a perfect syllabary?

December 9, 2009 § Leave a comment

A while ago, I posted some artwork based on Braille. These works presented English in a Braille system.  Braille has been put to use for a great deal of languages, but it seems to me that the Japanese Braille syllabary is remarkable in its elegance.

Looking closely we can see that there are close relationships between the signs for syllables that share a vowel. Look how /ku/, /su/, and /hu/ all share the upper two dots of the cell which we can understand as the vowel /u/. Likewise, syllables that share a consonant phoneme in the onset (prevocalic position) also share a similarity. For example the /s/ phoneme is represented in the Braille orthography as the middle and bottom dots of the right column of a Braille cell. These dots are combined with the appropriate vowel dots to create the syllable.

If we take the system with a focus on the consonant and understand the representation of each syllable, i.e., /ke/ , /ka/, etc as modifying a basic consonant sign, then perhaps Braille for Japanese qualifies as an abugida or alphasyllabary. Many languages of Ethiopia  use the abugida script originally used in Ge’ez the classical of that area, and whose  first four syllables create the name of the phenomenon. The writing systems of many South Asian languages are also abugidas.  Abugidas contrast with syllabaries, where in the latter, there is no visual relationship between signs for syllables that share similar phonological forms. That is, syllables that share a consonant such as /pa/ and /pe/ or a vowel, /pe/ and /ke/ will not share features in the script.

The Ge’ez abugida

Note the shared basic shape of signs across each column.

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