Philip Newton (pne) wrote,
Philip Newton

Inuktitut syllabics, or "they all look the same!"

I’m currently dabbling a bit in Inuktitut and am looking into the syllabic writing system commonly used for Inuktitut in Nunavut and Nunavik (but not, for example, in Labrador, or for the closely-related Inuinnaqtun).

And one of the things I keeping thinking is that while the idea might be elegant, I keep getting reminded of a quote of Zompist’s:

Keep the letters looking distinct. The best alphabets spread out over the conceptual graphic space, so that letters can't be confused for one another. Tolkien is a bad example here: the elves must have been tormented by dyslexia.

Because syllables starting with the same consonant look the same except for rotation and/or reflection, I keep forgetting which one is which. I wonder whether this is what schoolchildren (or foreigners used to a different script) feel like when confronted with p b d q: I can easily keep them apart, both when reading and when writing, and I wonder whether people who are really familiar with syllabics can do the same. (For what it’s worth, in Inuktitut syllabics, those shapes ᑭ ᑲ ᑯ ᑫ correspond to ki ka ku kai, respectively, though the kai syllabic is only used in Nunavik.)

So reading is currently extra-slow, since I not only have to recognise the shape, but also have to pay attention to rotation and reflection.

It doesn’t help that ᑭ ᑯ ᑲ are k- while ᓂ ᓄ ᓇ are n- or that ᒋ ᒍ ᒐ are g- while ᓕ ᓗ ᓚ are l-. Nor that some shapes change only by rotation (-i = pointing up, -u = pointing right, -a = pointing left: ᐃ ᐅ ᐊ; ᐱ ᐳ ᐸ; ᑎ ᑐ ᑕ; ᕆ ᕈ ᕋ; ᕕ ᕗ ᕙ) while others change by reflection in one or both axes (-i = corner in the top left, -u = corner in the bottom right, -a = corner in the bottom left: ᑭ ᑯ ᑲ; ᒋ ᒍ ᒐ; ᒥ ᒧ ᒪ; ᓂ ᓄ ᓇ; ᓕ ᓗ ᓚ; ᓯ ᓱ ᓴ; ᔨ ᔪ ᔭ; ᖠ ᖢ ᖤ; ᕵ ᕷ ᕹ)… and then there are shapes such as ᓯ ᓱ ᓴ and, in particular, ᔨ ᔪ ᔭ where it’s difficult to see at a glance the identifying corner is. (And it took me a bit to figure out that the r- series ᕆ ᕈ ᕋ are not reflecting ones but rotating ones, at least by the logic of which orientation encodes which vowel: graphically, they’re essentially variants of ᑎ ᑐ ᑕ t- with a little line added.)

At least I’m grateful that Inuktitut uses the eastern convention of using small -a shapes for final consonants, rather than unrelated lines and semicircles like in the western area of syllabics users.

Tags: alphabets, inuktitut, language
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