Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Are You Biscriptal?

You may well wonder what this question means.

Let's call the characters in which a language is written its script. The script of English is the familiar so-called Latin alphabet in which this blog is displayed.

A person who habitually speaks more than one language is said to be bilingual or multilingual. But how about a person who writes in more than one script? The term for that is biscriptal. It's much less known than bilingual: there are over 76 million Google mentions of bilingual compared with only 2,340 for biscriptal, a drop in the ocean for Google (though many of the references to bilingual subsume biscriptal). The disparity is indicative of the relatively little research that's been done on biscriptals.

There are two main reasons for being biscriptal. One is that you are bilingual in two languages each of which uses a different script. Thus, if you are English and you learn Russian you will inevitably end up being biscriptal in the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets. On the other hand a person can be biscriptal in a single language if it uses more than one script. The language most often cited by far in the Google mentions of biscriptal is Chinese. Contemporary Chinese is actually triscriptal: there are the Traditional Chinese characters that are still the norm in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau; the Simplified Chinese characters that have replaced the former on the mainland since the Communists took over; and Pinyin, the official phonetic system for transcribing the Mandarin pronunciations of Chinese characters into the Latin alphabet in China, Taiwan and Singapore. Let's call the former type (two languages) interlingual biscriptalism and the latter type (same language) intralingual biscriptalism.

A classic example of a biscriptal language was Ancient Egyptian and the most famous example of it is the Rosetta Stone, the original of which you can and should admire in the British Museum in London. It's a key document in the history of translation as well as of archeology. The Stone has three texts engraved on it. One is in Greek, which by the time of the Stone, 196 BC, was the language of government in Ptolemaic Egypt. The other two are the same translation of the Greek text into Egyptian – but in two different scripts. The better known of them is hieroglyphics, a semi-pictorial script, because it is the script carved on monuments and is more artistic. The other script is Demotic, which was much simpler to and faster to write than hieroglyphics and was therefore used by the scribes for the thousands of non-religious papyrus documents (contracts, etc.) that have come down to us. This doesn't mean that all literate Egyptians knew the two scripts (i.e., were individually biscriptal), but that Ptolemaic Egypt was institutionally bilingual and biscriptal.

Many of the questions we ask about spoken bilingualism can also be asked about biscriptalism. How are the different scripts stored in the brain? Is there interference? Does it impede children's learning, and so on? If we take another look at the Google citations we find that most of them that are not about Chinese are about dyslexia. There's plenty of scope for further research into the psychology of biscriptals. Nevertheless, there's one thing that's not the same in bilingualism and biscriptalism: the latter can't be natural in the way bilingualism and translation can. This is because writing isn't natural. We don't pick it up as soon as we can talk or draw. We have to go to school to learn it.

How about if we convert one script into another script, for instance if we 'Romanize' Russian for an English library catalogue. Is it a form of translation? Catford (see References) considered that it was: it represented the graphemic level of translation. But we have other words for it: transcription, transliteration, Romanization; so it's clearer to keep it apart. Transliteration often involves much more than just changing the shapes of the characters. Arabic, for instance, has no capitals and no block letters; it's all cursive and it's written from right to left.

I myself am interlingually biscriptal in Latin and Arabic. I am also intralingually biscriptal in several varieties of Latin. My computer keyboard,like most of them in Spain, has the characters, extra characters (ñ, ç) and diacitics (accents) needed for English, French, Spanish and Catalan. And I can do a fair rendering of both ruq'ah and naskh styles in Arabic. Beginners learning Arabic as a second language are usually not taught how to write it like an Arab, with the result that they imitate what they see in printed books and write like a young school child. The script in most printed books is a modification of naskh that was devised long ago to facilitate manual typesetting (see Images). I made that mistake until I took a course with the late T. F. Mitchell (see References). He even made us put aside our ball pens and fountain pens and sharpen our own broadnibbed reed pens - which raises another aspect of biscriptalism, its instruments. He had been a graduate student under the British linguist J R Firth, who "constantly emphasized the basic linguistic importance of the study of 'letters'," and who famously said that if you didn't learn to write a second language properly you would always write it with a foreign accent.

Simplified Chinese characters. Wikipedia, 2015.

Pinyin. Wikipedia, 2015.

Rosetta Stone, Wikipedia, 2015.

T. F. Mitchell. Writing Arabic: A Practical Introduction to Ruq`ah Script. London: Oxford University Press, 1953 and several reprints,

Hans H. Wellisch. The Conversion of Scripts: Its Nature,
History and Utilization
. New York: Wiley, 1978. The 'Bible' on ths subject.

J. C. Catford. A Linguistic Theory of Translation: An Essay in
Applied Linguistics
. London: Oxford University Press, 1965. Catford was another of Firth's students.

Upper: Linotype Arabic for printed books. All ligatures between letters on same line. Dots on letters (points in English, nuqat in Arabic) are distinct. Little contrast between thick and thin strokes. Source:

Lower: Arabic ruq'ah script. Words slant downwards from right to left. Points fused into short bars. Contrasting thick and thin strokes. Source:

NPIT3, Zurich, 5-7 May 2016. International forum for Non-Professional Interpreting and Translation, the latest paradigm in translation studies.

1 comment:

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