For a story idea in my head to work on paper, a character has to be able to fluently and eloquently speak a common language, to the point of being able to turn a phrase or make plays on words naturally, but they must not be able to comprehend that same language in written form. Simple illiteracy in this case sounds implausible to me given the world is a mid-future, post-industrial dystopia based on present-day Western culture, where the written word is everywhere and you don't get far without at least a grade-school reading comprehension level.

I was thinking that a way around simple illiteracy might involve parallel development of written forms of the language; call them "upper" and "lower". Society is segregated by wealth or political power to such a degree that the poor use a completely different writing system, "lower", while the wealthy elite learn "upper", and while the two systems describe the words of the same spoken language, the basic symbolic concepts are so different that knowing one writing system is no help in deciphering the other (and societal taboos on both sides would preclude either class bothering to learn the other system). Reading either one knowing the other might be a similar experience as someone trying to read an English-language message transcribed into the Cyrillic alphabet, or the Arabic or Hebrew or Devanagari, with no knowledge of what sounds the symbols stand for. You might be able to sound it out with a primer of the alphabet in front of you, but that's what it'd take.

The question is, does this seem plausible? I realize this is opinionated, but if an answer can give a real-world example of cultures that can understand each others' spoken language but not their written one, that would be evidence this approach isn't so far fetched.

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    I'm questioning your premise. That a non-reader could be eloquent seems so implausible to you that you need to introduce a radical change to the entire culture in which this person lives? Why not just have the person have been raised in a family of colorful story tellers? Or have been trained (formally or informally) in the art of oral debate? There are so many examples in the history of the real world of highly intelligent and thoughtful non-readers -- just not in the modern world. – dbliss Oct 15 '15 at 1:04
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    Another solution might be to make the eloquence of the spoken word essential to the lives of the educated illiterate. As dbliss pointed out with the idea of training in oral debate, the art of speaking is actually quite different from the art of writing, especially because speaking is typically conversational, with back and forths. With some effort on your part, you may be able to make it so that there is a perfectly valid reason for people to simply not need to learn to write, even though they are intelligent. It'd just have to be very cultural. – Cort Ammon Oct 15 '15 at 2:49
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    the inability to read is usually accompanied by a very primitive vocabulary leading to equally primitive dialogue This isn't true at all. There are thousands of non-written languages that exist or have existed around the world, and it seems a bit culturally insensitive to dismiss all of them as primitive. – Peter Olson Oct 15 '15 at 3:14
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    Just look it up... throughout history, a lot of famous people were illiterate. More recently though with the spread of schools, it tends to disappear. – bilbo_pingouin Oct 15 '15 at 5:56
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    Here's a closer to home example. Recall a couple years ago in the George Zimmerman trial, one of the witnesses couldn't read cursive. When that news broke, there were a lot of people saying that wasn't uncommon. – Karl Bielefeldt Oct 15 '15 at 21:06

23 Answers 23

up vote 94 down vote accepted

As a real life example, consider the Chinese writings Pinyin and Hanzi. Pinyin is a romanization of the sounds of the words, while hanzi is the characters like 漢字 *.

Now in the real world, people know how to read both, but it would be easy to construct a world where the lower class is only taught pinyin and the upper class is taught hanzi. This would fit well: Hanzi is considered to be the "real" Chinese characters, while the pinyin is often thought of as just a phonetic spelling to be used when the real characters cannot be written (such as on a qwerty keyboard)

*those two characters happen to be the characters for "Hanzi," because I'm someone who is amused by recursive things like that.

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    Furthermore, you've written the traditional form of hànzi, which raises the point that traditional and simplified forms also differ significantly, although they are certainly mutually decipherable with a bit of practice. – wchargin Oct 15 '15 at 0:48
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    @WChargin I wasn't going to mention it, because there's enough mutual decipherability, but you are absolutely correct. While I chose to compare pinyin and hanzi, you could also have written the same answer comparing traditional and simplified forms of hanzi, and arrived at the same message. – Cort Ammon Oct 15 '15 at 2:44
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    Also consider the Korean script Hangeul, which is almost as easy to learn as the Latin script and was specifically invented to teach the lower classes to read and write without them having to learn the Chinese script, which was used before that to write Korean but took too much time to teach/learn. – Sumyrda Oct 15 '15 at 5:52
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    @Sumyrda - excellent point about Hanguel / Hangul. Of all the examples put forward in the various answers, Hangul comes closest to the situation KeithS wants to write about involving separate writing systems stratified by class. Only the upper classes had the leisure to learn to write Korean using Chinese characters, because that involves learning thousands of separate forms. As a result ability to use Chinese became a status marker. In contrast Hangul was so easy that in the sexist society of the time it was mockingly called "women's writing" on the grounds that "even women can learn it". – Lostinfrance Oct 15 '15 at 8:01
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    Japanese is also a semi-example. Japanese children can have spoken mastery and know hiragana and still not be able to read the kanji (yet) for the words that they use everyday. It's also possible an adult (perhaps a second language learner) would know the spoken language fluently and the hiragana, but not the kanji. – Todd Wilcox Oct 15 '15 at 14:34

Urdu and Hindi are another example of this. The grammar and a large part of the vocabulary is essentially identical between the languages, but the writing in Urdu is based on Arabic and some vocabulary -- mostly formal or poetic language -- is from Arabic and Persian roots. In contrast, the writing in Hindi comes from Sanskrit, as do the corresponding poetic and formal language terms.

Someone who speaks Urdu or Hindi can readily converse with speakers of the other language (although they might recognize from certain word choices and/or accent that it is a speaker of the other language), but if they wanted, they could also probably make themselves unintelligible by switching to a very formal register of speech.

This multilingual sign demonstrates this. The top line is in Hindi (written in devanagri script) and the bottom right is in Urdu nastaliq script. multilingual sign

(You can see a direct comparison of the characters in wikipedia as well.)

Edit: I thought of more examples.

You mentioned Cyrillic. This was a script brought into Slavic lands by Christian missionaries, who adapted it from Greek characters. It is hypothesized that a runic script was used by the Slavs before this. People who were educated in the new script would very likely not be able to read the runes and vice versa.

How could I forget Japanese? They have 3 sets of characters used in their modern language, plus of course transliteration to Roman characters. They use kanji (adapted from Chinese hanzi), hiragana (for spelling words out in syllables) and katakana (generally used for spelling or foreign words and a few other uses). Foreign learners often start off learning Japanese with transliterated romaji (the Japanese equivalent of pinyin, essentially) and may never progress past hiragana to read kanji. Children start with katakana and hiragana as well.

You can also consider that a person who has vision impairment or a disorder such as dislexia might still be highly educated and articulate while having serious difficulties with the written form of language.

There are also languages with no native written form, such as Navajo.

Finally, you do not have to look back far in history to find a culture where a large group of people was socially segregated and not permitted to learn to read. In the US, before slavery was abolished, slaves were not permitted to learn to read. Some individuals were still able to become strong orators.

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    The Urdu/Hindi divide is a good example of the way that divisions between nations, classes or religions can cause the situation of mutually incomprehensible written forms of the same spoken language to arise in history. I don't want to delve into the contentious history between India and Pakistan, but speaking in general terms, if you have a region with a common spoken language but where part of the population either converted to a new religion, or were conquered by another nation, or seceded from the original nation, then that part might adopt a different system of writing. – Lostinfrance Oct 15 '15 at 8:15
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    "This was a script brought into Slavic lands by Christian missionaries" - this is more the case for the Glagolitic script. The Cyrillic script was most likely developed in medieval Bulgaria – Nobilis Oct 15 '15 at 9:27
  • If you're going for and inclusive list how about adding English versus old English. – James Oct 15 '15 at 14:10
  • @James I was trying to list only instances that would only have overlapping concurrent usage. While it is certainly true that Modern English is far different from the language it descended from and a modern speaker would most likely not be able to read Beowulf without prior study (although probably someone good with languages could puzzle out Middle English such as Chaucer with some work), I don't think that really fits this specific question because there were no Modern English speakers back then and perhaps aside from scholars, no Old English speakers now. – NadjaCS Oct 15 '15 at 16:59

Yes, it is possible. In general there will be a trend towards a single script, as it has huge practical advantages. But there were and are examples of different scripts for the same language.

In Germany Fraktur was used far into the 20th century. Why? Just because (basically). Sure, it is the same alphabet but a different font. Yet a lot of people find it hard or are even not able to read Fraktur nowadays. Today everything is in Antiqua ("normal" letters).

enter image description here

Cursive is a different way to write the same alphabet. When "lower" classes first learned reading and writing it was usually with printed letters, not cursive. That was a style used in offices or by higher classes. Different style of cursive can vary significantly, e.g. this is Sütterlin which was used for a few years in Germany:

enter image description here

Both examples are just different ways to render the Latin alphabet.

Pinyin is a form to transcribe Chinese letters with the Latin alphabet. It is so useful for learning Chinese that a lot of learners just learn Pinyin and speaking but not reading or writing Chinese letters.

Oh, and while I am at Chinese letters: There exist two types of Chinese letters, traditional and simplified. They are still quite similar but different enough to confuse readers.

Mandarin Chinese also has the Zhuyin or bopomofo phonetic transcription system that is commonly used for text input on computers in Taiwan but not Mainland China.

Phonetic alphabets, notably the International Phonetic Alphabet, abstract from the underlying language. In theory you could read and pronounce a language just by using the IPA. Some "tourist dictionaries" use a simplified phonetic alphabet (based on the normal use of the source language) to achieve just that.

enter image description here

So it is possible to have different ways to write one language. Social segregation also is a possibility.

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    "Yet most people are not able to read Fraktur nowadays." I doubt that. It looks similar enough to modern fonts to be decipherable. – CodesInChaos Oct 15 '15 at 10:50
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    @CodesInChaos You'd be surprised. I never understood it either (sure, it's a bit of work to decipher, but it's very much possible), but there's plenty of people who simply don't see the resemblance. But cursive in azbuka is an even better example - to the untrained eye, it simply looks like a sea of loops, impossible to see where a letter starts or ends. – Luaan Oct 15 '15 at 12:53
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    @CodesInChaos It seems pretty easy when you have the alphabet neatly lined up. But it is different in a normal text. Sure, everyone could learn it, and it is not exactly rocket science - but most don't. When reading you normally don't decipher every letter, you recognize whole words. Without training this doesn't work easily with Fraktur. – his Oct 15 '15 at 15:51
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    @his The outline of words is till pretty similar. Even if you don't know a few letters (e.g. the middle s looking somewhat like an f) you can still recognize the word. In your example sentence, the only non obvious word is the first, since I didn't know it's called Koch-Fraktur and not Hoch- or Roch-. As a German speaker, "vollständiger Zeichensatz" is recognizable at a glance. – CodesInChaos Oct 15 '15 at 16:01
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    true, handwriting is always tricky, especially for unfamiliar vocabulary. for example, I have a lot of handwritten recipes in Marathi from my husband's aunt and I can hardly puzzle my way through a single one, but a lot of typed recipes in Marathi from a friend's mother are perfectly readable, I just have to look up unfamiliar words from time to time. I don't speak Marathi, but I know Hindi which is pretty close linguistically, and I know enough food words to get by with recipes. The problem is trying to figure out unfamiliar words where you can't tell what character it is supposed to be. :-) – NadjaCS Oct 15 '15 at 19:34

I am surprised that nobody mentioned Braille so far. It's an obvious contender for a script that can be read by a subset of people with little overlap to those reading the corresponding printed scripts.

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    Good one. A society where everyone was either blind or deaf&numb would be even more divided. Blind people have no possibility of understanding sign language, while the deaf&numb people couldn't use speech at all. Would be crazy. – WalyKu Oct 16 '15 at 13:30
  • @Kurtovic "deaf & numb" is not an idiom in common use. If it were, it would mean no sense of hearing and no sense of touch. I believe you're thinking of the outmoded "deaf & dumb" which has been replaced in polite society by "deaf-mute". – Timbo Oct 20 '15 at 1:26
  • @Timbo Oh, yes I meant mute. I'm not a native speaker so I thought that numb is mute. Thank you for the correction. I haven't heard of deaf & dumb yet, but I guess it is better not have as it seems to be meant as a form of insult. – WalyKu Oct 20 '15 at 7:56
  • This isn't a bad idea except that Braille is typically seen alongside English script on ADA-compliant signage, so it would be implausible for either of the segregated cultures (the 99th percentile of both are sighted) to lose the ability to read English but to pick up some Braille-like representation (perhaps connecting the dots). – KeithS Oct 20 '15 at 22:52
  • This was the first thing that occurred to me, along with Morse code, which can also be written to convey English words, yet can only be read by a few. – Prof. Bear Feb 11 '16 at 20:32

What you describe (a single language with two scripts, used simultaneously) is plausible and has existed occasionally in history, although as others suggest the "steady state" tendency is towards a single script per language for practical reasons.

For instance, the Bosnian language can be written using either a Latin or Cyrillic script, and being able to read one doesn't imply an ability to read the other. Per Wikipedia, there are regional preferences as to one vs. the other, with some overlap.

There are also historical examples of languages changing scripts, typically for political reasons, which could plausibly create a generational split with older people preferring one script and younger people using a different one. E.g. Azerbaijani was written in an Arabic script until 1929, a Latin script from 1929–1938, Cyrillic from 1938 to 1991, and Latin (but not the same as 1929-38's!) from independence in 1991 until today. Each transition doubtless involved some people making the switch more slowly than others (and at least in the early 2000s there was a fair amount of public signage in both scripts).

For two scripts to remain in use indefinitely within the same population there would need to be some significant social force or pressure working against the tendency to prefer one or the other universally in the interest of communication. (And in not having to have twice as much public signage, etc.) But at the same time the separation between the users of each script couldn't be too great, or else over time the underlying languages would separate into different dialects, with the scripts being associated with one dialect or the other.

  • All very good points. I think in my case it could be in that "intermediate" timeframe where society has stratified to produce a privileged elite (which could happen in a couple of generations), but the spoken language hasn't diverged to the point that they're different dialects (though there may be some difference in slang or other "in" vocabulary, hinting it's already starting to happen). – KeithS Oct 15 '15 at 15:35
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    Adding to the part about Bosnia, there was a historical (during Ottoman times) literary movement to use of Arebica, which is an Arabic transcription system. The related (synonymous to some) Aljamiado is generally a good example for this question! Some of the most important authors which used the Arebica/Aljamiado system in Bosnia can be seen in the Bosnian Wikipedia article. – WalyKu Oct 16 '15 at 8:03

There is a real world example which might be even more fitting than Chinese (Pinyin vs. Hanzi where native speakers usually know both): The Hungarian runic alphabet.

It is completely different from the Latin alphabet, is written right-to-left, and is not completely mapped to the Latin alphabet (it's more compact, many symbols require 2 or 3 characters in the Latin form of the written language). It fell out of use around the 10th century, but was still used in remote locations until around the 15-16th century. This means that there was half a millenium where parts of the population spoke the same language but used a different script.

Most native speakers today cannot read it at all, but there are enthusiasts who learn it, and there are still works of literature published using the runic alphabet. In contrast with other runic scripts, whose languages are dead, the Hungarian runic alphabet can still be used perfectly with the contemporary Hungarian language and grammar.

Also, the the Hungarian Scout movement teaches this script, so many boy/girl scouts are fluent in it, although the general population isn't.

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    ... making the runic alphabet an "in" thing for a privileged minority (in this case the Hungarian Scouts). This is an option for the development of a divergent "upper" writing system, using something you'd only have access to in academia, which would be out of reach for most. – KeithS Oct 15 '15 at 15:38
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    @KeithS : of course, in the modern world, anyone with sufficient motivation can learn it by searching for it online or buying a book. – vsz Oct 15 '15 at 17:49
  • One issue vs the OP's question is that the privileged minority also thoroughly understands the "basic" writing as well. Not to pick on this answer, it's true of most of them. :) – Steve Barron Oct 20 '15 at 14:25
  • @SteveBarron : I doubt that there exist anyone today who understands the Hungarian runic script and the same time doesn't understand the "basic" Latin script. The runic script is kept alive today only for its sentimental value, but as it was used in the late Middle ages in isolated communities in the mountains centuries after it was forgotten by the rest of the population, one might romanticize it as a "secret" or "shamanic" knowledge. – vsz Oct 20 '15 at 19:31

In Ancient Egypt there were several scripts that were used to write the language - the Hieroglyphics, the Hieratic form and the Demotic.

Their usage varied with times but primarily the former two were used for religious purposes - hieroglyphs went on stone walls and stelae, hieratic was committed to papyrus.

Demotic was chiefly used for writing down administrative matters.


The Turkish writing system underwent a transition from Arabic to Latin in the early 20th century, very few people can nowadays read Turkish in its older form.

Consider also the Norwegian language which has two official, written forms - Nynorsk and Bokmål (source) that each carry specific political connotations.

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    This one is very interesting to me because the subplot involved is that the character is unable to understand a legal document that is binding on her. – KeithS Oct 15 '15 at 13:46
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    Cool, consider also the difference between vulgar Latin, spoken by the ordinary populace and official, formal Latin existing mainly in written form and used for administrative and liturgical purposes, I think this would also fit the context of your story. – Nobilis Oct 15 '15 at 14:26
  • The example of Norwegian doesn't fit the original request in that the two written forms are not mutually unintelligible. +1 for the Egyptian example though. – March Ho Oct 16 '15 at 2:14
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    “very few people can nowadays read Turkish in its older form” — is this actually true? It was my impression that people still learn (at least the rudiments of) Arabic script as part of the religious education, and from my one visit to Turkey it seems that even secular regions still use the script widely, albeit always in a cultural/religious context (so maybe it’s purely ornamental). – Konrad Rudolph Oct 16 '15 at 9:44
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    I do remember reading somewhere that the script can be read only by specially-trained people (like scholars and clergy) and from my conversations with young people from Turkey, it seems that it's not popular. This article seems to support my claim to a degree as it discusses its mandatory introduction in the curriculum and whether that's a popular move. – Nobilis Oct 18 '15 at 12:40

As a real world example just as you describe. Well, In Persian (Farsi) which is written using a derived version of Arabic alphabet, we have great number of Iranians living abroad in Europe and US who don't know the Persian Alphabet but have learned to speak the language from their parents. When writing, these people use English Alphabet to create a form known as (informally Fingilish = Farsi + English) which was also used on Qwerty keyboards without Persian alphabets. So for example these two sentences are read alike and are just the same.

  • سلام دوست خوبم
  • salam doost khubam

The case is that many native Iranians who are not familiar with English aren't able to read the second one and also the people living abroad can't read the first. So this situation totally matches your scenario.

There are people in between too who are familiar with Both alphabets not necessarily fluent English. In fact to read the second form you just need to know the sounds of the English Alphabet. And I suspect this situation would also be the case for Arabic and other languages with totally different form of Alphabet compared to English making it a common issue.
They can speak together but they can't read the other's writing

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    Beautiful; a real-world, present-day example of two populations that, through cultural segregation, speak the same language but don't write it the same way. I'm not quite sure how to work this same cause into my universe (dystopias are stereotypically xenophobic, though in mine it's plausible the government is run by the descendants of foreign creditors and so "upper" is an imported script adapted for English phonemes), but it's definitely something to look into. – KeithS Oct 15 '15 at 16:00

Sure. Many indian languages have similar sounds but very different scripts.

Malayalam and Tamil are probably the best examples here.

The two languages are barely mutually intelligible - some different word choices but enough that we understand ~50-70% of someone might be saying.

However a simple word like dog..

നായ് in malayalam (pronounced nāy) நாய் in tamil, also pronounced Nāy

So... as long as the sounds linked to letters are similar, its entirely possible to do that.

Up through the first half of the 20th Century or so, German had a system of script (handwriting) which differed from other European languages' scripts, and was not mutually intelligible with them although it could be learned in an hour or so.

Fraktur is simply a typeface, what we would call a font in the internet age, and not a separate alphabet. If you can read this, you can read Fraktur.

Tibetan has two systems for what we would call printing, U-Chen and U-Med. With the exception of some letters, they are mutually unintelligible, but knowing one, you can be taught the other in a day more or less.

Tibetan script, on the other hand, is a separate study and while based on the other two, looks like gibberish to the untrained eye.

Chinese had until 2004 a syllabic writing system solely used by women in part of Hunan Province, called 女書.

Mongolian since the 13th century has had multiple mutually unintelligible alphabets.

So the answer to the original question is an emphatic "yes".

while they describe the same phonemes of the same spoken language, the symbols are so different that knowing one is no help in deciphering the other

This seems to be based on the assumption that the different writing systems are both phonemic. In this case, I would expect learning Upper to be comparably easy, even if there is no letter-to-letter correspondence between the different writing systems due to multigraphs and other features.

I have made two experiences in this direction myself:

  • I am German and it took me hardly any time to learn reading fraktur. If you want to try yourself, here is a website in fraktur and English, here is more material. (Disclaimer: I am involved in this project.)
  • I recently read ˈÆlɪsɪz Ədˈventʃəz ɪn ˈWʌndəˌlænd (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)), i.e., a book written in English and a completely phonemic writing system. This is not exactly comparable to what you propose as some IPA letters are taken from the latin alphabet and have the same phonetic value as in English, but there are sufficiently many deviations to give you some idea. I could read the book mostly fluently after a few pages.

If you want to experience your proposal yourself, Evertype published several renditions of Alice in Wonderland in exotic writing systems for the English language, some of which share no letters with the latin alphabet: [1], [2], [3], [4], [5], [6], [7], [list].

So, to address your question, I do not think it’s that plausible (depending on how strong you want the effect to be), if you insist on phonemicity. To address this, I would render Lower an entirely phonemic writing system and Upper a mostly unphonemic one, i.e., even worse than English. As a historical background, think of English not only having gone through the Great Vowel Shift but also a comparable consonant shift.

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    Thanks for the contrasting opinion; I knew I wasn't going to get complete consensus on it. I think it comes down to availability and time/effort; the ability to read something in an unfamiliar character set requires first that the character set be available (in a highly segregated society even things as ubiquitous as street signs might be written in one script only), and second that people unused to that script be willing and able to spend the time and effort learning it (the privileged class might think "lower" is beneath them, while the masses might have no leisure time to learn "upper"). – KeithS Oct 15 '15 at 15:44
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    @KeithS: You are missing a major factor: motivation. The biggest problem with learning another writing system is the steep, yet small initial hurdle. Take for example the IPA. Nowadays many people stumble upon small bits of it on a daily basis, e.g., on Wikipedia and in dictionaries. But as they have no big motivation to take the initial hurdle, they may never learn it. But once you have a motivation to take this hurdle, e.g., a book or even a few pages in this language, it requires ridiculously little effort to take it and little daily exposure suffices to preserve the skill. – Wrzlprmft Oct 15 '15 at 16:58
  • That's true. My point I guess is that motivation would be lacking both ways; the poor would have other priorities, as would the very rich. There might be a subset of people that have to cross the gap in their daily lives, but all it takes is a law saying all gov't/legal documents must be in one script, and a near-complete lack of such documents in daily lower-class life, and you have the makings of a society where a majority of both classes are non-fluent in or possibly even unaware of the other script. – KeithS Oct 15 '15 at 17:35

Other answers have mentioned Chinese. I'd like to point out the modern standard pin yin Romanization that's commonly used for typing, too. Everyone here on this English board can read "Beijing", but typing those same letters in the IME produces north capital: "北京".

Now my mother-in-law can’t type on a computer because she never learned pin yin, and her accent doesn’t match the people who came up with the transcription. She learned an earlier form of phonetic instruction (I suppose it would be this one) which is not roman-based. It’s fair to say that most Mandarin speaking people younger than 60 would find this unintelligible.

An example in History is Linear B script.
enter image description here

Imagine the surprise of the scholors figuring it out when the language turned out to be Greek!

The point to remember is that a writing system is not the same thing as a language.

Rather than simply different ways to draw a letter (making them hard to recognise), you have real differences between an idiographic or syllable based script and a phonetic script.

Another thing is moving from an "artistic" scheme such as Myan script to something more familiar to us. Myan "letters" are not written in a row but are combined into squares. enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here

Furthermore they make a point of not writing the same letter the same way twice, which confused those who tried to read it later. In the above illustration the same word is shown 3 times!

There are certain graphic features that determine which meaning it has, but you have artistic freedom to represent the needed features in some drawing, and each block becomes a unique work of art.

So, a culture with a rich history of this kind of system may switch to a plain pedestrian system of letters that are minimal icons of the needed features (not a picture containing them), always the same, and set in neat rows, perhaps in conjunction with the advent of movable-type printing.

Even with the words and "letters" being the same, it would take quite a different mindset to read the old stuff.

in fiction

Here's some concrete examples of what you might use. This is far from simply different ways to write the same characters.

The historical writing system is more like Myan than anything we use today. Glyph-patterns are made from design elements, not specific renderings. E.g.

  • 5 outward pointing points symmetrically arranged, like a star.
  • a large round shape on the left and two smaller rounds stacked vertically to the right
  • a wedge shape (open triangle) with small things inside

A scribe/artist would draw an artistic rendering incorporating the features, in a mini-mural where the order of finding the features is led through lines of composition and the context of the scene. For example, a pictorial of a river going through the kingdom will look like a sketch, but actually encode specific details of the story, which concerns the kingdom along the river.

What started as a clever way of including phonetic information in pictorial art to "speak the picture" evolved into a writing system that looks like Myan. A "character" is never drawn the same way twice, but you can find the meaning based on whether it's pointy or round, symmetry or lack of, number of elements, etc.

Larger scale order and arrangement act as modifiers for tense, imperitive vs question, etc.

Over time, a large collection of syllables were pared down to a phonetic system, but it was still drawn with "elements" not glyphs. Merchants and accountants have their own ideas and made stale writing for journals and ledgers.

A 5-pointed star became the glyph, etc. With simple essential line drawings used as a prototype for the pattern, each drawn in isolation. When it came to inventing printing and mass literacy, they moved to letters written in a neat row etc. like we understand.

Just as people study Shakespeare and calligraphy, well-cultured people in some subcultures learn the old idea of elements and apply the current alphabet and language, but draw them creatively in blocks, or as a form of poetry/art incorporate them into pictorial drawings.

Someone who didn't know that would be completely baffled at not even seeing writing (in the pictorial) or think the block form was an unrelated language.

Apparently in Vietnam, during the French colonial period, there were FOUR competing writing systems in Vietnam: Chinese writing, a second system derived from Chinese writing, French, and the modern latin-character based Vietnamese writing system. The last of those slowly became completely dominant. (

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    Note that those four written languages correspond to three different spoken languages; so the only part that's relevant to the OP's question is the coexistence of the "second system derived from Chinese writing" with "the modern latin-character based Vietnamese writing system". This is pretty similar to the situation in other countries that borrowed Chinese writing, and indeed in China itself; but what makes Vietnamese distinctively relevant to the OP's question is that chu nom and quoc ngu were never really mixed/combined in the way that (say) kanji and kana are, or hanzi and bopomofo. – ruakh Oct 15 '15 at 19:01

A non-reader or struggling reader can be highly eloquent in a language. That is not only plausible, but quite prevalent, actually. One sees this quite frequently in India among the rural landless farmers.

Coming to two scripts, a widely spoken language called Konkani has at least two variations, and is written in multiple scripts. I quote from Wikipedia: "Contemporary Konkani is written in Devanagari, Kannada, Malayalam, Persian, and Roman scripts. It is written by speakers in their native dialects. However, the Goan Antruz dialect in the Devanagari script has been promulgated as Standard Konkani."

Some other examples that haven't yet been brought up are as follows:

The Dungan language is a language spoken by Muslim Chinese (the Hui people) living in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. When these countries were absorbed into the Soviet Union, the Soviets engaged in a system of cyrillicisation, converting their existing Chinese-based writing to Cyrillic. As a result, we now have the following names for the language:

Dungan (Cyrillic): Хуэйзў йүян (Huejzw jyian)

Dungan (Chinese): 回族语言 (Hui Zhu Yu Yan)

As we can clearly see, the two writing systems are mutually unrecognisable.

The Kazakh language was also subject to similar cyrillicisation efforts, which resulted in the presence of three alphabets - the Cyrillic alphabet (official in Kazakhstan), the Arabic alphabet (official in China) and the Latin alphabet (unofficially used in Turkey). All three alphabets are not mutually recognisable. A comparison can be seen here:

Another example: Shorthand writing (coming in a number of varieties in itself) is - in my eyes - totally illegible even though it is in a way merely a specialized cursive handwriting with a few abbreviations

Some excellent answers with the Chinese writings and German alphabets.

Another line you may think about is the realm of cryptography. It may play well into your story that the upper class are taught methods of quickly deciphering Caesar cyphers and possibly some others nearly as fast.

To avoid someone trying to nitpick at the ability of any human to decrypt on the fly, it could be an entirely fictional cypher method... let's call it the Fraktur cypher, just because it seems fitting.

It's not likely for something like this to occur in a society, but not implausible either. Just like the Chinese can learn two ways of writing with different characters, one could learn different methods of writing the same language with the same characters.

Or, you could ask someone that programs in Java, PHP, or Python to write a simple phrase.

  • It's an option. I was looking for something more naturally-progressing, a little less "we're going to do this for the sole reason that it makes it harder for others to read". An idea borrowed from another answer leads toward the development of an underclass writing system from the symbols on warning signs; if your generation, and your parents', were never taught to read English, but you've been taught that a lightning bolt on a sign means an electrical hazard, that symbol now stands for "electricity", and over time you might adopt that symbol and others into a pictographic writing system. – KeithS Oct 15 '15 at 15:50
  • Also, it seems that the crypto-system is unlikely to become used by a significant part of the population due to its importance in maintaining security. – March Ho Oct 16 '15 at 2:18
  • I guess there are people who can read (and maybe even write) ROT13 quite fluently. – Paŭlo Ebermann Oct 17 '15 at 23:45

Let me add another real-world example: Malay (specifically Malaysian Malay which some consider distinct to Indonesian Malay (otherwise known as Indonesian)).

The traditional script for Malay was a modified Arabic script. During British rule, a lot of official correspondence were transliterated into the Roman (English) alphabet. Over time general literature started appearing in Roman alphabet.

After independence, the government decided to standardize the Malay language to use regular alphabets instead of Arabic script. The primary reason was typewriters - until the advent of computers (and widespread adoption of unicode) it was nearly impossible to type in Arabic. That's due to how ligatures work in Arabic. So schools standardized to use regular alphabets.

So we ended up with a generation gap. My grandfather's generation were mostly fully literate (owing to the fact that being able to read the Quran was considered critical to daily life). But my grandfather couldn't read regular alphabets. On the other hand, since the Arabic version of Malay is of lesser importance, I paid little to no attention to it in school. So I can barely read Malay in Arabic and can't write it at all. So we have two generations: my grandfather's generation who can read Arabic well and my generation who can read alphabets well. Remember, we're still talking about the same language here.

And that wasn't the only script change. The very oldest stone carvings in the Malay language were written in a script nobody use anymore. Then Malay transition to Sanskrit script when Hinduism and later Buddhism spread across the Malay Islands. Later to Arabic as I mentioned above when Islam came. Finally to regular Roman alphabets due to the influence of the British, Dutch and Portugese.

The first alphabet used for writing English was:

ᚠ ᚢ ᚦ ᚩ ᚱ ᚳ ᚷ ᚹ ᚻ ᚾ ᛁ ᛄ ᛇ ᛈ ᛉ ᛋ ᛏ ᛒ ᛖ ᛗ ᛚ ᛝ ᛟ ᛞ ᚪ ᚫ ᚣ ᛡ ᛠ

Later the alphabet used was:

ᚠ ᚢ ᚦ ᚩ ᚱ ᚳ ᚷ ᚹ ᚻ ᚾ ᛁ ᛄ ᛇ ᛈ ᛉ ᛋ ᛏ ᛒ ᛖ ᛗ ᛚ ᛝ ᛟ ᛞ ᚪ ᚫ ᚣ ᛡ ᛠ ᛢ ᛣ ᛥ ᚸ

While it's pretty easy to learn to read this, since it's a simple phonetic alphabet that works closely to how English uses the Latin alphabet (though closer to how English first used the Latin alphabet, when it also used Æ, Ð, Þ and Ƿ [and Ᵹ but it used that much as it also used g]) it's not hard to see how someone could be able to read English fluently in Latin letters and struggle with this.

  • Do we have spoiler tags here? Why would you employ them? – JDługosz Oct 15 '15 at 14:02
  • Ah, you're using characters that don't work on Android browsers. – JDługosz Oct 15 '15 at 14:05
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    @JDługosz depends on the fonts available, the characters work fine on Android, but the glyphs may not. – Jon Hanna Oct 15 '15 at 14:13
  • For unknown reason web browsers even of different heritage will not render some characters even if fonts are updated, on Android. I'm using Chrome now and copy/paste from the edit-post box into Jota still doesn't show anything. – JDługosz Oct 15 '15 at 14:40
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    @JDługosz that's annoying. It's not like the basic problem wasn't solved in the 1990s. – Jon Hanna Oct 15 '15 at 17:58

Issac Asimov had a short story called Someday. It is set in a future where humans had forgotten how to read and write, they programmed computers by speech alone.

The two children in the story want to learn to read and write so they can pass along secret messages to each other.

  • 3
    So that is only one form of written communication. Not two for the same language, which be default is spoken. – bowlturner Oct 15 '15 at 14:26
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    It does, however, alleviate the need for two writing systems by proposing a functioning world in which literacy itself is superfluous; if there's a seamless vocal I/O interface to consumer computer systems, which we're fast approaching with systems like Siri, Cortana and Alexa, there's little need for the masses to learn to read, when any material normally read now could be vocalized in the future. The upper class might maintain written materials and be taught to read, but the lower class is just told what they need to know verbally, by man or machine. – KeithS Oct 16 '15 at 1:20
  • 1
    John Varley's The Ophiuchi Hotline posits something similar. Ordinary people just talk to the computer. – Lostinfrance Oct 16 '15 at 6:36

Plenty of examples have been given, including the ones I could come up with (Japanese, braille, runic).

But few have addressed (beyond a simple yes/no) the worldbuilding aspect of this - "is it possible?" (which, in worldbuilding sense, usually means "is this the kind of thing that would make a reader whimper at the straining of their suspension of their disbelief?")

I think a class divide is certainly one possible way this could happen, but it need not be higher/lower classes.

There could also, as a historically supported example, be religious vs lay writings. The cloistered religious sects develop separately from the common world, so can and have either developed entirely separate writing styles, and even languages; or preserved older ones while the rest of the world moved on.

But in the future, perhaps the most obvious division would be a technocracy, with a writing system optimized for computer-based I/O. Consider, for example, chord-keying. If you teach kids chord-keying input from the get-go, it's silly to teach the letters, then the chord-pattern, then require them to mentally map from one to t'other. So you might only teach - at least initially - the list of which combination of the five keys is depressed for each letter/phoneme. Each letter could be represented, then, by a 5-pointed star with some of the points missing.

Realistically, though, to prevent linguistic drift, they would need to share a common sent of spoken media (movies, plays, songs, etc), but their written materials would either be unshared, or so trivially translated between encodings when passing between the groups that nobody ever thinks about it.

The latter is the most likely, and also a bit of a problem from a narrative standpoint. If the representations are just different fonts for the same codepoints, what's to stop someone just changing fonts in order to read most things. Augmented reality apps to translate roadsigns would also prevent confusion.

So, while it's possible that such a divided culture could form, it's not really possible, in a high-tech culture, for a non-shared font to cause any significant division.

Illiteracy is a much more believable thing; a subculture (perhaps a technocracy) which has moved past using the written word, would do it.

  • 3
    That's a good point, however it doesn't have to be a 1:1 transliteration of one character glyph to another. Many phonetic alphabets, especially Asian ones, use consonant-vowel combinations, while most runic alphabets have single symbols for sounds that require a digraph in the Latin alphabet. A simple encoding change could not, for instance, transliterate the English-Latin character set to Hangul. – KeithS Oct 16 '15 at 1:12
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    The answers have pointed me down one of two roads; either "upper" is based on a script imported by foreign debt holders and adapted to represent some additional missing phonemes, or "lower" is a pictogram writing system derived by uneducated lower classes using symbols from language-independent signage for hazards and information signage. Either way, a combination of social pressure and simple lack of interest would be enough to keep most people from knowing both and easily transliterating between them. – KeithS Oct 16 '15 at 1:16

When I saw this question I immediately thought of Chinese, with its Hanzi and Pinyin, but I was beaten to the punch for that one. But there is an important factor to consider: where do writing systems come from.

Most writing systems in use today are copies of other writing systems that pre-date them. The alphabet is probably the most versatile, yet it arose only a couple times in all of history: most alphabets were invented by people who already knew of alphabets.

Cyrillic was invented to better represent sounds in the local Slavic languages. Hangul was invented to make writing easier compared to the Chinese characters that were in use. Pinyin was invented to allow standard Mandarin words to be written using the roman alphabet, and to provide an easy way to document pronunciation. The Cherokee syllabary was invented by Sequoyah, who saw Europeans using "talking leaves". The actual invention of writing from non-writing is rare.

Thus, whatever motivation there is for maintaining a status quo of dual competing writing systems, it's unlikely that the writing would be mutually unintelligible as a sort of permanent condition, because both writing systems would have had to originate from somewhere, and it strains credulity that they were both independently invented in the same place without influencing each other and converging. Writing systems are usually invented by scholars, they take years or centuries to catch on, they compete with other writing systems from neighbouring regions (consider even the spelling differences between American and British English, or how various countries have switched from the Latin alphabet to Cyrillic or to Arabic or vice versa).

In general, with the possible exception of Chinese, anyone who is fluent in a language can usually pick up a new writing system for it fairly easily. Learning the alphabet/syllabary for a new language is usually the very first thing a foreign learner does, after all.

Thus, given that writing systems usually come from the elite and work their way down to the masses, and that learning a new one for a fluent speaker is easy, I think it's unlikely that there would be nearly no people who understand both systems. Sure, there are lots of Chinese people who can't really read Pinyin very well, and lots of Chinese speakers who can't read Hanzi at all, but Hanzi, being so difficult, only survives because the elite keep it around. Anyone who knows Mandarin Chinese, and has 10 minutes in training in Pinyin, or who knows Mandarin and English, could probably learn to read Pinyin text in a few hours. If the rich were using Hanzi and the poor were using Pinyin, any rich person who had any reason at all to write to the poor would have zero difficulty in doing so.

You might get more traction if you consider the problem the other way: Chinese characters are often used to write multiple languages. Cantonese and Mandarin are mutually unintelligble, like English and German are. But they both use the same writing system: Hanzi. However, it's common for a written Cantonese sentence to be totally incomprehensible to a Mandarin speaker (not so the other way around, as Mandarin is seen as the "standard", so there is immense pressure on Cantonese speakers to write as if they were using Mandarin). Also, any text written before about 1900 used Classical Chinese, which is similarly incomprehensible to modern readers despite using the same characters.

  • Thanks for the answer and the points of consideration. I'm afraid, though, that having two spoken languages (more different than slang/jargon caused by cultural separation) won't work for the story; the two main characters, from opposite class cultures, have to be well-understood by the other verbally. If I decide that separate writing systems just aren't plausible, there are other ways to accomplish what I want, but the illiteracy thing opened up some options, as well as the opportunity for knowledge transfer between the characters about each other's writing system. – KeithS Oct 16 '15 at 17:14

Serbo-Croat is generally considered one language. Serbs and Croats understand each other's spoken language - the differences are minimal - but Serbs write in Cyrillic (Russian alphabet), and the Croats write in the Latin alphabet (like English). An exact example of what you need! Except that learning an alphabet is pretty easy, and most educated people can read both, although not with equal fluency.

For your imaginary world, you could make both writing systems like Chinese, in which literacy requires learning 6,000 - 25,000 characters, depending on your level of "literacy". That would slow things down.

protected by bowlturner Oct 16 '15 at 16:55

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