Pictographic English?

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Today's xkcd:

Mouseover title: "'Or maybe, because we're suddenly having so many conversations through written text, we'll start relying MORE on altered spelling to indicate meaning!' 'Wat.'"

It's unusual for Randall Munroe to get so many things wrong, starting with the implication that such things as pictographic (as opposed to logographic) writing systems actually exist. But I'll leave the discussion for the comments section.



  1. Lupus753 said,

    July 21, 2016 @ 7:36 am

    …Did he just say that English is descended from Latin?

  2. NV said,

    July 21, 2016 @ 7:42 am

    He didn't imply that pictographic writing systems exist though. At most, he implied that some writing systems are more pictographic than others, which is not exactly wrong.

  3. S Frankel said,

    July 21, 2016 @ 8:22 am

    I don't see much wrong. The English writing system is, obviously descended from the Latin writing system. You could read a vague implication that English has fewer inflections than its siblings, which is only approximately true, but seems like an acceptable simplification for a comic strip.

    And he didn't imply that pictographic writing systems exist. Instead that's the punchline of what is known as a "joke." I understand that jokes are common in comic strips.

  4. flow said,

    July 21, 2016 @ 8:25 am

    …besides, Mr. Munroe has been known to depict objects, situations and, in fact, entire small universes that are commonly thought to be impossible or at the least very improbable. The simplistic nature of the one 'pictorial' phrase he gives is in stark contrast to the relative complexity of the preceding clauses in conventional orthography; that might be construed as a criticism of those who suggest that emoji might be the next level in the evolution of writing. I'm not sure whether to read this strip as an endorsement or a persiflage of the characters' reasoning—xkcds are sometimes the former and sometimes the latter.

  5. Heidi Harley said,

    July 21, 2016 @ 8:36 am

    I feel confident that this joke is as wrong as it needs to be to make the punchline work. He probably knows all the wrongnesses but couldn't resist making a punchline about emoji; the rest follows. :)

  6. C said,

    July 21, 2016 @ 8:48 am


    If we are being picky, the rest /precedes/


  7. Eric said,

    July 21, 2016 @ 8:55 am

    @RV: Not wrong at all, and I think you can limit his implication even further: he suggests that English may begin to incorporate more pictographic elements.

    And to Lupus' point, he didn't suggest that English is descended from Latin — only that it includes Latin derivations.

  8. Amy de Buitléir said,

    July 21, 2016 @ 9:06 am

    How many words do linguists have for "overanalysing a comic strip"? I bet it's a lot!

    (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

  9. John Baker said,

    July 21, 2016 @ 10:28 am

    I'm no linguist, but I'm not seeing the errors. XKCD makes the following assertions:

    1. Inflected languages change words to add meaning.
    2. Alphabets work well for inflected languages.
    3. Our language family (i.e., Indo-European) is inflected.
    4. The English branch (i.e., English and its ancestral languages) has lost most of its inflection over time.
    5. Because English has lost most of its inflection, it does not have all of the conjugations found in Latin, a relatively more inflected language.
    6. It is possible that English writing may become relatively more pictographic.
    7. However, it is also possible that written English may make greater use of altered spellings to indicate meanings.

    I think that these are all correct, bearing in mind that the last two are explicitly speculative.

  10. Pflaumbaum said,

    July 21, 2016 @ 10:49 am

    I'm used to nearly but not quite understanding xkcd comics. Now I get to nearly but not quite understand an MYL post about and xkcd comic.

  11. Pflaumbaum said,

    July 21, 2016 @ 10:51 am

    …which itself I nearly understand, but not quite.

  12. mike said,

    July 21, 2016 @ 11:05 am

    >Now I get to nearly but not quite understand an MYL post about and xkcd comic

    Pflaumbaum wins this comment thread! :-)

    FWIW, I also was brought short by "Latin conjugations." Pace John Baker, I don't think we imported any conjugations, just a few nominal inflections. (And pretty scattershot at that.) Normally I would not have thought much about this, but not long ago I was conversing with someone who believed (said they'd been taught in college) that Germanic inflections were in fact deliberately adopted from Latin. So there is some level of … lack of knowledge … about the history of the language, even among folks who have had some formal education in/about it.

  13. Paul Cowan said,

    July 21, 2016 @ 11:14 am


  14. S Frankel said,

    July 21, 2016 @ 11:17 am

    @mike – Some Biblical proper names can have Latin inflections in German. For an example, see the accusative "Christum" in the first verse of Martin Luther's hymn, Erhalt uns Gott bei deinem Wort.
    http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Texts/Chorale142-Eng3.htm – some other names do this as well (nom Petrus, gen Petri, dat Petro, acc Petrum).

    This is kind of peripheral to modern spoken German, though, and might not have been what your teacher was referring to.

  15. Paul Cowan said,

    July 21, 2016 @ 11:20 am

    Well, that fell totally flat. Was supposed to be U+1F631 + じてる + U+1F609, but the emoji didn't make it through…

  16. Rodger C said,

    July 21, 2016 @ 11:31 am

    @mike: I suspect the teacher said something about Indo-European that the student misunderstood, being innocent of any suspicion that Germanic and Latin were related in the first place.

  17. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 21, 2016 @ 12:39 pm

    Given the informality of the conversation it doesn't seem particularly implausible to read "don't have all those Latin conjugations" to mean "don't have the all those conjugations the way our language's second cousin twice removed Latin does." The "over the millenia" is nicely vague as to detail. Old English had significantly more complex verbal conjugation that we do, but much less than Latin. I'm not up on the details of reconstructed Proto-Germanic verbal morphology, but they could already have been simpler than their Proto-Italic cousin w/o the "millenia" claim being false.

  18. Karen said,

    July 21, 2016 @ 12:52 pm

    I also read that as "all those conjugations and declensions that Latin, as an example, has".

  19. Bruce Rusk said,

    July 21, 2016 @ 2:42 pm

    The "English isn't very inflected" argument is weak: yes, it doesn't have some of the inflections other Indo-European languages do, but the majority of words in English discourse reflect some difference marked by inflection: number for nouns, number and/or case for pronouns, etc. Of the 73 words in the strip (not counting the isolated bound morphemes -s and -ed, or the emoji), I count 29 that I wouldn't describe as "inflected" in some way (counting a noun left in its singular form as inflected because its non-plurality is marked); what's left is mostly articles and prepositions. Assuming that a pictographic/ideographic writing system reflected none of those inflections but otherwise made it easy to figure out the intended word, the cognitive load in translating such writing into complete English sentences would still be huge and many ambiguities would remain.

  20. Greg Malivuk said,

    July 21, 2016 @ 2:58 pm

    I don't think that's a very good way to determine whether a language is "very inflected". A language might just have two inflections which every or nearly every word has (such as one for relating to a singular noun and another for relating to a plural noun, where "relating to" a noun describes adjectives modifying that noun, verbs with that noun as subject, and adverbs about said adjectives and verbs).

    I would not say such a language was "very inflected", because the entire set of inflections for the language only tell us about number. No inflections for tense or aspect or person or case or gender or any of the other myriad things some languages indicate with inflections.

  21. Bob Ladd said,

    July 21, 2016 @ 3:14 pm

    What J W Brewer and Karen said. And Pflaumbaum, too, come to think of it.

  22. Mark Meckes said,

    July 21, 2016 @ 5:18 pm

    What Bob Ladd said.

  23. Max said,

    July 21, 2016 @ 6:12 pm

    I was also told that German borrowed its case system from Latin, in a German-as-a-foreign-language class, in a German university. And no, I didn't misunderstand: that is actually what the teacher believed. Of course, this is a very different situation from a linguistics or Germanistics class (my impression is that the main qualification for teaching these courses is that you can speak the language).

  24. No comments said,

    July 21, 2016 @ 7:47 pm

    So wrong.. Generally the accepted term for scripts such as Chinese is logographic. The assertion that logographic scripts refer to 'words' and alphabetic scripts refer to sounds makes me feel uncomfortable. Psycholinguistic studies that attempt to test the Coltheart dual pathway model shows that both of these elements are present when reading alphabetic scripts. Whole word recognition and so-called grapheme to sound conversion and assembly rules both apply to alphabetic scripts. Logographic scripts sometimes incorporate a phonetic element as well, which gives clues as to the character's pronunciation.

  25. No comments said,

    July 21, 2016 @ 8:04 pm

    Also the possible implication that languages employing a logographic script lack inflection completely, or are mostly mono-morphemic. Not true. I use inflection in a broad sense here– Sinitic languages have various tense and aspect morphological sub-systems but they may not be applied as systematically as in Indo-European languages.

  26. Chris C. said,

    July 21, 2016 @ 8:30 pm

    @Max — I shudder to think what enormities German prescriptivists have inflicted on your language, if they think like this.

  27. R. Fenwick said,

    July 21, 2016 @ 10:10 pm

    Surely this hinges upon what it means for a script to be pictographic – and the absence of the concept from linguistics doesn't mean that a script cannot simply be described as being pictographic or not. It's an axis unrelated to logographic/syllabic/alphabetic/morphographic writing systems. "Pictographic" simply means "of, belonging to, or of the nature of, pictorial symbols" (OED), and so I don't have any trouble thinking about writing systems as being more or less pictographic in the sense that they used pictures of concrete objects as the characters in a writing system, as opposed to more (synchronically, at least) abstract shapes. It says nothing about how the script functions, and only refers to the graphic element, the visual aspect of the script. So the oldest stages of Sumerian and Chinese writing were mildly pictographic, Egyptian and Aztec glyphs remained entirely pictographic throughout their history (Egyptian hieratic and demotic aside), and Maya glyphs were also largely (though not exclusively) pictographic. On the other hand, English writing is now abstract, not pictographic at all – emoji aside.

    With regard to emoji, perhaps the best illustration of the concept I've seen has been the production of comments to Facebook threads and the like – in many independent places now – that end with two emoji, a frog and a teacup. Meaning, of course, "but that's none of my business". Quite a spectacular example of how culturally contextualised any writing system based on pictures might become.


  28. Sven Sahle said,

    July 22, 2016 @ 3:18 am

    As a middle aged german who learned latin in school I remember that while we were not taught that german grammar derived from latin, we were still taught german and latin grammar to be essentially the same (with just some small differences like two extra cases in latin). When teaching german grammar, basically only the part that could easily match latin grammar was mentioned.
    I wonder (I really would like to know) whether german grammar was shaped by the fact that until quite recently most scholars studying german grammar would choose to describe it in terms of latin grammar, that it is to this day taught this way, and that for hundreds of years probably everyone who would write german was educated in latin.
    Also (I'm not a linguist) I was taught that the german standard written language was deliberately constructed (in the age of the reformation) and the people who did this (Martin Luther is usually credited) were also certainly latin scholars.

  29. Sean M said,

    July 22, 2016 @ 4:33 am

    I suppose he is getting at the agglutinating/isolating/fusional model isn't he? Classical Chinese is isolating and written with logograms, but Akkadian is fusional and Sumerian is agglutinating and both were written perfectly fine in logograms. You can read UDU.HI.A in cuneiform and pronounce it as oves or Schafe or sheep or immerū according to whim.

    Its a comic based on the kind of witticism we have chatting with friends over coffee, not an academic paper!

  30. Amy de Buitléir said,

    July 22, 2016 @ 5:25 am

    Also, Randall Munroe has to stick mainly to terminology and concepts that most people will know. Notice that he defines one term in the comic, "inflected". Most comic strips wouldn't attempt to teach people anything, for fear that if you have to explain the joke, you ruin it. Granted, xkcd readers are probably more knowledgeable and keen to learn than average, but the fact that so many of the comics teach as well as entertain is down to Randall's skill at weaving the two modes. But I don't think even he could manage to explain the distinction between "logographic" and "pictographic", and cover the history of the English language, all in a three-panel comic.

  31. Acilius said,

    July 22, 2016 @ 8:44 am

    It's interesting to me that the characters are stick figures. That adds another layer of complexity to the excellent points that J. W. Brewer, Karen, and Amy de Buitléir have made about the strip being a fictional presentation intended to resolve itself in a humorous conclusion. It may be natural to read the text as a little essay presenting Randall Munroe's understanding of the topic, regarding the stick figures simply as an embellishment, as the inset comics in his what-if articles more or less are. But once we pause to remember that the strip is making a joke, it becomes clear at once that the point of it is something to do with what's happening between these two imaginary people, featureless though they may be. So it isn't Randall Munroe getting things wrong, to the extent that it is meaningful to describe casual remarks like these as "wrong" when they express matters in an imprecise way, but Alice and Bob.

  32. Zizoz said,

    July 22, 2016 @ 12:44 pm

    What kept the comic from working for me is that the emoji don't actually represent English words, and certainly not an English sentence. So how suited English is to a 'pictographic' writing system seems to me to be completely irrelevant to the use of emoji.

  33. Hans Adler said,

    July 23, 2016 @ 4:19 am

    I don't think there is a general belief among German speakers that any part of German grammar is derived from Latin. However, this may actually be true to some extent when we think specifically of written grammars of standard German. (I am probably not going to fool properly trained linguists into believing I am one of them, but for the benefit of the others let me point out that I am writing based on the intuitions and half-knowledge of an interested layman.)

    Standard German didn't just arise naturally out of German dialects. It developed in the 16th/17th century as a consequence of the printing press and the Reformation, but the process was accelerated by scholars who actively and consciously tried to find a mode of written expression that works for all German-speaking areas. These scholars had an idea of what a literary language should be like, and of course this idea was formed primarily by Latin. It appears that they sharpened or even invented some distinctions that had already been lost in the central dialects from which they started. If most regions used either the original accusative form or the original dative form for both cases, this kind of scholar would probably rely on the border region where both are used almost but not quite interchangeably – and would impose a strict usage distinction.

    I think in a sense, standard German is the result of trying to apply Latin grammar to the continuum of German dialects, changing both in the process so they meet somewhere in the middle.

    To this day, the relation between German speakers and their standard language isn't the same as for English or Dutch speakers. We do not have an equivalent of the Académie française, either, but our relation to our literary language still has some similarities to that with a foreign language. When the way everyone talks is different from the official standard, it's never the official standard that is wrong. It is therefore extremely slow to update.

    It seems that Dutch speakers have changed their attitude sometime during the last century, resulting in what appears to be a much faster evolution of their language.

  34. flow said,

    July 23, 2016 @ 10:29 am

    @Hans Adler "would impose a strict usage distinction"—my thinking exactly.

    For example, according to Standard German, you must distinguish 'wie' and 'als' when making comparisons as in 'A ist größer *als* B' (A is bigger / larger / taller *than* B) and 'A ist so groß *wie* B' (A is as big as B). However, in many regionalects people say e.g. 'A ist größer *wie* B' or 'A ist größer *als wie* B'.

    In a similar vein, Standard German distinguishes between two 'same's: 'das Gleiche' and 'das Selbe' ('dasselbe'); turns out 'das Gleiche' is not the same as 'das Selbe', the rule being that the former is about equivalence and the latter is about identity. However, many Germans do not consistently make the distinction or are confused by it, and the two concepts are same-same at any rate when you talk about abstract things. Also, there are situations where one can argue for the one or the other.

    These two points and a number of others have to be brought to people by parental admonition and formal education; it is a little bit like Standard German is no man's mother tongue (although I'm not sure about Gnome Anne's mother) and everyone has to actively learn it. Is there a term like 'acquired first language'?

  35. Terry Hunt said,

    July 23, 2016 @ 11:29 am

    I'm forming the impression from the preceding comments that Monroe was not only not wrong, he was more right than even he likely realised :-).

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