Write-up still on its way. I promise.
Meanwhile, a question was raised last week on the Deseret Alphabet discussion group by one Bob Moultrie, who asked, “But that makes me wonder if learning to read and write would be much easier if we used Deseret. I know that this is the reason Brigham Young wanted to develop the Deseret Alphabet, but do you guys think the Deseret Alphabet could really deliver on this goal?”
Well, I could hardly resist a challenge like this and so pontificated on the various shortcomings I think the DA had in practice that would keep it from succeeding in that mission. Among them was the usual spiel about ascenders and descenders.
I was taken to task for that by none other than Joshua Erickson, who has designed some very nice Deseret Alphabet typefaces. He chided me (and rightly so) for being behind the times on the subject and provided a number of helpful links indicating that we do not, in fact, recognize words by their overall shape, but that we do process the individual letters. Interestingly enough, we process a number of letters all at once rather than each by itself.
I don’t think that changes the essential point of the argument, that the lack of ascenders and descenders adds to the difficulty of reading the DA. As Ken Beesley pointed out, one of the things we use to recognize the shape of the individual letters is, in fact, whether or not they have ascenders or descenders, and that lack does hinder our processing.
It, does, however explain very nicely some other things. For example, I have a much harder time reading Shavian than the Deseret Alphabet, despite the fact that the formal is systematic, very elegant, and has ascenders and descenders all over the place. The fact is, however, that many of the letters in the Deseret Alphabet either are the same as letters in the Latin alphabet or very like various Latin letters. That is, the shapes of the letters of the Deseret Alphabet are already half-familiar if not completely familiar, so the process of recognizing them as individuals can take advantage of skills we already have. In the case of Shavian, however, not only are the letters almost entirely different from their Latin “counterparts,” but they are designed along entirely different lines, so the process of distinguishing them involves different, well, algorithms, if you will. Instead of being able to leverage the techniques we've already learned to distinguish letters, we have to learn new ones.
The other thing that it explains is how people read various scripts which inherently lack ascenders and descenders. Modern Hebrew is pretty much in this boat, although some letters do have descenders when written in final positions, but the examples I have in mind are naturally East Asian ones. Every character in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or Yi (among others) is written in a square, and most characters pretty much extend to all four sides of the square. So how do East Asians read?
Well, it would be pretty much the same thing, although applied to parts of individual sinograms rather than individual letters. The issue in this case becomes one of what one learns to look for in order to distinguish the symbols, not the essential process of reading. As is the case with an alphabet, the phonetic content of the characters (vague though it generally is) is an aid to learning, and not an aid to reading. (Unfortunately for me, there are several sets of characters involving the same phonetic element which still confuse me because they just look too similar to one another in my eyes.)
When learning to read a language written with a modern Latin script, we learn that we have to distinguish letters as wholes and that one of the things that's useful in doing that is their presence (or lack) of ascenders and descenders. When learning to read sinograms, you learn to look at parts of individual characters and how to tell, for example, the water moon radical from the almost identical meat radical. (Answer: the meat radical tends to be slightly wider.) Presumably, when learning to read the Deseret Alphabet, particularly as a child, one would learn to look for the little curlicue inside some of the letters, the very curlicues which trip up us Latin-readers because they distinguish letters without changing their shape, and it’s largely shape changes we’re looking for.
Interestingly enough, this helps justify the non-phonetic aspects of various scripts. In the case of Chinese, the fact that there are multiple phonetics for the same sound makes it easier to distinguish homophones. All the various forms of Chinese have lots of homophones. One reason why the language developed tones was, apparently, to help distinguish homophones, and one reason why the Chinese haven’t abandoned their writing system is that there are a lot of words that really do sound exactly alike and can’t necessarily be distinguished simply by their pronunciation. For extended texts, context is usually enough to tell them apart, of course, otherwise speech would be pretty much impossible—but this is not necessarily true for shorter texts.
For the record, I’ve also seen people who justify some of the weirder aspects of English spelling because it means we can distinguish homophones like "two," "too," and "to," as if context weren’t enough to do that.
I’m not convinced that this is a significant advantage, but it would be unfair to deny that it does exist.
Meanwhile, I get to kick myself not only for being condescending to Joshua, but for actually praising his fonts in the third person without even noticing that I was talking to the man himself.