An Indo-European approach to the alphabet?

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[Update by Mark Liberman: Knowledgeable commenters have serious objections to the content of this guest post (e.g. John McWhorter, Sally Thomason), and others cite apparently racist content and publication location in other writings by John Day (e.g. Suzanne Kemmerer, Jamie). It was a serious mistake to have given this work a platform on this blog, which tries to present reputable linguistic perspectives in a public-facing way. I'm not going to delete it, since the comments are worth preserving, but it's important to put this warning up front. We'll try to avoid such mistakes in the future.]

[This is a guest post by John V. Day]

John V. Day, The Alphabet Code: The Origins of Our Alphabet and Numbers (Kindle 2018).

At present, almost every scholar follows Herodotus about the Greek alphabet being created by non-Indo-European Phoenicians (despite an earlier tradition attributing the invention of writing to the legendary hero Palamedes). Whereas my book, The Alphabet Code, argues that Indo-Europeans created the alphabet.

One problem with the orthodox story, as Isaac Taylor pointed out in the 19th century, is that the Greek letters and their alleged Semitic forerunners suffer from a 'nearly absolute dissemblance of form': for example, zēta and Semitic zayin, mu and Semitic mem; san and Semitic tsade; rhō and Semitic resh.

Furthermore, as Barry Powell admits, 'The signs of the West Semitic signaries bear little resemblance to the objects they are said to name.' Α, for example, supposedly depicts the head of an ox, although only after being rotated by 180°; Β, a house; Θ, a hand; Π, a mouth. Yet no one doubts the Phoenician hypothesis.

The orthodox opinion holds that the Greek letters depict a jumble of unrelated ideas. In contrast, The Alphabet Code reveals that the alphabet has a structure. Specifically, the sequence of letters begins with birth and ends with death, Α depicting a woman giving birth and Ω depicting a tombstone.

So Greek alpha has nothing to do with Semitic oxen; rather, it derives from Indo-European *al- [*h2el-], to give birth. Other derivatives of *al- proving this meaning include Latin alvus, a belly; and Middle Breton alall, Latin alius, Greek allos and Tocharian B allek, all meaning other; Welsh alu and Old Norse ala, to give birth, and Hittite haliya-, to kneel — because expectant women in Roman, Germanic and Greek myths give birth when kneeling; Greek alalazō, to cry aloud; Armenian ałałel, to shout; Hittite halzai-, to cry out; and Greek algos, pain; Latin alga, a thing of little worth, and Sanskrit alpa-, small; Armenian ałt, the skin enclosing the foetus or afterbirth; Latin algeō, to feel chilly — because one in three postpartum women feels chilled; Old Irish alt, to feed; Latin alō, to suckle; Old English alan, to raise; and Greek aldainō, to make grow.

As for Greek ōmega, it derives from Indo-European *ō- [*h3eh1], to die. Other derivatives of *ō- proving this meaning include Latin ōtium, inactivity; Greek ōlingē, a short nap; Greek ōkhros, pale; Greek ōmos, gruesome; and Greek ōlese, destroyed; Lithuanian uolē, a hollow or a cave, and Old Russian jama, a grave; and Old English ōra, a shore, and Lithuanian uola, a cliff — because such heroes as Achilles and Beowulf were buried in tombs near the shore; Greek ōkhra, yellow ochre, and Latin ōvum, Latvian uola and Greek ōon, all meaning an egg — because ancient tombs in Europe often contained ochre and real or artificial eggs; Greek ōlenē, a reed mat — because ancient tombs in Xinjiang were often covered by reed mats; Latin ōmen, an omen, and Old Saxon ōbian, to celebrate solemnly; Old Norse ōthal, a hereditary property or an inheritance; Latvian uôzol, an oak-tree, and Lithuanian uosis and Russian jasen, an ash-tree — because in Baltic mythology the souls of men are 'reincarnated … in oaks, birches and ash trees'; and the Old Norse god Ōthinn, described by the Prose Edda as 'Father of the Slain'.

Incidentally, every guide to the Indo-European vocabulary alludes to two other letters depicting everyday objects: *bhī-, a bee — which gave rise to Greek phī or Φ; and *gwhī-, a thread — which gave rise to Greek khī or Χ.

The Alphabet Code gives an Indo-European etymology for all twenty-seven letters of the Greek alphabet, adhering strictly to the laws of sound correspondences. The book is written in plain English, has nearly 900 references and over 50 illustrations.

It's available in Kindle format for $3.05 from Amazon.



101 Comments

  1. Ralph Hickok said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 7:17 am

    I wish this were available as an actual printed book.

  2. Ken said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 7:36 am

    Call me more than slightly skeptical.

  3. Tom Dawkes said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 7:37 am

    Very interesting — but why have so many Greek letter names that can be matched with Phoenician letter names? alp >alph[a], bet > bet[a], dalt > delt[a] and so on. The final vowels were essential for the Greeks to pronounce the words: compare modern Italians learning English.

  4. John McWhorter said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 7:39 am

    Prof. Day – Ancient Greek speakers didn't speak, or even know of, "Indo-European." They knew Greek. So the question is: based on what that PIE root had come to mean in the language they spoke, why would they have linked the A letter with giving birth? From what you give us here, they had a root that meant things like "other," "howling," and "growth." Are you really saying that they, or even one speaker, abstracted "give birth" from those words and linked it to the A letter? I may be missing something but I'd need you to explain this – no one with questions like this qualifies as a mere hidebound skeptic. Hittite, Sanskrit and Avestan, for all their charms, are irrelevant here – how does this work in the head of a GREEK speaker at one point in time?

  5. Ronald Kyrmse said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 7:52 am

    The comments above, by Tom Dawkes and John McWhorter, pretty much sum up my feelings when I first read this post (without having seen the comments). I am a lifelong student of alphabets and writing systems, and have never come across e theory so unsystematically far-fetched (and far-flung) as this one about letter shapes and names. I invoke Occam's Razor and the reasonableness of the prevalent explanations.

  6. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 8:15 am

    To: Ralph Hickok
    I do too. It'd definitely be one you'd want to be able to thumb through, put sticky notes on, etc.

    But, based on the above squib, the thesis does seem like a neat idea. The accepted wisdom about alphabetogenesis that I remember is that it was such an astounding intellectual leap for humanity — more so than even the plow, or the wheel, or, animal domestication — that it only could have happened _once_ throughout human history. (I guess a "strong" formulation of this hypothesis would require not considering the Mesoamerican pictographs as true "writing systems" in the strict sense; more like pictures that convey limited information, and it would be hard to derive Chinese from Phonecian, I'd imagine, so I don't know what we do about that, unless you posit that the Chinese got the "idea" of carving ideas into turtle shells and whatnot from some stray Phonecian potsherd someone came across on the Spice Road (was there even a "Spice Road" back then?), but, for the sake of argument, let's stick with the premise…).

    So, what if the Greek alphabet was inspired the same way the Chinese alphabet was — not "derived" from Phonecian in the literal sense, but "inspired"? That is, it's not like the Etruscan alphabet, which was a wholesale adaptation of an existing alphabet, but, maybe some Greek merchant was trading with some Phonecians who sure seemed like they had their act together, what with being able to record transactions, inventory, etc. for posterity and all, and then he went home and made up his own alphabet, which would necessarily bear a passing resemblance to the only other writing system knocking around in his consciousness — Phonecian.

    Now, how we got from Cuneiform to Phonecian, that's what I'd like to hear. Which Phonecian dye merchant saw "^^—>->v v <—", and thought, "Hey, alphabet!"?

  7. David Erschler said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 8:17 am

    Adding to what Tom Dawkes and John McWhorter said, the orders of the letters in the Greek and Phoenician alphabets match fairly precisely. (These orders are well attested in inscriptions — they are not later inventions.) Under Mr Day's theory, this must be due to a coincidence.

  8. Suzanne Kemmer said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 8:25 am

    Language Log readers might be interested in an article by Professor Day. In it he tries to establish the physical type of the ruling classes in European lands taken over by Indo-Europeans as fair-haired and light-eyed. In modern times, this Indo-European 'blood' of those who conquered the 'natives' has been 'lost in an ocean of non-Indo-Europeans.'

    His final paragraph is a warning to the white ruling classes of Europe, as to what happens when the ruling class fails to "protect its interests."

    "In a journal about the West and its future, it is fitting to end this article by briefly recounting the fate of the Roman upper class. Among Indo-European peoples, the Romans offer an especially useful example because they left masses of records, enabling later historians to determine what became of them. The evidence found in ancient texts implies that this class descended largely from Indo-Europeans who had a decidedly northern European physical type, although that isn't something one reads in modern books about Roman history. In Rome, though, the upper class was always a tiny minority. Instead of protecting its interests, it allowed itself to wither away. Consider a bleak statistic. We know of about fifty patrician clans in the fifth century B.C., but by the time of Caesar, in the later first century B.C., only fourteen of these had survived. The decay continued in imperial times. We know of the families of nearly four hundred Roman senators in A.D. sixty five, but, just one generation later, all trace of half of these families had vanished.
    If we in the West want to avoid a similar fate, we must learn from Indo- European history."

    https://toqonline.com/archives/v2n3/TOQv2n3Day.pdf

  9. Paul Turpin said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 8:44 am

    Interesting… But if the alpha and omega represent, as it were, birth and death then that implies a designed language rather than an evolved one. Logically mu and nu would represent aspects of the middle of a person's life..!

  10. Paul Turpin said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 8:46 am

    Or rather a designed alphabet.

  11. Jamie said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 8:49 am

    The article quoted by Suzanne Kemmer was published by:

    "The Charles Martel Society is an American white nationalist organization that publishes The Occidental Quarterly, a prominent scientific racist publication formatted to look like a peer-reviewed journal." (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Martel_Society)

  12. Anschel Schaffer-Cohen said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 8:52 am

    This is a shamefully pseudoscientific–and, unsurprisingly, apparently white supremacist–post to appear in a source I generally trust to be vaguely fact-based, if provocative. What's next, a guest post by M J Harper?

  13. Jamie said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 9:26 am

    "[This is a guest post by John V. Day]"

    But why?

  14. Jonathan said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 9:28 am

    Thanks to those of you researching the author and his associations. And while it's not impossible for a white nationalist to have some insight on the origins of writing, as a fan of scripts, and the history of the study of scripts, this article immediately reminded me of 16th century angleic, Enochian, celestial scripts — i.e. bunkum.

    I know this site sometimes discusses popular (mis-)conceptions of language, but it is usually clear when it presents ideas that are wrong. The way this article was presented made me assume that it had some merit. Add to that the nasty racist slime it trails behind it and I think this post is really bad for the reputation of LanguageLog. It's up to the site owners to decided what to do, but I hope you'll do something.

  15. Aaron said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 9:34 am

    John McWhorter took the words right out of my mouth. Reflexes in non-Greek languages that suggest the sense of the PIE root are irrelevant here. It's as if Professor Day believes the entire family tree of an etymon and its descendants imbues an individual word with some sort of semantic "aura" that carries all of those meanings, regardless of distance in time or space, and that a contemporary speaker would have an (I suppose subconsious?) awareness of that.

    I am very surprised that Language Log would post this material without commenting on its shortcomings, which are obvious even if one does not know of its author's questionable associations.

  16. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 9:38 am

    Funniest bit: Relating a real or supposed Indo-European root for "to die" to "Greek ōlenē, a reed mat — because ancient tombs in Xinjiang were often covered by reed mats"

    However, I shouldn't laugh, because this post led me to look up letter origins and find a mistake I made elsewhere. Just to confirm, E is from a letter whose name meant "window" and H is from one whose name meant "fence", not the other way around, right?

  17. Cass said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 9:39 am

    Really disappointed in Language Log for publishing this. When I read the post itself, in addition to finding the arguments absurd on their face (in addition to the quite valid arguments in the comments above, there is also no reason for Greek Qoppa without a Semitic origin), I thought wow, this is the sort of argument a Nazi would love because it takes away Semitic involvement in the creation of the Greek and Latin alphabets and, even more so, the value rooted in the meeting and cultural contact of the European and Semitic peoples.

    Then I read the comments and see that this is no accident. I cannot believe Language Log published a post from an actual Nazi/white supremacist. An apology is in order immediately as well as steps taken to make sure this never happens again. To say I'm very disappointed would be an understatement.

  18. Jonathan Smith said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 9:42 am

    When we elect to dispense with attested facts (see comments above) which might serve as rails for our otherwise runaway minds, we wind up in a place called Personal Prejudiceville. Not a pretty postcard here sir ~~

  19. Suzanne Valkemirer said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 9:57 am

    Were the guest post submitted to a serious peer-reviewed journa, it would presumably be rejected.

    The post should remain on Language Log, however, because of the replies, which expose its serious faults. Without the post, there would be no record of the replies.

  20. Suzanne Valkemirer said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 10:05 am

    Google "John V. Day" for more revelations, for example, this expose by Christopher Culver posted here:

    https://www.christopherculver.com/languages/racism-in-modern-ie-studies.html

  21. Sally Thomason said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 10:18 am

    I did what some of the other commenters did and googled John V. Day.
    Like Suzanne Kemmer, I found a site that quoted that racist paragraph from an earlier writing of John V. Day's: https://www.christopherculver.com/languages/racism-in-modern-ie-studies.html

    But it's very distressing to see him sponsored by one of the Language Loggers on this site — not entirely because of the racism (even a racist could conceivably be a competent linguist) but because the "analysis" in his post is so far off the mark . I hope his post can be removed, or at least that a prefatory comment can be added at the beginning to show clearly that his proposal is (for the reasons John McWhorter and other commenters have already listed) bizarrely wrong. And I certainly hope that he will not be given this forum to promote his ideas again.

  22. Suzanne Valkemirer said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 10:29 am

    Is it not the consensus today — among serious researchers — that the Phoenician alphabet goes back to the Proto-Canaanite alphabet, the latter goes back to the Proto-Sinaitic alphabet, and the latter goes back to Egyptian hieroglyphics?

    (See, for example, Figure 1: From Egyptian hieroglyphs to the Karaite alphabet, on page 88 of Gold, David L. (2017. " A student of Jewish languages reads Michał Németh's Unknown Lutsk Karaim Letters in Hebrew Script (19th–20th Centuries). A Critical Edition." Almanach Karaimski, vol. 6, pp. 17-118. https://doi.org/10.33229/ak.2017.6.02).

    If so, the white supremacists are in for an even greater shock: the alphabets they use are of African origin.

  23. Doctor Science said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 11:07 am

    I am seriously disturbed that Language Log saw fit to give this a platform. It's academic crap written by a white supremacist, with no editorial commentary to mitigate it.

    I cannot think of any good reason to give this sort of pernicious nonsense wider visibility. Unfortunately, I *can* think of some pretty bad reasons.

    My respect for the site in general and for Dr. Mair in particular is taking a BIG hit. I really, really hope we'll see some explanation for this.

  24. cameron said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 11:14 am

    If there's a birth-death sequence, and omega represents death, then why isn't omicron right next to omega in the sequence?

    This sounds like a form of goropism.

  25. Athel Cornish-Bowden said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 11:39 am

    I don't claim any specialist knowledge of why the Roman aristocratic families died out at an alarming rate, despite adopting sons from humbler backgrounds on a scale never seen anywhere else in history. However, many years ago I knew someone who did her doctoral research on exactly that question. She did not say that "it allowed itself to wither away", but thought that it had to do with rich families storing their wine in lead containers, which was too expensive for poorer families. That had two consequences. First, any vinegar in the wine dissolved the lead, making lead acetate, which is sweet, making the wine less sour and more sweet. The second, of course, is that lead acetate is toxic, and if it doesn't kill you it makes you sterile. I don't know how well this idea has stood up to later research in the 50 years since I was told it, but I find it eminently more believable than the idea that the Roman ruling class allowed itself to wither away.

  26. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 12:03 pm

    To everybody clutching their pearls at the quotation from a putative Real Live Racist on Language Log and calling for the post's removal: This isn't a peer-reviewed journal, it's an internet blog.

    Mightn't it be better to address the arguments on their merits (as some have), and let the marketplace of ideas sort things out, rather than recoil in abject horror at the very thought of dignifying the argument with one's attention? You won't get any racism on you, I promise! Logic is always preferable to "shouting down"

    I'm sure I could cobble together some fairly convincing arguments that the Treaty of Versailles that ended WWI was unwisely too harsh on the German people, and set the stage for WWII — a fairly uncontroversial proposition — from excerpted portions of "Mein Kampf". Does the source itself weaken the argument?

  27. Bloix said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 12:26 pm

    "clutching their pearls" = being annoyed at ridiculous nonsense that turns out on examination to be Nazi ideology nonsense.
    "Does the source itself weaken the argument?" Yes. If the only person making an argument is a Nazi, then that argument almost certainly sucks. If you've got nothing better to do, you can spend your time satisfying yourself that it's ridiculous nonsense, but if you're going to find all the arguments made only by Nazis and carefully examine them one by one, the law of diminishing returns will apply pretty quickly.

  28. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 12:38 pm

    It is possible in principle that the conventional ordering of an alphabet and/or the conventional names for the letters could have been arranged in order to embody some sort of sacred or occult pattern of significance to the relevant society or its elite, even if particular glyphs and/or their sound associations had been borrowed from elsewhere. And what has come down to the present as the conventional ordering of the alphabet and the conventional names of its letters may have been different in the earliest times of the relevant script. Here, of course, one difficulty is that the conventional ordering of the Greek alphabet closely tracks the order of the Semitic abjads (Hebrew, Arabic, etc. — I don't know whether there are surviving "alphabetical-order" texts in Phoenician that prove the order was the same or that's just the fair inference from the later-attested Semitic scripts) with respect to the characters that appear to be analogous to both the Greek and Semitic scripts. And the letters of the Greek alphabet that have no obvious analogues in the Semitic abjads are mostly stuck at the end, in a way that's fully consistent with ad hoc additions to an ordering convention borrowed from the Semites rather than an indigenous master pattern. How old is the Semitic ordering as it has come down to us? Well, unless there is earlier evidence from inscriptions etc., probably at least as old as the earliest Hebrew acrostic texts, and apparently even those scholars who don't accept that the Lamentations of Jeremiah were written by Jeremiah still generally accept a 6th-century-BC date of composition. The current Greek alphabet order (give or take the loss of digamma) is said by wikipedia to have been fixed by around the beginning of the 4th century BC.

    The striking parallel in the ordering of the letters between the Greek script and the Semitic scripts doesn't, by itself, tell you who borrowed from whom, of course. You would need to look at other evidence for that.

    Separately, the notion that for the Greek alphabet to be "a jumble of unrelated ideas" is somehow a mystery in need of explanation, it raises the question of what one would have expected it to be, and especially why one would expect letters to embody "ideas" beyond "hey, here's a convenient arbitrary glyph we can conventionally associate with a particular phoneme of our language." One historical parallel you could look at is the development of kana in Japan. The kana slowly evolved out of the use of certain kanji to indicate particular sounds rather than for their semantic value. I'm assuming that if you take the relevant predecessor kanji (considered as containing "ideas" via their original core semantic sense) and put them in the standard order used for kana, or probably any other order, you would get precisely a "jumble of unrelated ideas" — the same way you do with a military-style spelling alphabet like the one beginning Able Baker Charlie Dog. But it would be interesting to know if someone in Japan (no doubt dismissed as a crackpot by the conventional wisdom) has developed a speculative theory finding an occult pattern of meaning in the kana.

  29. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 12:58 pm

    The most plausible theory, of course, is that the letter "A" represents neither an ox nor a woman giving birth but "a carp-fish's mouth wide-open." http://www.boop.org/jan/justso/alpha.htm

  30. Suzanne Valkemirer said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 2:07 pm

    It is NOT a mistake to publish Day's remarks. As I said earlier, had it not been published, the comments pointing out its many weaknesses would not have appeared.

    The mistake would be to swallow Day's hypothesis hook, line, and sinker.

  31. Kennedy said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 3:30 pm

    As a devoted reader of LLog, I'm willing to give Victor the benefit of the doubt in not realizing at first that Day was among the (far too many) "white identity," um, "scholars" who unfortunately cling to the underbelly of Indo-European studies, but really he should have done some due diligence (i.e., 5 minutes of Googling) before publishing the original post.

    It's one thing to promote speculative work that stands outside the scholarly mainstream (and to invite commentary and critique of such work), but quite another to promote work that so blatantly seeks to advance racist and culturally chauvinistic views.

  32. Jonathan said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 4:37 pm

    Thanks for adding the update up front, Prof. Liberman.

  33. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 5:44 pm

    J. W. Brewer: The most plausible theory, of course, is that the letter "A" represents neither an ox nor a woman giving birth but "a carp-fish's mouth wide-open."

    I notice that in that theory too, the inventor of the alphabet is blonde and blue-eyed, though based on my very limited knowledge, non-Aryan.

  34. Andrew Usher said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 5:47 pm

    I agree that it probably was a mistake to publish this. First because it is pseudoscience – I've seen my share of linguistic crank theories, and this certainly strongly reminds me of one. Then secondly, because he is advertising his book. Do you really ever want to give a fringe-theory peddler free publicity for that? Generally, legitimate scientists do not need to do such things to promote themselves.

    Then, of course, there is the question of whether his other alleged beliefs should figure into it. At first one wants to say no – surely, a good argument isn't made bad by having been said by Hitler, or whoever. True, and I would oppose denying any genuine scientific merit an author has because his other opinions offend people. But here, it seems there is no scientific merit in the first place, and importantly this is a matter on which his ideology would bias him, one where it would give him motivation to want to believe the conclusion. When that is so, an argument does become less persuasive; yes, the logic and facts are unaffected, but truly interesting stuff in the softer sciences does not consist only of sound logical reasoning from principles that no reasonable person would deny – it involves some judgement, some trust in the arguer's chain of thought. When someone proposing a new theory is doing so because he is predisposed toward the conclusion, that trust is rightly absent most of the time.

    I'd also add something Day may be ignorant about: conventional theory does give the Greeks credit for first putting vowels and consonants on an equal footing, and in that sense they were the inventors.

    I would like also to know whether John Day is blocked/banned from commenting here, or merely chooses not to – although it's doubtful he has anything constructive to add, I wouldn't say that for sure.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo dot com

  35. maidhc said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 5:48 pm

    It's pretty clear from archaeological evidence that Greece (particularly Crete) before the Bronze Age collapse had a lot of trade contact with Phoenicians, Canaanites and other peoples of that area. That provides a pretty convincing mechanism for an alphabet travelling along with the goods.

  36. yoandri dominguez said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 5:53 pm

    sheer trash. the truth is the greek alphabet is from semitic. indo european is too abstract to be meaningful and semitic is were most variants is, mostly from aramean (???), thus likliest start, homeland. the many letters is sheer willy nilly upmaking, since was many dialects an even to this day in greece, turkey, italy, an ionic won out in classical times.

  37. Chris C. said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 5:55 pm

    It's rare that I see a post here on LL and immediately think, "Wow, what a loon." But here we are.

  38. yoandri dominguez said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 5:57 pm

    *aramaic, syriac, mandean, pahlavi, etc…

  39. yoandri dominguez said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 6:12 pm

    excuse me for commenting so much, but we know vertical vowel systems is there here, there, in caucusas, in papua, even chinese. thus, in truth, its likely the variation, allophonically, 'd been there in early semitic an even other tongues shifting toward the semitic grammar (semites was the greatest might and near world center in the aramea an assyrian and babylonian might, even akkadian could been one or two vowels only, at least deep phonology wise.) thus, why so many more consonants than vowels, thus why it 'd got simpler, then more manifold going into greek or brahmi or latin, then freeze standardized.

    too much mistake come from thinking the vowel system is perfect, but its only some dialect, or thinking its imperfect as abjad. some food for thought, or whatever.

  40. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 6:33 pm

    @Andrew Usher: my concern with your point is that there are many actually or potentially disputed issues in historical linguistics where *any* conceivable answer (both ones consistent with current "conventional wisdom" and those proposing revisions to the conventional wisdom) will inevitably turn out to be helpful to some nationalist/ethnic-chauvinist/etc. cause and unhelpful to some other nationalist/ethnic-chauvinist/etc. cause. The notion that you can tell neutral scholarship is neutral because its results won't and don't give an advantage to anyone's crackpot/unsavory political faction is in many instances naive. Now, the desire to downplay Semitic influence on ancient Greek culture may seem suspiciously consistent with certain political views that many might think unsavory, but the conventional wisdom about the history of the alphabet — i.e. that ancient Greek culture was fundamentally transformed and improved by insights borrowed from Semites — turns out at least at a high level of generality to be perfectly (and the cynic would say suspiciously) consistent with the Christian worldview, which barely a century ago was still dominant in academic linguistics and still remains widespread and influential in the non-academic segments of most societies known for their universities' linguistics departments. (Indeed, it is my own worldview, although I do not profess to know why God in His inscrutable Providence chose to make Himself known to humanity first via Hebrew and then via koine Greek when He could perhaps equally well have chosen to start with an Athabaskan language and then used an Austronesian language for the worldwide expansion.)

  41. Ken said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 6:50 pm

    @Jerry Friedman: Yes, E from window and H from fence; although I've also seen E from shout or "hallel", explaining the shape as a figure with arms raised. My first exposure to alphabet origins – not counting "Curious George Learns the Alphabet" – was Ellery Queen's "The Finishing Stroke", which used window.

  42. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 8:43 pm

    Thanks, Ken!

  43. David Marjanović said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 8:59 pm

    You know what? It's half past 2 am, I can't go to bed because I'm still working on dissolving my cocoa, I'm too tired to keep reviewing that manuscript on the skeleton of a new frog species – but I'm not too tired to wade through the racist slime trail and fisk this trash.

    One problem with the orthodox story, as Isaac Taylor pointed out in the 19th century, is that the Greek letters and their alleged Semitic forerunners suffer from a 'nearly absolute dissemblance of form':

    Prof. Day (I'm writing about him in the 3rd person because he still hasn't shown up in the comments) here acts as if we had learned nothing since the 19th century. To pick just one example, none of the Sinai inscriptions that form such obvious intermediates between the Phoenician and other early forms of the alphabet on the one hand, and Egyptian hieroglyphs on the other hand, were yet known when Taylor made his claim. You literally don't have to go any farther than https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alphabet to find out that these inscriptions exist, and one more click (on "Proto-Sinaitic script") will show that they "were discovered in the winter of 1904–1905".

    Furthermore, as Barry Powell admits, 'The signs of the West Semitic signaries bear little resemblance to the objects they are said to name.' Α, for example, supposedly depicts the head of an ox, although only after being rotated by 180°;

    It is already rotated by 90° in good old "classical" Phoenician. If you compare that to the most similar hieroglyph, it's not actually clear whether any further rotation is needed, or whether the tip of the A is actually the snout of the ox while what is now the right side of the A depicts the left horn and the left ear. When you add the Proto-Sinaitic version to the comparison, this becomes almost a certainty.

    Β, a house; Θ, a hand; Π, a mouth.

    He admits, present tense? Or how many decades ago? Another click away from Wikipedia's "Alphabet" article is the "History of the alphabet" article, which reports that the current suggestion for the origin of Θ is not a hand, but a wheel, while K depicts a hand; Π might be a mouth or a corner/bend. Once again, it helps to compare the earliest alphabetic inscriptions to hieroglyphs.

    In contrast, The Alphabet Code reveals that the alphabet has a structure. Specifically, the sequence of letters begins with birth and ends with death, Α depicting a woman giving birth and Ω depicting a tombstone.

    If so, then this structure has been superimposed on the Greek alphabet several hundred years after the oldest known Greek inscriptions, to say nothing of Phoenician or Proto-Sinaitic. The letters that are ordered after Y (which is a duplication of F) were invented by some smartass Ionian in historical times, and none of them were used in Athens before the Ionian orthography was officially introduced there in 403 BC – for anyone interested in the history of writing, that should be common knowledge.

    Much more likely, Ω is an O with an extra stroke under it, just as G is a C with an extra stroke and R is P with a disambiguating stroke.

    Other derivatives of *ō- proving this meaning include

    every single word in every halfway ancient IE language that starts with ō, right?

    Wrong. Off the top of my head, the "egg" word is *h2ōwjom, with *h2, not *h3, and with long *ō from a derivation process (from the "bird" word), not from *h1. Slavic /jama/ does not mean "grave" primarily, but "cave"; slapping a /l/ on dying doesn't make it a cliff, not even if heroes were buried near shores (as opposed to cliffs); and we don't even get a just-so story for why letting a *ghr drop from heaven turns dying into yellow ochre. Has Prof. Day perhaps confused the English words die and dye…?

    Incidentally, every guide to the Indo-European vocabulary alludes to two other letters depicting everyday objects: *bhī-, a bee — which gave rise to Greek phī or Φ; and *gwhī-, a thread — which gave rise to Greek khī or Χ.

    You know what? While I won't wade any deeper into this subject at half past 3 in the morning (I was delayed by a talkative colleague from another time zone in Skype chat), these two could actually be correct as far as I can tell. The fun part is that they're two of the four Ionian additions to the alphabet. In other words, they were created by people who spoke Greek.

    ===================

    The reason the experts on this stuff aren't Nazis is not that their prejudices against industrial mass murder blind them to the big-T Truth. The reason the experts on this stuff aren't Nazis is that in order to be a Nazi in this day and age, you have to be willfully ignorant! You have to actively resist learning – actively resist informing yourself.

    Likewise, the reason I have to ask why John Day is a professor is not my prejudice against industrial mass murder. Each time I got an academic title, you see, I had to sign an oath which said, among other things, that I'd keep my knowledge of my field up to date. John Day has instead published a book that depends on his not keeping his knowledge of his field up to date for decades. If I had done that and my al*ma mater found out, I wouldn't even be a bachelor anymore.

    * That root again.

    ===================

    On to the comments!

    John McWhorter said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 7:39 am

    Prof. Day – Ancient Greek speakers didn't speak, or even know of, "Indo-European." They knew Greek.

    I think he's trying to say that the alphabet was invented by actual speakers of PIE, who then refused to use it on any durable material for about two thousand years before the first Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions (which are all in a Semitic language) and three thousand years before the first known inscriptions in Greek and, simultaneously to the decade or so, Phrygian show up. They even went so far as to adopt cuneiform in Asia Minor and Linear on Crete, despite the huge trouble both scripts have with most or all consonant clusters, just to conceal their knowledge of the alphabet until the Bronze Age was over and, I suppose, the stars were right.

    …not that it helps, parsimony-wise.

    Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 8:15 am

    […]

    The accepted wisdom about alphabetogenesis that I remember is that it was such an astounding intellectual leap for humanity — more so than even the plow, or the wheel, or, animal domestication — that it only could have happened _once_ throughout human history. (I guess a "strong" formulation of this hypothesis would require not considering the Mesoamerican pictographs as true "writing systems" in the strict sense;

    You're confusing writing and the alphabet.

    Writing was invented several times; even if stimulus diffusion between Egypt, Mesopotamia, China and perhaps the Indus culture was involved, that still leaves Mesoamerica. While the Mayan script is not an alphabet, it absolutely is true writing: it is a syllabary with just a few word signs.

    The alphabet really does seem to have been invented only once. Even the Korean alphabet is built by applying an ingenious idea to five basic letters which were taken from an existing alphabet; stimulus diffusion kicked in not much sooner than the invention of N'Ko.

    Suzanne Kemmer said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 8:25 am

    Language Log readers might be interested in an article by Professor Day. In it he tries to establish the physical type of the ruling classes in European lands taken over by Indo-Europeans as fair-haired and light-eyed.

    Unsurprisingly, it's not just the history of writing that Day's knowledge is way out of date on; his knowledge of human population genetics fares no better. To great fanfare, the genetic history of Europe has been uncovered in the last ten years in a series of high-profile publications (easily half of them are in Nature).

    We have several genomes from the earliest people who can reasonably be inferred to have spoken IE languages, both from the Pit-Grave (jamnaja) Culture and apparent Hittites. Not one of them had blue or generally "light" eyes. And they were all or almost all lactose-intolerant, too; and while their skin was a bit lighter than those of contemporary people farther west, it was still darker than what's seen in northern Europe today.

    Blue eyes come from the Western Hunter-Gatherers of Mesolithic Europe, who had much darker skin than any Europeans today – they must have looked like people from southern India, except that every one of them (well, the few that have been sequenced – but from quite different places and millennia) had blue eyes.

    Let me repeat:

    The reason the experts on this stuff aren't Nazis either is not that their prejudices against industrial mass murder blind them to the big-T Truth. The reason the experts on this stuff aren't Nazis is that in order to be a Nazi in this day and age, you have to be willfully ignorant! You have to actively resist learning – actively resist informing yourself.

    Cass said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 9:39 am

    Really disappointed in Language Log for publishing this. When I read the post itself, in addition to finding the arguments absurd on their face (in addition to the quite valid arguments in the comments above, there is also no reason for Greek Qoppa without a Semitic origin)

    Or for having a sigma, a san and a ksi instead of just two of them.

    To everybody clutching their pearls at the quotation from a putative Real Live Racist on Language Log and calling for the post's removal: This isn't a peer-reviewed journal, it's an internet blog.

    Intellectual dishonesty is intellectual dishonesty. It is not a good thing or a defensible thing or a morally neutral thing anywhere. Are you a troll, or have you really not managed to understand this?

  44. David Marjanović said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 9:04 pm

    Oops, that last quote is from Benjamin E. Orsatti, June 7, 2019 @ 12:03 pm.

    Over here it's now 4 am. I'm surprised it took that long. Read you tomorrow by American timezones.

  45. Bathrobe said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 11:21 pm

    Let's look on the bright side. The appearance of this article on LL has blasted to smithereens any academic respectability that John V. Day might have had. I know nothing about The Indo-Europeans: The Anthropological Evidence, but I will certainly have trouble taking it seriously after seeing how laughably crackpot (and, it seems, racist) Day's linguistics is. Give a man enough rope…

  46. AntC said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 11:34 pm

    Who is John V Day? What qualifies him to pronounce on alphabets?

    He appears to have obtained a PhD (on IE anthropology) under Prof Mallory (is that the same Mallory who has published jointly with Prof Mair? on the Tarim mummies and Bronze Age central Asia.)

    Above and elsewhere he's called "Professor Day", but Google knows no such professor. Is Day tenured somewhere? In what discipline(s)?

  47. Elonkareon said,

    June 8, 2019 @ 1:37 am

    It's unfortunate Dr. S.R. Rao has passed, I would have loved to hear a debate between him and Dr. Day over whether the alphabet derived from the Indus script or a lost European ancestor.

  48. David Marjanović said,

    June 8, 2019 @ 4:25 am

    What Bathrobe said.

    Prof Mallory (is that the same Mallory who has published jointly with Prof Mair? on the Tarim mummies and Bronze Age central Asia.)

    Sure, and a justly famous figure he is, too.

    Above and elsewhere he's called "Professor Day", but Google knows no such professor. Is Day tenured somewhere? In what discipline(s)?

    Ah, so John McWhorter just made a polite assumption in the 4th comment?

  49. David Marjanović said,

    June 8, 2019 @ 4:55 am

    I wrote:

    Off the top of my head, the "egg" word is *h2ōwjom

    Specifically *h2ōwjóm with final stress, which is not only preserved in the Ancient Greek form ᾠόν (mind that iota subscriptum, BTW), but also explains why the word egg isn't **ee or something, and why it's Ei in German and not **Ü.

  50. Philip Taylor said,

    June 8, 2019 @ 5:39 am

    Whilst, in general, I normally tend to agree with everything that David Marjanović writes, I am not convinced by the following :

    The reason the experts on this stuff aren't Nazis is not that their prejudices against industrial mass murder blind them to the big-T Truth. The reason the experts on this stuff aren't Nazis is that in order to be a Nazi in this day and age, you have to be willfully ignorant! You have to actively resist learning – actively resist informing yourself.

    I think that the latter part requires qualification : "in order to be a Nazi in this day and age, you have to be willfully ignorant of some things! You have to actively resist learning about these things — actively resist informing yourself about them."

    So to my mind, a Nazi couldpotentially be a world-class linguist; nothing of which I am aware in Nazi ideology makes that impossible. Not all evil men are stupid, and not all good men are intelligent.

  51. ~flow said,

    June 8, 2019 @ 6:15 am

    "As for Greek ōmega, it derives from Indo-European *ō- [*h3eh1–], to die. Other derivatives of *ō- proving this meaning include […] Lithuanian uola, a cliff — because such heroes as Achilles and Beowulf were buried in tombs near the shore; Greek ōkhra […] an egg — because ancient tombs in Europe often contained ochre and real or artificial eggs; Greek ōlenē, a reed mat — because ancient tombs in Xinjiang were often covered by reed mats; […] and Russian jasen, an ash-tree — because in Baltic mythology the souls of men are 'reincarnated … in oaks, birches and ash trees';"

    If this kind of reasoning were sound, we should be happy and not worry. For any Eselsbrücke and crib we can think of will turn out to be the truth. Worse, even just in the unlikely case the above statement were found to be true, we would not have advanced a bit because the methodology applied is totally open to random statements. On the not-so-bright side it is now OK to take any word from any time and any language (provided it's an Aryan language) as evidence for the origin of any letter.

    The nature of the authoritarian is not so much in what is asserted, it is much more in how it is asserted, and that it is asserted. Flat earth, vaxers, moon hoax, racial superiority, and, today, finally a History of the Alphabet without those pesky interlopers from down south. Its all about who has the right to dominate over and silence others. The A and O of Slavery, The Alphabet of Doom. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/bc/Schrifterlass_Antiqua1941.gif

  52. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    June 8, 2019 @ 7:02 am

    David Marjanović said,
    June 7, 2019 @ 8:59 pm

    "Intellectual dishonesty is intellectual dishonesty. It is not a good thing or a defensible thing or a morally neutral thing anywhere. Are you a troll, or have you really not managed to understand this?"

    I'm not a troll, I'm a lawyer. I don't have a Ph.D. in linguistics, and I come (came?) here to try to learn a thing or two from some who do. When my own bona fides is called into question for merely having suggested that "ad hominem" isn't a terribly helpful way to pursue linguistic criticism, I am reminded of one thing that lawyers _do_ know more about than linguists: argument.

    So here's an expert opinion, whereof I testify within a reasonable degree of professional certainty — Once you've stopped addressing the facts of the case, and have gone on to attacking the other guy, you've lost your case.

    P.S. You are right that I'm being sloppy distinguishing between writing systems and alphabets. But I guess the question I was trying to ask was: Are the Mayan writing systems (or the Cuneiform writing system for that matter!) true "writing systems"? That is to say, could someone "learn" the script, and then be able to "read" a previously unseen text, or do they require "extra" information in order to derive lexical meaning from them?

    I wonder about where the line is between a "picture" and "writing". A landscape painting is a bare representation of nature, and conveys "meaning" only subjectively. A religious icon or statue does convey meaning through its stereotyped and largely regular use of color, proportion, gestures, objects, etc. to convey spiritual truths to people who weren't literate enough to read the Bible in Greek or Latin. Then you progress on to things like rebuses and early hieroglyphs, which only just barely fail to make the cut as "sentences". But where is the line, or what is the test?

  53. ~flow said,

    June 8, 2019 @ 8:43 am

    @B. E. Orsetti I'm not sure how relevant your second point is to the discussion at hand (the remarks concerning ad hominems sure are valid), but let me remark that your assumptions about "real writing"—paraphrasingly, it's real writing if you can read and understand it after only learning the script and without any external knowledge—are probably not correct.

    When you want to understand a text, you must to some degree also understand the language that the text is written in. This is true for any kind of notation, be it true writing or rebuses. It also remains true in the digital age. All the attempts at a 'semantic web' were in the end just attempts to add explicit annotations; many people had hoped to be able to 'capture meaning', as it were, but meaning can not be captured.

    In the general case, it is not possible to decrypt an arbitrary encoded message; you always need some context, some assumptions. BOOT means a kind of footwear on the assumption it is an English word, or a boat if meant to be German. Other than that it may also mean 'please start your computer'. There is no telling without evidence, outside of context.

    BTW Egyptian hieroglyphs were rather more contextual than the Latin alphabet in that they sometimes provided so-called 'determiners', i.e. signs that were to be read not according to their sound value but their conventionalized broad semantic class, much like emoji can hint at the intended mood of a remark.

  54. David Marjanović said,

    June 8, 2019 @ 8:48 am

    So to my mind, a Nazi couldpotentially be a world-class linguist; nothing of which I am aware in Nazi ideology makes that impossible. Not all evil men are stupid, and not all good men are intelligent.

    Sorry, I was inadvertently defining "Nazi" as someone who actually believes the stuff. Somebody like Göring, who famously said that the bigger the lie is, the better, could of course pretend to be a true believer while actually knowing better. See also Karl Lueger's famous response when asked about inconsistencies in his antisemitism: "I'm the one who gets to decide who is a Jew".

    When my own bona fides is called into question for merely having suggested that "ad hominem" isn't a terribly helpful way to pursue linguistic criticism

    What… no. I took you as saying that gross inaccuracies (in service of fear & loathing, no less) don't matter on a mere blog that has a deservedly good reputation and a pretty wide readership. This attitude that the Internet isn't real makes me angry, because it is itself based on willful ignorance.

    I'm also amused that you confuse "insult" and "ad-hominem argument". I was concluding that you were either trolling or had overlooked something big, not assuming that from the outset and then basing my conclusions on that assumption.

    Trust me, I pay so little attention to who says something that it completely escaped me the comments from 12:03 pm and 8:15 am were by the same person (i.e. you). I only noticed just now when scrolling up and seeing that in my own comment. :-| I don't reply to people, I reply to individual statements.

    Unrelatedly, I don't think being a troll and a lawyer are mutually exclusive. Even while doing your job as a lawyer, it may on certain occasions be useful to say or write something calculated to inflame the other side, i.e. to troll them – right?

    Are the Mayan writing systems (or the Cuneiform writing system for that matter!) true "writing systems"? That is to say, could someone "learn" the script, and then be able to "read" a previously unseen text

    Yes.

    OK, with cuneiform it's a bit of a matter of definition; the origin of cuneiform is so well documented that we know the very earliest stages couldn't be used to write texts, just to do things like listing the contents of a sealed container. But after that, long before the Sumerian language died out, we're looking at a script quite similar, actually, to modern Japanese in the way it worked.

    Notably, you can tell which language a text is in. Something that may be on the line in this regard is the Indus script-or-non-script: a recent suggestion is that it consists only of religious symbols and could not spell out a specific sentence in a specific language.

  55. David Marjanović said,

    June 8, 2019 @ 8:55 am

    Cuneiform had determiners, too: in front of the names of deities, for instance, you'll generally find a sign that means "deity" but was probably not meant to be read aloud. This is very similar to the radicals of Chinese characters, which generally indicate some kind of semantic class, while the rest of the character usually hints at the pronunciation like the syllabic signs in cuneiform (only less precisely… especially now after 3000 years of language change). The salient difference is just that cuneiform determiners remained free-standing full-sized signs for as long as cuneiform existed, while Chinese radicals are squeezed into a single square space together with the pronunciation hint – and if they apply to several characters in a row (which is rare due to the way Sinitic languages work), they are repeated on each one.

  56. Andreas Johansson said,

    June 8, 2019 @ 12:02 pm

    I wonder about where the line is between a "picture" and "writing".

    It should perhaps be pointed out here that while cuneiform started out with glyphs recognizably depicting things, somewhat like Mayan or Egyptian hieroglyphs, they were eventually stylized into unrecognizability. Cuneiform as used for most of its span is no more pictorial than the Latin script.

  57. Andrew Usher said,

    June 8, 2019 @ 12:07 pm

    Benjamin Orsatti's defining 'writing system' is interesting, not that it's really different from what others would come up with, but every writing system must have passed through that stage in its developement – from an aid to memory to a replacement for memory, and then finally generalised from a system that can be spoken to one that can transcribe spoken language. Both developements, especially the latter, must have been thought of by many people, but societies at that stage do not adopt innovations on the basis of one person's idea; it's a slow process of diffusion, and the scribes are largely unaware of it.

    I believe he must have understood 'knowing the script' to include knowing the language the script is in; clearly the latter is necessary. And I, too, would not say that you 'knew' a script if you couldn't read it – the same way that no amount of knowledge about a languages makes one 'know' (in the competence sense) the language.

    Also, it seems to be that discussion of the actual, historical Nazis is out of place here, unless it can be shown Day considers himself one of them. Ideas of racial and even 'Aryan' superiority didn't start nor end with Nazism.

    J.W.Brewer:
    Of course I would not impose such an impossible standard. Only in the case that it promotes the cause of the proposer should extra scepticism be applied; and even then, the argument _may_ be sound. I didn't think of the Christian connection because frankly I don't see it directly – it's a large step from the Greeks borrowing the alphabet (and letter names, easily explainable) from Semites, to saying 'ancient Greek culture was fundamentally transformed and improved' by Semitic contact. I don't doubt Christians have worked at showing something like that, but I've not heard of its being accepted.

  58. John Cowan said,

    June 8, 2019 @ 1:26 pm

    stimulus diffusion kicked in not much sooner than the invention of N'Ko

    Much earlier than that. Manchu and Yiddish are written with true alphabets derived from abjads in different ways: Yiddish by making the vowel points mandatory on no-longer-sounded letters, Manchu by adding disambiguating "dots and circles" to distinguish the vocalic letters from their consonant look-alikes.

  59. January First-of-May said,

    June 8, 2019 @ 2:02 pm

    @ J.W.Brewer:
    Here, of course, one difficulty is that the conventional ordering of the Greek alphabet closely tracks the order of the Semitic abjads (Hebrew, Arabic, etc. — I don't know whether there are surviving "alphabetical-order" texts in Phoenician that prove the order was the same or that's just the fair inference from the later-attested Semitic scripts) with respect to the characters that appear to be analogous to both the Greek and Semitic scripts.

    I'm not sure if there are any known abecedaries (that's the technical term for "alphabetical-order texts") in Phoenician specifically, but they are definitely known in Ugaritic (which is, of course, even older), with an order that comes out essentially the same as Greek and Hebrew when converted to the pronunciations (it is, I believe, still an open question where do the cuneiform-shaped characters of the Ugaritic abjad come from – IIRC, they don't obviously look like adaptations of something else).
    Funnily enough, Ugaritic abecedaries are also attested with another order – the one that ended up used in Old South Arabian (and a variation of which is used to this day in the Ge'ez abugida of Ethiopia).

    Proto-Sinaitic, IIRC, is known from two or three relatively short inscriptions that don't even contain the entire alphabet between them, so we don't know what its alphabetical order was – if it even had any.

  60. Andreas Johansson said,

    June 8, 2019 @ 3:12 pm

    You'd think that "are there any Phoenician abecedaries known" would the sort of question that Google would quickly answer, but you'd be wrong. I find lots of pages saying or implying that the Phoenicians used the Greek/Hebrew/etc. order, but none that says there are, or aren't, abecedaries to prove it.

  61. Sally Thomason said,

    June 8, 2019 @ 3:34 pm

    Andrew Usher, not every writing system passed through the stages you're describing — at least some of the derivative ones didn't. Sequoya was not literate in English (or, to begin with, in any other language), but he recognized the basic idea of a writing system from observing writers/readers, and that inspired him to develop his own original system for Cherokee: a syllabary, not an alphabet. From what I've read about it, it was a true writing system, with clear sound-to-symbol linkages, from the get-go. I've read that he did experiment with logographs (one symbol per word) at first, but I think the first functioning writing system he came up with, after tinkering for some years, was the syllabary.

  62. alex said,

    June 8, 2019 @ 3:58 pm

    I really wish the qualifier was at the end if at all.

    By having it at the beginning it doesn't allow non academics to find their own way. I also don't understand why labeling the author as racist was needed.

    It would have been much stronger if his research was bunk to let the commentators explain why. I suppose perhaps now I might be labelled racist supporter because of my comment.

    Given where I am currently located, this platforming people by the technology companies sure seems scary

  63. Alex said,

    June 8, 2019 @ 4:02 pm

    sorry meant deplatforming of people

  64. David Marjanović said,

    June 8, 2019 @ 4:50 pm

    Much earlier than that. Manchu and Yiddish

    Argh, sorry, I included all the abjads and abugidas in "alphabets".

    By having it at the beginning it doesn't allow non academics to find their own way.

    Textbooks don't just throw stuff at learners and "allow them to find their own way" either.

    I also don't understand why labeling the author as racist was needed.

    His racism is – as his other published works show – such a strong motivation for him that it appears to have colored his approach to the question that is the headline here.

    What technology companies are you talking about, BTW?

  65. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    June 8, 2019 @ 5:06 pm

    Does anybody have a copy of Prof Sampson's "Writing Systems Second Edition"?

  66. Nick Z said,

    June 8, 2019 @ 5:12 pm

    @Alex,
    on the basis that your comment about commentators explaining is a genuine one, I'll try to sum up some of the reasons why there has been such a strong reaction to the linguistic ideas of this post (and leaving aside any political views that may have been expressed elsewhere by the author, or may be thought to be implicit in the post). Most of these points have already been made in the comments, but perhaps it will be useful to summarise them.

    1) The earliest Greek alphabets do not run from A (alpha) to Ω (omega); in fact the very earliest runs only to Υ (upsilon). Consequently, we know that omega was a relatively late addition to the alphabet. Therefore, any idea that the alphabet from alpha to omega was conceived as a single conceptual unit, as implied by the post, is contradicted by the historical facts.

    2) The Greek alphabet is first attested around the eighth century BC. It is called the Greek alphabet because it was used to write the Greek language. The author of the post claims that the alphabet was invented by 'Indo-Europeans'. At this point, the terminology becomes slippery. Speakers of Greek were (and are) speakers of an Indo-European language, because Greek can be shown to share regular and non-chance correspondences in its sounds in words with identical or similar meanings with a group of other languages. From this it is posited that there once existed a single language, never written down, from which all these languages are derived, known as Proto-Indo-European (PIE). Insofar as this language existed as a single spoken language, it cannot reasonably be dated after, say, 3000 BC at the latest (and this is probably much too late).
    Given the way that the author quotes a range of comparanda from a number of Indo-European languages in support of his idea, he seems to imply that by 'Indo-Europeans' he means speakers of PIE (which is a common, if perhaps regrettable, shorthand). In which case, we would have to assume that the alphabet was invented c. 3000 BC at the latest, but was then not used to write on materials that have survived until c. 750 BC. Meanwhile, speakers of other Indo-European languages such as Hittite had forgotten or chosen not to use this alphabet, and instead adopted the cuneiform system. And, indeed, speakers of Greek themselves, in Greece, had adopted a different writing system (Linear B), in the second millennium BC, not returning to the 'Indo-European' alphabet for several hundred years.

    3) Alternatively, and very much giving the benefit of the doubt, the much more restricted claim could be made that 'Indo-European' here was being used loosely, and the author really means that the alphabet was invented by speakers of (the Indo-European language) Greek. If so, the quotation of forms from Latin, Breton, Tocharian etc. is meaningless. Instead, it should be shown what words existed in Greek at the time of the invention of the alphabet that had the appropriate meanings ('birth'/'death') from which the names of the letters could be derived, and explain how the whole name of the letter was created within the Greek linguistic system: so, for 'alpha' it is not good enough to claim that there was a root *al- floating about, but also where the -pha comes from.

    4) This is an important point, because linguistic comparison is bedevilled by the problem that human languages only use a relatively restricted number of sounds, and combine them in a limited number of ways. Consequently, if all we have to do is look for words beginning with the sequence [al-] that have a meaning that could be argued to have something to do with 'birth', we will be able to do this very easily indeed, even in a single language, let alone when we allow ourselves a huge range of languages, as here, and where the semantics are so incredibly broad ('other', 'kneel' 'cry aloud', 'pain', 'a thing of little worth', 'small', 'the skin enclosing the foetus or afterbirth', 'feel chilly'). Things are even worse with omega, since the '-mega' is a late addition to the name, transparently meaning 'big', and distinguishing it from the letter omicron 'little o'. So we just need to find words beginning with a single sound, long [ō-], of which obviously vast quantities can be easily found. And note again the semantic vagueness: words for 'egg' are said to belong here because 'ancient tombs in Europe often contained … real or artificial eggs'. Imagine if the order of the letters were reversed, and omega were first. Surely our author could as easily claim that the [ō-] in word for 'egg' like Latin ōuum had to do with birth – indeed this would be far more plausible.

    I could go on, at significantly greater length; I have missed out many of the very sensible further objections that commenters have made, and also ignored evidence on the Phoenician side of things. But these points – which rest on only the most basic concepts in the history of the alphabet and in Indo-European linguistics – should be enough to make it clear why linguists reject the post out of hand, and are dismayed to see it on such a reputable, and public-facing, linguistics blog.

  67. Scott P. said,

    June 8, 2019 @ 5:29 pm

    "Does anybody have a copy of Prof Sampson's "Writing Systems Second Edition"?"

    Yes — or at least the first edition. Very good book.

    Another pseudo-script that has sparked a lot of debate is the Rapa Nui rongo rongo. The general conclusion has been that it was more of a mnemonic system rather than true writing.

    Two characteristics that I think most linguists use to define something as a writing system is:

    1) The system can write any phrase you can think of — that is, it is as open-ended as the language itself and

    2) Given a written text, it can be reversed to its spoken equivalent unambiguously — that is, one text has only one way to be 'read' (in terms of sounds and words).

  68. Alex said,

    June 8, 2019 @ 5:39 pm

    As mentioned I am not even an amateur. I came across language log awhile back while searching for answers on some thoughts I had.

    When I read the post as an amateur I didn't feel any racism. I can understand if a submission is rejected because it overtly spews racism.

    I enjoyed reading some of the responses that explain why others feel his theories are wrong.

    What I didn't enjoy is the labeling. Does it add value to the discussion to call the man a racist?

    Should we implement a Language Log social credit system like the system they use where I am currently residing? Should I check my virtue signalling level to see if I can comment?

    I wonder how many posts especially on AI and other theories that I have seen on this site will be thought as lunacy 20 years from now.

    It reminds me of the Star Trek movie where McCoy and someone are walking through our current hospital system and McCoy comments how barbaric our current procedures are.

    Moreover because it was posted by one of your colleagues the appropriate and RESPECTFUL way to respond would be to respond in the way some have which is to state the reasons why the theory is wrong.

  69. alex said,

    June 8, 2019 @ 5:43 pm

    @Nick Z said

    Thank you will read more closely later. Yes I am naturally curious. I am definitely waste too much time on Wikipedia. Thus my saying to my friends, my TK (timekiller) of the day is X

  70. Jenebert said,

    June 8, 2019 @ 7:04 pm

    @Alex

    While labeling someone a racist shouldn't be done lightly, it's appropriate and relevant to identify someone as such if racism is indeed the basic motivation behind that person making certain specious arguments that defy current linguistic consensus and, indeed, common sense. It is important to understand that his arguments are grounded not so much in an objective examination of facts as in ideology–facts and evidence are secondary, are cherry-picked to fit the worldview.

  71. Bathrobe said,

    June 8, 2019 @ 7:46 pm

    I agree that the rejection of Mr Day quickly developed strong political overtones.

    My own first reaction was WHY someone would want to replace a well-supported hypothesis with such blatant nonsense? With crackpots you have to wonder where they are coming from. What was behind this puzzling rejection of 'Semitic' in favour of 'Indo-European'?

    It didn't take people long to find out, and the damning evidence about Day's views came from a linguist, Chris Culver, who, among others, researches the languages of Russia.

    Essentially, what lies behind this travesty of research appears to be certain views on the 'Indo-European race'. Since such views have historically been associated with some of the worst excesses of the 20th century, it is not surprising that a specious hypothesis that has no other raison d'être than supporting such views should be rejected so vehemently.

  72. AntC said,

    June 8, 2019 @ 7:52 pm

    Does it add value to the discussion to call the man a racist?

    Yes (that is even without referring to any of Day's other writings): racism is a reasonable explanation why Day claims an Aryan origin for our alphabet, rather than the accepted African/Semitic origin. Racism has blinded Day to any sensible evidence.

    When I read the post as an amateur I didn't feel any racism.

    If you're coming here to learn about linguistics, you'll also need to learn how to detect pseudo-linguistics being used to justify racism or cultural hegemony. See for example 'Goropism', and how the Nazis used common-language to justify their Lebensraum policies. A language is a dialect with an army and a navy [Weinreich attrib].

    I wonder how many posts … will be thought as lunacy 20 years from now.

    Loony theories around language have been going strong for centuries, and show no signs of abating. The internet now means that any nonsense can get out there, and seemingly get picked up and uncritically promulgated by the media, who are always desperate for sensation, and seem to think that when it comes to language, anybody can just make stuff up, there's no need to check with an expert. After all, we all speak languages, so we're all experts! Most of these theories are relatively harmless; it must be wearing for people who've spent a career building up expertise to put in the continual effort to counter them: why bother, it's not going to promote their careers?

    Then it's easy to exploit this environment for more sinister purposes. If you're pre-disposed to want the Aryan race to be superior, just put together some spurious justification that Aryans invented the alphabet. Your 'evidence' is just as plausible as the guy claiming all the world's languages are derived from proto-Basque. Throw in for good measure that there's a conspiracy of professional linguists who are blinded by their own dogmatism. You could point to how many prominent linguistics experts are Jewish.

  73. John Swindle said,

    June 8, 2019 @ 8:40 pm

    @Scott P.: You mentioned that one of the characteristics linguists use to define something as a writing system is that "(g)iven a written text, it can be reversed to its spoken equivalent unambiguously — that is, one text has only one way to be 'read' (in terms of sounds and words)." Not to belabor the obvious, but in general that works, and at the margins it doesn't. The writing systems currently used for most (all?) languages leave the occasional ambiguity for the reader. Dictionaries list variant pronunciations for the same word and different words with the same spelling, Proper names complicate the matter.

  74. Alex said,

    June 8, 2019 @ 9:09 pm

    What's a shame is rather than debate the issue on merits, one makes it uninviting enough to try to hear the other side. I don't know if John McWhorter, who I have watched and admired on youtube would have welcomed the chance to debate this individual within the comments section which would have been nice from a learning standpoint or his questions were rhetorical.

    Its clear that it would take a strong man with a desire try to share his thoughts to do so in this uninviting forum.

    What's interesting is that being Chinese living in China now, while growing up in the States, at times I'm considered a Chinese version of an Uncle Tom when I try to discuss pinyin as a better system than Chinese characters here. Am I trying to saying the White man is superior? or am I just saying one system is better than the other?

    I get the I guess you think everything western is better remarks all the time.

    I would have loved to have seen a calm discussion between the Professor Day and the experts here in the comments section.

    But now all I am left with is we are right that guy is a crackpot.

    I assume most who find their way to this site are reasonably educated. Would it not have been enough to link to his other works and let an educated person to decide for themselves? I am not trolling. I seriously think it would have been of value to welcome the author to a debate and to publish it so that people can see a step by step refutation to his theories.

    Instead now we are left with an appearance of echo chamber even if what is said here is correct.

    Perhaps one day LL can have a twitch channel. Chess.com has one where you get to see the top players play blitz live.

    I really enjoy this site and feel many others would too. I wish it keeps progressing with with modern mediums.

  75. Chris Button said,

    June 8, 2019 @ 9:16 pm

    @ Sally Thomason

    Sequoya was not literate in English (or, to begin with, in any other language), but he recognized the basic idea of a writing system from observing writers/readers, and that inspired him to develop his own original system for Cherokee: a syllabary, not an alphabet. From what I've read about it, it was a true writing system, with clear sound-to-symbol linkages, from the get-go. I've read that he did experiment with logographs (one symbol per word) at first, but I think the first functioning writing system he came up with, after tinkering for some years, was the syllabary.

    Pau Cin Hau tried out both too. I don't know whether he was literate or not, but he was was undoubtedly influenced by both the Burmese script (being located in Burma) and the English alphabet (given the activities of English speaking missionaries). Several of the symbols he uses are identical to ones in Burmese and English. In particular, in the syllabary (rather than the logographic script) he uses Burmese style sentence final double lines for sentence final tone marks (the single line ones correspond roughly to commas in Burmese), along with single and double dots that are also used to denote tone in Burmese (creaky and high respectively). In that regard, he clearly understood the role of the punctuation / tone-marking in Burmese so must have had some knowledge of how writing systems worked.

    @ Benjamin E. Orsatti

    … it would be hard to derive Chinese from Phonecian, I'd imagine…

    True, although the idea that the twenty-two Tiangan Dizhi might have been inspired by the Phoenician alphabet does crop up every now and then in the literature…

  76. Victor Mair said,

    June 8, 2019 @ 11:15 pm

    "the idea that the twenty-two Tiangan Dizhi might have been inspired by the Phoenician alphabet does crop up every now and then in the literature…"

    Indeed, Pulleyblank at one time believed that, then disavowed it, then I think he believed it for awhile again, but finally ended up rejecting it (I think).

    I independently came to the conclusion that there is a relationship between the Phoenician consonantary (actually I was working with the Ugaritic prototype) and the tiangan dizhi ("calendrical stems and branches" — constituting a sexagenary cycle for recording days in the earliest written records utilizing the Sinographic script). I wrote a 300-page manuscript on that subject more than three decades ago, but haven't had time to revise it for publication (too many LLog posts and things like that). I hope that I can get to it within 5-10 years — have to finish the massive Middle Vernacular (MVS) dictionary first because I have a collaborator, and we've been laboring on it for more than twenty years.

  77. AntC said,

    June 8, 2019 @ 11:37 pm

    @Alex I see plenty of evidence here on the demerits of Day's claim. Notably Day, after providing the o.p. has not come here to defend that claim. (Or perhaps thanks to the anonymity of the internet, he has under some other name. Perhaps you are he, for all I can tell.)

    If you're concerned about open debate, you could try going to the TOQ site and countering their racism. You could tell of all the world-beating inventions of Chinese origin, rather than Aryan. See how much of a hearing you'll get.

    Plenty of strong opinions (from men or women or other) are volunteered on LLog. Where "strong" means supported by evidence and scholarship. Specifically, there are links to Day's other writings for you to go look at; nobody is withholding evidence/preventing you making up your own mind.

    And there's plenty of respectful discussion of writing systems for Sinitic languages. In fact Prof Mair is a frequent advocate for pinyin, so I've no idea where you've gotten hold of this "Uncle Tom" accusation. If it's been on LLog, I'd count it as a minority opinion.

    we are left with an appearance of echo chamber even if what is said here is correct.

    Heard the phrase "ring true"? What Day said is not correct; strong counter-evidence from several different angles has been presented. That is not an "echo chamber" in the sense of 'empty vessel'. It's the truth ringing.

  78. Alex said,

    June 9, 2019 @ 1:28 am

    @ antc,

    its my quick unclear writing that caused one of the confusions.

    By here, I mean here in China, not here as in LL.

    Many locals here in China think I'm an "uncle tom"

    Ill address your other points later.

  79. Bathrobe said,

    June 9, 2019 @ 2:50 am

    What's a shame is rather than debate the issue on merits, one makes it uninviting enough to try to hear the other side.

    I don't agree with this. People are debating the issue on its merits. People have described how ludicrous his arguments are. Some have gone out of their way to explain to YOU why they are ludicrous. Let me assure you, you don't need John McWorther to discuss this with Day, who has yet to put in an appearance.

    You seem to think that his arguments are being dismissed out of hand because he is a brave man arguing in the face of orthodoxy. Your sympathies are misplaced. If his arguments had even a skerrick of reasonable support people would give him a hearing. But they do not. They are so far out of the sphere of rational discussion that it is impossible to take them seriously. People are dismissing this post because it is sheer nonsense, not because they don't like his politics.

    Discussing pinyin with Chinese is a different matter. Most will reject pinyin without even looking at its merits. They will then dismiss you as 'a Westerner'.

    People here (even briefly John McWorther) have discussed the post in detail. It has no merit. Full stop. The fact that Day has expressed racist views on history is just the icing on the cake.

  80. AntC said,

    June 9, 2019 @ 3:01 am

    I don't know if anybody's followed the link the o.p. gives to the Amazon blurb for the book … And by now probably everybody's exhausted …

    a) John V Day claims only to be a PhD, not a Professor.

    b) You're in for a treat with the book: there's bonus gematria.

    Is it true PIE *kap- "to grasp" gave the root of PIE "hand"? (Etymonline say that's *man-.) The blurb provides a root for another word for hand: *dek-, allegedly as in "inDEX" (finger). Etymonline says "index" is from *deik- "to show/point out", whereas *dek- means "take/accept". The blurb wants to connect that to dec- as in "ten" (hands have ten fingers, innit). Etymonline says that's from *dekm-.

    And note the similarity in form between the Greek alphabet's kappa, Κ, and the Roman numeral for ten, X.

    Kappa being the tenth letter of the Greek alphabet. Since the Latin alphabet also has a K (also tenth), I'm wondering why the Romans would switch to the 21st letter of their alphabet, using a character based on Greek Chi.

    Must be because "In the system of Greek numerals, Kʹ has a value of 20." [wikipedia]

    Silly me: I've always believed (and this allegation is repeated in wikipedia) X for ten derives from two joined Vs for five; V looks like the vee (geddit) formed between thumb and fingers when indicating a full five.

    The blurb claims John V Day as "recognized prehistorian", no mention of any expertise/quals in languages or alphabets. It shows. (Quite irrespective of whether the book derives from some predetermined agenda.)

    I apologise if my reaction falls below the high standards of scientific evaluation I expect at LLog but: I've never heard such concentrated bollox since I tore myself away from the mesmeric ramblings of Edo Nyland.

  81. Tom Saylor said,

    June 9, 2019 @ 6:49 am

    I had always imagined that "guest posts" on LL were written specifically for LL at the invitation of one of LL's proprietors. Is that generally the case, and was it the case here? This reads to me like a generic teaser designed to promote the writer's book, not a guest post intended for the LL readership.

  82. Ken said,

    June 9, 2019 @ 6:58 am

    @AntC: And of course kappa represents 20 because it's the eleventh letter of the Greek alphabet as used for numbers. That alphabet has the extra digamma character at position 6, matching the Phoenician waw, but dropped because Greek doesn't use that consonant.

    So he even gets the gematria wrong.

  83. Alex said,

    June 9, 2019 @ 7:22 am

    @tom saylor,

    Finally, someone touches upon a point I made.

    will address other points later as just back from kids stuff.

  84. Chris Button said,

    June 9, 2019 @ 7:32 am

    @ Victor Mair

    Indeed, Pulleyblank at one time believed that, then disavowed it, then I think he believed it for awhile again, but finally ended up rejecting it (I think).

    I independently came to the conclusion that there is a relationship between the Phoenician consonantary (actually I was working with the Ugaritic prototype) and the tiangan dizhi ("calendrical stems and branches" — constituting a sexagenary cycle for recording days in the earliest written records utilizing the Sinographic script). I wrote a 300-page manuscript on that subject more than three decades ago, but haven't had time to revise it for publication (too many LLog posts and things like that).

    I'm curious if you have any thoughts on how this might connect in any way to 丁 as the four-sided square/rectangle being the 4th heavenly stem (briefly discussed here https://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=41538) and 午 "noon" (graphically and semantically related to 五 "five" as a mid-point) being the 7th earthly branch, but notably also the 5th solar month.

  85. alex said,

    June 9, 2019 @ 8:02 am

    @bathrobe

    I do appreciate those who wrote in response to help me understand the merits of the arguments. Unfortunately I have no time but the middle of the night China Standard Time as during the day I spend with my kids at night wife when shes home so its only after she is asleep do I address work and my own curiosities.

    No, I dont think his arguments are being dismissed willy nilly . Its been clear since the first set of responses, some try to point out factual errors.

    I almost always track down every link provided and then some when something is of interest

    As sgt schultz said on hogans heroes " I know nothing!" concerning Professor Day. Ive never heard of him so its doubtful I accorded him any points for courage.

    I only glanced at the post quickly and as mentioned it was more complex than the usual so I didn't even understand most of it.

    Back to the other point, I saw it was filed under Professor Mair.
    It said this is a Guest Post, thus I assumed guest means guest and where I come from if a friend introduces a guest, I accord him courtesy.

    I'm envisioning knocking on Professor Mair's door (as this his post not mine, im coming to his door) He introduces a person to me as a guest staying at his home.

    So unless someone hijacked Professor Mair's account and posted that without his knowledge, I feel Professor Mair deserves the benefit of doubt.

    I dont think I need to say more as I dont have the background on the technical stuff.

    I am curious now and will spend some cycles.

  86. David Marjanović said,

    June 9, 2019 @ 10:12 am

    Nick Z said,

    June 8, 2019 @ 5:12 pm

    […] Most of these points have already been made in the comments, but perhaps it will be useful to summarise them.

    Yes, thank you!

    Things are even worse with omega, since the '-mega' is a late addition to the name, transparently meaning 'big', and distinguishing it from the letter omicron 'little o'.

    Indeed, up to New Testament times, its name was just "ō". That famous passage that says Jesus is the Α and the Ω spells the letter names out: τὸ ἄλφα καὶ τὸ ὦ. "Omega" and "omicron" are later coinages that became necessary when the distinction in pronunciation was gone. There are Spanish-speaking places today where B is called be alta or be larga to distinguish it from the identically pronounced V, ve baja or ve corta.

    Alex said,

    June 8, 2019 @ 5:39 pm

    […]

    […] the appropriate and RESPECTFUL way to respond would be to respond in the way some have which is to state the reasons why the theory is wrong.

    Just to be clear: my attempt to do exactly that in full detail should not be mistaken as a sign of respect – or for that matter of disrespect, which I have, but have not expressed that way. I have simply taken each claim in the OP and explained, because I could, what's wrong with it, without pondering social implications.

    Alex said,

    June 8, 2019 @ 9:09 pm

    […] I don't know if John McWhorter, who I have watched and admired on youtube would have welcomed the chance to debate this individual within the comments section which would have been nice from a learning standpoint or his questions were rhetorical.

    I don't think anything prevents Mr. Day from coming here and trying to defend his work. I'm actually surprised he hasn't already done so.

    AntC said,

    June 9, 2019 @ 3:01 am

    […]
    Is it true PIE *kap- "to grasp" gave the root of PIE "hand"?

    *kap- or more likely *kh₂ep- is the root found in have and in Latin capere. Different IE branches have a few quite different roots for "hand", so it's not trivial to reconstruct which one was used for "hand" in PIE, but I can't think of any right now that use *kap-/*kh₂ep-. Hand itself starts with a *k or a *ḱ, but the similarities end there.

  87. Victor Mair said,

    June 9, 2019 @ 10:38 am

    @Chris Button:

    Good questions about the relationship between specific stems and branches on the one hand and letters of the Phoenician consonantary on the other hand. I don't have time to go into this in detail now, but was able to establish a one-for-one correspondence between sounds and symbols of the two sets. Most of them were fairly easy and straightforward, e.g., bǐng 丙 and B, dīng 丁 and D.

    I will not return to this project until I've finished with the MVS dictionary.

  88. ft said,

    June 9, 2019 @ 10:58 am

    > I don't think anything prevents Mr. Day from coming here and trying to defend his work. I'm actually surprised he hasn't already done so.

    i imagine he's well aware of the opinions actual linguists would have on his work and doesn't want to waste time defending it when no one will be convinced.

    the purpose of his guest posting on LL will have been 1) to make people who share his own views aware of his work, so they can buy his book and find other forums to discuss it, and 2) to sow the seeds of doubt in readers who lack the knowledge to refute his argument; this is part of a general strategy among racists to present more "reasonable"-looking parts of their beliefs to mainstream audiences in the hope that people will "connect the dots" and be more open to other, more clearly racist views in the future. convincing individuals doesn't matter; it's basically a game of numbers where they just want to reach as many people as possible.

    with that in mind, i personally think it would have been better, on balance, for the content of this post to be removed, although i do also see the value in preserving the refutations in the comments and i understand Mark's decision.

  89. bratschegirl said,

    June 9, 2019 @ 11:52 am

    One is mildly curious: This blog is to all appearances, populated by those with serious scholarly linguistic credentials. Mr. Day is, apparently, widely regarded as a fringe voice with highly questionable motivation who draws insupportable conclusions from cherry-picked data. How did it happen, then, that someone decided this was a "reputable linguistic perspective" that deserved to be shared here?

  90. Vanya said,

    June 9, 2019 @ 1:14 pm

    someone decided this was a "reputable linguistic perspective"

    Not "someone", Victor Mair made that decision. For whatever reason, he hasn't explained why he thought these views deserved serious consideration.

  91. Terry Hunt said,

    June 9, 2019 @ 3:42 pm

    As a complete layman in, though a fan of, historical linguistics (hence my regular reading and very occasional commenting here) my initial thoughts about the original post were that it seemed implausible within itself and completely contrary to everything else I have ever read concerning the topic. I'm pleased to see that the comments of those vastly more knowledgeable than I have confirmed those impressions.

    The discussion has also raised a couple of quite possibly naive questions in my mind:
    (1) Whatever the ultimate origins of 'the alphabet' (which I presume to be an abjad derived from Egyptian hieroglyphics until someone tells me otherwise), what might have determined its original order?
    (2) While the idea that it was in toto originally ordered to reflect a particular 'story' seems both implausible (particularly in Mr Day's version, which would require time travel) and difficult to prove (or disprove), has any culture invented such a 'story' to aid remembrance of its individual elements and/or order overall?

    (Though Clive King's children's novel The 22 Letters probably lacks ultimate veracity concerning these questions, it is in my view excellent entertainment.)

  92. David Marjanović said,

    June 9, 2019 @ 4:46 pm

    One is mildly curious: This blog is to all appearances, populated by those with serious scholarly linguistic credentials.

    Indeed – but linguistics is such a large field that I really don't think anyone is an expert in all of it. Of the current LLog contributors, excluding guest posters (we want more Donald Ringe!), none is a specialist in historical linguistics as far as I know, and even of the commenters in this thread, the only ones I can identify who have published on historical linguistics are John McWhorter, Jonathan Smith, Sally Thomason, Chris Button and, I think, ~flow.

    (Not myself. I've read a lot about historical linguistics, thank Gore for the Internet, but I've neither formally studied the subject nor published on it.)

  93. David Marjanović said,

    June 9, 2019 @ 4:47 pm

    Oops, forgot:

    The discussion has also raised a couple of quite possibly naive questions in my mind:

    These are very good questions!

  94. occassional reader said,

    June 9, 2019 @ 6:13 pm

    Mark, I really think you should get rid off this post.

  95. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    June 9, 2019 @ 7:03 pm

    David Marjanović said,
    June 8, 2019 @ 8:48 am
    […]
    "What… no. I took you as saying that gross inaccuracies (in service of fear & loathing, no less) don't matter on a mere blog that has a deservedly good reputation and a pretty wide readership. This attitude that the Internet isn't real makes me angry, because it is itself based on willful ignorance."

    BEO: This is a good point, and one that bears repeating. The "deservedly good reputation" and "pretty wide readership" enjoyed by LL derives substantially from the fact that its editors and commentators are quick to identify "gross inaccuracies" of scholarship, and to debunk them accordingly. Please don't think that I intended to place LL among FB and Yahoo News, as just a "mere blog", which people frequent just to hear the sound of their own voices yelling at other anonymous strangers. It's precisely _because_ of my respect for LL that I would be truly saddened if the comments portion devolved into ad hominem argumentation or emotionally-derived political polemic. I think we're getting at the same thing here, just from different angles. Maybe much of the Internet isn't "real", but I think you and I would both get behind the proposition that Language Log is, and should remain, as "real", especially in terms of scholarship and academic rigor, as the circumstances allow.
    ===

    "Unrelatedly, I don't think being a troll and a lawyer are mutually exclusive. Even while doing your job as a lawyer, it may on certain occasions be useful to say or write something calculated to inflame the other side, i.e. to troll them – right?"

    BEO: I personally think it's playing dirty pool to deliberately provoke an emotional response in, say, an adverse witness giving testimony on cross-examination, with the goal of causing the witness to show anger and/or give unfavorable testimony and/or lose credibility in the eyes of the judge or jury. Not to say that I haven't ever done it — I know I have. I just wish I hadn't. Lawyers are _supposed_ to be the guardians of truth and justice, not psychological manipulators, for whom the "ends" justify the "means".
    ===

    ""Are the Mayan writing systems (or the Cuneiform writing system for that matter!) true "writing systems"? That is to say, could someone "learn" the script, and then be able to "read" a previously unseen text."

    "Yes."

    "OK, with cuneiform it's a bit of a matter of definition; the origin of cuneiform is so well documented that we know the very earliest stages couldn't be used to write texts, just to do things like listing the contents of a sealed container. But after that, long before the Sumerian language died out, we're looking at a script quite similar, actually, to modern Japanese in the way it worked."

    […]

    "Cuneiform had determiners, too: in front of the names of deities, for instance, you'll generally find a sign that means "deity" but was probably not meant to be read aloud. This is very similar to the radicals of Chinese characters, which generally indicate some kind of semantic class, while the rest of the character usually hints at the pronunciation like the syllabic signs in cuneiform (only less precisely… especially now after 3000 years of language change). The salient difference is just that cuneiform determiners remained free-standing full-sized signs for as long as cuneiform existed, while Chinese radicals are squeezed into a single square space together with the pronunciation hint – and if they apply to several characters in a row (which is rare due to the way Sinitic languages work), they are repeated on each one."

    BEO: Thank you for that explanation! Once you made the analogy to the Japanese use of Chinese characters, it "clicked" — if the last 2 surviving speakers of Sumerian would read a Cuneiform text the same way (c. 400 A.D. or something?), then it makes sense as a "writing system", identifiers and all. Modern Japanese may have several different readings for each kanji, but if you know the language, you will know which one to use, given context, grammar, etc.

    Which made me think about PRE-modern written Japanese. Is Manyogana a true "writing system", or more of an "aide-memoire". That is, would two people, each reading:

    "篭毛與 美篭母乳 布久思毛與 美夫君志持 此岳尓 菜採須兒 家吉閑名 告根 虚見津 山跡乃國者 押奈戸手 吾許曽居 師名倍手 吾己曽座 我背齒 告目 家呼毛名雄母"

    …both know that the text "means"…

    "篭もよ み篭持ち 堀串もよ み堀串持ち この岡に 菜摘ます子 家聞かな 告らさね そらみつ 大和の国は おしなべて 我れこそ居れ しきなべて 我れこそ座せ 我れこそば 告らめ 家をも名をも"

    …and both know that it is to be pronounced?:

    "こもよ,みこもち,ふくしもよ,みぶくしもち,このをかに,なつますこ,いへきかな,のらさね,そらみつ,やまとのくには,おしなべて,われこそをれ,しきなべて,われこそませ,われこそば,のらめ,いへをもなをも"
    (text source: https://web.archive.org/web/20050307000849/http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/japanese/manyoshu/AnoMany.html)

    If they both wouldn't agree, then what is the sine qua non of a "writing system", as distinguished from ideographic or mnemonic "proto-writing"?

    Admittedly, this is way off topic, so I won't take offense if the answer is: "See this thread from 3 years ago where we talked about this".

  96. Jonathan Smith said,

    June 9, 2019 @ 7:49 pm

    For those asking why this would appear in this forum, it's because origins of writing esp. wrt the alphabet and/or the Chinese sexagenary cycle are a long-running theme here in filings of VHM as well as at Sino-Platonic Papers. I was pulling some bibliographical details along these lines into this post but lost my work halfway and don't feel like redoing it right at the moment, but interested readers can probably find Pulleyblank (1979) "The Chinese Cyclical Signs as Phonograms", where he refers to his own earlier (1975) presentation "The Chinese cyclical signs and the origins of the alphabet" — in '79 disavowing some of his earlier suggestions in light of further study of the early history of the alphabet — as well as some scattered remarks in International Review of Chinese Linguistics 1:1 (1996) with a paper by Pulleyblank and responses from Mair and others. Prof. Mair also has a 1992 (?) paper in the proceedings of the 33rd International Congress of Asian and North African Studies (Toronto 1990); again just a few relevant comments. Then more extensive are Julie Lee Wei's (occasional commenter here) and Brian Pellar's three (?) papers in SPP over recent years. There is a book I have not seen, Le mystère de l'ordre alphabétique: De la mesure du temps à l'écriture, by a Patrice Serres. Oh, and Hugh Moran's (1953) book and the later reedited version with David Kelley's contribution (1969), both titled The Alphabet and the Ancient Calendar Signs or so. I am sure I am missing stuff. One could go through the above bibliographies…

    As for whether the above should not have appeared, I agree with some above comments that (1) most important are the merits of the contribution itself as opposed to the author's (X), and that (2) such merits are few to none in this case. "Pseudo-ness" of science is a function not of the topic or of the conclusions, areas where anything can in theory go and in light of which we might on occasion not entirely pejoratively apply the term "fringe", but by wrong facts and/or broken argumentation such that we are left wondering what else the author might be up to. Sometimes it is something personal rather than pernicious (Wu, Chau on LL IMO), sometimes it is pernicious. My take on why it did appear is that if Prof. Mair errs it will be always on the side of "breadth" — thus his enthusiasm and support for my own study of the TGDZ despite it having no obvious (?) points of contact with his own work in the area. My thoughts…

  97. Bathrobe said,

    June 9, 2019 @ 8:20 pm

    What Jonathan Smith said…

  98. Sally Thomason said,

    June 9, 2019 @ 11:22 pm

    @David Marjanovic — Actually, historical linguistics is my specialty — about 90% of my publications are on historical linguistics, mostly but not entirely on contact-induced language change, that is, how languages in contact influence each other. My most recent book wasn't historical — it was on endangered languages. But of course language endangerment happens in situations of language contact, and some endangered languages undergo a lot of changes as they lose speakers.

  99. Bob Ladd said,

    June 10, 2019 @ 1:17 am

    @ Jonathan Smith, Bathrobe:
    Fair enough, but I still wonder why VHM presented Day's work without comment. Compare his treatment of Gerard Cheshire's Voynich "decipherment" only a few weeks ago (https://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=42749). The two cases seem quite comparable.

  100. JPL said,

    June 10, 2019 @ 3:38 am

    @Sally Thomason wrt @ David Marjanovic:

    Yes, I was about to say, any linguist who seriously studies language contact phenomena (e.g., Sally Thomason, John McWhorter) has to be well versed in historical linguistics, since the aim of the scholarly dialogue is to "complete the picture" of the historical development of languages that the older field has given us.

  101. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    June 10, 2019 @ 4:22 am

    what is the sine qua non of a "writing system", as distinguished from ideographic or mnemonic "proto-writing"?

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