We’ve been digging into the decipherment
of ancient scripts, but what is a script? I’m convinced we’ll miss a lot along our
journey into decipherment if we don’t pack an understanding of writing systems to take along with us. So, at this point, I planned to spend a few minutes racing over the basics of writing with you.
But, however hard I tried to condense it and pack it in, it scratched for more. Scratched… the old Greek root for writing
– “graph” – meant “scratch”, like scratching symbols into rock or clay. Graphemes are written units, like the letter
V, a semicolon, the Han character for fire. The actual marks that get written down are
glyphs. Here are some glyphs for the grapheme V. And here are some glyphs for “fire”. Little marks called diacritics can modify
those glyphs. Here’s an “o” with a nasal mark, telling you to pronounce it through
the nose: õ. Here’s that same diacritic above the letter “a”. Diacritics are often
simplified or miniature versions of other glyphs. So that little nasal mark comes from the letter “n” put atop another character. Notice that a single grapheme can be written with various glyphs. These glyphs are all allographs – “other scratches” – of the grapheme “V”. These glyphs are
all allographs of “fire”. Very roughly, a set of graphemes that get used together in writing make up a script. A script, together with the way it encodes
or represents language, is a writing system. Graphemics wonders about writing system things,
like the use of certain symbols for certain sounds or certain meanings or the differences between different writing systems. Then there’s graphetics, which wants to
know about things like the shape and composition of letters or the mechanics of human handwriting. The word “writing” can mean any of these.
I really want to put some art and thought into this separate voyage through writing
so that we can make the most of decipherment. Tune in for both and subscribe for language!