18 April 2006

How to write without vowels and still be understd

Over at Abnrmal Intersts, Duane, who is probably smarter than me, because he can look at chicken scratches on ancient clay tablets and come up with stories about people with unpronounceable names, has an informative post on ancient Ugaritic written without vowels.

I have noticed that the letter-writers of the 19th century frequently shortened English words by omitting certain vowels and even consonants. For example, here is a sentence from a letter by Charles Darwin to Joseph D. Hooker1:

Secondly will you tell me, at a guess, how long an immersion in sea-water you shd. imagine wd. kill the more susceptible seeds?

Another sentence from another letter from Darwin to Hooker:
But I shd. like to hear whether you are prepared on reflexion to uphold this doctrine of the commonest being least widely disseminated on outlying islds.

Here are some examples from across the Atlantic. In 1817, the American naturalist Thomas Say wrote to his friend John F. Melsheimer2:

...the last set which has been recd from England was imported by a friend of mine...

With the highest respect
I remain your most Obdt Servt
Thomas Say

And this is from another letter from Say to Melsheimer:

Philada April 26th 1823

My dear Sir!
I duly received yr excellent letter & more recently the valuable box of insects...

Interestingly, the practice of omitting the vowels appears to be common to several Middle Eastern languages, including the Ugaritic and Egyptian Hieroglyphics as well as the modern Hebrew and Arabic. I wonder if this practice started in conjunction with the invention of what seems to me labor intensive cuneiform writing. I suppose writing on soft clay wouldn’t be too difficult, but what about carving a long text on solid rock? Imagine yourself being forced to carve into hard rock some Hammurabi guy's bright ideas while sitting in the blazing sun with dust in your mouth and rock chips in your eyes. Wouldn't you be thinking hard to figure out a way to lessen your suffering? Obviously, the more letters a scribe could have omitted without becoming totally unintelligible the more time and energy he would have saved.

1. Burkhardt, F. (editor) 1996. Charles Darwin's Letters. A Selection 1825-1859. Cambridge University Press.
2. Weiss, H.B. & Ziegler, G.M. 1931. Thomas Say: early American naturalist. Charles C. Thomas.


Duane said...

BTW, we tend to use all kinds of abbreviations today, largely FLAs. IMHO this is not necessary OK. But, OTOH it sometimes WFM.

As to how the use of writing without vowels began: The best guess is that it started with Egyptian Hieroglyphics and was taken up when people in the region stated experimenting with alphabets. Hammurabi guy's wrote in a very complex syllabary that did a better job of representing the vowels than it did at representing some of the Semitic consonants. If V stands for any vowel (a, e, i, u) and C stands for any Semitic consonant, the individual cuneiform signs could have the form CV, CVC or VC (even CVCV is not unheard of) and there were hundreds of such cuneiform signs. During the Late Bronze Age Hittite used the same system on most written text. In addition to this raft of signs, Hammurabi guy's and everyone else that used the Akkadian syllabary also used many Sumerian cuneiform signs as abbreviations. This writing system was very difficult but in some pockets of Mesopotamia in continued in used into the early Common Era, long long after nearly everyone else in the region and the west was writing in some alphabet or other.


deniz said...

what I find strange is those who think they're shortening their words and skipping vowels and generally writting faster, who end up needlessly lengthening their phrases because they don't know how to spell. I'm sorry to pick on you Duane, the rest of your comment was fine, but you made a mistake that people repeat much more often than you - why is there an apostrophe in "guy" in your phrase "Hammurabi guy's". If it's meant to be a plural it shouldn't have an apostrophe! The worst is those that spell bananas with an apostrophe - "banana's" - what do they think they're doing?

Duane said...


You are correct. I don't know what the heck I was thinking. And I did it twice!