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.
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.
structure and tension, meaning and motion: we are balanced between absolute truth and pure fluency. poetry. RT
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:
- 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 → pece, except → exept, plaque → plaq, blood → blod, pitch → pich.
- 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 → symbl, victim → victm, lemon → lemn, glamour/glamor → glamr, permanent → permnnt, waited → waitd, churches → churchs, warmest → warmst,edible → edbl.
- 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 → inate, spell → 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.
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%.
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)
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:
- Exo-labial (outer part of lip)
- Endo-labial (inner part of lip)
- Dental (teeth)
- Alveolar (front part of alveolar ridge)
- Post-alveolar (rear part of alveolar ridge & slightly behind it)
- Pre-palatal (front part of hard palate that arches upward)
- Palatal (hard palate)
- Velar (soft palate)
- Uvular (a.k.a. Post-velar; uvula)
- Pharyngeal (pharyngeal wall)
- Glottal (a.k.a. Laryngeal; vocal folds)
- Epiglottal (epiglottis)
- Radical (tongue root)
- Postero-dorsal (back of tongue body)
- Antero-dorsal (front of tongue body)
- Laminal (tongue blade)
- Apical (apex or tongue tip)
- 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.
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 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.
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
3. Modern Cyrillic Letters
There is much to puzzle over here, and of course RT suspects that more is coming on this subject…
Painting: Saints Cyril and Methodius, wall mural (1848); Troyan Monastery. WikiCmns; Public Domain. Glagolitic, Early, and Modern Cyrillic Alphabets: from their respective Wikipedia articles; Public Domain.