Given that the New Worlds essays are all about worldbuilding for stories, it’s a little surprising that I haven’t discussed writing before now. So let’s remedy that! (Full disclosure: I am deeply indebted to NativLang’s Thoth’s Pill series of videos for helping me sort this into manageable order and providing examples.)
Writing is a huge watershed in human society, right up there with things like agriculture. And, like all major innovations, not everybody approved of it: we have ancient documents that record elders decrying the kids these days, letting their memories atrophy by leaning on the crutch of written records, losing the precious face-to-face interaction of spoken communication, making it so their words can be read (and probably misunderstood) by total strangers years from now. All those complaints about kids these days and the radio/TV/internet/etc? Not remotely new.
It’s also been invented multiple times — at least three times (in Mesopotamia, China, and Mesoamerica), with other writing systems developed from or least inspired by those source scripts. It isn’t impossible to run a complex state without writing, but it definitely helps, because of the need for record-keeping. In time I’ll dig into the many social, political, economic, religious, and aesthetic facets of writing, but let’s start with the basics: different types of writing systems.
Mythological origins aside, they don’t generally spring fully-formed from nowhere. Pictographs are “proto-writing” — literal images, albeit sometimes stylized, of the things they’re meant to represent. They’re not good at dealing with abstract concepts, though, so from pictographs we move to ideographs, which represent ideas. For an example, consider the no symbol, which communicates the idea that something is prohibited. This leads in turn to logographs: signs that represent specific words. Once you have logographs, you can have a full writing system, capable of representing your entire language.
The rebus principle then allows you to develop phonetic readings off your logographs: for example, sometimes the sign for “bee” (as in the insect) might get used to represent the verb “to be,” or anything else containing that syllable. For clarity, you can add a determinative sign, which provides semantic information to distinguish various homophones and near-homophones from one another. This shows up all over the place in Chinese writing, where the determinatives get called radicals (but some radicals are phonetic instead of semantic, because this stuff gets complicated).
Rebus-based phonetic writing brings us around to a syllabary, a writing system where each sign represents a syllable. What constitutes a syllable varies from language to language; in most cases it will incorporate a vowel, but there are exceptions, such as Japanese “syllabic n.” (Not actually a syllable, if you want to get super-technical, but for the purposes of discussing writing, that term will suffice.) Syllabaries may cope with things like final consonants either by underspelling — leaving off the final consonant entirely — or by using an echo vowel, writing Mayan balam as ba-la-ma or Minoan Knossos as Ko-no-so (underspelling and echo vowel both!)
You can solve that particular conundrum with an alphabet, where each sign represents a single phoneme. (In theory. English spelling assigns multiple phonemes to some letters, especially vowels.) In an abugida or alphasyllabary, like Devanagari, the consonants form the core of each sign, and the vowel is added onto that as a kind of ligature. An abjad like Arabic simplifies even further, writing only the consonants and leaving the vowels to be filled in from context; an “impure” abjad includes some vowels or diacritics for marking vowels. Hebrew, Arabic, and Syriac also use matres lectionis: specific consonants that can also be used to represent vowels.
And finally, no rundown of writing systems would be complete without a shout-out to Korean and its featural script, Hangul. In this approach, the symbols are systematically designed to tell you things about how they should be pronounced: details like the place of articulation (e.g. labial vs. glottal) and the manner of articulation (e.g. sibilant vs. plosive). It’s fascinating to imagine how Hangul might adapt to unfamiliar types of sounds — is there a way to represent click consonants? What if we meet aliens who make sounds the human body is incapable of?
Such speculations aside, we still have a dizzying array of writing options. Reading through it, you might be forgiven for thinking that it’s an evolutionary path: that the alphabet/abugida/abjad end of things is the “best” writing system, and things like logographs are archaic holdovers. But in truth, each system has its benefits and downsides.
Take logographs. You need a lot of these to represent your language; the usual estimate is that you have to know three to four thousand characters to be considered fully literate in Chinese. That seems complicated — and in a way, it is. But the flip side is that logographic writing can communicate (albeit imperfectly) across languages: you can recognize the characters, even if you have no idea what phonetic readings they’re supposed to have. It’s possible to be partially literate in a logographic script, in a way that doesn’t really happen with an alphabet (very few people stop at knowing nine of English’s twenty-six letters).
An alphabet, by contrast, has many fewer signs: dozens at most, instead of thousands. It’s easy to learn all the signs in an alphabet, and easy to adapt to different languages, assigning different phonetic readings to existing letters or adding on one or two more where needed (and dropping the ones you don’t need). But it won’t help you understand across language boundaries; you can write English, Hawaiian, and Hungarian with slight variations on the Latin alphabet, but if you don’t speak all three of those languages, you won’t understand what the other two say. And god help you if the language includes a lot of homophones! My favorite online Japanese dictionary demonstrates the problem with the (admittedly artificial) sentence niwano niwaniwa niwa niwatoriwa niwakani wanio tabeta. Written out in a pure syllabary, it isn’t much more comprehensible. But add in the Chinese characters, and it’s easy to see that the sentence means “Two chickens in Mr. Niwa’s garden suddenly ate an alligator.”
But if you look at the sentence behind that link, you’ll see it isn’t written purely with logographs, because they lack a certain kind of flexibility. Mandarin Chinese is an analytic language, and as such works very well with this system, because it communicates things like the past tense by adding on more words. Japanese, however, uses more inflection, so that a verb like kaku (to write) may have the forms kaita, kakimasu, kakeba, and so forth. When Japan borrowed China’s writing system, they had a problem: how could they fit their inflections into a system not designed for such changes? They found ways — several of them, in fact — but the one that won out was to create a syllabary — two of them! — which are used in combination with the Chinese characters.
Because despite what the descriptions above may imply, languages often intermix these types of script. Mayan writing was partly logographic, partly syllabic, and sometimes glued syllabic signs onto logographic ones as phonetic complements. Egyptian combined an abjad with logographic determinatives. Heck, look at texting today: the proliferation of emoji means that pictographic proto-writing is coming back into vogue, right alongside our alphabet, which sometimes simplifies into an abjad, because writing is srs bsns.
The relevance of all of this for worldbuilding is that it affects how easily people become literate, how readily their writing system adapts to other languages, how intelligible the writing is between languages, and so forth. And that’s before you get to all the other aspects mentioned before — the social, political, economic, religious, and aesthetic concerns — but this is already half again as long as a normal essay, so those will wait for a later day!