOWELS, AS IN: pat, pet, pit, pot, and put
SO WE DON’T HAVE ANY LETTERS LEFT FOR OUR
LONG VOWELS, AND THE RESULT IS CHAOS
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SO THIS IS HOW WE SPELL OUR LONG VOWELS
A, E, I, O, and U:
A: He ate the freight. It was his fate. How
E: The silly amoeba stole the key to the machine. or
Did he believe that Caesar could see the people?
I: I write eye-rhyme, like “She cited the sight of the site.”
O: Our chauffeur, although he stubbed his toe, yeomanly towed
four more boards through the open door of the depot.
U: blue, blew, gnu, Hugh, new, Pooh, Sioux, through, two
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A MORPHOPHONEMIC
SPELLING SYSTEM
A morphophonemic spelling system will spell
different words differently although they are
pronounced the same: their, there, they’re
A morphophonemic spelling will spell words in
the same family the same even though they
are pronounced differently: go, gone
A morphophonemic spelling will spell a
particular suffix the same regardless of how
it is pronounced: cats, dogs, horses
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EXPLAIN WHAT THE FOLLOWING WORD
PAIRS TELL YOU ABOUT ENGLISH SPELLING
I am vs. iamb
goose vs. produce
fashion vs. complication
Newton vs. organ
no vs. know
hymn vs. him
line vs. children
sonar vs. resound
cent vs. mystic
crumble vs. bomb
cats vs. dogs
stagnant vs. design
serene vs. obscenity
(Fromkin Rodman Hyams [2011] 546)
(Fromkin Rodman Hyams [2011] 564-565)
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VIOLATIONS OF THE PHONEMIC PRINCIPLE
SAME PRONUNCIATION BUT DIFFERENT
SPELLINGS (DIFFERENT MEANINGS): citesight-site, marry-Mary-merry, pair-pare-pear,
there-their-they're
SAME SPELLINGS BUT DIFFERENT
PRONUNCIATIONS (SAME WORD FAMILIES):
nation-national, obscene-obscenity, signsignature, go-gone, ct. soup-supper
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HOMONYMS
Have students in the class pronounce a
homonym and then you respond with two or
more spelligs, such as:
eye, aye, I
site, sight
die, dye
there, their, their
(Fromkin, Rodman & Hyams [2011] 198)
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CONSONANT GRADES
REDUCED GRADE: act-action-actual, critic-criticize,
medicine-medication, part-partial, rite-ritual, seizeseizure
MARKED GRADE: chip, cough, hiccough, enough, phone,
ship, this, thought (NOTE: The <h> of ch, gh, ph, sh, and
th indicate that these are strange kinds of c, g, p, s, and t
respectively.
ZERO GRADE: acknowledge-knowledge; amnesiamnemonic; though, thought, through, thumb-thimbleThumbelina
(Fromkin Rodman Hyams [2007] 524)
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“Gnus and gnomes and gnats and such
Gnouns with just one G too much.
Pseudonym and psychedelic
P becomes a psurplus relic.
Knit and knack and knife and knocked
Kneedless Ks are overstocked.
Rhubarb, rhetoric and rhyme
Should lose an H from thyme to time.”
(Fromkin Rodman Hyams [2011] 558)
(from Robert Feinstein’s “Gnormal Pspelling.”)
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VOWEL GRADES
VOWEL REDUCTION (SCHWA GRADE): naturalnaturalize-naturalization, photo-photographphotographic-photography, s'pose-supposesupposition, telegraph- telegraphic-telegraphy
VOWEL REDUCTION (-R or –N GRADE): ; pinpen; absurd, bird, heard, herd, word
VOWEL REDUCTION (ZERO GRADE):
ambidextrous-dexterity, busy-business
(cf. Fromkin Rodman Hyams [2007] 525-526)
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Note that English has some ideagraphs
like 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 0, @, #, $, %,
&, =, +, etc.
English can also be written in syllabary
symbols.
Consider the following two stories
written in syllabry symbols.
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I S U, F U NE M?
S, V F M.
F U NE X?
S, V F X.
OK, L F M N X.
I ask you, have you any ham?
Yes, we have ham.
Have you any eggs?
Yes, we have eggs.
OK, I’ll have ham and eggs.
(Nilsen & Nilsen Language Play 107)
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LE, C D puppies.
L, M N O puppies.
O S M R puppies.
C M P N?
Ellie, see the puppies.
Hell, them ain’t no puppies.
Oh yes them are puppies.
See ‘em peein?
(Nilsen & Nilsen Language Play 107)
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EGYPTIAN CHARACTERS (Hughes 715)
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GREEK & ROMAN CHARACTERS (Hughes 718)
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PHOENICIAN, HEBREW & ARABIC
CHARACTERS (Hughes 713)!
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CYRILLIC CHARACTERS (NOTE ROMAN &
GREEK INFLUENCE) (Hughes 720)!!
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GHOTI
What does “ghoti” spell? (Daniels, 58)
It spells “fish”
the <gh> of “enough”
the <o> of “women”
the <ti> of “nation”
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ACRONYM JOKES
These jokes are often found on vanity license plates or bumper
stickers:
10SNE1 (tennis anyone?)
XQUSME (excuse me)
4RGRAN (for our grandchild)
BS, MS, PhD (Bull Shit, More of the Same, Piled Higher and
Deeper)
(Nilsen & Nilsen 175)
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AMBIGUOUS IN SPEECH BUT NOT IN WRITING
John said he’s going.
John said, “He’s going.”
my cousin’s friends (one cousin)
my cousins’ friends (two or more
cousins)
(Fromkin Rodman Hyams [2007] 519)
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They’re my brothers’ keepers.
He said, “He will take the garbage out.”
The red book was read.
The flower was on the table.
(Fromkin Rodman Hyams [2007] 531)
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AMBIGUOUS IN WRITING BUT NOT IN SPEECH
John hugged Bill and then he kissed him.
What are we having for dinner, Mother?
She’s a German language teacher.
They formed a student grievance committee.
Charles kissed his wife and George kissed his wife too.
(Fromkin Rodman Hyams [2007] 531)
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METALANGUAGE (Language about Language)
Railroad crossing, watch out for cars.
How do you spell it without any r’s? (AMBIGUOUS IN
SPEECH BUT NOT IN WRITING)
Railroad crossing, watch out for cars.
How do you spell it (or “it”) without any r’s?
(Fromkin Rodman Hyams [2007] 520)
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!HOW SPEECH IS REPRESENTED IN WRITING
PAUSE = COMMA
Jack, thinks Jill, is smart.
Jack thinks Jill is smart.
(Fromkin Rodman Hyams [2007] 519)
Woman, without her, man is nothing.
Woman, without he man, is nothing.
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!!
STRESS AND SENTENCE INTONATION=
UNDERLINE OR PUNCTUATION
The children are going to bed at 8 o’clock. (a simple statement)
The children are going to bed at eight o’clock! (an order)
The children are going to bed at 8 o’clock? (a question)
John whispered the message to Bill and then he whispered it to
Mary.
John whispered the message to Bill, and then he whispered it to
Mary.
(Fromkin Rodman Hyams [2007] 519)
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!!!EMOTOCONS
Explain what might be meant by each of
the following, and add some of your
own:
>:-[
:-#
8:-[
:D
:-o
:-O
|-)
:/)
(Fromkin Rodman Hyams [2007] 532)
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References:
Algeo, John. “What Makes Good English Good?” (Clark,
723-733).
Clark, Virginia, Paul Eschholz, and Alfred Rosa.
Language: Readings in Language and Culture, 6th
Edition. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.
Daniels, Harvey A. “Nine Ideas about Language” (Clark
43-59).
Feinstein, Robert N. “Gnormal Pspelling.” National
Forum: The Phi Kappa Phi Journal. Summer, 1986.
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Fromkin, Victoria, Robert Rodman, and Nina Hyams. “Writing: The
ABCs of Language.” An Introduction to Language, 9th Edition.
Boston, MA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2011, 540-568.
Hudson, Barbara. “Sociolinguistic Analysis of Dialogues and FirstPerson Narratives in Fiction” (Clark, 740-748).
Hughes, John. “Languages and Writing” (Clark, 705-722).
Larson, Charles Larson. “Its Academic, or Is It? (Clark, 734-736).
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Nilsen, Alleen Pace, and Don L. F. Nilsen. Encyclopedia of 20th
Century American Humor. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000.
Nilsen, Don L. F., and Alleen Pace Nilsen. “English Spelling as a
Morphophonemic System,” in Pronunciation Contrasts in
English, 2nd Edition. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, 2010, 1-34.
Nilsen, Don L. F., and Alleen Pace Nilsen. Language Play: An
Introduction to Linguistics. Rowley, MA: Newbury House, 1978.
O’Conner, Patricia. “Like I Said, Don’t Worry” (Clark, 737-739).
Winter, Anne. “Graffiti as Social Discourse.” in Living Language.
Ed. Alleen Pace Nilsen. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon,
1999, 106-111.
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