Dr. Florian Coulmas

Dr. Florian Coulmas is Senior Professor of Japanese Society and Sociolinguistics at Duisburg-Essen University. He is author of Writing Systems: An Introduction to their Linguistic Analysis.

What is your background?

If that is what you mean, my family background is Greek-German. (Greeks tend to believe that the Greek alphabet (and its Latin offspring) is the epitome of human creation.) My university degrees are in Sociology and General Linguistics.

What is your profession? How does your work with Japanese and other writing systems help your understanding of the broader aspects of language (morphology, phonology etc)?

I am a university professor, having served as director of the German Institute for Japanese Studies in Tokyo (https://www.dijtokyo.org/). At present, I am Senior Professor of Japanese Society and Sociolinguistics at the IN-EAST Institute of East Asian Studies, Duisburg-Essen University (https://www.uni-due.de/in-east/people/coulmas_florian.php)

In spite of the fact that Japan has one of the most complicated writing systems in the world, Japan is a very literate society. Everybody reads all the time. You cannot understand the Japanese society or the Japanese language without a thorough understanding of the Japanese writing system. Throughout the better part of the 20th century, European/Western linguistics taught that writing is external to language and, therefore, has no place in linguistics. From a Japanese point of view, this is only surprising.

My motivation to study writing was this Eurocentric approach, which I thought warranted correction.

What is your experience with writing systems and why did you choose to explore them?

See above. More anecdotally: As a student I travelled in East Asia. When I first came to Hong Kong, the Cultural Revolution was in full swing in China, and in Hong Kong too the streets were plastered with posters and transparencies – none of which I could read. I was illiterate, a deeply disquieting experience. If you travel in Europe/the Western world, you can read, make out words, even if you do not understand everything. In the East, nothing.

It was a common knowledge at the time that there was a causal link between writing system and literacy: the more involved the system, the lower the literacy rate of the population. When I came to Japan, I realized that this relationship did not hold, not universally anyway, but that it was another expression of European supremacism.

What are you working on now and where can we find more about your work in language?

There are two recent books where you can find more:

Writing and Society

Guardians of Language

Right now I am working on a book about multilingualism, which is scheduled to appear in November

Followup: Isphonemic awarenessa prerequisite to reading English. Should morphology be taught to students

Phonemic awareness or rather an awareness of the most frequent grapheme- phoneme combinations of English is probably conducive to reading. However, a lexical approach may be just as good.

Followup: Can syllable division (i.e. ak/ shun as opposed to act + ion) obscure morphology, thus causing an early reader to be confused?

Early readers can be confused for all sorts of reasons. I have doubts about the usefulness of such rules. Instead, I believe, rather than structural properties of writing systems, the crucial variable for successful literacy education are practice, endurance, and patient teachers. More generally speaking, a good (well-funded) school system is much more important than whatever structural advantages or disadvantages may characterise a given writing system.

Followup: You link phonemic awareness to graphemes. What is the nature of the relationship of those two in regards to English? Do you have a perspective on the value of concepts like a specific inventory (i.e. “English has 44 phonemes”)?

It isn’t that simple. Well-reasoned estimates put the number of phoneme-grapheme correspondences in English at the order of magnitude of 1800. Obviously, not all of them are equally frequent, but the dimension is a good reason to start out with (simple) words rather than letters and words.

Followup: Nonsense words are a big fad in education manuals I keep coming across, but can nonsense words have phonemes if phonemes are defined as being distinctive for meaning?

Nonsense words are academic and of little practical value for kids.

Followup: Further, where do allophones end and distinct phonemes begin? If one person says grea[s]y and another grea[z]y, or ma[t]ure and ma[tʃ]ure, and it isn’t distinctive, and we spell them the same, are they different phonemes or allophones? Have you ever considered a zero allophone?

Again, this is a theoretical question. Zero allophones, if they exist, are of zero relevance for teaching spelling rules. Theoretically, allophones make sense only normatively, which is perhaps more comprehensible when one realises that, unlike what is received opinion, phonemes are an epiphenomenon of the Greek/Latin alphabet rather than the entities the letters of the alphabet represent. Making them conceptually “represent” pre-existing phonemes is only possible if you allow for allophones.