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The featural writing system (first used in hangul) is a writing system in which the glyphs themselves contain phonetic information in the characters. It is widely agreed by linguists and conlangers that featural writing systems are the epitome of writing, but unfortunatly the first was created in 1500 AD, as opposed to the ancient quality of logographs. No one can deny the appeal of having an old age culture having this system, but could they?

When is the earliest I can hope for a culture to create a featural writing system?

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  • $\begingroup$ Are they human or aliens with different communications systems than us? $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Aug 24 '16 at 8:04
  • $\begingroup$ @JDługosz as it is a writing system I do not think it matters, for the sake of argument let's say that they're alternate history humans. $\endgroup$ – TrEs-2b Aug 24 '16 at 8:10
  • $\begingroup$ Ville’s answer makes me suppose that aliens with different speech organs might indeed “write music” more naturally. Or what if it’s ot speech at all, but posture, skin color patters, etc. more readily documented by drawing pictures? $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Aug 24 '16 at 8:18
  • $\begingroup$ @JDługosz They are close enough to humans that it does not matter $\endgroup$ – TrEs-2b Aug 24 '16 at 8:25
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If we use Hangul (15th century) as a template, featural writing is a product of a highly literate class trying to cope with an older, borrowed writing system becoming a barrier to communication in the local language. While this doesn't nail down a specific time period to expect featural writing, it does establish a rough causal chain:

  1. Two civilizations (China and Korea in this case) speaking different languages, in contact with each other to the degree that one's native writing system is used to write the other's language. The civilizations are independent and at peace; one is not in a position to enforce a writing standard on the other.
  2. A detailed understanding of how spoken languages are articulated, and specifically how the local language works from basic syllable structure to the changes root words undergo when conjugated. Society is developed to a degree that some individuals can dedicate their productive or leisure time to such studies, and are employed to do so.
  3. A government/aristocracy concerned with the literacy and education of the general public (in Hangul's case, women and commoners specifically). This is not a society controlled by force alone; it tolerates change and values education and communication[1].

So we should not expect a civilization in isolation to develop a featural script, nor one that speaks the same language as its neighbours, nor one without the degree of development that allows for an educated and scholarly class. Similarly, a leadership class that doesn't value its own distinct culture and language or its citizens will not see any value in developing a writing system for that culture/language to be used by its citizens.


[1] It should be noted that Hangul was very unpopular with scholars and kings subsequent to King Sejong to the point it was eventually banned.

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It could be the first writing system to develop. But it would be very unlikely.

Basically the key here is the reason people start writing things down. Historically people wrote down things (for lack of better term) which naturally lead to ideographic scripts where glyphs match "things" one to one.

But what if your people wanted to record the actual speech? As in record the actual sounds produced so that someone else could duplicate them without needing to understand the actual content? In essence musical notation for the vocal instrument.

If that is your use case featural writing would be a good fit.

I think the most likely use case case would be religious or magical ritual. This would imply organized religion for need to write down rituals to exist. Which would imply fairly advanced city states. Late neolithic at the earliest?

This is extremely unlikely and implies a civilization obsessed with rituals and the exact duplication of rituals.

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If the primary communication method is not acoustic, but visual, it might lead to a natural transfer of phoneme features to the written media.

E.g. human sign languages - imagine a community of illiterate deaf people trying to write down the phonemes, or almost-humans who did not develop descended larynx - expect sign language accompanied by simple sounds as their primary communication method.

Although sign language phonemes are more difficult to write down than it seems, because of the 3D and movements.

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  • $\begingroup$ "They are close enough to humans that [any differences do] not matter" $\endgroup$ – rek Aug 24 '16 at 16:17
  • $\begingroup$ @rek Fair point. Though there are examples of humans utilizing sign languages beyond deaf communities - Mayan villages where most hearing people are bilingual in sign language, or Plain Indians using (non deaf) sign language as lingua franca. Had Plain Indian developed further and tried to create writing, it is not implausible they'd start with recording the sign language. It is rather improbable, but not impossible. $\endgroup$ – Radovan Garabík Aug 25 '16 at 6:57
  • $\begingroup$ While I do agree with @rek on his point, I love the idea of a culture that does not use audio for language $\endgroup$ – TrEs-2b Aug 25 '16 at 19:47

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