A hybrid writing system
The short-lived civilization of the small Korat island in the Atlantic Ocean left us with a fascinating writing system, to my knowledge unlike any other system ever conceived. The Korat referred to it as Tsomínnakadu, which can be loosely translated as “all the seeds of speech”. Much of its uniqueness is doubtless due to the utter isolation of the culture, which presents only faint (and debatable) traces of outer influence. As a matter of fact, Tsomínnakadu itself is the only solid clue we have that there was ever any contact between the islanders and another culture. It appeared and evolved into its final shape so quickly (within the 10th century BC), after centuries of primitive and inconsistent pictographic systems, that it seems another civilization must have introduced the concept of the alphabet. The difficulty lies in the fact that at that time in our history, precious few alphabets were in use – the Phoenician alphabet itself, freshly born, had not yet reached Greece!
Must we then believe that in a stroke of genius, the Korat conceived of and perfected an alphabetical writing system from scratch? This is what they themselves, at any rate, would have us believe. According to traditional accounts, they owe the birth of Tsomínnakadu to the leaders of the island’s different tribes, who in a time of growing interaction between their peoples decided to unify and improve the different pictographic systems that had tottered along for a while. As they dealt with the headache of creating and memorizing thousands of symbols, one for each object or action, they found themselves simplifying and simplifying until they only kept the 31 sounds that could be put together to form any word. The same myth claims it took them the (obviously symbolic) number of 7 years, 7 months and 7 days to come to the end of their labor. If Tsomínnakadu really is the product of a group of minds, we can only admire the ability for abstract thinking that allowed them to conceive of it.
For its alphabetical part, Tsomínnakadu is made up of 31 characters or tsommínnake: 26 consonants and 5 vowels.
There is a characteristic and consistant diagonal-slash, cursive look to all the consonants. They also all occupy roughly the same rectangular area of a 1×3 ratio, the same way Chinese characters always occupy a square area. As a matter of fact, the placement and sizes of all characters in this alphabet are determined by an underlying grid shown below. The vowels are much smaller than the consonants and contained within the top square. The diagram also shows the positioning of the other elements that will be discussed later on.
A close study of the consonants reveals that far from being random, their design is underlain by an understanding of phonology and a desire to organize the sounds logically. Briefly and in lay terms, the sounds we use in speech are created by a combination of three variables: the sound, the way it is produced and the place it is produced. If you release air voicelessly at the level of your lips, you get a P. If you do the same but at the level of your teeth, it’ s a T, and further back, in the throat, it becomes a K. However, if you release air with voice at the level of your lips, it is a B, and if instead of releasing it you let it out softly, it becomes an F.
The creators of the Korat system grouped the sounds of their language according to such relationships, which they intuitively understood:
- Blue field: lips.
- Purple field: teeth and tongue.
- Pink field: throat.
- Black letters: basic sounds.
- Blue letters: the vocal equivalents of the black letter to their left.
- Red letters: “softly let out” equivalents of the black letter above them.
- Purple letters: the vocal equivalents of the red letter to their left and the “softly let out” equivalents of the blue letter above them.
Substituting the Tsomínnakadu consonants:
Once the letters are laid out this way we immediately notice the way their shape is studied to reflect this organization. The final version of Tsomínnakadu which we have here has somewhat diverged from the original design due to usage, but it seems the relationships were even clearer at its origin. Nevertheless they are still clear: the L and R, W and H are mirror images of each other; the B is just one stroke away from the P, as the GH from the KH; as for the N, it seems to clearly state that it should be pronounced further back in the mouth than the M!
In comparison the vowels look rather neglected. Apparently they represent the shape of the mouth when pronouncing them.
Punctuation consists of four symbols:
The question and emphasis marks are interesting: they are not placed at the end of the sentence like we are used to, but next to the word that is subject to question or emphasis, in the same position as a vowel. This is somewhat like the English usage of stress in verbal speech – as in “What are you doing?” versus “What are you doing?” in school.
What makes Tsomínnakadu unique is the use of ideographic characters in the midst of a phonetic alphabet. In other words it is as if in the middle of this sentence, where you are reading sounds that come together in your mind to create a meaning, I were to give you an image that would directly transmit to you meaning rather than sound. Such symbols inform the reader of the presence of a plural or of the conjugation of a verb, and if they are reading out loud they need to find the correct pronunciation in their own knowledge of the language because the symbol can be read differently according to context – only its meaning remains unchanged.
We know of at least two other mixed writing systems: those of Japan and Ancient Egypt, where ideograms are complemented by syllabic signs. Neither however went this far into harmonizing the two: in the system we’re examining the problem of the complexity created by ideograms is solved and they are tamed into a use where they actually simplify life rather than create more headache. Tsomínnakadu makes the most of both systems.
The ideographic characters are the definite article, the plural sign, the time symbol, and the pronouns.
The definite article:
There are four definite articles in the spoken language: e (masculine singular), i (feminine singular), ne (masculine plural) and ni (feminine plural)—indefinition is achieved by simply omitting the article. In writing however there is a single symbol for the definite article, placed before the word. This one symbol suffices to inform the reader that he is reading a definite clause (“the child”) rather than an indefinite one (“a child”). When reading out loud, the reader refers to his own knowledge to pronounce it correctly – or not to pronounce it at all! Indeed it is a particularity of the Korat language that some clauses create definition through other means than the article. I will give an example from the Arabic language for this:
In Arabic “the ball” would be expressed literally as: the – ball.
However, “the ball of the child” would be: ball – the – child.
The implication is that the ball is made definite by its belonging to the child (syntactically I mean), so there is no need to use an article for it. The Korat language functions in exactly the same way in this case, except that in writing, the article would be used for both nouns – but only pronounced for the second:
The plural sign:
Plural is obtained in the Korat language through the use of the suffixes –ne (masculine nouns) and –ni (feminine nouns). As with the case of the article, a single sign is used for both endings. Thus instead of a spelled-out suffix, we have here the equivalent of a “insert plural here” sign. Although it may seem at first superfluous, and heavy reliance on the reader’s knowledge of the nouns’ genders, it actually prevents confusion with words that end in –ne or –ni in their singular form (see below).
The time symbol:
There are three tenses: occurring (present), completed (past) and to come (future). There is no infinitive form as we know it; a given verb is in the present tense by default and so the ending –tó is added automatically. It becomes past when the suffix –lat is added to it, and future when the auxiliary daro is placed before it. Again a single symbol serves to indicate that the verb is past or future (it is absent in the present tense), and this time the differentiation is achieved by placing the symbol differently. If the verb is conjugated in the future, the symbol is placed before it, so that the reader can see it before the verb itself and is able to place daro in its correct place. If it’s past, the symbol is placed after the verb.
The final set of symbols is a system unto itself. Before elaborating on it, a word must be said about the Korat pronouns, which reveal a tedious concern with accuracy. There are exactly 13 pronouns, that can be divided into three columns: basic, defined and undefined.
The basic column is made up of familiar forms: I, you, he, she.
The defined column refers to plural forms where the subjects are defined. For instance, the “we” in this column means “you and I”, where you may be singular or plural; the point is that “I” is directly addressing the people that are included in “we”. Similarly “you”, here plural, implies, “you who are listening to me right now”. There is also a male and a female “they”, both of which refer to two or more persons that are defined in the listener’s mind (the boy and the girl, Peter and his classmates, etc). They respectively mean “him and so-and-so”, “her and so-and-so”, which explains why a masculine or a feminine pronoun can be used with a subject made of both genders.
The undefined column, as can be deduced by now, concerns subjects that are out of the picture at the moment of speech. “We” means “myself and one or more people who are not present here”; “You” means “you and whoever”; a single, unisex “they” is used for the vaguer crowds.
The last two pronouns are set apart: they are used for inert things and sometimes for animals, depending on the contents of the discourse. The singular one is equivalent to English “it”, and with it come its plural equivalent. As is the case with the article etc, these symbols are used instead of spelling out the pronouns. This allows immediate recognition of these grammatical elements in a sentence. The pronouns are actually written more specifically than they are said (for instance the defined and undefined “we”s are not differentiated in speech, where they are pronounced the same). The pronouns stand on the baseline and are 2/3ds of the height of the consonants. They are placed after the verb or word (in the latter case they become possessive).