Sound writing

 

The sound writing system is also known as the phonetic system. The word 'phonetic' comes from the Greek word phone meaning 'sound' or 'voice'. In the phonetic system, spoken sounds are converted into graphic symbols known as phonograms.

Both the ancient Sumerian and the ancient Egyptian pictorial scripts developed into phonetic systems over time. Just like a game, single picture words (or pictograms) were linked together to create new words - for instance a picture of a 'car' might be placed next to a picture of a 'pet' to form the word 'carpet', or a picture of a 'shark' might be placed next to a picture of a 'king' to make the word 'shaking'. This is called the 'rebus' system. Can you work out what the pictures below represent? (press 'Enlarge' for the answer)

 

Our alphabet is phonetic. Alphabets are made up of a fixed number of signs - far fewer than pictorial systems. Alphabetic signs represent simple sounds which can be sewn together to form an infinite number of words. The Phoenicians were the first people to create an alphabet. Their alphabet was made up entirely of consonants - the vowels were only added orally, when words were read aloud. Ancient Semitic writing systems, such as Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic and Syriac, also had a fixed set of phonic symbols to represent consonants.

Phoenician sailors and traders are thought to have carried their writing system across the sea to Greece in around 800 BC. The Greeks eventually found that there were certain words in their language that were impossible to spell with the existing alphabetic system. They therefore borrowed consonant symbols from the Aramaic alphabet, and used these letters to create the vowel letters A ('alpha'), E('epsilon'), O ('omicron') and Y ('upsilon').

The spelling of a word does not always resemble the way that it is spoken

Two words might sound the same but have different meanings, indicated by their context and spelling (for example 'son' is not the same as 'sun').

Phonetic transcription is a system that allows us to write down the sounds that occur in any spoken human language. Whilst the western alphabet is a system of communication that allows us to read and write within the rules our language, a phonetic alphabet is not based on a particular language. The International Phonetic Alphabet is one of these systems.

There is a separate symbol for each speech segment. It avoids letter combinations such as sh and th , and ambiguous letters such as c . This means that the speech of all languages and scripts can be recorded.

Look at the chart to see how it differs from the regular alphabet.

Some phonetic systems are designed to help us transcribe speech very quickly

A shorthand system uses a series of marks to transcribe the spoken word as rapidly as it is uttered.

The Pitman shorthand system records the sounds of speech rather than the spelling of words. Particular sounds, such as that in f orm, ele ph ant and rou gh , share the same symbol.

Most words are represented only by their consonants. It is not necessary to record vowel sounds but they can be represented by small dots, dashes or other marks made next to the main strokes.

Thickness, length and position of line are all significant and can change the meaning of the mark.

Special abbreviations and other tricks can be used to increase writing speed.

Shorthand was once used widely by secretaries and journalists, but has become less popular since the development of cheap, portable sound recording equipment.

Sound can also play a part in transmitting particular types of writing

Morse code is a signalling code. It was devised in the 19th century by artist and inventor, Samuel Morse.

The letters of the alphabet are represented by a series of dots and dashes. Morse gave the shortest combinations of dots and dashes to the most frequently used letters of the alphabet.

These dots and dashes can be transmitted in a variety of ways - by audio tone, by radio signal or by a visual signal such as a flashing light. Early Morse code was transmitted by electrical pulses that were sent along a telegraph wire and made indented marks onto a paper tape.

When Morse code has been transmitted, it is received by an operator who translates the signals back to regular writing.