No-sword reports on a phenomenon that is completely unsurprising (given the human capacity for delusion) but about which I knew nothing: “spurious syllabaries invented, promoted, and possibly even believed in by people who just could not accept the idea that Japan needed China’s help to learn how to write.” The “obvious problem”: “they are clearly based on the modern Japanese phonetic system rather than its eight-vowelled ancestor as would be expected—nay, required—of any syllabary in use before the Heian period.” He links to some of the sillier examples (“The Ahiru moji are a sadly transparent copy of Hangul, right down to the unnecessary detail of copying the use of the /N/ circle to mean ‘no initial consonant'”). Read it and laugh.


  1. That’s awesome. It’s so strange that they think that “We had our own syllabary which was perfectly suited to our language, but completely failed to recognize its value and dropped it like a hot potato as soon as we saw that the Chinese had a writing system that was vastly inferior even for their language” makes their culture sound better. (It’s like those Greeks who insist that sound-letter correspondences were the same in Ancient Greek as today, as though they’d rather believe that their ancestors were crazy than that phonology, like all aspects of a language, evolves over time.)

  2. Excellent comparison!

  3. While Chinese character writing systems were transmitted to Japan originally by Buddhist missionaries, the missionaries were from the Korean peninsula, making the pill more bitter for some to swallow? _Quae cum ita sint_, it appears also that the Korean _han’gu^l_-like syllabary might be intended to imply an antecedent to the indigenous Korean script?

  4. In the _Hunmin cho^ng’um_, the promulgating document for the Korean alphabet, by the way, there was a “disambiguation” of the syllable-final “ng” and the syllable-initial “mute” sign, both basically circles; however, the “ng” final had a small dot or curlicue at the top, while the mute did not.

  5. “Bitter pill” for far-right (apply historically appropriate term: kokugakusha, etc.) fanatics, perhaps, but most Japanese aren’t even aware that this “syllabary” exists/ed, or was thought to be authentic at one time. Today’s Koshinto (et al.) lunatics’ willingness to believe anything that makes Japan look better than all other races/nations/countries/social constructs is their own tragic flaw, since the rest (99%+) of the population of Japan are rational human beings (like everywhere else in the world), and treat these nuts like an embarrassing relative who won’t shut up – they ignore them.
    Even still, if the Korean connection were so bitter, why would they imitate hangul? Japan’s relationship with Korea is a lot more complex than people seem to realize.

  6. You need to remember that the _idea_ of syllaberies was known in any place where Buddhism was practiced. Tbere were always brave souls who wanted to get back to the original texts, which were written in a pseudosyllabery very similar to modern Korean writing.[1] So the principles of alphabets were known to scholars throught the East.
    This is not intended as a defense of the idea that Japanese writing originated independently of Chinese.
    [1]We choose to call Pali and Korean writing alphabets because we are more familiar with alphabets. If we used a syllary, we would consder them syllaberies.

  7. If we used a syllabary, we would consder them syllabaries.
    In the scheme of The World’s Writing Systems, a syllabary is a scheme in which characters represent syllables without any overall graphic scheme, like kana. An alphabet represents vowels and consonants in the same way. An abjad represents all the consonants and only some of the vowels, or the vowels in a qualitatively different way. An abugida represents consonants with an implied vowel, and additional signs are needed to change the vowel or remove it. Hangul can be considered featural, since sub-phoneme features are represented in a graphically consistent way. Or as an alphabet. Writing whole syllables as single blocks of uniform size is only a convention; it is possible to use the same alphabet uniformly in a line, a style known as 가로쓰기 karo-ssŭgi.

  8. Hangul’s block scheme is surely an “overall graphic scheme”, just one at the syllable level instead of phoneme level. Hangul is featural, alphabetic, and syllabic. It’s not an undecomposable syllabary, but then it’s not an undecomposable alphabet either.
    The Koreans have completely resisted getting rid of syllabic blocks in favor of uniform lines, in sharp contrast to acceptance of writing syllables in horizontal lines, adding spaces between words, and Western-style punctuation. Like anything else, it can be called only a convention, but it seems to be the most durable and distinctive feature of this writing system.

  9. As for comparisons to Ahiru moji, surely the closest would be the Urrunen. (Oddly, these have not made their way to Wikipedia yet. Search results are dominated by Basque, where the word means “outermost”.)

  10. G, I c r alphabet can also b an abugida.

  11. David Marjanović says

    가로쓰기 karo-ssŭgi.

    I think you forgot the line that indicates aspiration and turns g into k. Or have I misundreshtmated Korean morphophonemics?


    Never heard of these, but I’ve read a book from IIRC the middle 20th century about the Germanic peoples stating with great authority how the runes were invented: out of nothing. Wahrscheinlich war es ein einzelner Mann, ein Schriftmeister. “Probably it was a single [unambiguously male] man, a script-master.”
    (German, the language where you can make up your own hapax legomena! Hooray!)

    G, I c r alphabet can also b an abugida.

    C vrai !

  12. I think you forgot the line that indicates aspiration and turns g into k. Or have I misundreshtmated Korean morphophonemics?
    I think it’s just that I’m using a different romanization scheme than you’re used to, McCune-Reischauer, which tries to represent some of the regular allomorphs rather than being bijective with the Hangul. You may be more accustomed to Standard garo-sseugi or Yale kalo-ssuki. Aspirated would be k’, k, and kh, respectively, in the three schemes.
    Somewhat confusingly, the term can also refer to horizontal as opposed to vertical. For instance, in this glossary.
    Here is a page in Google Books with some samples from various failed proposals. There used to be a poster for a group called Hangul Dada here, by the avant-garde typographer Ahn Sang-Soo in a font named after Yi-Sang that exploded the syllable blocks, but the site isn’t DNS resolving tonight. It was working last Hangul Day.

  13. The Hangul Dada poster does string out the letters horizontally, but retains the vertical spacing the letters would normally have within a block, unlike the century-old linear writing proposals.
    The poster also reminds me of change that *has* happened recently in Hangul block composition, at least in many signs if not in book text: less or no stretching or squashing to make the syllable fit the margins of a Chinese-style uniform square space, and allowing the bottoms of the right-hand vertical vowels to hang down as descenders. The increase in visual variation between syllables aids legibility, much as the ascenders and descenders of Latin alphabet lower case do.

  14. David Marjanović says

    Oh, yes, I got the transcriptions confused.

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