Script origin and typology, part 2

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[This is a guest post by Peter T. Daniels, to follow part 1 (7/1/24)]

That, then, is my account of the origin of writing. It might be supposed that my next topic must be the origin of the alphabet. But it is not; for me, the origin of the alphabet is accidental and practically inevitable, given the constellation of circumstances surrounding the event.

No; what must be celebrated, if not explained, is the origin of the abjad. Previously, writers wrote sounds; subsequently, writers wrote parts of sounds. All the evidence in favor of the syllable as the basic unit of speech is also evidence against the like­­­lihood of discovering the segment. The Egyptians didn’t discover the segment, even though they wrote only consonants and didn’t identify the vowels of the syllables of their language; as explained by Alfred Schmitt, Egyptian hieroglyphic signs never ceased to be word signs, even when used strictly for their phonetic value.

We have some cuneiform lists of signs that are arranged phonetically. Signs for bu ba bi are brought together, and mu ma mi, and so on; so are signs for ub ab ib, and um am im, and so on; but there is no indication that there was any recognition that the bu ba bi and ub ab ib signs belong together, and so on. It was only that brilliant discovery that brought about economy in writing. Only with the recognition that the single letter b could represent voiced labial closure wherever in a word it appeared did it become possible to successfully write languages that admitted consonant clusters at the beginnings or ends of syllables. (Compare the Greek syllabic orthographies, Linear B and Cypriote, where clusters are resolved either by graphic epenthesis or by omission of a consonant.)

Consonantal or abjadic writing spread to many Semitic idioms that had not previously been written. In the Aramaic scribal tradition, it gradually became standard to indicate the quality of long vowels with the help of letters for associated glides: î and ê with yod, û and ô with waw, â with ʾalep. This system was apparently borrowed by scribes of Hebrew, but it did not enter the Phoenician tradition (except in later Punic, from the last few centuries bce), and I have not yet considered whether I can suggest why. Such vowel letters are called matres lectionis ‘mothers of reading’, and their use increased with time, so that in Mandaic and various Jewish Aramaics short vowels, too, are marked with matres.

Such a script was borrowed eastward from Manichaean Aramaic to serve various forms of Iranian, and in turn via Sogdian, for Turkic Uyghur, and Mongolian, and Manchu—the whole range of Altaic—without affecting the “inner form” of the script, while its appearance grew more and more distant from the source.

But, when the borrowing went westward, it wasn’t Aramaic, but Phoenician that provided the source of the Greek alphabet. How do I know that? Precisely because the inner form of the script changed. If Greek writing had been based on Aramaic, it would simply have taken over the use of matres just the way Iranian did. Instead, whoever cajoled a Phoenician scribe into teaching him or her how to write didn’t speak Phoenician very well, or at all; for they couldn’t hear the consonants that didn’t occur in their native Greek language. They got the consonants pretty well (even the sibilants, now that we have an improved understanding of the phonetics of early Semitic, due to Alice Faber), but Greek has fewer consonants than Phoenician, so there were a number of left-over letters; and to the untutored Greek, those letters would seem to begin with vowel sounds (as words in Greek could do); so the Greek would understand ʾalep as representing not ʾ but a, hê as not h but e, yod as not y but î, and so on. Rudolf Wachter has even uncovered evidence that scribes would sound out their words by saying the names of the letters (since vowels missing from inscriptions are most likely to be the vowel of the first syllable of the name of the letter for the consonant that’s missing its vowel).

I must thus conclude that it was not the need to notate metrical patterns of Greek verse that inspired the creation of the alphabet, still less the manifestation of Aryan genius as used to be suggested, but it was simple, almost inevitable (given the nature of acquisition of second language phonology), and accidental (because of the difference between the Phoenician and Greek consonant inventories).

*  *  *

Thus having disposed of the two origins of writing that are most usually discussed (and of the origins of syllabary and abjad as well), I can turn to the origins of the other types of writing: the abugida and the “featural.” (The term was first used in print by Geoffrey Sampson with reference to Korean, but it had been introduced a few years earlier by Chin-Wu Kim.)

The gentle progress from Aramaic through Iranian to Altaic was one of two journeys eastward made by writing. The other one, better known, is characterized by wrenching changes in inner form and the invention of new types. It begins in, probably, the third century bce, with not one but two abugidas coming into use in the Indian Subcontinent: Kharoṣṭhi in the northwest, and Brahmi, slightly later, everywhere else. The forms of Kharoṣṭhi clearly derive from those of an Aramaic script. Appendages are added to the consonant letters to mark each vowel quality except a. Brahmi is seriously geometricized, though its affinity to a Semitic script can still be discerned. Its appendages mark both quality and quantity of the following vowel. There are not many consonant ligatures as yet, because in their early days both Kharoṣṭhi and Brahmi were used for Prakrit, not Sanskrit, and in Prakrit consonant clusters are rare.

Kharoṣṭhi died out, but Brahmi found success and diversified throughout India and wherever the Buddhist missionaries took it; its shapes were ever elastic, but it retained its inner form throughout: even Javanese with its greatly reduced Austronesian phonological inventory still uses basic letter forms for the consonant plus a, with subscript versions of the consonants for the limited number of clusters that can occur.

But then, a change is found in Tibet: Tibetan is an isolating language. It seems to be more important to delimit syllables—the sounds of the language, in fact—than to achieve compactness and economy of writing. In Tibetan, a dot is placed after each syllable, and only a few of the components of a cluster actually have reduced subscript—or superscript—forms. But Tibetan still places its markings of vowels other than a above or below the line of characters that basically moves from left to right.

Another change: Mongol emperor Genghis Khan commissions the Tibetan monk hPags pa to design a script suitable for all the languages of the empire. Well, it ends up being used mostly for Mongolian, but it has letters for Chinese as well; its forms, though, are taken from Tibetan. For the first time a script in the Brahmi line of descent does not use appendages around the letters to mark the vowels other than a; it places those vowel characters directly into the column of characters, always following, that is below, the consonant to which it belongs. There is no explicit indication of consonant clusters, no way to distinguish a consonant with a from a consonant with no vowel. And there is no demarcation of syllables. Well, Mongolian is an agglutinative language, and clusters and syllable boundaries are not so important there.

Yet another change: Korean king Sejong promulgates a new script (in connection with his avowal of Buddhism), because Chinese characters, which work well for the isolating, at the time monosyllabic language, are not so well suited to the agglutinating Korean, where content-less syllabic characters are wanted for the grammatical morphemes (in Old Korean, the affixes were simply omitted and only the content words rendered with Chinese characters). Sejong’s new script is an alphabet, with symbols, some similar to corresponding hPags pa letters, for consonants and for vowels; but it is more than that: phonetically similar segments have visually related symbols—and the symbols themselves are designed to represent the vocal organs that produce them. Hence the label “featural.” Furthermore, the letters making up each syllable are combined into syllable blocks, with the initial consonant at the upper left, the linear vowel to the right or below, and the final consonant or consonants again below. The visual effect is reminiscent of the Chinese characters with which they are still combined (though characters are less frequent than in Japanese, which developed two true syllabaries by simplifying a selection of Chinese characters).

How can we account for the two different ways that writing has been transmitted across Asia: the gentle transfers from Aramaic through Iranian all the way to Manchu, or from Brahmi throughout Buddhistdom; versus the abrupt changes in type, adapting successfully to the Indic type, to Tibetan, and to Korean? I think it is not a coincidence that it was these three civilizations that possessed an indigenous grammatical tradition, while the Iranian and Mongolian civilizations, as literary as they were, did not. (Sibawayh was a Persian, but he analyzed only the grammar of Arabic.) Scholars who were already in the habit of conscious awareness of the structure of their language found ways to shape the graphic, phonographic, materials they received into garments well fitted to clothe the languages that bore them.

But maybe the inventors of the Indic scripts had a little prompting within the Aramaic model itself. Without identification of the particular varieties that underlie the Indic creations, we cannot be sure; but if the use of matres lectionis was nearly as pervasive as it became in the following centuries in Aramaic and, following it, Iranian, then nearly every letter that wasn’t followed by a vowel letter (ʾalep, waw, or yod) represented a consonant followed by a short a or a consonant followed by no vowel. One can see how the pandits schooled in Pāṇinian analysis of Sanskrit could understand the consonant letters as legitimately representing consonant plus a; so that they would see their innovation as the differentiation of the mid vowels from the high vow­els, and the reduction of the vowel letters to appendages to the consonant letters: so that the Eastern analysis represents the reversal of the eventual Western analysis that takes the vowels, or sonants, as the heart of the syllable and the consonants as auxiliaries to the vowels.

I mentioned that the script progression across Inner Asia could be called “gentle.” I contrasted it with the South Asia sequence, which involved encounters with grammatical traditions. But there have been other sorts of script transfers that did not involve grammatical traditions, but that were not so gentle. Only at less-than-gentle transitions do changes in script direction come about: the inherited but somewhat awkward right-to-left direction was maintained throughout the Northwest Semitic array of scripts. It takes some sort of shock—such as adaptation to a quite different language—to change this, often through a boustrophedon stage. It happened going from Sogdian to Uyghur, from Tibetan to hPags pa, from Etruscan to Latin. It seems also to take a different sort of shock—a major discontinuity of the tradition—to bring about a deep change in inner form.

If the elusive “West Semites” who devised the first abjad or consonantary had learned their Egyptian well, why wouldn’t they have simply brought all the resources of Egyptian writing into the writing of Semitic languages—as happened when Akkadian came to be recorded in the Sumerian tradition? If they knew a little about Egyptian, why wouldn’t the monoconsonantal signs they supposedly borrowed have brought with them their Egyptian values? What the evidence seems to suggest is that the consonantal abjad is the product of very slight acquaintance with Egyptian writing. Anything better would not have resulted in the great innovation.

I already explained how the creation of the Greek alphabet was also the result of limited knowledge of the language of the Phoenician model. If the Greek scribe could speak Phoenician well, the laryngeal letters would not have been heard as vowel-initial, and there would have been no alpha, epsilon, eta, iota, omicron, or upsilon.

Lastly, does this way of looking at script transfer illuminate the difference-within-similarity of Egyptian and Sumerian? Did the Egyptian proto-scribes learn enough about Sumerian to get the idea of associating phonetic and semantic complements to logographic symbols, but miss the point that one wasn’t supposed to write all the different forms of a word with the same word-sign? Or is Egyptian not really so different from Sumerian after all: Sumerian does not evidence internal flexion in its word forms; a single sign suffices for all occurrences of a single morpheme; similarly in Egyptian (as expressed already by Alfred Schmitt), a single sign represents all occurrences of a single morpheme, but the ablaut relations among those forms mean that only the consonants remain constant in the readings of the sign. Thus the signs are taken to represent consonants only, even when they are used for their phonetic value only. So perhaps the difference-within-similarity of Egyptian and Sumerian is not so much of a difference at all.

In seeking the origins of writing, our predecessors have left us strikingly little speculation. Toynbee does not consider the question at all; as far as I can tell, he doesn’t even mention the Phoenician origin of the Greek alphabet. He is astonishingly aware and insightful on the social and political conditions surrounding the spread and adoption of official languages and scripts. Gelb considers briefly the cultural circum­stances surrounding the origins of writing in his “up to seven” possible independent events, rightly recognizing that phoneticism is not so unusual as to require monogenesis (he was hampered, of course, by the lateness of the decipherment of Maya glyphs, and missed an opportunity to learn of the successes that had been achieved by 1984). Denise Schmandt-Besserat takes her limited data much too far: without any understanding of what the individual shapes of “tokens” represented, or indeed with no guarantee that any particular shape had a uniform interpretation throughout the time and space in which the tokens are found, they cannot be connected with the shapes of proto-cuneiform. But her account of the invention of numerals—quite a different proposition from the invention of writing—is indeed attractive.

*   *   *

And now, for a suitable peroration, I turn to an observation by an earlier eminent American, one more than any other associated with this city, nearly a century earlier than Lincoln. In 1768, Benjamin Franklin devised a phonetic spelling system, and wrote a letter using it (but transcribed here) that includes the following observations:

If Amendments [to English orthography] are never attempted, and things continue to grow worse and worse, they must come to be in a wretched condition at last; such indeed I think our Alphabet and Writing already in; but if we go on as we have done a few Centuries longer, our words will gradually cease to express sounds, they will only stand for things, as the written words do in the Chinese Language, which I suspect might originally have been a literal Writing like that of Europe, but through the changes in Pronunciation brought on by the Course of Ages, and through the obstinate Adherence of that People to old Customs and among others to their old manner of Writing, the original Sounds of Letters and Words are lost, and no longer considered.

And as he’d written in Poor Richard’s Almanack back in 1750,

What an admirable Invention is Writing, by which a Man may communicate his Mind without opening his Mouth, and at 1000 Leagues Distance, and even to future Ages, only by the Help of 22 letters, which may be joined 5852616738497664000 Ways, and will express all Things in a very narrow Compass. ‘Tis a Pity this excellent Art has not preserved the Name and Memory of its Inventor.



[Repeated from the end of part 1.]

Bühler, Georg. 1898. On the Origin of the Indian Brāhma Alphabet, together with Two Appendices on the Origin of the Kharoṣṭhī Alphabet and the Origin of the So-Called Letter-Numerals of the Brāhmī. 2nd ed. Strassbourg: Trübner.

Daniels, Peter T. 1990. “Fundamentals of Grammatology.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 110: 727–31.

Daniels, Peter T. 1992. “The Syllabic Origin of Writing and the Segmental Origin of the Alphabet.” In The Linguistics of Literacy, edited by Pamela Downing, Susan D. Lima, and Michael Noonan, 83–110. Typological Studies in Language 21. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Daniels, Peter T. 1999. “Some Semitic Phonological Considerations on the Sibilants of the Greek Alphabet.” Written Language and Literacy 2(1): 57–61.

Franklin, Benjamin. 1987. Writings, edited by J. A. Leo Lemay. Library of America 37. New York: Literary Classics of the United States.

Gelb, I. J. 1952. A Study of Writing: The Foundations of Grammatology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (2nd ed., 1963.)

Henning, W. B. 1958. “Mitteliranisch.” In Iranistik, 20–130. Handbuch der Orientalistik I/4.1. Leiden: Brill. (Unpub. English translation by Peter T. Daniels available.)

Kara, György. 1996. “Aramaic Scripts for Altaic Languages.” In The World’s Writing Systems, edited by Peter T. Daniels and William Bright, 536-58. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lincoln, Abraham. 1859. “Lecture on Discoveries and Inventions, Jacksonville, Illinois.” In Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings, 2 vols., edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher, 2, 3–11. Library of America 45–46. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1989.

Sampson, Geoffrey. 1985. Writing Systems. London; Stanford: Hutchinson; Stanford University Press. (Corrected pbk. reprint, London, 1987.)

Schmandt-Besserat, Denise. 1992. Before Writing. 2 vols. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Schmitt, Alfred. 1954. “Die Vokallosigkeit der ägyptischen und semitischen Schrift.” Indogermanische Forschungen 61: 216–27.

Schmitt, Alfred. 1980. Entstehung und Entwicklung von Schriften, edited by Claus Haeber. Cologne: Böhlau.

Skjærvø, P. Oktor. 1996. “Aramaic Scripts for Iranian Languages.” In The World’s Writing Systems, edited by Peter T. Daniels and William Bright, 515–35. New York: Oxford University Press.

Stuart, George E. 1992. “Quest for Decipherment: A Historical and Biographical Survey of Maya Hieroglyphic Investigation.” In New Theories on the Ancient Maya, edited by Elin C. Danien and Robert J. Sharer, 1–63. University Museum Monograph 77, University Museum Symposium Series 3. Philadelphia: The University Museum, University of Pennsylvania.

Toynbee, Arnold J. 1939a. “Lingue franche.” In A Study of History, pt. V: The Disintegrations of Civilizations, sec. C: The Process of the Disintegrations of Civilizations, 1: The Criterion of Disintegration, d: Schism in the Soul, 6: The Sense of Promiscuity, γ, vol. 5, 483–527. London: Oxford University Press.

Toynbee, Arnold J. 1939b. “Archaism in Language and Literature.” In A Study of History, pt. V: The Disintegrations of Civilizations, sec. C: The Process of the Disintegrations of Civilizations, 1: The Criterion of Disintegration, d: Schism in the Soul, 8: Archaism, γ, vol. 6, 62–83. London: Oxford University Press.

Toynbee, Arnold J. 1954a. “The Administrative Geography of the Achaemenian Empire.” In A Study of History, pt. VI: Universal States, sec. C: Universal States as Means, II: Services and Beneficiaries, c: The Serviceability of Imperial Installations, 3: Provinces, Annex, vol. 7[B], 580–689. London: Oxford University Press.

Toynbee, Arnold J. 1954b. “Official Languages and Scripts.” In A Study of History, pt. VI: Universal States, sec. C: Universal States as Means, II: Services and Beneficiaries, d: The Serviceability of Imperial Currencies, 1, vol. 7[A], 239–55. London: Oxford University Press.

Vachek, Josef. 1939. “Zum Problem der geschriebenen Sprache.” Travaux du Cercle Linguistique de Prague 8: 98–104. (Repr. in his Prague School Reader in Linguistics [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1964], 441–52; rev. Eng. trans. in his Written Language Revisited [Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1989], 103–16.)

Wachter, Rudolf. 1991. “Abbreviated Writing.” Kadmos 30(1): 49–80.


Selected readings


  1. martin schwartz said,

    July 5, 2024 @ 6:27 pm

    Where the admirable and learned Peter Daniels writes (para.)
    "Such a script was borrowed eadtward from Manichaean Aramaic"
    caution is needed. We have the Imperial Aramaic script of the Achæmenian period, whence came the ordinary "indigenous" Iranian
    scripts, Pahlavi for a dialect of Midddle Persian, Parthian script,
    Chorasmian script (later replaced by Perso-Arabic script for Khwarezmian), and Sogdia nscript. Te latter gave the ordinary
    Old Uyghur script, whence the Mongolian script. Much later than the Imperial Aramaic period of the Achm. Empire, , Mani ( born at the end of the Arsacid Period, and preaching in the early Sasanian period) whose mother language was a dialect of Aramaic, wrote in a script said to based on Edessene Syriac ductūs; his script, usually called "Manichæan
    script", was used exclusively for Manichæan texts. in a dialect of Middle Persian )Man. MPers.), Man. Parthian, Man. Sogdian (whence
    Man. OLd Turkish script), and some Man. Bactrian. Thus we have two
    different (tho ultimtely related) influential scripts
    Martin Schwartz

  2. Martin Schwartz said,

    July 5, 2024 @ 6:30 pm

    p.s. hmm, there's a Tocharian B hymn in Manichean script.

  3. Vampyricon said,

    July 5, 2024 @ 8:59 pm

    @Martin Schwartz Would very much appreciate it if you could point me towards the hymn.

    Absolutely fascinating insight by Franklin: The Sinitic script had approached a pseudosyllabic status by the end of the 周 period, with nations coining phonosemantic compounds with a surprisingly consistent set of phonetic components. Alas, the 秦 came and ruined everything.

  4. Chris Button said,

    July 6, 2024 @ 12:19 am

    Chinese characters, which work well for the isolating, at the time monosyllabic language.

    I follow Pulleyblank in believing that the heavenly stems and earthly branches represented the onsets of Old Chinese.

    My reconstructions are as follows:

    甲 k
    乙 Ɂ
    丙 p
    丁 t
    戊 b
    己 ɣ
    庚 ᵏl ~ ᵏr
    辛 s
    壬 n
    癸 q
    子 ts
    丑 x
    寅 l
    卯 ʁ ~ ɢ
    辰 d
    巳 z ~ dz
    午 ŋ
    未 m
    申 ɬ
    酉 r
    戌 χ
    亥 g

    But for political/social/cultural reasons, this was not then used as a basis for the script.

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    July 6, 2024 @ 1:04 am

    An equally excellent follow-up to the first part, and well worth waiting for. But a question, if I may ? Where you write "the inherited but somewhat awkward right-to-left direction", I am assuming that you are right handed (for writing, at least); I, on the other hand, am left handed (for writing primarily) and find right-to-left natural, left-to-right "awkward" (although I am so used to it by now that "awkward" is far too strong a term). But how confident are we that our ancestors shewed the same preference for writing with the right hand as most people do today ?

  6. Ralph J Hickok said,

    July 6, 2024 @ 8:11 am

    How can something be both accidental and inevitable/

  7. Victor Mair said,

    July 6, 2024 @ 9:24 am

    "the origin of the alphabet is accidental and practically inevitable"

    That's very different from the way you quoted the author.

  8. Sean said,

    July 6, 2024 @ 9:47 am

    Philip: I believe that across cultures around 90% of people are right-hand dominant and that there is plenty of evidence for this from the ancient world eg. paintings and sculptures of people with a tool in one hand and Greek and Roman taboos against saying "left" or prejudice against the left. And ancient ink (India ink or watercolour) smears so you want your hand over the blank papyrus not the already-written text.

    Some early Greek writing scrolls left to right then right to left like an ox plowing a field.

  9. Philip Taylor said,

    July 6, 2024 @ 10:40 am

    Thank you Sean. Just one point, tho' — "And ancient ink (India ink or watercolour) smears so you want your hand over the blank papyrus not the already-written text" — so does modern ink ! I use a fountain pen, and would far prefer to write from right to left so as to be able to avoid this problem …

  10. Jonathan Smith said,

    July 6, 2024 @ 10:54 am

    I think it is mostly tool production and tool use that point to right-hand dominance across anatomically modern human populations. See e.g. pp. 223ff. below

    Steele & Uomini 2005

    My personal experience is that "lefthandedness" is really mixed dominance, where one picks up individual motor skills (seemingly) arbitrarily with either left or right hand. Or maybe some degree of analogy across mechanically related skills is involved. At any rate for me the breakdown seems pretty random across 100's of daily tasks (write > L; eat with fork > R; eat with chopsticks > L; throw a ball > R; throw a frisbee > L; use a hammer > R; use a saw > L etc. etc.) Actually I had somehow gotten the impression that this was also the new scientific view of so-called lefthandedness but am failing ATM to find academic support for that impression…

  11. Coby said,

    July 6, 2024 @ 12:23 pm

    There is a more recent conversion of an abjad to an alphabet: Hebrew to Yiddish. The most striking element is the adoption of 'ayin to represent /e/.

  12. martin schwartz said,

    July 6, 2024 @ 4:13 pm

    @Vampyricon: Start with Doug Hitch (PDF) "The Kuchean Hymn in
    Manicean Scrpt". The original publication by von Gabain and Winter in
    Túrkisch Turfantexte IX.
    @Coby: Nice observation.The process was completed by the Soviets, who alphabetized tand phoneticized the abjad HGebrew and Aramaic spelling.
    Martin Schwartz

  13. martin schwartz said,

    July 6, 2024 @ 4:17 pm

    typos: correct;y Manichean, Hebrew

  14. Coby said,

    July 6, 2024 @ 6:28 pm

    Martin: I thought the Bund did that too.

  15. katarina said,

    July 6, 2024 @ 10:39 pm

    What a grand and beautiful disquisition on the history of writing, built on a lifetime of research and thought ! Thank you very much, Peter Daniels. And thank you, Victor Mair, for providing a forum for such presentations.

  16. Martin Schwartz said,

    July 6, 2024 @ 10:55 pm

    @Coby: You're no doubt right, since Bundism and Soviet Communism
    were both secular movements, and use of Hebrew and Aramaic in their own orthography are visible symbols of traditional Judaism.In general,
    script as an outward indication of religion is a big and interesting topic.

  17. /df said,

    July 7, 2024 @ 7:55 am

    "… "lefthandedness" is really mixed dominance, where one picks up individual motor skills (seemingly) arbitrarily with either left or right hand."

    Example: up-and-coming Brit tennis star Jack Draper, having first picked up the racquet with his left hand, but right-handed in other ways, learned and continued to play left-handed.

  18. David Marjanović said,

    July 7, 2024 @ 2:37 pm

    I use a fountain pen, and would far prefer to write from right to left so as to be able to avoid this problem …

    Hold your hand under the line instead of in it. That's how Arabic is written.

    (The left-handed children I've seen write usually hold their hand above the line, meaning they have to cramp the left wrist rather hard.)

  19. Philip Taylor said,

    July 7, 2024 @ 2:58 pm

    I hold my hand in the same way as the left-handed children that you have seen. I don't have a pen in my hand as I type, but pretending that I do seems to bring my elbow into contact with my side if I simulate holding my hand under the line, whereas holding it over the top gives me complete freedom of movement. Perhaps I should watch some video recordings of Arabic calligraphers …

  20. Yves Rehbein said,

    July 7, 2024 @ 3:04 pm

    I'll respond here to part 1 though I have nothing to add to the second part.

    "A standard example, due to Gelb, is that in Sumerian a picture of an ‘arrow’, pronounced ti, could also be used to represent ‘life’, also pronounced ti. [@PTD]

    I know this from a book from the thrift store though they separate TI from TI(L). Seems to be a standard example. The signs look different in the Early Dynastic period III a, according to the old Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary. Zi "life, throat" is spelled with a different character I don't know. Later ši IGI ("eye") "life" seems not to be included in ePSD2. Compare here beam (of light), ray from Latin radius "spoke"; left unexplained the family of Persian تیر tir "arrow". Another word from ED III b is namtil "life" that is spelled with the arrow glyph, but initial nV- coincides with Akkadian more often. The conventional transcription that is based on the Old Babylonian form of TI looks like IGI with two extra strokes. Other forms are reduced to two strokes, one it has in common with ZI.

    It's not very likely that the spelling was chosen for its sound value alone. It does look quite alike lìng 令 "order" but 90° rotated, where 亼 is a redirect to jí 集 "collect" with initial *[dz]. Here we go, that's "life". Corollarily, order and arrow are related by PIE root *h2er-, too. Since I know 令 from Wiktionary: 冷天 as dialectal synonym to 冬天 "winter; year"; I have reason to believe that literary 令 "time, season" is a closely related meaning.令#Chinese命#Chinese

    "Until recently, we could only read two ancient scripts that could fairly securely be believed not to share an origin: Sumerian cuneiform and Chinese oracle bone. [@PTD]

    *Sigh*. Since negatives are difficult to prove, I usually entertain myself with falsification by setting up competing hypotheses, if the comment weren't long enough already.

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