Why written languages look alike the world over sciencemag.org Submitted by An_Old_Big_Tree on November 17, 2017 at 3:20 PM in Science 1 comment 2
yaaqov wrote (edited )
It's interesting that the researchers seem to ignore as a possible factor the medium of writing (e.g., brushed ink on leaves, typeset with cast metal sorts, carved into clay or stone) and relatedly, the motor issues that arise from these processes (like, how muscular control over the movement of a pen is coordinated, what angles a chisel must be held at to be used easily and without cracking the substrate, etc).
Also, they suggested that the reason that graphemes do not seem to acquire more horizontal and vertical lines over time can be explained by writing systems being somehow not prone to 'evolution'. I found their reasoning unconvincing; writing systems can change tremendously, and often do so in response to their 'environments', as it were. For instance, it's believed that the many of the scripts of South and South East Asia (like Burmese, Sinhalese, or Javanese) acquired more round letter forms as a result of the constraints imposed by writing on dried palm leaves. If orthographies don't tend to acquire glyph shapes that are presumed to be preferred over time, there are probably explanations other than 'writing systems don't change to become more optimal' that should be considered.
That being said, 'path dependence' is certainly a factor. The latin alphabet that we use is in some sense optimized for writing, whereas, with keyboards and computers, we don't really need an orthography that is easy to physically draw at all, as long as it is readable—and yet our writing systems persist. Some folks have created a writing system for English (in that its symbols have a one-to-one mapping to the 26 letters) that is extremely compressed horizontally, and would be nightmarish to write, but with practice can be read easily and is extremely spatially efficient: I recommend taking a look, if just for fun, at http://dotsies.org/, where you can learn to read it and see it in action (and even download a font for your own use).