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I've seen several approaches to non-linear 2D syntax for written languages. Circular arrangements of glyphs (ring, spiral and axial), clumping-assemblages (akin to Maya glyphs, etc).

Are there necessary elements or aspects to the glyphs, in order for them to best leverage (or be used in) a 2D syntax arrangement? i.e can glyphs has some affordance(s) that support 2D glyphs?

My question is more in the terrain of semasiology and semasiography — and what necessary for a related system of syntax. For an excellent background context of this matter, see The Elephant's Memory [1], [2]

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  • Are you talking about morphology (how words are put together, like cats = cat + s) or writing systems?
    – Draconis
    Aug 16, 2022 at 1:33

4 Answers 4

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One aspect would be an indication of reading direction. E.g. Egyptian hieroglyphs can be written in multiple directions, but you can see from the orientation of (non-symmetric) glyphs which is the reading direction.

I would think that this is even more important in writing systems which are not just one-dimensional.

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All natural spoken languages are linear. Phonemes come one by one in a sequence over time1.

As a result, all writing systems for natural spoken languages are also linear2. Glyphs come one by one in a sequence over space. The order can be fairly convoluted—you might change reading direction three times in a single Egyptian word, for example, and Mayan hieroglyphs are arranged in three dimensions—but there's always a linear order. Right now, you're reading the letters in these words left-to-right, the words left-to-right, and the lines top-to-bottom.

If your conlang is linear3 (which some especially-alien conlangs aren't!), you'll also need some way for people to put those glyphs into the proper order. Oliver Mason mentioned how Egyptian uses glyph orientation to indicate whether the horizontal direction is left-to-right or right-to-left; it also uses differently-sized gaps between units to indicate whether you should be reading horizontally or vertically at any particular time. If the gaps between columns are wider than the gaps between rows, you should read vertically, and vice versa horizontally.

But, depending on the details of your system, you can also make this order entirely predictable: Mayan glyphs are arranged three-dimensionally but the order is always top-to-bottom, left-to-right, front-to-back. As long as readers can figure out the order, you can really design your glyphs any way you like.

1 Well, it's not quite this simple. There are also supersegmental features, which don't fit into this nice linear order. But the system is linear overall and writing systems reflect this.

2 Specifically spoken languages. Signed languages aren't necessarily linear in time in the same way. But we also don't have a lot of writing systems for signed languages to look at as examples.

3 jk mentions tree structures as well. It's generally accepted that language is structured recursively (with some sort of tree) in the mind, but it's still put into a linear order to be spoken, since it's hard to speak a tree out loud.

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  • [1] seems to be a rather limited / fraught assumption, even in the 'expanded allowances' of the footnote. It just seems like overall you're omitting the area of thought around semasiology and semasiography Aug 17, 2022 at 14:51
  • and yes I would not like to presume the necessity of a spoke language. "State ritual and ceremony" is not a spoken language, and yet is a process of communication. Aug 17, 2022 at 15:05
  • @NewAlexandria A process of communication, but not a language, which is what this question seems to be about.
    – Draconis
    Aug 18, 2022 at 16:42
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This is an example of a non-linear approach to written languages, which I have made up.

https://omniglot.com/charts/yomoal.pdf

Essential elements?

This system considers consonants, vowels, and spaces its essential elements. The vowels and consonants are the necessary elements and the example script makes vowels the most important element. For context, many scripts take consonants as their primary marks (abjads, abugidas) while marking vowels is of less importance. Alphabets make these types equal in importance. Regarding spaces, like several ancient and contemporary scripts, where a word begins or ends could possibly be left to context (especially if all reading is expected to be aloud). That said, I judged spaces practically necessary since all viewers of the script would be humans accustomed to spaces and not fluent in the conlang.

Are spaces necessary elements?

A general comment: spaces may be completely unnecessary for some languages. Phonotactic rules could, in theory, make the beginning of new words perfectly obvious or unlikely ambiguous even without the use of spaces. For instance, if words can only start with a certain set of letters and those letters never appear elsewhere in the word, then these letters would also serve like spaces. Something that takes minimal space like a period or underlining first letters could also save space on "spaces."

How to minimize written elements?

A writing system could reduce the amount of information it needs to write by accessing the reader's prior knowledge to help communicate the structure of words and thoughts. For an example of words, suppose everybody memorizes a couple poems which between them contain all syllables in a syllabary once: then the syllabary could be just numbers (and a reference to which poem, if needed).

What does Yomoal's example contribute?

Yomoal isn't attempting to minimize the amount of 2d information, per se, and actually it is rather space inefficient on paper. But it does use reader's prior knowledge to structure words and thoughts. The former: Yomoal's consonants refer to common words all speakers would know: the W-sound is written as a frog, the word for which is 'waŋ.'

Visually themed as a written river, Yomoal acceses its audience's familiarity with rivers to help communicate relationships between written ideas. For instance, readers are assumed to understand that streams contribute to a main river, and in that way the writer can communicate the sequence and importance of her ideas by writing one "stream" of thought to flow into others. It is necessary to clarify which way the river is "flowing," and for that purpose a mountain symbol heads each "river," its peak tilting also to indicate "left" and "right" of the river (important for syllables). Yomoal has punctuation to expand on the river theme at the same time is helps structure thoughts.

Another novel example for further reading

https://omniglot.com/conscripts/oriscript.htm

Oriscript also has an unusual inherent structure for constructing text. Suppose that the space each character (like a letter) occupies is a box. The characters are distinguished by certain positions within each box, rather than by variously shaped letters. I am not best informed to discuss Oriscript at length, but I did think it could be useful further reading to add to my "refers to prior knowledge for structure" point and for a potential "only minimal marks" approach.

I hope this analysis of one example's essentials and structure helps inform the general question of what elements are necessary in any written system.

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Syntax follows a tree structure and the writing system can be used to display this tree structure in a transparent way. There are many artistic and creative possibilities to display tree structures far beyond the standard diagrams in linguistics text books, e.g. nested boxes of different sizes.

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  • If folks get interested in tree structure writing system options, I have devised a river-themed writing system they might enjoy.
    – Vir
    Aug 17, 2022 at 2:16
  • @Vir link? or please post it as an answer that demonstrates an example Aug 17, 2022 at 14:53
  • Oh ok, I was not sure if one example I had made was appropriate to post as an answer. Thank you for your interest and the feedback
    – Vir
    Aug 18, 2022 at 18:13

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