Analog alphabets?

Are there any written languages which are analog rather than digital? In other words instead of a fairly limited set of symbolic choices, there is some degree of nuance to the style of the writing and various levels of meaning?

Also wondering, separately, if there are any alphabets based on the physical state of the mouth when making that sound?

Look into the writing systems for American Sign Language. Might fit into one or both categories.

I thought that the Korean alphabet had some parallels.

You mean like our letter “O”? The problem is that most letters represent a sequence of actions, rather than one simple shape of the mouth, so such an alphabet would be very limited.

Written Mayan features multiple symbols for the same sounds. Although it is assumed the multiples are soley artistic, there could be addition meaning based on what symbols was used. In addition, glyphs were often combinations of symbols squished together to form the characteristic squares.

Also, once could argue that font and size can carry denotations. Linguistically, there is the concept of a “glyph”. For example, lowercase i in Times New Roman, lowercase i in Comic Sans, lowercase i in Courier, cursive handwritten lowercase i, and your little sister’s lowercase i written in pink ink with a heart instead of a dot, are all the same glyph, but a document written in those different forms could arguably have different emotional effects on a reader.

Alphabet self implies a ‘digital’ format, but a way of communicating through writings is making pictures which would be analog.

By definition, an alphabet consists of discrete characters that distinctly represent both consonants and vowels, as opposed to, say, not notating vowels at all (as in an abjad (Arabic or Hebrew without points)), or notating vowels by mutating consonant letter forms (as in an abugida (a large number of scripts used in India, such as Devanagari)). There’s no way to do this without a fixed number of discrete glyphs, so it can’t be analog by your meaning.

Even taking the most expansive possible definition of ‘alphabet’, to mean ‘any writing system (I’ve ever heard of)’, there’s still a fixed number of distinct glyphs in use. This number may be extremely large (all of the Han characters, counting variations between Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and so on as distinct glyphs) but it’s still a finite number of distinct glyphs and, therefore, not analog by your meaning.

kanicbird’s post about a purely pictographic writing system without a set repertoire of pictographs is probably the best we can come up with for an analog writing system.

I’m not sure I agree. For example, people would describe the letter B as making a “Buh” sound, which does involve movement, however, all of the movement is taking place as a vector between the two static flagpoints of “B” and “UH”. So properly, B should only refer to the mouth start point absent of whatever motion vector will take it to the next point. In other words, the sequence of actions only takes place if there is also a sequence of letters.

Yeah yeah…

I used ‘alphabet’ as shorthand just to have a shorter title. I changed it to ‘written language’ in the OP body.

If you mean analog language as in analogy, then all written languages are “analog”, since language evolves.

You take one set of symbols/morphemes/etc, apply it to previous knowledge and come up with something new. That’s an alphabet. Sounds finite, but it isn’t. We just create new rules (ie two consonants th makes the single θ Greek Theta) instead of new letters. A says “aah” or “AYE” depending on the placement of another potential vowel and so forth and so on.

Not all languages have alphabets, obviously, but as someone pointed out, the way something is written (or said or signed) conveys tone.

As far as your alphabet q goes, it’s hard to say. ASL users have tried to create written forms of sign (like a logogram, I guess) but sign is visual. Native ASL users also utilize a large portion of their right hemisphere when singing while native English speakers do not…however, there is a similarity between brain function in native Chinese speakers reading characters and ASL users signing. Still, that just echos the visual nature of written character and ASL form.

ASL is also a lot faster than spoken language. Instead of saying three words, you can manipulate your hand shapes and say a whole “sentence” in a second. Still, a finite number of hand shapes make up an infinite amount of sign.

I can’t think of any early true alphabet that looks like mouth formations or really represent (er, iconic to?) sound, since hieroglyphs weren’t true alphabets…and since the majority of languages descended from just a few select language groups, the connections would have been lost, no?


source: ed. linguistics major.

It’s more than just mouth-shape, though, otherwise there would be no difference between the voiced B and the unvoiced P. There is movement there, in the vocal chords. Likewise, fricatives involve the flow of air, etc.

If I may take take guess at OP’s definition of analog he means discrete meaning verse transitional meaning.
For example binary has values of 1, or 0, but analog has values 0,1, and anything in between.

Put another way imagine a language that used colors. Let’s say Red had one meaning, and blue another. If you mix them get intermediate messages between them depending on how close the shade is to one or another.

Is that right OP?

Hmm…but what about the example I gave, with “t” and “h” forming θ (or something close to Theta)?

If languages aren’t codes, then either all languages are analog or languages are neither.

Bleh. The nuances of languages are indefinite.

(oops, hit post too soon)

If languages aren’t codes, then either all languages are analog or languages are neither. Or both, considering the insane possibility of sounds…it shouldn’t be limited by the IPA.

And I’m still not sure what the OP was asking.

Or, how about this: In our current system, the symbols “f” and “th” (I mean the version in “thing”, not in “this”) have a very similar sound, but they’re written completely differently. But one could imagine a language where not only were the symbols for those sounds similar, but that one could also make a symbol that was somewhere in between those two, for a sound intermediate between “f” and “th”. And you could have a continuum of such symbols, corresponding to the continuum of sounds. Is this what you’re looking for?

In that case, I suspect that the way human brains process language would make that unworkable. Out of the many-dimensional continuum of possible sounds, our brains draw boundaries between regions of sound, and say that everything in this boundary is this phoneme, and everything in that boundary is that other phoneme, and everything in this boundary is not a phoneme at all. Speakers of different languages will draw those boundaries in different places (this is why, for instance, Chinese speakers have difficulty distinguishing English’s L and R, and why some African languages use clicks as phonemes but European languages don’t), but so far as I know, all human languages have those boundaries.

I do see what you are saying. But I don’t feel those boundaries are permanent or unchanging. In English, we just use our own phonemes (sometimes borrowing from other languages - I’m thinking of ö) to mimic others (ie, cz in czar or ts in tsar).

Phonetic spelling of street language and accents is a great example of phenoms + tone being spelled out.
etc cetera.

As for your example of th and f, I think that if we added new ‘recognized phonemes’ in the English alphabet, we’d drop others. Our word base is constantly expanding, but we drop words we don’t use anymore. This is why we have historical dictionaries!

Plus we can also create new words that convey meaning based on iconicity.


ee sound= small (almost like the -ita in Spanish)

ump = round



English isn’t so iconic, but look at ASL. The meaning, tone, or joke changes with a single nuanced flick of a wrist.

It’s so easy to make up words.

“Quit your frip-frappery!”

I know this is getting OT, but Charlie Sheen is a real wonder to listen to.

“I’m an F-18, bro.”

He’s not just an airplane, he’s an F-18. laughs

An “analog” alphabet is certainly possible, at least for vowels. Since vowels are determined largely by the position of the tongue in the mouth, your analog “letter” would be a shape approximating that of an open mouth, and then place a dot in it to indicate the tongue position. Diphthongs and triphthongs can be indicated by an arrow rather than a dot. For some languages, you would need digital diacritical marks on or near this shape to indicate the presence or absence of features such as nasalization, and further analog diacritical marks to indicate vowel length.

Consonants could be similarly represented. Again, the letter would take the form of the mouth and the tongue showing the place of articulation (an analog measure ranging from labial to velar). You’d also need to modify the letter (digitally) to indicate the manner of articulation (obstruent, affricate, fricative, etc.) and other features, such as pharyngealization, nasalization, etc.

Needless to say, such a system would be overkill for any human language, which is probably why no natural language uses one. The places of articulation for phonemes tend to be fixed within a given language, with little variation, so there’s no need for a sliding scale; a discrete set of glyphs is sufficient.

Wow lots of responses! How to organize…

Yep. I’m including all that.

What I mean by analog:

Yes! God explanation.

Specificity of analogness:

Yes, certainly in English we have informal and semi-formal ways of expanding meaning beyond the basis set of characters by using either font styling, which is closer to what I’m thinking, or by just using different combinations of the discrete set to approximate other things.

Yeah, I’m looking for non discreteness in the (shape of) characters/symbols themselves, rather than nuance created by combinations of a discrete set.

That’s a good place to start when contemplating the next bit:

Perhaps. Let me ask a related question then - much of musical notation is essentially digital (discrete). Granted there are some things with more leeway like emphasis and paying style, but still the notes themselves are discrete because the instrument has discrete mechanisms for playing notes. But what is musical notation like for an instrument such as the theramin, for which one can approximate standard notes, but for which they aren’t mechanically built into the device but rather there is just a continuous range?

I was also thinking along the lines of the IPA and things like accents, that it would be cool to have a phonetic alphabet for which the symbology wasn’t just a map to an arbitrary set of discrete sounds, but a sort of a vocal score or mechanical instructions for using the mouth/throat/lips.

I think probably having the anatomical morphology is the key here. Once that was in place, making it more continuous and less discrete would be less of a problem. Someone mentioned to me once thinking they heard of something similar in a linguistics class, long ago, so I thought it might jog someone’s memory.

You don’t have to go to an exotic instrument like a theramin for that-- Trombones are analog, too, as are most string instruments. They still use the same discrete notation as all other instruments, except occasionally for something like a gliss (which still generally starts and ends on one of the standard discrete notes). A skilled performer may sometimes deviate from the exact standard values, but that’s not indicated in the sheet music: Knowing when and how to do that is part of what makes the performer skilled.