Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Washington Post correction: a purely symbolic gesture

The Washington Post has corrected itself:

A Jan. 19, 2008, Metro article incorrectly described the Korean language as using symbols. It has an alphabet.

It's true that Korean uses a writing system that represents individual phonemes in words.

And certainly the editors at the Post know that an alphabet is a system of symbols. So I figure they're correcting their assumption about what those symbols represent.

Most simply: writing systems can represent the sounds in a word, the meaning of a word, or both. Those that primarily represent sound are phonographic and can be either phonemic or syllabic. Those that primarily represent meaning are morphographic.

If the system represents the sounds, it can represent each identifiable sound in an ideal 1:1 relation with the symbol. So the sound we make when referring to that thing I wear on my head, has three sounds that have an effect on our understanding of the utterance. It starts with a [h] then there's an [æ] and finally a [t]. When I write it out you can see that the symbols I use represent the sounds I would make if saying the word instead of writing it. If I want to spell out the word for the wooden contraption that I hang my hat on, I would add three more symbols to represent the three added sounds. in addition to [hæt] I would add [ɹæk] (Notice that the 1:1 relation between English spelling and sound is notoriously imperfect.)

If I'm going to create a syllabary, I would use only one symbol for the first word [hæt] and two symbols for the second word [hæt.ɹæk]. In a well ordered system, I would go ahead and use the symbol I used for the first word because the syllable is the same. The second syllable would have its own symbol, and here's a telling analysis—there would be no clue that that vowel is the same in both syllables. Even if the syllables were almost identical—imagine I keep my hat on a hatmat—the syllabary would merely represent these as Syllablex and Syllabley. The components of the syllable aren't represented.

Regardless of the semantic intention of the sounds or syllables, these symbolic systems represent the sounds that are uttered. The last syllable of diplomat and the first syllable of Matlock would look the same within a syllabic and an alphabetical system. (Exceptions do exist because of factors outside the writing system. We'll not get into that here.)

A logographic system does not represent the sounds, but represents the meanings of words. A purely semantic representation would ignore the sounds and even the syllables of a word, instead representing either the whole concept with a symbol or symbols in combination. (This fact is of course abused by such ongoing silliness as the crisis/opportunity canard perpetuated by nobel prize winners who should know better than to repeat something that has been sufficiently discredited.)

So let's create our own little logographic system here: The thing on my shoulders (my [hɛd]) might be written out as 'ɑ'. Then I need a word for that saintly glow also known as a halo. So I write @. The symbol for 'halo' has within it the symbol for 'head' but the symbol isn't guiding my pronunciation in any compositional way. It's pure convention that allows me to use the logogram to figure out the sounds that represent the same thing.

If I could access the original story by the Post, I would have a better understanding of the original claim that was made. It's likely that the story did misrepresent the Korean writing system by claiming that it's not a phonetic system. In that case a correction is warranted. But a more precise correction wouldn't imply that the alphabets and syllabaries are not also symbolic systems.

I noticed (as q-pheevr also mentions in the comments) that the correction comes along pretty late. But if you note the other corrections on the Post's page, this one hasn't had the longest wait. The comments on the article mentioned this error as soon as it came out -- that very day. Way to get on that people.]


  1. The other thing I wonder about is why the Post is 'correcting' this now, over a year after the original article appeared, especially since it's no longer freely available on their Web site. (I don't, however, care enough to pay to read it.)

    One might try to make the case that the (rather opaque) iconic elements of Hangul make it less symbolic (in the technical semiotic sense) than most other alphabetic writing systems, but my impression is that the Post isn't operating at that level of sophistication....

  2. Hang on, the original article is available after all--it's just that the non-free version is what you get when you search the Post's archives. Here's the relevant sentence:

    "Like Chinese, Korean has symbols instead of an alphabet, and there is no equivalent for some English letters."

    That's certainly wrong enough to be worth correcting even a year later, though I do wonder (1) why no one caught it earlier, and (2) why the correction itself is still so confused about what a "symbol" is.

  3. thanks for the link. the correction seems to be simply following the terminology of the article -- incorrect as it is.

    could you say more about your first comment? i'm working on a follow-up post on orthography and levels of representation and i'd like to hear your take on it.

  4. Interesting.

    Does any of this lead you to convictions about how children aquire the ability to understand spelling and writing, etc.? I mean, in the old debate about whether "phonics" or not-phonics? Should I tell my kid to sound it out? Or to recognize the whole word? It seems neither of these is precisely what the kid needs to learn, right?

    Or is what you're talking about altogether not relevant to my question? -- if so, apologies... I didn't really understand what you were talking about. You lost me at "hæt.ɹæk."

  5. could you say more about your first comment?Sure. There are a couple of neat things about Hangul that make it different from other alphabetic writing systems. One of these is that the letters are grouped into syllable-sized blocks, so that each syllable takes up the same amount of space. (This makes Korean writing look superficially similar to Chinese logographic characters, which may have something to do with the Post writer's confusion.)

    The other unusual thing about Hangul is that the shapes of the letters actually mimic part of the shape of the vocal tract in the sounds they represent. It's not terribly easy to see the correspondences unless you already know what to look for, but once you know it's there, it's reasonably clear. And even setting aside the iconic resemblance between the letters and the articulations, the mere fact that natural classes of sounds have similar-looking letters makes Hangul much more mnemonic than, say, the family of alphabetic writing systems that includes Greek, Roman, Cyrillic, Hebrew, and Arabic. These alphabets gradually developed from what used to be a pictographic, then a logographic system, so to the extent that the letters look like anything, they look like highly stylized pictures of things whose names used to begin with the sound that the letter used to represent. Hangul, on the other hand, was designed to be an alphabet from the beginning, so it's a bit like A. M. Bell's "visible speech".

    So, if we take the word symbol in the particular technical sense of 'an arbitrary sign' (one in which the connection between signifier and signified is based entirely on convention), then the Roman alphabet is composed of symbols, but Hangul is composed of icons (signs in which the conncection between signifier and signified is based on resemblance), or perhaps of signs that are partly iconic and partly symbolic.

  6. The problem with "phonics" - in my opinion as someone who taught herself to read with an essentially see-say method from being read to - is that far too many of the common English words break all the "rules". Starting to read with phonics, it seems to me from the outside looking in, would be deeply confusing.

    How do you "sound out" "the" or "one" or "of"? It only works for the more complex words.

  7. I forgot to add - when I did start applying the rules I'd learned or discovered, they let me down pretty spectacularly. I remember my firm belief that there was a name "Pe-NELL-o-pee" and a name "Pen-e-LOPE". I definitely remember my father laughing (involuntarily) when I said "mack-a-ber" for "macabre".


Thanks for reaching out.

You can also contact me at wishydig[at]gmail[d0t]com.