Featural writing system

"Featural" redirects here. For other uses, see Feature.

In a featural writing system, the shapes of the symbols (such as letters) are not arbitrary but encode phonological features of the phonemes that they represent. The term featural was introduced by Geoffrey Sampson to describe Hangul[1]:120 and Pitman shorthand.[1]:40

Joe Martin introduced the term featural notation to describe writing systems that include symbols to represent individual features rather than phonemes. He asserts that "alphabets have no symbols for anything smaller than a phoneme".[2]:5

A featural script represents finer detail than an alphabet. Here symbols do not represent whole phonemes, but rather the elements (features) that make up the phonemes, such as voicing or its place of articulation. Theoretically, each feature could be written with a separate letter; and abjads or abugidas, or indeed syllabaries, could be featural, but the only prominent system of this sort is Korean Hangul. In Hangul, the featural symbols are combined into alphabetic letters, and these letters are in turn joined into syllabic blocks, so that the system combines three levels of phonological representation.

Many scholars, e.g. John DeFrancis, reject this class or at least labeling Hangul as such. The Korean script is a conscious script creation by literate experts, which Daniels calls a "sophisticated grammatogeny". These include stenographies and constructed scripts of hobbyists and fiction writers (such as Tengwar), many of which feature advanced graphic designs corresponding to phonologic properties. The basic unit of writing in these systems can map to anything from phonemes to words. It has been shown that even the Latin script has sub-character "features".[3]

Examples of featural systems

This is a small list of examples of featural writing systems by date of creation. The languages for which each system was developed are also shown.

15th century

19th century

20th century

21st century

Semi-featural systems

Other scripts may have limited featural elements. Many languages written in the Latin alphabet make use of diacritics, and those letters using diacritics are sometimes considered separate letters within the language's alphabet. The Polish alphabet, for example, indicates a palatal articulation of some consonants with an acute accent. The Turkish alphabet uses the presence of one or two dots above a vowel to indicate that it is a front vowel. The Japanese kana syllabaries indicate voiced consonants with marks known as dakuten. The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) also has some featural elements, for example in the hooks and tails that are characteristic of implosives, ɓ ɗ ʄ ɠ ʛ, and retroflex consonants, ʈ ɖ ʂ ʐ ɳ ɻ ɽ ɭ. The IPA diacritics are also featural. The Fraser alphabet used for Lisu rotates the letters for the tenuis consonants/p/, ꓔ /t/, ꓝ /ts/, ꓚ /tʃ/, and ꓗ /k/ 180° to indicate aspiration.


  1. 1 2 Sampson, Geoffrey (1990). Writing Systems. Stanford University Press. ISBN 978-0-8047-1756-4.
  2. 1 2 Martin, Joe (2000). A Linguistic Comparison: Two Notation Systems for Signed Languages (PDF) (Thesis).
  3. See Primus, Beatrice (2004), "A featural analysis of the Modern Roman Alphabet" (PDF), Written Language and Literacy, 7 (2): 235–274, retrieved 2015-12-05.
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