How we write down languages

Writing systems — the ways in which we write down a language — are fascinating.  They may not be as diverse and surprising as all the animals and plants of the world, but you likely may be surprised to learn just how differently we have found ways to write down information, each with strengths and weaknesses.  And if you don’t get all the details right, then what you end up telling the world is not “follow your heart” but “coward”.  Oops.  (Countless examples exist that could fill up several blogs — it turns out failures in cross-cultural appreciation & appropriation go both ways.)

People believe that, in the timeline in human evolution, language evolves first as speech, and only later does writing evolve to record it down.  For example, when new words (ex: slang) or spoken forms derived from spreading process (ex: “gonna”, “hafta”) get coined, if they persist long enough, they will become normalized and enter the vocabulary.  Whether these new words are defined as “official words” depends on if you have a prescriptivist or descriptivist view of the situation, but that is a small example in our own experiences where we see writing changing according to speech.  (Btw, Shakespeare was a master of introducing crazy, made-up words into a language.)

What is fascinating are some of the more apparent examples in recent history in which we make choices on how to write, or change how we write, a language, and the implications those choices have.  Or in one case, it’s the other way around — it’s the act of recategorizing dialects as separate languages through how we write.