Do complicated writing systems make smarter citizens?

The Japanese language probably has the most complicated writing system  in the world. (If you know of a more complicated one, I want to hear about it!)

Japanese uses three scripts in concert. The first system is called kanji, and is comprised of the logographic characters borrowed from Chinese.

The other two systems are syllabaries (like alphabets, but instead of representing single sounds, each character represents a syllable) that were independently derived from the Chinese characters in order to spell out Japanese words for which there was no dedicated symbol. Katakana, the first syllabary, was derived from the classic characters, and hiragana, the second syllabary, was derived from the cursive characters.

Each of these systems is capable of representing the Japanese language on its own (except kanji, which would admittedly have a few gaps if the syllabaries didn’t exist). Even so, the three systems are used together, according to particular rules:

  • Kanji is used for vocabulary when there is a dedicated character available and known by the writer. Many (most?) kanji characters have multiple pronunciations, depending on the words they appear in. For example, the character 人 means person. Sometimes it is pronounced hito, sometimes it’s nin and sometimes jin. 一人 (one person) is pronounced hitori, but 三人 (three people) is pronounced san-nin, and 外人 (foreigner) is pronounced gaijin.
  • Hiragana is used for vocabulary items that have no kanji or when the writer does not know the kanji. This syllabary is also used for inflection and particles. These show what part a word plays in a sentence. For example, the English ending -ology means the word refers to a field of study, and -ing means that the word refers to an ongoing action.
  • Katakana is used for foreign words or when the pronunciation is to be emphasized.

All in all, a literate Japanese speaker must be competent in all three writing systems. A tall order!

Given all this craziness, it is surprising that Japan boasts one of the highest literacy rates in the world, and that it excels in IT, math and science. Does the dominance of a complicated symbolic system contribute to higher intellect in other areas? 


David Crystal writes in Internet Linguistics:

Strong positive links have been found between the use of textisms and the skills underlying success in standard English in pre-teenage children. Interestingly, the more they used abbreviations, the higher they scored on tests of reading and vocabulary. The children who were better at spelling and writing used the most textisms. (2011, p. 5)

That is, children with stronger knowledge of the written standard were better able to modulate written language to their liking in environments that allowed creativity. If we can understand “textisms” as a separate writing system that is used in concert with the standard English writing system, we have a situation not so unlike that of Japanese. And we see that students who can manipulate two writing systems do better on some standardized tests. Perhaps these creative thinking skills bleed into competencies in other areas on an even grander scale.

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