I want two languages to share a root but I want them to look unrecognizable written down (with the original language having a written form, so not independently created writing systems). Are there any well known patterns of how languages can change their script over time? What is some general advise on how to make this change realistic?

  • 3
    You might want to look into the derivation of the various Indian scripts - Devanagari, Bengali, Gujarati, et cetera - they're all ultimately derived from the Brahmi script. Similarly, you could look into Syriac vs Arabic, although those are clearly related in their written forms. Commented Apr 25, 2018 at 13:47
  • Alternatively, there are possibilities for deliberate differentiation (though your question seems to want to avoid this solution); originally, Korean was written with Chinese characters, but the current Hangul writing system was deliberately created. Until relatively recently, I believe that linguists considered Serbian and Croatian to be the same language, but Croatian was written with the Latin alphabet while Serbian was written with the Cyrillic. Commented Apr 25, 2018 at 13:51

2 Answers 2

  1. The surface that things are written on. Runes were carved in trees and, as such, do not have curves. The Greek alphabet was written on tablets, and curved lines were possible. The Arabic alphabet was written quickly on papyrus. Also, some civilisations might prefer cursive script over others. Arabic letters differ whether they're isolated, at the beginning of a word, at the end or in the middle. So does your handwriting with the Roman script. But Arabic kept their cursive when the digital age came, and the Roman script got rid of it and created the same character.
    Os (runes), psi (Greek alphabet, but modernised on a computer, see footnote 1), šīn (Arabic script, isolated)

    ᚩ, Ψ, ش

  2. Let's call the ancestor A. The two daughter languages will be called B1 and B2. A could be a pictographic script, from which B1 devised a syllabary but B2 kept pictographs. Or A was an abjad (alphabet without vowels) and B1 became an alphabet whereas B2 stayed an abjad.

  3. Although language is passed on from mother language to daughter language with diachronics, script doesn't need to. In fact, you don't often see one script in the same language for three language-generations except in some cases like Latin (but Vulgar Latin wasn't really written much). Borrow a script from a neighbouring language. This is what I recommend doing.

Footnotes: 1) Ancient Greek part of the Rosetta stone. Greek characters in Unicode are in many fonts modernised, this is an example of typical Ancient Greek script. Greek text with psis

  • You're sure that's not an omega? The same glyph appears at least twice with accents. Commented Apr 26, 2018 at 3:46
  • Hmm, I think it is omega too. I'll look if I can see psi. I just want to point out that the psi Unicode glyph is a bit modernised.
    – Duncan
    Commented Apr 26, 2018 at 9:03
  • And your Rosetta Stone example looks a lot closer to the modern capital Greek alphabet than do the multitude of local Greek scripts from 500 BC. Commented Apr 26, 2018 at 9:36
  • Since we're talking about script, the time period is good enough. It was a Greek script handwritten.
    – Duncan
    Commented Apr 26, 2018 at 9:52

There are several factors in a writing system that can be subject to change:

  • The style of writing: In fact, style is ever-changing in human culture, and we see new styles every generation. Old styles may be revived, or the new styles become divergent enough to be considered a new writing system. Note that handwriting from a century ago (e.g., in Germany) is already very hard to read for the current generation and special training is needed to do it.
  • The set of symbols used for writing: Some symbols may fall out of use, others are newly introduced (either by borrowing (Greek Y and Z into Latin Y and Z), or by modification of existing symbols (Latin V splitting up into U, V, W), or by new invention "out of nothing" (Emoji).
  • The use of diacritical marks: The writing system may be borrowed from another language and is not a perfect fit for the new language. Some devices are needed to accommodate the sounds of the new language to the writing system, like digraphs (e.g, English sh or ch), diacritical marks, additional letters, or a combination of any of the former.

Whether the introduced changes create a new writing system or just a variant of an existing writing system is merely a question of definition. I remember a heated debate on the Unicode mailing list whether Hebrew and Phoenician are one or two writing systems.

  • 1
    I'd have to argue that diacritics and change of a few symbols wouldn't make it seem a completely different language, just a derivative.
    – Duncan
    Commented Apr 30, 2018 at 17:59

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