It’s not eyouys it’s emey!

4. Imagine a script in which the letters were used to stand for sounds, and also as signs of emphasis and punctuation…Now imagine someone interpreting that script as if there were simply a correspondence of letters to sounds and as if the letters had not also completely different functions…

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

I had to think about this for a bit because the part about letters standing for sounds put me in the mind of IPA, but I don’t think that’s what Wittgenstein is getting at. Unlike much of Philosophical Investigations–which is just one snappy example after another–here’s a case where an illuminating example is lacking, so let me take a shot at it.

Imagine a writing system that is exactly like English orthography except for the following two features:

  1. Commas are written as ‘s’.
  2. Instead of using italics, words are emphasized by prepending an ‘e’ and appending a ‘y’.

A little perverse sure, but probably resulting in no higher perplexity than, say, the Arabic practice of omitting vowels.

So instead of

When he sings it, he means it!

you would write

When he sings its he emeansy it!

Now say I showed you the the second sentence, but told you nothing about the unusual writing scheme. You would say “its what?” and “what the hell is an ’emeansy’?” This is the kind of misinterpretation Wittgenstein appears to be getting at.

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