RE: Mixed up priorities

From: Reynolds, Gregg (
Date: Sat Oct 23 1999 - 13:41:47 EDT

> -----Original Message-----
> From: Michael Everson []
> Sent: Saturday, October 23, 1999 7:11 AM
> Ar 15:16 -0700 1999-10-22, scríobh Ashley Yakeley:
> >For this reason, I like to say that in Slovak, 'ch' is a composite
> >character that's made up of two other characters.
> No, it is two characters treated as a single letter in a
> certain context.

This is a classic example of metalinguistic cross-talk. There are clearly
two levels of meaning involved here, one being the semantic units of Slovak,
the other being its graphical units. It's impossible to tell from either
Ashley's or Michael's statements which is intended. (Ditto for virtually
every other message on this thread.)

A modest suggestion: let's use semantic brackets ("[[ ]]") to indicate that
we're talking about the meaning, and some other convention (call it
"graphemic brackets") to indicate that we're talking about graphic forms.
For lack of a better notation, I propose paired slashes ("// //"). So
"[[ch]]" means "the meaning of the sign 'ch'" and "//ch//" means "the form
of the sign 'ch'". Not a perfect notation but better than nothing. You
might argue that I've fudged with the word 'sign', but actually it fits with
semiotic theory as I understand it. Maybe 'sign-fuction' would be better.
Then the string 'ch' becomes the name of a function, whose domain is denoted
by the string //ch// and whose range is denoted by the string [[ch]].

With this notation I'm still not sure how to interpret Ashley's statement,
but Michael's seems to say "//ch// is two characters (we might add
'//c//+//h//') treated as single letter...".

> A letter is an element of an alphabet, which itself is a structured
> collection of graphic symbols used to represent one or more languages,
> having specific elements representing for vowels and consonants.

This seems a clear and simple definition, but I don't think it is. It is
not clear to me what you mean by "vowels" and "consonants".

You could mean those theoretical units of phonetic or phonological analysis
used by modern linguists as a tool for thinking about scientifically
observable linguistic data. Rather like defining the color "greeen" as a
range of wavelengths in the spectrum of visible light. Then your definition
would establish a relation between cultural artifacts and scientific
artifiacts. Useful for some purposes, less so for others.

You could mean, on the other hand, those _cultural_ units of thought
invented by the members of a literate community as a tool for thinking about
another cultural product, namely language. Rather like defining the color
"green" as the same color as the color of grass on a June morning. Their
purpose is to construct, not to analyze. Then your definition would
establish a relation between different sets of cultural artifacts within a
single semiotic domain or system. (Culture and science obviously exist
within a single semiotic system, but within more remote subsytems or
domains.) Useful for some purposes, less so for others.

I would argue that the latter interpretation is the most useful one for the
purposes of modeling written language. After all, consider that "vowel" and
"consonant" are English words; it is not at all clear to me at least that
"harf" and "haraka" mean exactly the same thing in Arabic. (By your
definition Arabic may be considered and alphabet.)

But we don't need to know what the graphic symbols of an alphabet represent.
It's enough to know that they represent something - that they have meaning.
That meaning is not the same thing as the symbol itself; more importantly,
the internal structure of the meaning has no relation to the internal
structure of its signifier.

From this perspective it seems clearly incorrect to say that [[ch]] is two
things; it is arguably incorrect even to say that //ch// is two things. It
all depends on your criteria. The observation that //c// and //h// exist
separately in the Slovak graphemic repertoire supports the argument that
//ch// is partitionable; but that doesn't mean [[ch]] is partitionable. The
observation that [[ch]] is a unit in the Slovak semantic repertoire argues
with equal force that //ch// should be considered unitary. The graphical
form itself tells us nothing in this respect. Font technologies and
products are irrelevant.

Appeals to Unicode definitions of "character", "plaintext", etc. don't help
here - their brokenness is at the root of the kind of miscommunication that
this thread has so eloquently illustrated.

BTW, I suggest we avoid "alphabet" and "letter" altogether. As I'm sure you
know, alphabetisme has a long and shameful history in the toolbox of Western
Imperialism. Unfortunately it is still not particularly difficult to find
even scholarly works that carry an implicit assumption that "the alphabet"
is superior to other forms.


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