Inefficient writing systems

A phonemic language is one where how you write is very similar to how things sound. Essentially, if you know how to say something and you know the alphabet, then you can write/read the same thing. Serbian is an example of a phonemic language. A non-phonemic language is one where words are not written how they sound. English is a non-phonemic language. Non phonemic languages are harder to acquire literacy in. Children learning to read and write in the UK have to learn a host of complex rules, exceptions and individual word spellings. Finally a logogramatic language is one where the alphabet doesn’t represent sounds. Instead symbols usually represent words or ideas. Chinese is such a language. If you want to learn how to read/write it to any reasonable level, you’ll need to know at least 3000 characters.

The continued existence of non-phonemic writing systems is a suboptimal equilibrium. Such writing systems make learning to be literate in a language far harder than it needs to be. They also probably have very serious costs. They effect hundreds of millions of people and, given that even in first world countries between 10% and 25% of adults are functionally illiterate (remember that your bubble is strong), their costs in terms of lost productivity and individual flourishing are likely large. Still I’ve never heard anyone talk about language reform. Why is that?

One theory is elite blindness. Almost everyone in the elite is fully literate. You don’t get to be a journalist/professor/union leader/politician/NGO worker if you’re not literate or have a low IQ (which strongly correlates with literacy). Because our personal bubbles tend to be incredibly strong, most elites are hence surrounded by people similar to them or at most a standard deviation or two away in terms of IQ. Hence most people with power will not only never struggle with literacy themselves but they will also never meaningfully interact to the 10 – 20% of society which does. Hence the problem is essentially invisible to everyone who matters.

Another theory is sunk costs. Even if we did recognize the problem with bad writing systems, there’s a massive sunk cost in terms of how many people use the current language and how hard it is to shift that usage to a different form. It would take a national campaign, a large amount of resources and a huge political effort. The problem seems intractable, hence no one bothers to bring it up.

A third theory is that it’s not controversial/sexy. There’s no bad guy to point at. There’s no ideological struggle or way to tie language systems into larger political narratives. It’s a fairly dry issue that no individual or political faction can be blamed for.

(N.B: While I’m fairly convinced that having a non-phonemic language makes learning to read and write much, much harder than it needs to be that’s based on personal experience and conversations, not an any kind of systemic research. Maybe I’m just wrong. Epistemic Status: Reasonably high confidence)

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