Abjads, abugidas, and alphabets

Many years ago, I read a wonderful book titled “Book of the Hopi” by Frank Waters. Well, I read the first half of the book. The book described how the tribes split apart and traveled the four directions, and then met up at the center of the universe, Third Mesa, Arizona. The tribes traveled across the Americas – east, west, north, and south. They left pictograms in places to let other tribes know when they passed through, and share their history. They never had an alphabet for written communication. They didn’t need one. I thought about this, letting it roll around in the back of my brain, for years. Being a notorious book worm, it never felt satisfactory to me. I remained solidly convinced that we need letters. Or much more sophisticated pictograms, such as Chinese characters, to write and share our stories.

As a teenager, I wanted to learn Arabic. To read and write it. I was stuck in a tiny town in rural East Tennessee in the era before internet, and the only resource I could find was a single skinny book at the local university library. When I checked it out (using my Dad’s library card), my Mother screamed at me daily until I returned the book. There was no hope of learning Arabic while stuck in that time and place. I did manage to learn something from that book – that Arabic was written right to left, and only used letters representing the consonants. The Arabic alphabet is called an abjad – what you would get it you said the first three letters as one word.

I thought the shapes of the letters was fascinating, and that some letters, when they were the final letter in a word, would have a different shape. I wondered how people can read without the vowels. Cn thy rly cmnct tht wy? With difficulty, as they did create a system to add lines and dots above and below letters to make the vowels explicit. So that rolled around in the back of my brain, too.

Then I ran into Tibetan – Buddhism. I had decided to learn about Buddhism. I admired the minimalism of Zen, but it was too minimalist for me to understand. So I decided to try Tibetan Buddhism – it had beautiful art – and I had stumbled onto a copy of “The Way of the White Clouds” by Lama Anagarika Govinda at the Strand Bookstore. Early in the book, Govinda tells about how he stumbled into Tibetan Buddhism, and that was it – the thing for me. So I started going to a Tibetan Buddhist center and reading Tibetan Buddhism texts (after grazing through a pile of library books filled with Tibetan Buddhist Art). I was smitten.

And then there was Tibetan – the written script – wow, that looked like nothing I had ever seen before. I did research online and learned that the script is an abugida – consonant/vowel pairs, with added marks to indicate which vowel sound. I never did sit down and make the effort to learn to read it, or even really learn any Tibetan words, but I kept thinking about the concept of writing words using consonant/vowels pairs. This is was new. I don’t think it would work for English particularly well. This was also the first time that I gave any thought to writing English using a different alphabet than the Roman/Italian one we love and adore.

A couple years ago, I did take the trouble to learn some basic Hebrew, which included learning to read and write. I felt like a kindergarten kid. It took a lot more effort to learn to read Hebrew than I remember of learning to read English. But then, Dad says that I was reading before I got to kindergarten. Well, sort of. I knew the letters and their sounds, and would try to spell words using my older sister’s magnetic letters and magnetic board. But learning a new alphabet from scratch was challenging, yet fascinating. I eventually learned it well enough to prefer Hebrew words written with Hebrew letters than with Roman letters. Hebrew, like Arabic, has a system to add dots and dashes over letters to notate the missing vowels. Hebrew does have some letters that represent vowels.

I fantasize learning more alphabets. Cyrillic in particular, as much of the world uses it. And of course, actually learning Arabic and to read/write it. Maybe even tackle shorthand, which is based on the consonant/vowel pairing concept of the abugida. Maybe it’s possible to write English using an abugida afterall.