I have been thinking of developing a software tool that would make it possible to calculate the efficiency of a particular writing system (attested rather than hypothetical) for a particular language (primarily attested, usually ancient and thus also extinct) with respect to the ambiguity of interpretation/reading, whether this ambiguity is caused by homography or any other "deficiencies".
Primarily, I would like to use the tool to find out which of the scripts or writing systems compared make it possible to represent a given [set of] language[s] in writing more unambiguously, especially, though not exclusively, with respect to phonetics and phonology.
Since we may not have access to native users of the scripts, any psycholinguistic testing would have to be carried out only indirectly, on a group of speakers of a different, but typologically similar, language and, perhaps, using romanization/transliteration to avoid having to teach them new graphemes and face literacy/familiarity issues.
Still, while I can imagine constructing tests like this, I would like to have a tool that could use as its imput relevant features of the particular phonology PLUS features of the script/writing system used to represent strings of text of the language. Its output would then be some kind of relative or absolute enumeration, a function whose arguments would be the...
- number of phonological combinations a particular string can represent
- their subset with respect to the given language's phonology and phonotactics
Or, more simply, how many (phonotactically permissible) texts can be transliterated by a particular string of text using the script, i.e. how many (phonotactically persmissible) texts can a particular string of text written in the script represent (as compared to another script). It follows that we would always have to apply the tool on existing text and thus, in fact, measure ambiguity of reading a particular text written in a particular script as compared to the same text being writen in another script.
Hopefully, the following example based on a syllabic script, originally fitted to write a different language, but later (imperfectly) adapted for Ancient Greek, will show better what I mean.
"Case Study": Linear B
- no disambiguation between /r/ and /l/
- no voicing/aspiration disambiguation in most obstruents
- no marking of initial aspiration
- no marking of vowel length
- omission of sonorants and /s/ in syllable codas
On the other hand, the script as used by Greeks was capable of representating sonorant-free consonantal clusters by means of two consecutive syllabograms sharing the same vowel component (i.e. "rhyming"), and it delimited words/phrases by means of a vertical stroke between them. (For the sake of simplicity, I am deliberately ignoring non-phonetic graphemes, the ideograms, the script could employ to abbreviate or clarify the meaning.)
Hence, a string of two syllabograms such as <KA> and <RA> could, in theory, represent the following phonotactically permissible (though not necessarily attested) combinations (note that M stands for any of /m, n, s/ medially, and /m, n, r, l, s/ finally):
- /gala/, /gla/, /galaM/, /glaM/, /gaMla/, /gaMlaM/
- /kala/, /kla/, /kalaM/, /klaM/, /kaMla/, /kaMlaM/, /skala/, /skla/, /skalaM/, /sklaM/, /skaMla/, /skaMlaM/
- /kʰala/, /kʰla/, /kʰalaM/, /kʰlaM/, /kʰaMla/, /kʰaMlaM/, /skʰala/, /skʰla/, /skʰalaM/, /skʰlaM/, /skʰaMla/, /skʰaMlaM/
- /gara/, /gra/, /garaM/, /graM/, /gaMra/, /gaMraM/
- /kara/, /kra/, /karaM/, /kraM/, /kaMra/, /kaMraM/, /skara/, /skra/, /skaraM/, /skraM/, /skaMra/, /skaMraM/
- /kʰara/, /kʰra/, /kʰaraM/, /kʰraM/, /kʰaMra/, /kʰaMraM/, /skʰara/, /skʰra/, /skʰaraM/, /skʰraM/, /skʰaMra/, /skʰaMraM/
You can see now, that a simple <KA-RA> may have tens of possible interpretations. Clearly, reading Mycenaean clay tablets must have been very difficult at times, especially in case of lists of personal names.
Imagine now a three-word clause, each (graphical) word composed of two syllabograms and, in accord with the rules, delimited by the vertical stroke symbol, such as the following:
The number of possible interpretations increases dramatically, on the other hand, there are some morphosyntactic and semantic constraints and cues which reduce the tremendous ambiguity a bit.
What if we, however, unlike in the mainstream Mycenaean Greek reading, but like the fringe (pseudo-)Proto-Slavic reading, (1.) interpreted the vertical stroke not as a word delimiter, but a consonantal wildcard - one that is capable of representing up to a dozen different consonants. (2.) Consequently, word boundaries could be placed anywere in the string, between any two syllabograms. (3.) In addition to that, consonant clusters could no longer be resolved by means of consecutive rhyming syllabograms, and (4.) neither sonorants nor /s/ could be thought of in syllable codas.
While (3 & 4) would reduce the number of options, (1 & 2) would lead to their increase (X stands for consonantal wildcard, | stands for arbitrary segmentation done by the reader):
- kalaXkoloXku lu
- kalaXkoloX kulu
- kalaXkolo Xkulu
- kalaXko loXkulu
- kalaX koloXkulu
- kala XkoloXkulu
- ka laXkoloXkulu
- kalaXkoloX ku lu
- kalaXkolo Xku lu
- kalaXko loXku lu
- kalaX koloXku lu
- kala XkoloXku lu
- ka laXkoloXku lu
etc. up to something like ha raž ho rož hu ru (the alternative, pseudo-Slavic, system also fails to distinguish /h/, /x/ and /k/ on the one hand, and /r/, /ř/, /l/ and /ľ/ on the other, along with other missing distinctions in other consonant rows).
Having described (in a simplified form) the two different systems intended for two different languages, I would like to ask:
Does the version of the system as used for Mycenaean Greek produce more phonotactically acceptable outcomes, leading to greater potential ambiguity, or is the Slabic system that may lead to greater potential ambiguity, producing generating/representing larger numbers of phonotactically acceptable readings?
Intuitively, I feel the mainstream view has a potential to produce less ambiguous results, but how can we quantify that? Once again, I should stress that this would only be about a potential ambiguity, which could only be confirmed or refuted by psycholinguistic experiments, as correctly pointed out by commentators.
Similarly, we can generalize the question and set the software tool to find out, whether reading a text T writing by means of writing system W1 leads to greater nubmers of possible readings than writing system W2, whether also representing the same language, or a different one completely.
Some Follow-up Remarks:
What are the most significant caveats never to be neglected? Some questions to be asked and parameters my tool should obviously take into account and probably include:
the word/phrase delimiters (or any other punctuation):
- Are there any?
- Do they vary (un)systematically?
the grapheme-to-phoneme mappings:
- Is the system capable of representing ALL phonemes of the language paradigmatically?
- If so, is it a simple 1-to-1 mapping?
- If not, i.e. if multiple graphemes have to be employed to cover some phonemes, can any syntagmatic ambiguities arise (e.g. /ts/ as a biphonematic sequence or an affricate)?
- If not, i.e. if one grapheme can ambiguously map onto a number of different phonemes (e.g. liquids indistinguishable in Linear B), what constraints can be observed or defined, if any?
- Is the system capable of representing all of the phonemes syntagmatically, i.e. are any phonemes (un)systematically omitted/lost?
- If so, what are the rules and constraints?
Others to be added...