Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

12 August 2013

Dog-Day Food for Thought: Who Has the Best Alphabet?

The riddle of national productivity
The invented alphabets
Hangul and English
Conclusion: why it matters


The summer dog days are here again. As oppressive heat overtakes us—if not overcomes us—childish squabbling becomes the global norm. It has captured not only our Congress and our political parties, but Egypt and our relationship with Russia. It has devastated Syria.

A new scientific study confirms the obvious: heat increases human conflict. So as global warming heats us up, expect more of the same.

In the meantime, let’s take a break from incessant, unproductive conflict. Let’s think about larger issues, like the things that make us human.

One of those things is language. Every nation and culture has it. All but the most primitive tribes have ways of writing it down. Although similar in general purpose, our various ways of writing are self-evidently not the same.

The electronic age has largely deconstructed the old Tower of Babel. A lone blogger like me can collect representative samples of the world’s various alphabets in a few hours, all at his desk. Just forty years ago, that simple task would have taken days or weeks pouring over musty tomes in libraries.

Not only that. The under-appreciated miracle of Google Translate allows anyone, anywhere, to translate anything written by anyone anywhere else. The translations are hardly precise or idiomatic. But they get the point across. So we seem to have breached the great barrier of language that long has divided nations into warring tribes. Can mutual understanding be far behind?

As differences in language cease to divide us, they raise a whole new set of questions. Language and writing are the bases of all human learning and abstract thought. They are therefore the foundation of science, our understanding of ourselves and our Universe, and the innovation that some day may take us to the stars. Is one language better than another? Is one system of writing? And, if so, which one is best?

We native speakers of English take great pride in our tongue. We know that it’s everybody’s favorite second language. We also know that our particular variant of the Roman alphabet is simple and easy to learn, as is our mostly declensionless grammar. (Our spelling is another matter!)

But do we English speakers really have the world’s best alphabet and system of writing? Or are they only second best? And if so, who has the best? If these mere questions surprise you, the tentative answers may surprise you even more.

The riddle of national productivity

Before we get to the core questions of this essay, let’s look at another riddle, seemingly unrelated. The Internet has made both Mark Twain’s damn lies and statistics almost universally available. So nearly all educated people can rattle off the ranking of the world’s top four national economies: USA, China, Japan and Germany. The Web even makes it easy to go much further down the list.

But productivity depends on people, so population ought to matter. Suppose we rank GDP figures on a per-capita basis. Then an entirely different list emerges. On that list, China no longer ranks second. Instead, it ranks 123d. South Korea slips from 15th on an absolute basis to 44th per capita, but it still beats China by a considerable margin.

Both nations are Asian. In fact, South Korea’s writing and culture are in some ways derivatives of China’s. Both have long histories. Both have emerged recently (in the last century) from poverty and disorder.

South Korea’s recent history has been even more insecure than China’s. It includes a geographic and cultural split wrought by war, horrible devastation of both north and south, and the continuing threat of another devastating war, which has lasted now for 60 years.

In contrast, China has been stable and peaceful for all that time. Yet South Korea’s per-capita productivity easily trumps China’s. The only Asian nations or regions that beat South Korea are small city-states like Hong-Kong and Singapore, plus the giants Taiwan and Japan. If Taiwan were included in greater China, there would be only three, and only one (Japan) larger than a city-state.

More to the point, South Korea’s industry and innovation are light years ahead of China’s. In ancient times, China invented printing, gunpowder and noodles—three of the most important innovations in human history. Yet I, who have made a career of studying innovation, cannot think of a single important modern invention that the world owes to China.

Nor can I think of a single modern high-technology industry—except for rare-earth-metal mining and possibly solar panels based on silicon—in which China enjoys unchallenged global supremacy. And the two exceptions derive, respectively, from China’s natural resources and cheap labor, not innovation.

In contrast, tiny South Korea is now supreme in LCD screens, is challenging Japan for supremacy in automobiles, and is likely to become supreme soon in electronic memory chips. (Full disclosure: my wife and I both drive Hyundais and love them.)

How can this pipsqueak country, divided and under constant threat of invasion and war, be beating the productive pants off the world’s most populous nation, with one of humanity’s oldest and most venerable cultures? What’s going on here?

Yankee ideologues will, of course, point to ideology. South Korea has been capitalist since before the Korean War, while China took the capitalist road only some thirty years ago, when Deng Xiaoping came to power. And China, some still insist, is Communist in some ways, as it continues to describe its ruling party.

But those answers, I think, are a bit glib. Korea, like China, was still organizing itself in the early 1980s. It was not on anyone’s list of rising economic powers. Today its postwar “economic miracle” is exemplary, analogous to Japan’s. It also just happens to be near the top of the list in per-capita Internet penetration.

More important, there are other Asian nations that were and are both capitalist and unencumbered by South Korea’s sad legacy of national division and war. They include Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, among others, which respectively rank 116th, 78th, and 158th in per-capita GDP, far behind South Korea. South Korea has passed them in industry and innovation like a meteor. What gives?

The invented alphabets

As we try to answer that question, we return to the theme of this essay: who’s got the best alphabet. In that respect, Korea (as a whole, both north and south) is nearly unique. It’s one of only three cultures in the world today with alphabets created out of whole cloth.

The world has a number of alphabets. In addition to numerous variations of the Roman alphabet, there are (in alphabetical order) Arabic, Cyrillic, Greek, Hangul, Hebrew, Hiragana, Katakana, Sanscrit, Tamil and Thai. To complete the list, we should include Chinese characters—known in China as hantsu and in Japan as kanji, even though some consider them the antithesis of an alphabet.

Of all these human alphabets, the origins of most are lost in the mists of time and human social evolution. As far as we know, they weren’t invented; they just evolved.

In contrast, four alphabets still in modern use were most definitely invented, and for specific purposes. Again in alphabetical order, they are Cyrillic , Hangul (the Korean alphabet) and the two Japanese syllabaries, Hiragana and Katakana. [You may have to add Russian, Korean and Japanese to your browser’s language list in order to view the linked pages.]

We don’t know precisely who invented the Japanese syllabaries. They may have evolved like the Chinese characters. But we do know the names of the individual inventors of the Cyrillic and Hangul alphabets, and we know the purposes for which all four alphabets were developed.

All arose out of nationalism and cultural pride. The inventors all wanted a unique system of writing for their own people, adapted to their tongue, spoken language and other unique characteristics.

But there the similarities in origin cease. The monk St. Cyril, who invented the Cyrillic alphabet, had only one purpose in mind: creating an alphabet suitable for Slavic languages. He was not particularly original. Except for some letters unique to Slavic languages, he borrowed most of his letters from Roman, Greek and Hebrew. This table shows roughly how.

In contrast, the other three invented alphabets (Hangul, Hiragana and Katakana) had a second purpose: simplification. Both Korea and Japan were satellites of China, and their scholars all used Chinese characters. But the alphabetic inventors saw those characters as too many, varied and complex. They were (and are!) so difficult to learn as to impair children’s easy acquisition of written language. So they set out to devise an alphabet (or two, in Japan’s case) to make reading and writing simpler.

In Japan’s case, the invention of two alphabets underscored the need for simplification. One alphabet—katakana—is used exclusively for foreign words, just like pinyin in China. It recognizes the need for a phonetic alphabet for names and words that have no corresponding Chinese characters.

But the other Japanese alphabet goes even further. The Japanese use Hiragana exclusively for Japanese names and words. Children use it before they acquire enough kanji to read. Many subway signs use it so that children can ride the subways and get around Japan’s crowded cities without adult assistance. (Japanese children do not have full command of kanji—enough to read a newspaper—until they graduate from the equivalent of our high school at about age 16.)

Like Hiragana, Hangul was intended to express the Korean language in a unique form of writing. But unlike Hiragana, Hangul is much simpler. Not only does it have only 40 letters, as compared to Hiragana’s 46. The forms and shapes of its letter are masterpieces of simplicity.

To see the difference, you have only to compare the two alphabets visually. A mere glance convinces that, while Hiragana was devised in part for the sake of art, Hangul was made for use. With a few exceptions, Hangul’s letters are all simple geometric shapes, lines and circles, with no embellishments or complexity. A person with absolutely no artistic skill can write them easily.

Hangul and English

How does the Hangul alphabet compare with our English one? As it turns out, pretty well.

English’s version of the Roman alphabet wins on number of letters (26 versus 40), and the number of strokes for the most complicated letters (four for E, M and W versus nine for ㄻ,ㄼ and ㄾ). But Hangul has a larger number of straight lines and fewer complex curves, thus increasing the ease of writing and recognition. And Hangul has no analogue to our lower- and upper-case lettering, which increases the practical complexity of our English alphabet considerably, if not by as much as a factor of two.

Insofar as geometric simplicity and ease of writing and reading are concerned, the English alphabet and Hangul are hard to compare by viewing the letters alone. If children could choose for themselves, based solely on the letters, either choice would be rational. The only thing massively favoring the English alphabet, it seems, is that English has come to dominate the world as everybody’s favorite second language.

Yet Hangul may, as a system of writing, have a decisive advantage in human cognition, which has nothing to do with the form and number of the letters themselves. The advantage is the way it groups its letters in normal writing.

Hangul letters don’t appear in straight lines, as in every other alphabetic writing system. Instead, they appear in two-dimensional groups of two or more letters, which give foreigners the same general impression as Chinese characters.

But Hangul writing is far from Chinese characters. It’s a phonetic alphabetic language, not an ideographic one. And it differs from every other alphabetic language on the planet in a crucial respect: its two-dimensional, rather than linear, arrangement of letters into words and word formants.

Why is this important? Because of the way the human mind and eye work together to spot patterns.

Human pattern recognition is both astounding and limited. Most readers of this post are familiar with a simple test of human pattern recognition in English text. You take a passage of proper English, keep the first and last letters of each word fixed, and then garble all the letters of every word in between, at random. For most of us, the resulting garbled text is easy to read. In fact, we can read it with little, if any, reduction in speed. Only people with various forms of dyslexia have trouble.

But the limits on our visual perception are equally astounding. One is the number of dots or other identical symbols that, if arranged in a line, we can count at a glance. For most of us, accurate counting requires a string of five of fewer symbols. As the number increases beyond five, at-a-glance counting becomes erratic. (You can verify this point by having a colleague type a random number of letters into the password field of any website, and then trying to call out the number of dots that result, in less than a second.)

This simple experiment suggests that human visual pattern recognition is limited for symbols arranged in a line. But that’s exactly what most alphabetic languages do. Both words and sentences sprawl out in a straight line, the more complex the longer. In this respect, right-to-left reading languages, like Arabic and Hebrew, are no different from left-to-right reading languages like English and Russian.

But there is more. A simple experiment shows that pattern recognition is easier and quicker when symbols are arranged (at small scale) in two dimensions rather than one.

In the Japanese game of Sudoku, the object is to arrange integers from one to nine—without duplication—in nine vertical columns, nine horizontal rows, and nine squares of nine places each. The puzzle contains enough integers at random places on the grid to insure a unique solution. Once you’ve solved that puzzle, you can verify the correctness of your solution either by consulting the answers in the puzzle book, or simply by verifying that each column, row and box contains all nine integers without repetition.

If you verify your solution the second way, you will discover an interesting phenomenon. Checking the boxes is much easier and quicker than checking the columns or rows. In fact, you can often check a box for all integers one through nine at a mere glance, just as you can count up to five dots in a line, but (usually) no more. You simply can’t do that with the columns or rows. (For them, I usually check both ways, counting down and then counting up, because experience has taught me that otherwise my eyes can deceive me.)

What does all this mean? It appears to mean that, from the perspective of human visual perception, Hangul is the planet’s most efficient alphabetic language. Not only do its letters rival the simplicity of the English alphabet in form. Its small-scale two-dimensional grouping of letters appears to optimize the speed and efficiency of human pattern recognition. In other words, the best alphabet on the planet may be Korea’s.

Conclusion: why it matters

In a previous essay, I analyzed our planet’s worst and most complex “alphabet,” namely China’s ideographs, or “hantsu.” It takes about 1,600 of them to read a newspaper. Scholars and professionals have to learn and know 3,000. High-school hantsu can have up to fourteen strokes, and obscure characters used by scholars and professionals up to twenty-four. (In comparison, the most complex letters of the English alphabet are E, M and W, with four strokes each.) And learners of hantsu must learn to write all these strokes by rote, in order, and each in the correct direction, by the numbers, as they learn to write.

So if you multiply the maximum number of strokes by the numbers of characters you must learn to recognize and write, English’s “complexity factor” is 4 x 26 = 104, while Chinese’s is 14 x 1,600 = 22,400 for ordinary people and 24 x 3,000 = 72,000 for scholars and professionals. That’s an increase of over two or close to three orders of magnitude (powers of ten) in complexity!

This complexity has more than the direct and obvious effect. It interacts with the process of human maturation and brain development in complex ways. A child in an alphabetic culture can read and write any word in the language (although perhaps not fully understand its meaning) by the age of seven. A Chinese child doesn’t develop a full written vocabulary until he or she acquires the 1,600 or so mandatory characters, by about age 16. This delay in complete acquisition of reading and writing skill has enormous implications for maturation and brain development.

A Chinese scholar or professional doesn’t have a full written vocabulary until much later in life. So in China and its satellite cultures, the term “lifelong learning” applies literally to learning to spell.

The effect of these differences on ideation and abstract thinking—on science, engineering, and innovation, which require both—is likely to be profound. There may also be social and cultural side-effects: the enormous amount of wrote learning (including the order of strokes) needed to acquire written language may tend to promote conformity and suppress creativity.

The self-evident simplicity and visually efficient organization of written Hangul work the other way. They promote easy and efficient writing and reading and quick written-language acquisition, early in the human cycle of maturation and brain development. After that, the two-dimensional organization of Hangul syllables and words may promote more efficient reading and writing—and thinking—for the rest of a person’s life.

Could having the world’s best alphabet be responsible, at least in part, for South Korea’s meteoric rise in industry, technology and science? Could China’s much more cumbersome development derive from its more cumbersome writing system, despite its huge population and equally impressive work ethic?

These speculations are just hypotheses. They beg for further study, especially now that we have instruments to observe the human brain in operation in real time.

But intuition and common sense suggest that the answers to both questions may be “yes.” In a global culture where language barriers are falling by the minute, it is appropriate both to compare these vital aspects of national culture and to improve and simplify them, just as Korea’s King Sejong did in inventing Hangul out of whole cloth in 1446.

St. Cyril’s Borrowing*

Borrowed FromNumberLetters
Uniquely Slavic8ж,ч,щ,ь,ы,ъ,ю,я

*Notes: These letters are not the ones actually invented by St. Cyril, but the ones that resulted from modernization and simplification of the alphabet during the early years of Communism. The modern variant letters ё (which is not used in normal print) and й are excluded.

Footnote: The incongruity and sheer caprice of English spelling is best illustrated by a joke attributed to George Bernard Shaw. What does “gheiti” spell? Scroll down for the answer.


It spells “fish.” Just take the “gh” from “enough,” the “ei” from “forfeit,” and the “ti” from any word ending in “-tion,” such as “nation.”



  • At Wed Aug 14, 06:10:00 PM EDT, Blogger madtom said…

    "These speculations are just hypotheses. They beg for further study, especially now that we have instruments to observe the human brain in operation in real time."

    Yes indeed. Years ago, when you first brought up the complexity of pictographic writing as a likely impediment to maximizing a culture's use of its mental resources, I forwarded it to a grad-school acquaintance whose research involved functional MRI of the brain. Received no response.

    Oh well. Blogs like this serve the same purpose at a higher level: improving the organization, and thereby the efficiency, of readers' mental processes.

    And sooner or later, the spark may hit the right bit of kindling.

  • At Thu Aug 15, 01:41:00 PM EDT, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…

    Dear Tom,

    Thanks for the moral support.

    It always has amazed me how the scoundrel’s first resort in explaining differences among people is race, i.e., genetics. With molecular biology, we now know how wrong that is. The DNA of every member of our species is 98% identical.

    Not so languages or cultures. They differ widely.

    Is it just a coincidence that two of the three greatest scientists in human history (Newton and Darwin) come from a culture (the Brits’) with a mostly declensionless language and the Roman alphabet, the world’s simplest? If you count Adam Smith, the first real economist, the Brits’ have three out of four (Einstein, a German Jew, being the fourth). And lest this record tempt one to consider race, remember that Smith was a Scot.

    I guess racism is just a part of human fatalism. If race or genetics really determined practical intelligence, there wouldn’t be much we could do about it. There'd be no use in the bright trying to teach others and bring them up. And there'd be no use trying to do something really hard, like simplifying and improving one’s language or alphabet.

    Of course science has exploded all these myths. We now know the brain is almost infinitely malleable well into old age. Anyone can learn, change and grow in intelligence.

    So my respect for St. Cyril is high, and my awe for King Sejong is boundless. He must have been a rare genius, in the middle of Korea's feudal age, to put use over art, simplify the language so, and understand (somehow) the power of human pattern recognition in two dimensions.

    As for fMRI and PET tests, an author in a popular rag (either the Atlantic or the Economist, if memory serves) referred to them in the context of hantsu, but without specifics. I e-mailed him and, like you, got no answer. What academic wants to take on China and Japan and their proud cultures, with all their beautiful calligraphy based on art, not use?


  • At Fri Aug 16, 02:02:00 AM EDT, Blogger George Carty said…

    You mention how East Asian cultures may have been held back by the complexity of Chinese characters -- could it be that the nature of Arabic script (an abjad, where most of the vowels are omitted) is one factor in the relative backwardness of the Muslim world?

    Although Arabic script has a system of diacritic marks to indicate all the vowels, they are used only in children's textbooks and in the Qur'an. How would a reader of an Arabic-script language work out what the missing vowels were, if encountering an unfamiliar word for the first time?

    Is it a coincidence that Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia (all of which switched to the Roman alphabet at some point in their history) are now among the better-performing countries in the Muslim world?

    Then again, the fact that Israel has managed to be a highly modern country in spite of its vowelless Hebrew script may be an argument against this view.

    The Arab world proper has another linguistic impediment, in the shape of the extreme regional diversity of the Arabic language. If you imagine that all of the Romance-speaking countries claimed to speak "Latin" and indeed used Classical Latin for all their written communication (but while still using their Romance languages for spoken communication) you'd have a rough analogy of the situation with Arabic.

  • At Sat Aug 17, 12:41:00 AM EDT, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…

    Dear George,

    Welcome back! I thought you had disappeared.

    While not writing vowels can make a language harder for young students to acquire, it can also make the language more efficient, not less, at least for those who already know it. Without vowels, written expression is shorter and more compact, and therefore more easily digested and remembered.

    I know nothing about Arabic, but as Jew I have a primitive acquaintance with Hebrew. It always seemed to me that there are rules for which vowels go with which pairs of consonants, and that I would get to know them if I knew the language better. Although probably not invariable, these rules would make reading easier as one acquired greater familiarity, without requiring the years of intense, rote study for learning Chinese ideographs stroke by stroke.

    In my view, both Arabic and Hebrew may share another disadvantage as alphabetic languages. Their letters are “artistic” and not easy to reproduce accurately by hand.

    That's one reason why Arabic lends itself to such beautiful calligraphy. But alphabetic artistry does not improve efficiency. It impedes it. Among other things, it makes it hard for people like me, with little artistic talent, to learn the alphabet and write.

    When I look at Arabic script, the letters all seem similar, differing only in small nuances. That alphabet is a far cry from either the Roman or Hangul alphabets, with their easily distinguishable, simple geometric shapes.

    But all of these disadvantages, I think, are minor insofar as linguistic efficiency is concerned. Arabic and Hebrew don't seem any worse than, for example, Thai, Tamil or Sanscrit.

    The decisive differences in written language are between Chinese ideographs and any alphabet, which is orders of magnitude simpler. There is also, I think, a substantial advantage in pattern recognition for Hangul, with its two-dimensional presentation, over all other alphabets .

    The history of Arabic culture seems to confirm these conclusions. Algebra and algorithms (which both derive from Arabic words) were major developments in human abstract thought, as were other innovations in mathematics and astronomy at the height of Islamic culture. Those feats strongly suggest that the Arabic alphabet was (and is) no great impediment to abstract thought.

    In contrast, it's hard to think of any major development in abstract mathematics that the Chinese have made, whether in ancient or modern times. (The Chinese were the first to figure out how to calculate a ship’s longitude, but that feat was more a matter of careful practice than a breakthrough in abstract thought.)

    Likely the dearth of Chinese advances in math is due to the immense “overhead” in cogitation required to turn complex visual pictures into pure analytic abstractions like math. It may also reflect different parts of the brain involved in pictographic and analytic abstraction.

    That, in my view, is where considerable improvements in human cognition can be made, not so much in minor differences among alphabets.




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