Monthly Archives: July 2013

Does English have logograms?

A logogram is a symbol that represents a word or part of a word. Chinese is a great example of a logographic writing system. English, on the other hand, uses what’s called a phonologic writing system, in which the written symbols correspond to sounds and combine to represent strings of sounds.

Theory is one thing, and real life is another—like in so many other instances. Though there is a clear theoretical difference between logographic and phonologic writing systems, it’s safe to say that all writing systems are, to some extent, hybrids.

This begs the question: Does English have any logograms?

At first blush, the question seems silly. Of course not.

But wait, what about &. That’s a logogram. Let’s look at the other symbols we’ve got on the keyboard: @, #, $, %… they’re all logograms. We know how to pronounce them, but there are no clues as to their pronunciation in their shapes; they have to be learned. Numbers too: 4 is a single-symbol stand-in for the letters f–o–u–r.

But there may be even more. For example, I think everybody knows what lol means by now. Explicitly it’s an acronym that stands for “laughing out loud,” but it doesn’t quite mean that anymore. After all, of all the times you write “lol,” in how many were you actually laughing out loud? According to this article by Anne Curzan, “lol” is now used as an acknowledgement that a message was supposed to be funny, or even as a simple receipt. “A written version of a nod of the head and a smile,” Curzan writes. It could be argued that “lol” is no longer analyzed as an acronym. In other words, it’s become a logogram.

The power of language

Words don’t just say; they also do. This is the basis of a field called pragmatics. In other words, there’s meaning beyond the dictionary definition of the words we use. In speech, things like gesture, intonation and speed come into play.

In writing, these paralinguistic features can’t be encoded very easily. Sure, we can get somewhere with the help of punctuation, but in formal writing we don’t have much leeway. This is why formal writing should be straightforward—and why sarcasm doesn’t work so well in the written word.

But when we’re in what Mark Sebba calls the unregulated spaces of the Internet, we have a lot more liberty for adding paralinguistic nuances to our messages. We can use CAPS, bold and underline. We can go crazy with exclamation marks!!!! And then there’s our old friend the emoticon :), which is essentially the creative use of symbols to draw pictures. The possibilities are surprisingly wide. (◎ヮ◎)

All of these things are the bread and butter of cyberpragmatics. If you’d like to learn more about it, the book Cyberpragmatics by Francisco Yus is an excellent place to start. (If you know Spanish, the original Spanish version is much cheaper.)

All hail Latin… script

Around 150 BC, Rome conquered Greece and began adopting many aspects of Greek culture, including their passion for writing. Soon the publishing business flourished, numerous libraries were founded and the empire began to enjoy a higher literacy rate.

Eventually the Roman Empire floundered, giving rise to the modern European nations, and the Roman alphabet was adopted to write other languages—even ones that were not related to Latin. As Amalia Gnanadesikan points out in The Writing Revolution, this initial spread of the Latin alphabet was due to the power of the Church. After the invention of the printing press, the alphabet continued to spread, fueled by colonialism and settlement around the world, and the typewriter. And it was cyclical: As more things were written in the Latin alphabet, the more useful it became.

Because the Latin script is used to write so many languages, it was inevitable that some of these languages would have sounds that Latin didn’t have. There was a need to invent new letters, and the most popular method for doing so has been to add diacritics—markings that sat above or below the letter, such as in ñ, é and ą.

Languages have become known for the changes they introduced to the Latin script. That is, certain letters have become associated with nations and languages. The letter ñ makes us think of Spanish, the letter ü makes us think of German, the letter ê makes us think of French and the digraph tx makes us think of Basque.

But we can take this a step further: The Basque ideology is often associated with nationalism and independence, and in this way the grapheme tx, which evokes thoughts of Basque, also evokes thoughts of nationalism and independence. As testament to this, Spanish youths often use tx instead of ch in Spanish texts to assert their independence.

The result is interesting. Though countless languages use the same Latin script, you can identify the language something is written in with relative ease because of the unique ways each language customizes the script.