The invention, development, and decipherment of writing

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Long article by Josephine Quinn:

Alphabet Politics:
What prompted the development of systems of writing?

The New York Review (1/19/23 [online 12/19/22])

This is a detailed review of these two books:

The Greatest Invention: A History of the World in Nine Mysterious Scripts

by Silvia Ferrara, translated from the Italian by Todd Portnowitz
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 289 pp., $29.00
 

Inventing the Alphabet: The Origins of Letters from Antiquity to the Present

by Johanna Drucker
University of Chicago Press, 380 pp., $40.00

A few excerpts:

Being able to read a script is not the same as understanding a language. Even if the new hypothesis does find general acceptance, significant gaps will remain in our knowledge of Elamite grammar and vocabulary. It doesn’t help that Elamite is “isolated,” that is, unrelated to any other known tongue. All the same, there is now reasonable hope of translating what survives of the records these adventurous ancient traders left of their world.

Deciphering unknown languages often depends on the fact that the same language can be written in multiple scripts (as with Elamite, and later Turkish or Malay), and the same script can be used to write multiple languages (as with cuneiform, and later the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets). But as we see in modern writing systems from musical notes to emojis, script isn’t always tied to language at all.

What prompted the writing down of language? The traditional answer is the state: writing appears in Mesopotamia and many other places with the development of centralized political institutions. It suited their administrative and fiscal requirements, and it often worked to their benefit: the earliest surviving Chinese writing, oracles inscribed on pieces of bone including turtle shells, predicts the military maneuvers of the king’s enemies and neighbors.

All the same, as Silvia Ferrara points out in The Greatest Invention, writing doesn’t require states to take off. The runic script, more properly called futhark, appears in Northern Europe in the second century CE in the absence of strong central government, and although its letters are based closely on the alphabet used to run the Roman Empire immediately to the south, it was used primarily, as far as we can tell, for nongovernmental purposes like magic, fortune-telling, and graffiti.

Ferrara goes further: a central argument of her book is that the fundamental idea of writing itself comes not from bureaucracy but from individual creativity and a human urge to communicate with others.

One obvious problem with claiming that writing is a universal human instinct is that it has rarely been invented from scratch. Even in Ferrara’s optimistic account, this “flash of insight” has happened only four or five times in human history—in Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and Mesoamerica, and perhaps on Easter Island.

This has been  standard dogma in studies of the history of writing for the past forty years or so.  Before that, from the 50s through the 70s, following the work of the University of Chicago Assyriologist, Ignace Jay Gelb, put forward in his seminal A Study of Writing (1952), it was thought that writing was invented in Mesopotamia, spread to Egypt, and then was transmitted to China. At the time, Mesoamerican script was not fully deciphered.  Still today, it has not been irrefutably proven that all the major writing systems of the world are not in some manner related.

As conveyed by Quinn, Ferrara hedges her bets on the matter of independent invention:

A  … process of conceptual transmission might explain the appearance of Chinese writing around 1500 BCE, by which time wheat, which had first been domesticated in Western Asia’s so-called Fertile Crescent, could also be found in China, and millet domesticated in the Yellow River region had reached Eastern Europe.

Ferrara has little to say about the alphabet.  That is left to Johanna Drucker.

The Greeks themselves were committed to the foreign origins of their script, and often called their letters “Phoenicians.” They added vowels by recycling existing Phoenician letters that had been used for sounds that didn’t exist in Greek. And the vowels themselves weren’t so much an improvement on the existing writing system as a necessary adaptation of it to their own language: many Greek words begin with vowels, and the distinctions between them play a larger part in communicating meaning in Greek than in Semitic languages.

Greeks weren’t the first to add vowels either: that honor goes to the Bronze Age port of Ugarit on the Syrian coast, where thirteenth-century BCE scribes reinvented the traditional Linear Alphabetic letters of the region as a set of thirty cuneiform characters that included three vowels. On current evidence, in fact, Greeks weren’t even the second. The earliest alphabetic inscription with vowels found west of the Levant is written in Phrygian in the city of Gordion, in what is now central Turkey, and dates to around 800 BCE. It is another generation before the same vowels appear in Greek inscriptions.

It was only in the twentieth century that scholars began to build a case for an “alphabet effect,” seeing the addition of vowels to the Levantine abjad as a change of immense significance that enabled voweled writing systems to capture—or impose—the smallest details of sound responsible for Greek philosophy, democracy, and individualism.

This is just one of the episodes in alphabetic politics that Johanna Drucker, a professor of bibliographical studies at UCLA, discusses in Inventing the Alphabet. The book is subtitled “The Origins of Letters from Antiquity to the Present,” but Drucker insists that it is really about how “knowledge and belief shaped the understanding of alphabetic writing.”

By the end of the eighteenth century, writing was largely understood as a human invention, and the study of ancient inscriptions was taken more seriously as historical evidence for its origins and history than the claims of ancient texts, whether biblical or secular. In her final chapter Drucker describes the more recent use of the alphabet in Western imperialism and in the trade, industry, and missionary work that went along with it, as well as its subsequent usurpation of writing across the world. The Unicode system that provides digital fonts for almost all known scripts assigns each character an alphanumeric code, and even Chinese characters are typed by entering text in alphabetic “pinyin” before the appropriate traditional signs can be selected from suggested lists.

How worried should we be by alphabet supremacy? Is it simply an improvement on earlier scripts, just as syllabaries improved on picture-coded accounting systems? This might seem obvious: with fewer letters, alphabets should be easier to learn. But there’s more to reading and writing than learning your letters, and schoolchildren today can be taught to communicate effectively in all sorts of writing systems. Even the cuneiform script, with its hundreds of characters and specialized equipment, was no bar to functional literacy in the early second millennium BCE: in some Babylonian cities, writing tablets were found in more than half the houses.

There’s a bigger question about whether writing, the handmaiden of imperial taxation, conscription, and surveillance, is a good thing at all. Silvia Ferrara is naturally on Team Script, though she admits that a survey conducted by the Swedish National Museum of Science and Technology rated the invention of writing below that of the zipper. She suggests that in a world without writing we’d live “suspended in a continual present.” But that isn’t quite true: the power of collective memory is remarkable. The songs and stories of past glory that the Greeks called Homer were passed down for centuries without the help of writing. Indigenous coastal legends from Australia to the Outer Hebrides appear to describe landscapes that have not existed for thousands of years, and in some cases since the end of the last Ice Age. Oral history doesn’t survive the onset of literacy, when the time before writing becomes myth. But writing has been around for only six thousand years or so, and most people didn’t see much of it—it wasn’t omnipresent in daily life—before the invention of the printing press and the rise of the modern nation-state. There is no particular reason to think it will long outlive them.

The next stage in the history of writing is happening right now, with the advent of increasingly intelligent machines that bypass writing while still communicating, recording, and analyzing information and ideas (AI), or even take on a semblance of verbal creativity (ChatGPT).

Selected readings

[Thanks to Don Keyser]



30 Comments »

  1. David Marjanović said,

    December 30, 2022 @ 1:27 pm

    Greeks weren’t the first to add vowels either: that honor goes to the Bronze Age port of Ugarit on the Syrian coast, where thirteenth-century BCE scribes reinvented the traditional Linear Alphabetic letters of the region as a set of thirty cuneiform characters that included three vowels.

    That's an exaggeration. They did split the letter for /ʔ/ in three, for /ʔa ʔi ʔu/; but these letters were not used for any vowels not immediately preceded by glottal stops.

    On current evidence, in fact, Greeks weren’t even the second. The earliest alphabetic inscription with vowels found west of the Levant is written in Phrygian in the city of Gordion, in what is now central Turkey, and dates to around 800 BCE. It is another generation before the same vowels appear in Greek inscriptions.

    Last time I read about this, the oldest known Greek and the oldest known Phrygian inscriptions had the same age as far as could be determined, a few decades younger than 800 BCE. Is there a Phrygian inscription dated to 800 BCE now? Or did somebody round up?

    What prompted the writing down of language? The traditional answer is the state: writing appears in Mesopotamia and many other places with the development of centralized political institutions. It suited their administrative and fiscal requirements, and it often worked to their benefit: the earliest surviving Chinese writing, oracles inscribed on pieces of bone including turtle shells, predicts the military maneuvers of the king’s enemies and neighbors.

    Writing in Mesopotamia was very clearly developed in trade among individuals, independently of any state. Of course the states used it as soon as possible, but they didn't trigger the development.

    I wouldn't at all be surprised if it turned out that writing was developed for different purposes in different places. As far as I understand, Chinese writing lacks this early connection to the literal counting of literal beans that is so overwhelmingly strong in Mesopotamia; I wouldn't be surprised if it really was developed for the oracle bones (will it rain? will it not rain?).

  2. Michael Watts said,

    December 30, 2022 @ 10:47 pm

    writing appears in Mesopotamia and many other places with the development of centralized political institutions. It suited their administrative and fiscal requirements, and it often worked to their benefit: the earliest surviving Chinese writing, oracles inscribed on pieces of bone including turtle shells, predicts the military maneuvers of the king’s enemies and neighbors.

    I don't understand what the writer wants me to think here. Obviously people were predicting enemy military maneuvers long before the existence of writing, and writing has very little to add to that. The benefits of writing in that kind of context would be to have an accurate record of past enemy tactics over long periods (to improve prediction quality), or to accurately communicate those predictions across long distances via messengers.

    But more than that… did oracle bone writing actually see use to predict enemy maneuvers? Or was that, like so much of the oracle bone corpus, a divination? If the use to which writing was put was to write down "the enemy will attack site X" and get a random response, why would we describe that as "working to the benefit of the Chinese government"? What would have been different if they'd used augury or haruspicy?

  3. R. Fenwick said,

    December 31, 2022 @ 9:48 am

    @David Marjanović:
    Last time I read about this, the oldest known Greek and the oldest known Phrygian inscriptions had the same age as far as could be determined, a few decades younger than 800 BCE. Is there a Phrygian inscription dated to 800 BCE now? Or did somebody round up?

    As an archaeologist working in the region, this is right in my wheelhouse :)

    The dating of the earliest known Phrygian material relies on ongoing efforts to establish a clear absolute chronology for the archaeology of Gordion. The earliest alphabetic inscription, the bowl fragment G-104, comes from under the floor of Megaron 10 and so dates to the Early Phrygian period of the site. The Early Phrygian and Middle Phrygian periods are separated by a destruction layer that had initially been proposed as dating to c. 700 BC, but a more recent multi-proxy assessment puts the date a century earlier, at c. 800 BC. (The 800 BC proposal also has some detractors who continue to staunchly defend the c. 700 BC dating, but C-14 analyses of material from other Anatolian Phrygian sites – including Kaman-Kalehöyük, the site on which I've worked since 2009 – have also been yielding dates that are consistently about 100 years earlier than the traditional chronology. As such, I'm tentatively on the side of the early dates.) Megaron 10 clearly predates the destruction layer, so if one accepts the new dating then the fragment G-104 must be no later than the latter half of the 9th century BC, putting it some decades before the earliest known Greek inscriptions such as the Dipylon inscription and Nestor's Cup.

    This doesn't prove that the Phrygians invented the alphabet and gave it to the Greeks, of course, and the fact that the glyphs of the Phoenician abjad can almost all be mapped onto glyphs of the earliest Greek alphabet (only the Phoenician samekh had not yet been co-opted for Greek xi) – which is not as easily the case for Phrygian – suggests that the southern insular Greek alphabet may well have been the first and closest adaptation from the Phoenician, subsequently spreading very rapidly to other areas in Greek and Phrygian-speaking territories. I'm sure others could weigh in with more nuanced opinions, though.

    I wouldn't at all be surprised if it turned out that writing was developed for different purposes in different places.

    Compare also Mesoamerica, where chronometry was probably the primary impetus.

  4. Jerry Packard said,

    December 31, 2022 @ 11:16 am

    I’ve always taught my students the ‘flash of insight’ argument, but lately I’ve been thinking that that’s unlikely to have occurred, especially multiple times. At this point I rather believe that it’s a developmental process, and that humans perceived the relationship between speech and writing symbols slowly over the course of time. As to whether writing is a product of a universal human instinct, that seems unlikely. The best evidence for this is how difficult the acquisition of writing actually is. If left to their own devices, children stranded on an island certainly would learn to speak to each other but they most likely never would come up with the ability to write.

  5. David Marjanović said,

    December 31, 2022 @ 12:38 pm

    As an archaeologist working in the region, this is right in my wheelhouse :)

    Awesome. Thanks :-)

  6. Jonathan Smith said,

    December 31, 2022 @ 2:39 pm

    "Chronometry"? Perfect word — probably the same in prehistoric China given that the earliest pieces of the script seem to be the so-called "Heavenly Stems" and "Earthly Branches" calendrical signs.

    Incidentally, there is no need to prove that "all the major writing systems of the world are not in some manner related" — to be proven rather are any claimed relationships.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    January 1, 2023 @ 11:01 am

    If someone makes an ex cathedra statement that the major scripts of the world were independently invented ex nihilo, they need to adduce proof.

  8. David Marjanović said,

    January 1, 2023 @ 12:44 pm

    If someone makes an ex cathedra statement that the major scripts of the world were independently invented ex nihilo, they need to adduce proof.

    "Proof" is for judges and creationists; as a scientist I deal in evidence.

    I'm not aware of any proposal that there are any shape-and-meaning correspondences between glyphs from Egypt, Mesopotamia and China. However, these scripts could still be related through stimulus diffusion, which would mean the idea of writing was moving around the area but not the glyphs themselves.

    But for the Mesoamerican scripts and any of the other three, even stimulus diffusion is hard to imagine. Given the absence – to the best of my knowledge – of shape-and-meaning correspondences, why would I entertain a hypothesis as munificent as a transoceanic voyage before 1000 BCE?

    Rongorongo, incidentally, seems to be a case of stimulus diffusion – it appears to have developed after the Spaniards showed up and made people sign a document ceding the island to the Spanish crown.

  9. Jonathan Smith said,

    January 1, 2023 @ 1:57 pm

    It's a null hypothesis situation, i.e., one presumes there to be no relationship until an alternative hypothesis accrues more explanatory power. So the sort of statement one now encounters ( like "writing appears to have been independently invented (at least) (three / four) times") is trying its best to be agnostic, opposite of dogmatic.

  10. R. Fenwick said,

    January 1, 2023 @ 9:52 pm

    @David Marjanović: De nada :)

    I'm not aware of any proposal that there are any shape-and-meaning correspondences between glyphs from Egypt, Mesopotamia and China. However, these scripts could still be related through stimulus diffusion, which would mean the idea of writing was moving around the area but not the glyphs themselves.

    It does seem pretty likely that Egyptian hieroglyphs were based upon cultural osmosis of a Mesopotamian concept, since the development of pictorial representations in the Mesopotamian clay token system can be traced continuously back through quite simplistic and non-standardised forms into the pre-literate period as much as 8,000 years ago, whereas the earliest Egyptian glyph shapes already appear in relatively mature form a little before 5,000 years ago and initially on clay tags that are suspiciously similar to contemporaneous Mesopotamian ones while lacking the simpler local precursors. (Nonetheless, the completely different method of phonetic representation in written Egyptian does strongly suggest that it was little more than the idea that was transmitted from Mesopotamia, and that the Egyptian writing system itself was devised more or less independently. Similar to rongorongo, I suppose.)

    I believe the case of Chinese is more widely accepted as an independent invention because of the lack of demonstrated contacts between Mesopotamian and Chinese civilisations as well as the disconnect between the cultural spheres in which the two writing systems were used, though the transmission of the idea by small numbers of long-distance traders still can't be ruled out conclusively and I certainly can't speak to such aspects of Chinese ancient history with any authority whatsoever.

  11. ~flow said,

    January 2, 2023 @ 12:44 am

    The next stage in the history of writing is happening right now, with the advent of increasingly intelligent machines that bypass writing while still communicating, recording, and analyzing information and ideas (AI), or even take on a semblance of verbal creativity (ChatGPT).

    That sentence reads a little strangely, like it's saying that "writing has evolved to the next step which is writing is bypassed". Maybe that was meant to mean that the abstract idea of writing which used to rely on handwritten and printed shapes (which is what "writing" means physically) can now do without that physical substrate?

    Let me comment that I'm experiencing computer programming to be consisting of 80% or more text processing. That is, our programming languages use writing to the exclusion of, say, sound or image processing to express algorithms and procedures, and they data we crunch with programs written by these 'languages' (modes of expression, anyway) is also lots and lots of texts (plus, and increasingly so, images, videos, and audio)—just think of all the emails, blogposts and news articles that get written each moment.

    As it stands the quoted sentence might instill the impression that writing has run its course and is now being replaced by that ethereal entity, 'computing power' (in The Cloud, no less), but when you look under the hood, it's writing all the way down.

    Another proof that writing shows no signs of going away any time soon is the observation that with Unicode, we have the biggest, more complete and more detailed description of the world's writing system than ever before in history; similarly, both the number of typefaces and their availability is unmatched by any time in the past.

  12. Michael Watts said,

    January 2, 2023 @ 7:19 am

    As it stands the quoted sentence might instill the impression that writing has run its course and is now being replaced by that ethereal entity, 'computing power' (in The Cloud, no less), but when you look under the hood, it's writing all the way down.

    Well, programming is writing in the sense that it's an arrangement of symbols.

    It's unlike what we would usually think of as "writing" in that it's not a linguistic phenomenon.

  13. ~flow said,

    January 2, 2023 @ 8:10 am

    @Michael Watts

    Programming languages are not 'languages' in the linguistic sense but to the extent that they are built from symbol manipulations (i.e. they're programs) that we use to describe symbol manipulations (when we crunch process data) they're built on the long experience that mankind has gained with expressive media, including cave art, later hieroglyphs, then alphabets, then the printing press with its discrete pieces of metal each of representing a unit of a given writing system, then typewriters, teletypes, then perforated paper and so on. These are technological developments that could not have come about without the linguistic phenomenon of writing. Moreover, we're seeing a renaissance of writing e.g. in the social media and messaging applications, things that are maybe a surprising twist in a history that at one point favored the telephone and television to an extant that one could have predicted the extinction of written letters and newspapers. Well, the latter actually did happen to an extent, but those media did not give way to the telephone or the television but their spiritual successors (smartphones and streaming video) that bring back the written word.

    I'd also say that as a programmer expressing intent by way of formulating algorithms in a programming language (which is not a linguistic language) I still pay a lot of attention to naming things (variables, functions) in a way that it communicates purposefully with the human reader—as far as the computer is concerned I could be using arbitrary short names and save a lot of keystrokes. I even format my code such that regularities are more readily apparent so I think writing a program is indeed written communication with other humans (including my future self).

  14. djw said,

    January 2, 2023 @ 1:55 pm

    This all makes me think of my time as a journalism student in the early 70s, when 1 of our faculty observed that writing would soon be passe because of the explosion of radio, television, and telephones as primary means of communication.

    Then I saw my first fax, and I realized that we were essentially sending writing through the telephone.

    So far, I still haven't been convinced of any likelihood of its eminent demise.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    January 2, 2023 @ 2:37 pm

    Why would one presume there to be no relationship among writing systems when writing is such a unique phenomenon and when it is easy to demonstrate decisively that most known scripts in the world are derived from previously existing writing systems.

    Statements such as "writing appears to have been independently invented (at least) (three / four) times" are slippery, illusive, and dissembling. Unless one is absolutely certain that a script was created ex nihilo, why raise the issue at all? If somebody asks you whether the major writing systems of the world are somehow related or not and you're not sure, just say "I don't know".

  16. Peter Grubtal said,

    January 3, 2023 @ 2:08 am

    @Victor Mair
    Such sentences are a red rag to a bull:
    " Still today, it has not been irrefutably proven that all the major writing systems of the world are not in some manner related."

    I can't irrefutably prove that Bigfoot doesn't exist. But to put the burden of proof on his advocates is vastly more economical.

  17. David Marjanović said,

    January 3, 2023 @ 7:23 am

    Why would one presume there to be no relationship among writing systems when writing is such a unique phenomenon and when it is easy to demonstrate decisively that most known scripts in the world are derived from previously existing writing systems.

    Simply because that's a more parsimonious hypothesis than a transoceanic voyage in 1000 BCE.

  18. Victor Mair said,

    January 3, 2023 @ 12:03 pm

    Why do we have to raise such contentious (most likely unknowable and perhaps unprovable) issues as whether all writing systems are related or developed independently)? Isn't that gratuitous?

    Just the Facts, Ma'Am.

  19. Peter Grubtal said,

    January 3, 2023 @ 3:51 pm

    After David Marjanović's last comment, I was expecting, breath bated, Thor Heyerdahl to put in an appearance. I guess it's a sign of how little traction his ideas had in academe that nobody thinks him worth a mention.

  20. Stephen said,

    January 4, 2023 @ 2:04 pm

    Quotation from Josephine Quinn:

    "Indigenous coastal legends from Australia to the Outer Hebrides appear to describe landscapes that have not existed for thousands of years, and in some cases since the end of the last Ice Age"

    Australia, yes. I know about the Tasmanian accounts of having come from a land to the north, now cut off. But the Outer Hebrides? Details, please.

  21. Chris Button said,

    January 4, 2023 @ 6:24 pm

    Couple of thoughts connected to Chinese:

    The existence of ʔa (originally just ʔ-) in contrast with ʔi and ʔu in Ugaritic compares with Pulleyblank's observation that the pre-Old Chinese j- onset (to which might be added w- but without the same consistency as j-) was reanalyzed as a vowel and given a preceding glottal stop. Hence the lack of j- in Old Chinese and a fair amount of random w-~ʔw- alternation.

    Regarding a lack of correspondence between sound and meaning of Chinese characters with other writing, there are nonetheless tantalizing correspondences in sound and shape (albeit not connected to meaning, which is challenging if not largely impossible to establish in the Chinese case) of the 22 Chinese "ganzhi" (heavenly stems and earthly branches) and the 22 phoenician symbols.

  22. Chris Button said,

    January 4, 2023 @ 6:40 pm

    I might add that I differ from Pulleyblank in not reconstructing j- [i]or[/i] w- in onset position for Old Chinese and only have ʔj- and ʔw- as ʔ- followed by -j- or -w-.

  23. Jonathan Smith said,

    January 5, 2023 @ 8:42 am

    Just appeared; should be here…
    Bacon et. al.
    "An Upper Palaeolithic Proto-writing System and Phenological Calendar" link

    Marshack, A., 1991. The Roots of Civilization is cited but maybe deserves more shine?

    a couple of reasonable ideas re the Chinese gan/zhi a.k.a. stems and branches, necessarily inclusive of considerations of meaning, have appeared in print of late all speaking to autochthonous origins… we shall see when discussion of putative Phoenician connections joins the party…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

  24. David Marjanović said,

    January 8, 2023 @ 2:18 pm

    Why do we have to raise such contentious (most likely unknowable and perhaps unprovable) issues as whether all writing systems are related or developed independently)? Isn't that gratuitous?

    "Have to" is beside the point – you brought it up in the opening post:

    Still today, it has not been irrefutably proven that all the major writing systems of the world are not in some manner related.

    I don't mean to pick a fight or anything, and I'm confident neither do Jonathan Smith or Peter Grubtal. All that's going on here is you made a statement and we find reasons to doubt it. :-|

    After David Marjanović's last comment, I was expecting, breath bated, Thor Heyerdahl to put in an appearance. I guess it's a sign of how little traction his ideas had in academe that nobody thinks him worth a mention.

    Heyerdahl obviously demonstrated that such a voyage wasn't physically impossible. There's just no reason to assume it actually happened.

    The existence of ʔa (originally just ʔ-) in contrast with ʔi and ʔu in Ugaritic compares with Pulleyblank's observation that the pre-Old Chinese j- onset (to which might be added w- but without the same consistency as j-) was reanalyzed as a vowel and given a preceding glottal stop. Hence the lack of j- in Old Chinese and a fair amount of random w-~ʔw- alternation.

    I can't follow. Ugaritic very much had y- and w- onsets that were written with the usual letters for those, not with ʔi and ʔu.

    Regarding a lack of correspondence between sound and meaning of Chinese characters with other writing, there are nonetheless tantalizing correspondences in sound and shape (albeit not connected to meaning, which is challenging if not largely impossible to establish in the Chinese case) of the 22 Chinese "ganzhi" (heavenly stems and earthly branches) and the 22 phoenician symbols.

    That is interesting, and I look forward to the publication!

    But the Chinese writing system isn't in any way based on the gan-zhi, is it?

  25. R. Fenwick said,

    January 17, 2023 @ 10:00 am

    @David Marjanović:
    Heyerdahl obviously demonstrated that such a voyage wasn't physically impossible. There's just no reason to assume it actually happened.

    Except that it actually did happen. It's true that Heyerdahl's specific settlement model has subsequently not held water – we know now that Polynesia was settled rather from the western Pacific and ultimately Taiwan – but at least one successful return voyage in the other direction was almost certainly achieved. And we do have at least one very powerful reason to conclude that it was: sweet potatoes. They've been widely cultivated by eastern Polynesian peoples since well before European incursion into the Pacific (the earliest ¹⁴C dates we have on sweet potato remains are from c. 1210—1400 AD, on the Cook Islands), but sweet potatoes are native to South and Central America, and early Polynesian seafarers most likely took on sweet potato cultivation as a result of direct trade with the Inca. There's even a singular but stark linguistic footprint of the interaction, as Proto-Eastern Polynesian *kumara "sweet potato" (cp. Māori, Rarotongan kūmara, Rapanui, Tuamotuan kumara, Marquesan kūma‘a, Hawaiian ‘uwala) is virtually identical to terms for sweet potato in the Quechuan languages (e.g. Cuzco khumara, Ayacucho kumar, Northern Pastaza kumal, Colonial Chincha cumar).

    Other evidence for Polynesians visiting South America is unfortunately very thin, but I've read reports from a couple of archaeological excavations – in Chile, I think – where small quantities of avian bone have been recovered that are consistent with domestic chickens, a south-eastern Asian domesticate that formed a key part of Polynesian diets. I'll have to look into the literature a little further and see if the situation on the ground has improved regarding pre-Columbian chickens. There's also a recent study that also claimed a South American genetic component in portions of the Polynesian human population, but I haven't read the article yet.

  26. Chris Button said,

    January 18, 2023 @ 11:26 pm

    @ David Marjanović

    I can't follow. Ugaritic very much had y- and w- onsets that were written with the usual letters for those, not with ʔi and ʔu.

    I’m not denying their coexistence. I’m just pointing out that is it hardly surprising that this writing of “vowels” came about with the glottal stop as opposed to any other letter.

    That is interesting, and I look forward to the publication!

    But the Chinese writing system isn't in any way based on the gan-zhi, is it?

    See here https://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=57622

    Regarding your last question. I do firmly believe the ganzhi represented Old Chinese onsets (any connection with Phoenician is highly speculative however) but that does not mean they would ever be used to “spell” out words. In the earliest inscriptions they are used as calendrical signs. In addition to social/cultural/political/religious etc. considerations, Cyrus Gordon (who was mentioned on LLog a while back in this context) wrote a couple of articles trying to connect calendars/counting with alphabets and noted the ganzhi. Pulleyblank also looked into this specifically with the ganzhi, but the results don’t seem particularly convincing.

  27. David Marjanović said,

    January 21, 2023 @ 8:46 am

    Except that it actually did happen. It's true that Heyerdahl's specific settlement model has subsequently not held water – we know now that Polynesia was settled rather from the western Pacific and ultimately Taiwan – but at least one successful return voyage in the other direction was almost certainly achieved.

    As now detailed in its own post, I was talking about a transatlantic voyage early enough to transmit writing from the Mediterranean to Mesoamerica, i.e. Heyerdahl's Ra voyage, not his Kon-Tiki voyage.

    I’m not denying their coexistence. I’m just pointing out that is it hardly surprising that this writing of “vowels” came about with the glottal stop as opposed to any other letter.

    I can't make sense of this, except maybe in the light of this earlier quote from you:

    Pulleyblank's observation that the pre-Old Chinese j- onset (to which might be added w- but without the same consistency as j-) was reanalyzed as a vowel and given a preceding glottal stop

    That's not a thing in a Semitic language. The consonants – initial ones in particular – stay put throughout the entire paradigm, the vowels dance around them.

    See here https://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=57622

    Ah, there's a lot I missed in that thread, too! I'll read it soon. :-)

  28. Chris Button said,

    January 21, 2023 @ 12:05 pm

    @ David Marjanović

    Re. Semitic languages, are you referring to the script when you talk about “dancing” vowels? The languages themselves are languages like any others. The double syllabic roots (I.e. three consonants) are perhaps notable though, but that is a separate matter.

    Re. Ugaritic vowels after glottals in the script, I suppose what I am getting at is why would the glottals be the only consonants with distinct vowel symbols? Presumably someone has addressed that somewhere in the literature?

  29. David Marjanović said,

    January 22, 2023 @ 11:18 am

    Semitic languages, are you referring to the script when you talk about “dancing” vowels? The languages themselves are languages like any others.

    I am referring to the languages themselves with their ablaut-on-hallucinogens grammar.

    I suppose what I am getting at is why would the glottals be the only consonants with distinct vowel symbols?

    That is a good question, and I don't know if it's been answered in the specialized literature; what I'm trying to say is answering it through relationship to /j/ & /w/ does not work precisely for Semitic languages.

  30. Name Required said,

    January 26, 2023 @ 7:59 pm

    "The Unicode system that provides digital fonts for almost all known scripts assigns each character an alphanumeric code"

    This isn't accurate. Unicode doesn't provide fonts, just assigns a number to each character. A number, not an "alphanumeric code". Assuming she's referring to hexadecimal representations of the number, it's just that; a representation of a number. Your phone stores the number in binary, and you can write it in decimal if you want. There's nothing "alpha" about it, it's entirely numeric, and has nothing to do with "alphabet supremacy".

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