Have you ever pondered the letter P, or maybe reflected on the letter R? As in, thought about their structures, their shapes, and how they came to be. I, to be honest, had not. I have never given these letters—or any other letters—much thought. But that’s what we’re up to today. In this episode, we’re looking across the world’s hundred plus scripts and asking some basic questions: How are they alike? How do they differ? And why do they have the shapes that they do?
My guests are Dr. Yoolim Kim and Dr. Olivier Morin. Yoolim is a Psycholinguist at the Korea Institute at Harvard University, and Olivier is director of the Minds and Traditions research group (aka ‘The Mint’) at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany. Olivier and Yoolim, along with other colleagues, have recently launched a new online game called Glyph. You can play right now. It asks players to help describe, break down, and classify the characters of dozens of writing systems around the world.
Here, we talk about Glyph and what Yoolim and Olivier hope to learn from it. We do a bit of ‘Writing Systems 101’ and shine a spotlight on two scripts with fascinating origin stories: Hangul, the Korean script which was devised in the 15th century and Vai, a script invented in Liberia in the 19th century. We also talk about how universal cognitive factors shape writing systems and about whether the writing system you use shapes how you think. Finally, we discuss the earliest writing systems and what they were used for; the myth that the alphabet is the most advanced type of writing system; and the understudied—but not uncommon!—phenomenon of “biscriptalism.”