Simon Ager; Omniglot - Jitterbug Fantasia Interview

jitterbug fantasia home beginnings | evolution | asia | logos | ornamentation
grammar | verb tense | conlangs | looking ahead

What is writing? Science has yet to solve many of the basic mysteries of spoken language: How did language evolve? Did homo sapiens learn to speak a mere 80,000 years ago, or more than a million? We can talk with more certainty about the first written languages: Sumerian Cuneiform and Egyptian Hieroglyphics both appeared around 3,500 BCE, almost certainly cross-influencing each other. Writing was invented only twice more: China's 甲骨文 (jiăgŭwén) was invented around 1,500 BCE (though DNA suggests a vaaaaaague possibility the Chinese are descended from Akkadians, and thus Chinese writing may be descended from Akkadian Cuneiform), and the Epi-Olmec language of the Olmec people, invented around 400 BCE and the basis for Mayan. Every written language in the world seems to have developed from these four original sources.

Writing initially evolved to keep business records and contracts, and then quickly adapted to religious ideas and folktales. Shortly after the invention of writing the Egyptians and Sumerians both learned to reuse some of their logographic written symbols (representing words) phonetically (to represent sounds), thus creating the world's first abjads (consonant-only alphabets). The Egyptians improved upon the carving-characters-into-stone technique around 2,925 BCE, contributing the idea of cursive writing (Hieratic) and the pen and paper/papyrus system we still use. The Greeks invented the first full alphabet (a phonetic writing system which records vowels in addition to consonants) around 750 BCE. In the 6th century BCE the Romans adapted the Etruscan and Greek alphabets to write Latin. The Latin alphabet has been in use ever since and is currently employed to write more languages than any other writing systems.

Since 1998 language enthusiast Simon Ager has developed, a wonderful, free online guide to the world's writing systems (omniglot means "speaker of all languages"). Here you'll find information, examples and often downloadable fonts for modern, ancient and even imaginary scripts, including Tolkien's Tengwar and Star Trek's Klingon. Ager is well-suited for his calling, with a fluency in English, Mandarin Chinese and French and varying levels of knowledge in German, Japanese, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Esperanto, Welsh, Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Taiwanese, Cantonese and Urdu. But what inspires someone to spend thousands of hours creating such a fantastically useful labor of love without a paycheck? What makes philanthropic scholars like Ager tick? Kristen Brennan caught up with Ager during the summer of 2004, and conducted the following interview for Jitterbug Fantasia web magazine:

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 subconscious.

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 languages?

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 determine character.

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 advertising.

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?

Simon: I 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.

The idea 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 later.

A rebus 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 "you".

The 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?

Simon: The 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).

According 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.

Another 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 paper.

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 written?

Simon: 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.

In 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?

Simon: 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.

I don't 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 chance.

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 overlap?

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 the theory.

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?

Simon: I 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.

Early 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.

I don't 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 "no" outright?

The 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?

Simon: 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.

Red is 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.

Here's 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 invented serifs?

Simon: 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.

At the 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.

Another explanation is the serif was developed by scribes adding a stroke when the hand drawn letter was finished.

Source: The origin of serifs and other useless information

Many 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.")

Simon: The 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.

I'm eating chocolate (SVO)

Watashi ga chocoreto o taberu (Japanese - SOV)

Tá mé ag ith seacláid (Irish - VSO)

There are 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)?

Simon: 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)

I'm writing a letter. (present continuous - auxiliary verb, plus suffix on main verb)

I wrote a letter yesterday (past - internal vowel change)

I'll write a letter tomorrow  (future - auxiliary verb)

The same 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)

wo zai xie xin. (lit: "I at write letter")

wo zuotian xie xin (lit: "I yesterday write letter")

wo mingtian xie xin (lit "I tomorrow write letter")

In each 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

wo xie guo xin - past action

wo jiang xie xin - future action


Mai getsu ichidou watashi ga tomodachi ni tegami o kaku. (lit: "Every month once I [subj] friend to letter [particle] write")

Watashi ga tegami o kaiteiru. (lit: "I [subj] letter [particle] writing")

Kyou watashi ga tegami o kaita. (lit: "Yesterday I [subj] letter [particle] wrote")

Ashita watashi ga tegami o kaku. (lit: "Tomorrow I [subj] letter [particle] write")

Japanese 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:

Formal / Informal

kakimasu / kaku - non-past

kakimasen / kakanai - non-past, negative

kakimashita / kaita - past

kakimasendeshita / kakanakatta - past, negative

kakimashou / kakou - volitional - "would like to write"

kakeba - conditional - "would write"

kakareru - passive

kakaseru - causative - "cause to write"

kake - imperative - "write!"

kakeru / kakemasu - potential - "can write"

kakanakerebanarimasen / kakanakuchanaranai - "have to write" - non-past

kakanakerebanarimasendeshita / 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.


Dw i'n sgwennu llythyr at nghyfaill unwaith y mis. (lit: "Am I [particle] write letter to myfriend once the month")

Dw i'n sgwennu llythyr. (lit: "Am I [particle] write letter")

O'n i'n sgwennu llythyr ddoe. (lit: "Was I [particle] write letter yesterday")

Bydda i'n sgwennu llythyr yfory. (lit: "Will I [particle] write letter tomorrow")

In Welsh 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, eg:

Dw i ddim sgwennu llythyr. (lit: "Am I not write letter") - negative

Ydw i'n sgwennu llythyr? (lit: "Am I [particle] write letter")  - question

Note: the above sentences are written in colloquial Welsh. In formal literary Welsh the verb to write is ysgrifennu rather than sgwennu.


Turkish has hundreds of forms for each verb, including some quite strange ones. For example:

Present Dubitative Continuous Compound Tense (used for hearsay) - geliyormusum; It's said that I'm coming

Past, Compound Reportative (used in literature) - geleymisim; I wished I had come

More information is available on the Turkish verb conjugations page.

I don't 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 very few.

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 speakers.

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 idea naive?

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 to decipher.

Hildegard 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?

Simon: 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.

Tolkien 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.

Tolkien 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 of text.

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 continue.

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.