Archive for the ‘9. The Alphabet & Redefining Intelligence’ Category

Empires of the Word–A Book Review


This post has been a long time in the making. Empires of the Word, a historical survey of the relationship between language, politics, and culture by Nicholas Ostler, is rich but slow reading, more reference work than language thriller.

Make no mistake: this is first-rate scholarship, beautifully written and illustrated, vast in knowledge and replete with examples. Everything is here, from the emergence of mankind’s first written tradition (in Mesopotamia), to the exfoliation of Sanskrit in southeast Asia, to the verbal conquests of European languages in the modern era. Charts, maps, timelines, and writing samples accompany the detailed essays on each language and period. And important questions are addressed: Why is it that military conquest is sufficient to spread a language in some areas but not in others? Why did Latin turn into the Romance languages in Europe but Greek not leave descendant vernaculars behind it in the far-flung regions of Alexander’s conquest? What might be the fate of English, the current global lingua franca?

The difficulty here, inevitably, is the mass of detail that must be presented; and the author’s prose, entertaining certainly, tended to wear on this reader after a while. RT thinks that most people will have trouble reading through EoftW at a single sitting; rather like Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, this books demands memory and effort of its audience as they proceed through its lengthy argument. Language and writing are complex phenomena, not easily reduced to rules; and their ubiquity tends to hide inherent difficulties. Everyone speaks, right? How hard can it be?

At this juncture, RT is pretty much convinced that the missing piece in the language puzzle is its internal value to people; we surely rely on it for communication, but its origins may lie further back, in our emerging consciousness. Language creates community not just between individuals, but within each of us as well. Words are messengers traveling both ways, from rational to first mind, and back again. It is this earlier emergence of thought that made exterior communication possible. RT sees he has more reading in front of him as he explores this idea.

Empires of the Word is a keeper, but readers should prepare themselves by setting aside a block of rainy afternoons, attended by pots of mint tea, to travel down its meandering waters. They will see some amazing things and make landings on unexpected and challenging shores.



Letter: Deseret Capital Es. Author: Marnanel (Thomas Thurman). WikiCmns; Public Domain.

The Dholavira Signboard and Harappa

File:The 'Ten Indus Scripts' discovered near the northern gateway of the Dholavira citadel.jpg

Here it is, folks: the Dholavira Signboard, all ten symbols of it. What the heck is it trying to tell us?

The mystery surrounding the inscription, if that’s what it is, seems to RT to characterize the Harappan Civilization (mature phase, 2700-1800 B.C.) that produced it. Here we have an ancient polity larger than Mesopotamia, characterized by mud-brick cities, an emphasis on cleanliness and ritual baths, and wide-spread urban planning. It conducting trade with Sumer and presumably Sargon’s Empire, but nonetheless has offered up only a few tantalizing examples of its writing system and pretty much disappeared after centuries of existence, leaving no successor civilization behind. What happened?

RT first got interested in this puzzle because he’s convinced that the Indus River valley represents the sharpest, most significant cultural boundary in the ancient world. East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet got its start here. And sure enough, stark differences can be seen right at the beginnings of recorded history, starting with the fact that Mesopotamia produced a civilization devoted to its writing system, one that was practically drowning in written words and that continued to use cuneiform for a couple of millennia, while the Indus valley evidently possessed some kind of writing system, but one which faded away with the civilization that produced it. Following the disappearance of Harrapan society, writing did not reappear in the Indian subcontinent until the 6th or 5th centuries B.C. We must confront an astonishing fact: India went without a written script for more than a thousand years.

Or did it? We know that the Bramhi script used to record the Rig Veda and other early surviving Sanskrit manuscripts was written on highly perishable materials such as tree bark, so it conceivable that the same was true of the Harrapan writing. But why would the Indus valley adopt such perishable media when it knew of cuneiform written on clay tablets? RT confesses himself flabbergasted. Why were the Harappans so transitory?

Here is RT’s speculation about the Signboard. The Harappan writing system clocks in at about 400 characters, which indicates it probably was an ideograph-syllable script, like cuneiform. The graphic quality of the letters suggests a compromise between a script designed to be carved on stone and written on bark–that is, the characters are constructed of angular shapes softened by slight curves. The letterforms themselves evidently have little relationship to proto-cuneiform. This writing system appears to have developed independently of other scripts.

Then there is the matter of the “wheel-form” symbol which appears four times in the signboard. Forty percent of the inscription relies on a single concept, and not just any concept, but one which might well be connected to the wheel of Rebirth, that powerful concept in Indian religion, which today appears on the Indian Republic’s flag. Could this sign be the symbol for Harappan civilization? Could its concurrent star-like shape suggest the gods or heaven? How does it relate to the fifth symbol, the open diamond/ellipse?

We will have to wait to find out. With so few examples of the script to work from, linguists have not yet deciphered Harrapan writing or been able to identify the language that it recorded. We may never know, or a Harappan Rosetta Stone may turn up. In the meantime, excavation continues.


Inscription: Dholavira Signboard: User: Siyajkak. WikiCmns; CC 3.0 Unported. Map: Maximum extent of Harappan Civilization. Author:  Rajesh Rao. WikiCmns. CC 3.0 Unported.



October 5, 2013 7 comments


structure and tension, meaning and motion: we are balanced between absolute truth and pure fluency. poetry.    RT

RT’s Related Posts: 1) Deer Sanctuary (Wang Wei); 2) Bamboo and Morning Glories 

Chinese Character: Qi (or as RT is familiar with it, Chi), meaning “natural energy” or “life force.” Author: Kbarends. WikiCmns; Public Domain.



Two Simplified Spelling Resources–Unifon and Cut Spelling

September 27, 2013 Leave a comment



The Dragons of Grammar are as amenable as anyone to RT’s history essays, but of late they feel a bit slighted in RT’s writing schedule (RT reminds them that, not so long ago, they were sunning themselves lazily on the rocks outside their caves). Still, RT feels obliged to add a post on spelling and alphabet reform, a thread he will admit he has neglected of late. So here are two systems that RT thinks could help us develop a simpler, kinder spelling.

1) Unifon. Designed by Dr. John R. Malone in the 1950s, the original market that the script was designed for disappeared, and gradually the modified alphabet has drifted off the public’s radar.

Here are the pro considerations for Unifon

a) it’s clearly based on the current English alphabet.

b) it visually relates each new letter to the traditional English letter that represents its sound.

c) it’s easy to learn; in 1960, Dr. Margaret S. Ratz used Unifon to teach three children how to read “in 17 hours with cookies and milk.”

Here’s the con:

a) Unifon would require the modification of keyboards and public signage


Here is the Unifon Alphabet, weighing in at 40 letters:








2. Cut Spelling. Designed by Christopher Upwood, this spelling simplification was advocated for a time by the Simplified Spelling Society.  Here are CS’s main substitution rules:

  1. Letters irrelevant to pronunciation. This rule deletes most silent letters, except when these letters (such as “magic e“) help indicate pronunciation. Omitting or including the wrong silent letters are common errors. Examples: peace → peceexcept → exeptplaque → plaqblood → blodpitch → pich.
  2. Cutting unstressed vowels. English unstressed syllables are usually pronounced with the vowel schwa /ə/, which has no standard spelling, but can be represented by any vowel letter. Writing the wrong letter in these syllables is a common error, for example, seperate for separate. Cut Spelling eliminates these vowel letters completely before approximants (/l/ and /r/) and nasals (/m/, /n/, and /ŋ/). In addition, some vowel letters are dropped in suffixes, reducing the confusion between -able and -ible. Examples: symbol → symblvictim → victmlemon → lemnglamour/glamor → glamrpermanent → permnntwaited → waitdchurches → churchswarmest → warmst,edible → edbl.
  3. Simplifying doubled consonants. This rule helps with another of the most common spelling errors: failing to double letters (accommodate and committee are often misspelled) or introducing erroneously doubled letters. Cut Spelling does not eliminate all doubled letters: in some words (especially two-syllable words) the doubled consonant letter is needed to differentiate from another differently pronounced word (e.g., holly and holy). Examples: innate → inatespell → spel.


Here is a sample sentence written with Cut Spelling:

Th Space Race was th competition between th United States and th Soviet Union, rufly from 1957 to 1975. It involvd th efrts by each of these nations to explor outr space with satlites, to be th 1st to send there a human being and to send mand and unmand missions on th Moon with a safe return of th humans to Erth.


CS Pros:

1) Introduces no new letters into the alphabet

2) Requires no modification of current keyboards or pubic signage

3) Reduces the length of words by 8-15%.

CS Cons:

1) Doesn’t follow the one-letter, one-sound principle.


If RT had to hazard a guess as to which of these two reforms is likelier to be implemented, he would vote for Cut Spelling. On the other hand, he’s sure that the better long-term reform would be Unifon. The simplest reform might be to gradually introduce Unifon.     RT

(and incidentally, the Dragons of Grammar have let RT know they like this post)


RT’s Related Posts: 1) Learning Alphabets; 2) Mighty Mice Redux–The IPA for English Speakers


Sample Script: Lord’s Prayer in Unifon. Author: William Skaggs. WikiCmns; Public Domain. Sample Alphabet: Unifon Script. WikiCmns; CC 1.0 Generic.

Breaking the Code: Points of Articulation & the DoGs

August 15, 2013 4 comments

File:Places of articulation.svg


The Dragons of Grammar are willing, if tempted with Etruscan Salamis and other treats, to admit that they have been somewhat remiss since the coronation of Queen Margot and the Queen’s subsequent visits to her new realm: RT suspects that they have been lazing in the summer sun, glad of the opportunity to forget about the perplexities and passionate battles  occasioned by their love of language. But the responsibilities inherent in their choice of a royal form of government cannot be shirked forever: the Queen has been reminding them of their duty to improve dragon-human relations, and how better to do that than help humans gain a better grasp of the language they use? And after all, they did choose one of them to occupy the draconien throne.

For his part, RT, who will stipulate to a certain (current) lack of interest in the study of languages, will accept any help he can get in this matter. But he is also happy to add that speech is an intensely personal and even intimate activity in humans, involving as it does an effort that starts in our lungs and makes it way up into (as can be seen from the diagram) a rather intricate vocal apparatus. Dragonish, however, is a more remote and formal affair, considering the large size of dragons, their propensity to argue and spew verbal-fire at each other, and whatnot.

But on with the matter at hand, which happens to be the points of articulation. Doing his best to simplify matters, RT will say that a point of articulation is the place in the vocal tract where we obstruct the flow of air out of the lungs in order to produce a consonant. RT at this juncture will only add that the glossary below decodes linguistic nomenclature.

Here is the list of the 18 points, with a brief translation of each term:


English: Places of articulation (active and passive)
  1. Exo-labial   (outer part of lip)
  2. Endo-labial   (inner part of lip)
  3. Dental   (teeth)
  4. Alveolar   (front part of alveolar ridge)
  5. Post-alveolar   (rear part of alveolar ridge & slightly behind it)
  6. Pre-palatal   (front part of hard palate that arches upward)
  7. Palatal   (hard palate)
  8. Velar   (soft palate)
  9. Uvular (a.k.a. Post-velar; uvula)
  10. Pharyngeal   (pharyngeal wall)
  11. Glottal   (a.k.a. Laryngeal; vocal folds)
  12. Epiglottal   (epiglottis)
  13. Radical   (tongue root)
  14. Postero-dorsal   (back of tongue body)
  15. Antero-dorsal   (front of tongue body)
  16. Laminal   (tongue blade)
  17. Apical   (apex or tongue tip)
  18. Sub-laminal   (a.k.a. Sub-apical; underside of tongue)


and after this post, RT is feeling a bit more dragonish & inspired to post on grammar again!

Diagram: Sagittal Section w/ Points of Articulation. Sagittal section image based on Minifie et al. (1973); articulation places are from Catford (1977). Author: Ishwar; svg by Rohieb. WikiCmns; CC 2.5 Generic.


Intelligence and Desire–“I’m Smart”

August 7, 2013 7 comments


πάντες ἄνθρωποι τοῦ εἰδέναι ὀρέγονται φύσει.

People in their deepest core desire knowledge.

–Aristotle, first line of the Metaphysics.


Epiphanies are a more motley experience than often supposed. They can come at any time of the day–say, 3 am in the morning while you’re fixing a Dagwood sandwich–and they can appear crisp, bright-eyed, and bushy-tailed (ready for a good day’s work) or bedraggled and apologetic (they didn’t make it across to the other side). Yes, sometimes the recipient must do some extra decoding to make the final connection(s).

So here is a epiphany RT received a couple of nights ago (he can’t even remember what he was reading at the time). The message? Intelligence doesn’t reflect any special accomplishment (and in this regard RT remembers that there’s a book out there that contains more than 500 proofs of the Pythagorean Theorem), but rather the desire to know.

In other words, Einstein was certainly intelligent, but it was his deep desire to understand, to go beyond the accepted theories of the time, that enabled him to achieve the fundamental insights that he did. Can the two–desire and achievement–really be separated?

And who doesn’t want to know? Everyone wants to know how the story turns out, and why. Intelligence manifests itself in so many ways–a child’s decision to climb a tree, the ability to tell a particular wine’s origins by sampling its bouquet, the ability to mimic someone’s mannerisms–that we tend to dismiss many indications of the mind’s activity as “normal” or “common.” So much the worse for us.

People alienated and outraged that their worth in the world has been overlooked or ridiculed–that is what we want to avoid. The answer? To get people to acknowledge, “I’m smart.”


And here is the connection that RT had to make: that the RT thread, “The Alphabet and Redefining Intelligence,” is one way of helping people to see themselves as fundamentally intelligent–in this case, by adopting an alphabet that is more truly phonetic and taught in a more logical way. A 6-year-old’s comment, “I like learning to read and write,” is what we’re aiming for. Teaching must first uncover the desire for knowledge, then proceed to teach the specifics.

The great majority of us are smarter than we realize.     RT


Photo: Bridge in Use During the Rainy Season (2008); Rutahsa Adventures. WikiCmns; CC 1.0 Generic.


The Russian Alphabet (Part 2)–A Brief History

June 30, 2013 2 comments



The story of an alphabet is in large part the story of the area(s) where it is used, and the Cyrillic alphabet, the writing system of Russia and other countries across northern Eurasia, reflects the many changes that have taken place in that vast region since its introduction. And readers should note: Cyrillic is used by an estimated 252 million people today.

In fact, Cyrillic has gone through at least three stages of development: 1) the Glagolitic Alphabet (introduced in the 860s AD); 2) the Early Cyrillic Alphabet (developed at the Preslav Literary School in the late 800s); and 3) Modern Cyrillic–the “civil script” mandated by Peter the Great in 1708. Finally, the most recent change in Russian orthography took place in 1918, shortly after the Russian Revolution. As one might suspect from studying the development of other writing systems, the 1708 and 1918 reforms both involved simplification, and specifically the elimination of obsolete letters. Glagolitic had at least 41 letters; modern Russian has 33. 

Further Facts

1) Saints Cyril and Methodius, missionaries from the Byzantine Empire, are traditionally credited with devising Glagolitic and introducing it into Great Moravia, a large Slavic state that existed in the late 9th century. Following the disintegration of Great Moravia, the script was adopted by the First Bulgarian Empire in the 880s, and its use spread with the expansion of the Bulgarians through the 10th century. After the destruction of the Bulgarian Empire, when missionaries from its liturgical schools helped convert Kievan Rus to Christianity in the 980s, they introduced the Gospels in Cyrillic script.

2) Glagolitic is based on the Greek Alphabet, but also contains letters derived from Hebrew and perhaps even Coptic.

3) Glagolitic and Early Cyrillic were used with Old Church Slavonic, the first Slavic language recorded in writing and many liturgical texts were composed using them.

4) And please note that the simplification of Glagolitic involved not just the number of letters, but their shapes as well.

1. Glagolitic Letters

2. Early Cyrillic Letters

а б в г д е ж ѕ з и і к л м н о п р с т ѹ ф х ѡ ц ч ш щ ъ ь ѣ ю  ѥ ѧ ѫ ѩ ѭ ѯ ѱ ѳ ѵ

3. Modern Cyrillic Letters

Ge upturn
Dotted I
Short I
Short U
Hard sign (Yer)
Soft sign (Yeri)


There is much to puzzle over here, and of course RT suspects that more is coming on this subject…


RT’s Related Posts: 1) Glagolitic-Starting a Great Tradition; 2) Moscow–Memories


PaintingSaints Cyril and Methodius, wall mural (1848); Troyan Monastery. WikiCmns; Public Domain. Glagolitic, Early, and Modern Cyrillic Alphabets: from their respective Wikipedia articles; Public Domain.


Glagolitic–Starting a Great Tradition

June 27, 2013 4 comments

File:Bascanska ploca.jpg

No way, you’re thinking: what’s RT up to now? Well, this is what: RT wants to take us through the evolution of an alphabet, the Russian (or Cyrillic) alphabet, as it turns out. And if that’s what you want to do, this is the place to start. With Glagolitic, the precursor writing system of the Slavs, going back to the 9th century. Beautiful, isn’t it? And we have Saints Cyril and Methodius to thank for it. More on this later.

Beautiful, and more than beautiful.   RT


Photo: Baska Tablet (c. 1100); Croatia island of Krk. WikiCmns; Public Domain. Author: Neoneo13.


The Greek Alphabets, Part 2



To finish RT’s early post about the evolution of writing in ancient Greece, he picks up the thread of the post at the discussion of Linear A, the precursor to Linear B–both more primitive writing systems than the Greek Alphabet that eventually replaced them.

Linear A consisted of hundreds of signs–syllabic, ideographic, and semantic symbols, which were incised into clay tablets, as was the case with Linear B. While Linear B tablets have been found on Crete and the Greek mainland, Linear A materials have been recovered from several Aegean islands (for instance, Milos) and on the Greek mainland at Laconia. Though Linear A and B share many symbols in common, about 80 percent of Linear A’s logograms are unique.

Thumbnail for version as of 14:51, 27 February 2012

Linear A inscription

As was explained in the first half of this post, when the deciphered values for Linear B characters are used for their LA counterparts, nonsense words emerge; this suggests that Linear A was used to record a non-Greek language. Close study of the script has indicated that this language was an isolate (though connections with Anatolia and Phoenicia have been suggested.

Linear A was in use from the 18th century to 1450 BC.

And last, but not least, Linear A appears to have been used in parallel with Cretan hieroglyphs, which first appear in the archaeological record about a century before LA.

Wow, Greece produced four writing systems over a period stretching from the 17oo to 800 BC. What may be most noticeable, though is the continuity of the systems: the hieroglyphs being the parent of both Linear A and B. Over that period writing was steadily simplified into a syllable script that was not significantly harder than the Greek alphabet to learn and use. And yet the appearance of the GA represents the most significant break with its predecessor, in system (a true alphabet), time (appearing 400 years after Linear B), and medium (pen on papyrus).

RT thinks that we are looking at two periods of development in writing: 1) the early character systems, typically written on clay tablets or painted on stone and 2) the alphabet revolution, apparently occurring from about 1250 to 700 BC. The earlier systems (Egyptian hieroglyphs, Cretan hieroglyphs, and cuneiform) underwent a steady process of simplification, in the case of cuneiform reducing the number of characters from 1000 to 400. The true breakthrough came, though, with the introduction of the Phoenician alphabet (about 1100 BC), the Greek alphabet (about 750 BC), and the demotic script (in Egypt, about 700 BC).

But what is most interesting, from RT’s perspective, is that a single alphabet did not replace the grand-daddy of writing systems, the cuneiform characters. From the beginning, Egypt produced a rival writing system, followed by Crete in the early second millennium. It was the Phoenician alphabet, though, that triumphed in the end, serving as the model for the Greek, Aramaic, and Latin alphabets.

Still, there is something restless about alphabets, attuned as they are to the spoken word. The early characters all had a tendency to use fewer and fewer symbols; can a new universal alphabet emerge that is inclusive enough to represent all human vocal sounds and at the same time be visually attractive and easy to write and learn?    RT


Image: top: Uppercase and lowercase numeric symbol Koppa. (Design approximately follows 18th-cent type designs.) Author: Future Perfect at Sunrise; WikiCmns; Public Domain. bottom: WikiCmns, Public Domain.


The Greek Alphabets–An Independent Tradition?

File:Correspondance Signe 44 Disque Phaistos et Robe de la déesse.png


RT was feeling a little down after publishing his first installment of Gilgamesh on Lulu (all that work, and where are the millions in royalties?), so he followed his own advice for such situations and learned something new.

This is one way to think about the Greek alphabet: the alphabet, which is clearly based on the earlier Phoenician alphabet, dates to the early 8th century BC. Within a few decades, its use had spread across Greece, becoming so strongly established that it influenced the creation of other alphabets and continues in use in Greece today.

End of story, right? Nope! It turns out that the Greeks used another writing system before the current Greek alphabet, and that this system has one if not more precursors. The writing system in question is Linear B,  a syllable script that was in use from about 1450 to 1200 BC. Notably, LB was not written with pen on papyrus or parchment, but with a stylus on clay tablets–a method that originated with cuneiform. The script had about 200 characters, more or less evenly divided between syllable sounds and ideograms. It was used to record commercial transactions, and thus makes reference to the gods of the time. None of the tablets record literature (though phonetic changes between LB and its successor Greek alphabet have helped date the origins of Homer’s poetry). The language recorded in LB is archaic Greek.

Michael Ventris and John Chadwick are the individuals principally responsible for deciphering Linear B (a task completed in 1956).

A final and fateful point: the use of Linear B came to an end during the Dorian invasion of Greece (about 1000 B.C.–and which may or may not have taken place).

Wow! A ton to think about! But there’s still more.

Namely, Linear A, the precursor of Linear B. The first thing to know about LA is that it has only been found on the island of Crete. The second thing to know is that it shares many symbols with Linear B. The third thing to know is that when the deciphered values for LB symbols are used to transcribe Linear A, only a mishmash of sounds emerges. Conclusion? Linear A was not used to write a Greek language.

What language did LA record? So far, the best that can be said is that the language appears to be an isolate (though connections with Greek, Luwian, and Phoenician have been proposed).


and what do you know… the school bell is ringing and RT’s lunch hour is over…the second installment of this post will appear shortly…   RT


PhotoPicture showing the correspondence between sign 44 of the Phaistos disk and the wrap of the goddess; author: Philippe Plagnol. WikiCmns; Public Domain.