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From:  "Karen A. Van Hoek"
Date:  Tue Oct 27, 1998  4:22 pm
Subject:  Iconicity (was Re: Frequently-Asked Questions)

Karen van Hoek here, a linguist in Ann Arbor --

I want to put in a comment about the issue of iconicity versus
abstractness in writing systems, in case no one else has pointed this out
in the discussion yet. Some people criticize Sign Writing for being
iconic, and point to English as an example of an "abstract" writing
system. Some Sign Writing supporters accept the criticism and say that
maybe someday Sign Writing will be abstract, similar to English. But
there's a big confusion here. In fact, written English is _highly_
iconic. It's not very abstract at all. True, the 26 basic symbols are
abstract. But the order in which the symbols are written -- the spelling
-- iconically represents the order in which the sounds are pronounced.
It's very pictorial that way. The difference between "bat" and "tab" is
iconically symbolized by writing the letters in different orders. We
don't tend to see it because we're so used to it, and because we live in a
culture that hypes the idea "abstract is better". (In fact, I need to
acknowledge Ed Klima for pointing this out -- I didn't notice it myself
originally, either.)

If English spelling were truly non-iconic, we'd have
some rule like "Write the letters of the word in alphabetical order,
regardless of the order in which they're pronounced", and then maybe we'd
tag them with little numbers or something to help the reader figure out
which order to say them in. "Tap", "pat" and "apt" would all be spelled
a-p-t. And of course no one could read it.

There's a more serious point to be made here. I suspect that in the design
of a writing system, it may not matter much whether the individual letters
are abstract or iconic. But in representing the organization of the
individual parts of the word into a whole, integrated word -- there I
think that iconicity may be required. Otherwise it would probably put too
much of a processing load on the reader. Iconicity provides a certain
amount of "pre-assembly" of the word, so that there's less decoding work
to do on the part of the reader. I think this is why SignFont was pretty
unreadable (I'd love to hear if there was anyone out there who could
actually read it; I got up to where I could laboriously _decode_ it, but
not just sit and read, the way we can with Sign Writing).
Judiciously-applied iconicity, such as the decision to use "stacking" of
symbols in Sign Writing, is probably a very important component in
designing a writing system that can actually be read. So we Sign Writing
supporters don't need to get defensive or embarrassed about iconicity;
it's a good design principle, and one that has stood the test of time for
English and every other written language.

Karen van Hoek

  Replies Author Date
509 Re: Iconicity (was Re: Frequently-Asked Questions Angus B. Grieve-Smith Wed  10/28/1998

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