Current Anthropology
January 24, 2022 11:26 PM   Subscribe

Rare African script offers clues to the evolution of writing - "In a study just published in Current Anthropology, a team of researchers at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, showed that writing very quickly becomes 'compressed' for efficient reading and writing. To arrive at this insight they turned to a rare African writing system that has fascinated outsiders since the early 19th century."[1,2,3,4,5]
"The Vai script of Liberia was created from scratch in about 1834 by eight completely illiterate men who wrote in ink made from crushed berries," says lead author Dr. Piers Kelly, now at the University of New England, Australia. The Vai language had never before been written down.

According to Vai teacher Bai Leesor Sherman, the script was always taught informally from a literate teacher to a single apprentice student. It remains so successful that today it is even used to communicate pandemic health messages...

"The original inventors were inspired by dreams to design individual signs for each syllable of their language. One represents a pregnant woman, another is a chained slave, others are taken from traditional emblems. When these signs were applied to writing spoken syllables, then taught to new people, they became simpler, more systematic and more similar to one another," says Kelly.
A Rare, Isolated Script Invented From Scratch Holds Clues to the Evolution of Writing - "'There's a famous hypothesis that letters evolve from pictures to abstract signs,' says Kelly. For example, 'the iconic ox's head of Egyptian hieroglyphics transformed into the Phoenician [aleph] and eventually the Roman letter A,' the team explains in their paper... The simplification occurred over generations of users; symbols with the highest complexity were simplified the most. These changes are far from random, the research team explained. Languages pass a kind of natural selection process via memory and learning, where the hardest to recall features do not survive."

also btw...
From Greek to Latin: Visualizing the Evolution of the Alphabet - "This visualization from Matt Baker at demonstrates how the modern Latin script used in English evolved from Greek, and other, alphabets. Before there was English, or Latin, or even Greek, there was Proto-Sinaitic."
It’s All Proto-Sinaitic to Me

Considered the first alphabet ever used, the Proto-Sinaitic script was derived in Canaan, around the biblical Land of Israel. It was repurposed from Egyptian hieroglyphs that were commonly seen in the area (its name comes from Mount Sinai), and used to describe sounds instead of meanings.

As the first Semitic script, Proto-Sinaitic soon influenced other Semitic languages. It was the precursor to the Phoenician alphabet, which was used in the area of modern-day Lebanon and spread across the Mediterranean and became the basis for Arabic, Cyrillic, Hebrew, and of course, Greek.
posted by kliuless (15 comments total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
This is a great post and I'm bookmarking it for later.

It's kind of random but also: a MeFit recommended me the book The Decipherment of Linear B a while back and I really enjoyed it. If you're into the stuff in this post, you'll probably like that book too.
posted by lazaruslong at 1:51 AM on January 25 [2 favorites]

Who knew? Not me! very interesting. The second cited page from omniglot lays out the correspondences between Vai and IPA syllables. There is some intriguing inconsistency:
p > bh by adding two dots for vowels {e ɛ o}
b > mb by adding two dots for {e ɛ i ɔ u}
f > v by adding a line for {a e ɛ o ɔ (u)}
posted by BobTheScientist at 6:40 AM on January 25

Anyone else have their own alphabet? I created one in sixth grade so my best friend and I could converse in code. It was a simple cipher for English with complex, squarish characters. I still use it to write myself notes forty-five years later! But over the years, it has become phonetic (as much as possible, I don't actually have a character for schwa and just use short u), and the letter-forms have become quite curvy -- not cursive, because the characters are not joined, except for a few ligatures, but more like cursive Hebrew, where there are very few "hard turns," but lots of gentle curves. It sort of resembles the Shavian alphabet in appearance. My point being, I guess, that it's funny how a silly thing like a personal alphabet follows the same evolutionary path that the actual alphabet did as it evolved over many many centuries.
Also, shout out to the Hangul alphabet, which was birthed almost perfectly formed, logical and simple, beautiful to behold and easy to write, and which argues by its very presence that the Chinese and Japanese writing systems are crap.
posted by jabah at 8:28 AM on January 25 [4 favorites]

Speaking of Chinese, how does that highly complex writing system fit into this argument?
posted by njohnson23 at 8:45 AM on January 25 [1 favorite]

a MeFit recommended me the book The Decipherment of Linear B a while back and I really enjoyed it.

I would recommend, instead, Margalit Fox's book The Riddle of the Labyrinth, which shines a needed spotlight on the critical work and role of Alice Kober in the decipherment of Linear B.
posted by the sobsister at 8:53 AM on January 25 [2 favorites]

jabah, I had my own alphabet I developed in junior high, as an offshoot of the sci-fi worldbuilding I was doing with my best friend. I think I gave him a key, but I mostly used it to write notes to myself.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 9:25 AM on January 25

Also, shout out to the Hangul alphabet, which was birthed almost perfectly formed, logical and simple, beautiful to behold and easy to write, and which argues by its very presence that the Chinese and Japanese writing systems are crap.

Wow, hot, wrong-headed take. Having studied both of these "crap" writing systems, I'd say they're infinitely more beautiful than Hangul, which does, for its part, have the benefit of being easier to learn and write.

If your "crap" designation has to do with the fact that Chinese script, does not offer consistent phonetic clues, and Japanese comprises an ideographic script along with two syllabary scripts, I don't know what to tell you. It works for more than a billion people, so maybe throttle back?
posted by the sobsister at 9:27 AM on January 25 [4 favorites]

Speaking of Chinese, how does that highly complex writing system fit into this argument?

This is conjecture, but there was probably just one person (whose name is lost to time) who had the flash of pure insight to use pictograms as symbols to represent the individual sounds of Semitic words. Probably a Semite who was aware of the Egyptian writing system, but didn't really understand it fully, and so wasn't tied to scribal tradition. Kind of like how Sequoyah, the creator of the Cherokee syllabary, knew the concept but not the form, which freed him to some extent.

There was no such person in China, or if there was, that person was crushed underfoot for going against tradition. Since the Japanese language is so strikingly different from Chinese (long agglutinating words rather than grammar-free isolated words) you can see how a syllabary derived from simplified characters to show grammatical endings was a logical evolution. Even more logical would have been to loose the Kanji (ideograms) entirely and spell them out using katakana, but once again, the tremendous weight of tradition stopped that evolutionary process.

China has tried to simplify its characters, of course; Taiwan uses the old more complex characters, while the PROC uses simplified. But it's still the same unwieldy system. There is actually a Chinese syllabary (bopomofo) which everyone ignores. Pinyin (Roman characters with added tone marks) is popular, and written Vietnamese is proof that it is a viable substitute for the old system, but once again, the tremendous weight of tradition makes any such change impossible. I mean, if it didn't happen during the Cultural Revolution, when all cards were on the table, it never will.
posted by jabah at 9:34 AM on January 25 [1 favorite]

The thing about hanzi is that characters are legible across many languages because what's transmitted is the meaning of the word, not the pronunciation; just like "5" or "#" are understandable no matter if you pronounce them "cinque" or "fünf", "almohadilla" or "cancelletto". So that's a plus for them.

Japanese hasn't used kana for everything because Chinese imports were flattened in their pronunciation and you can't tell in isolation 死 (death) from 四 (four) or 市 (city) or 師 (teacher) by pronunciation alone, because they're all "shi" in the Chinese pronunciation.
posted by sukeban at 10:37 AM on January 25

Also, re: Chinese, in school I studied Sumerian which, while language-wise was closer to Japanese, writing-wise was closer to Chinese. In fact, going from Chinese to Sumerian was quite natural. Anyway, some Sumerian texts would switch from Emegir (Sumerian) to Emesal (dialectical Sumerian) to depict, for example, the distinct way women or servants would speak. And it was written phonetically, while classical Sumerian was written with a crazy mix of pictographs, ideographs, homophones, determiners, syllabic endings, and so on. So they *could* have easily ditched their highly defective and complicated writing system for a simple phonetic syllabary. Except for tradition. So I think the advantage the creators of the alphabet had was no real previous tradition of writing, so they could use whatever worked best.
posted by jabah at 10:48 AM on January 25 [3 favorites]

There's a certain efficiency to the Japanese use of mixed kanji and kana. The three alphabets are used for different purposes, making their combination functional, if difficult to learn.
posted by mikeand1 at 11:04 AM on January 25

Hangul is amazing as (off the top of my head but not 100% sure) probably the most widely-used high-concept constructed script in history. The Chinese and Japanese script sets are incredible as two of the richest (intertwined) traditions of naturally developed writing in history. Certainly no need to diminish one for the other.
posted by dusty potato at 11:07 AM on January 25 [4 favorites]

(Was hedging by saying "high-concept" there as for some reason I thought Cyrillic was apocryphally attributed to a single creator, but quickly referencing, that seems to not be the case. Hangul is the most widely-used con-script around, period.)
posted by dusty potato at 11:15 AM on January 25

Speaking of Chinese, how does that highly complex writing system fit into this argument?

I'm an archaeologist whose research focuses on Yinxu and the Shang Dynasty, where the earliest extant Chinese writing is found on oracle bones. This finding is pretty much consistent with what we see on oracle bones -- the writing gets smaller (and also more concise) over time.
posted by thebots at 12:39 PM on January 25 [5 favorites]

One thing to note about nonalphabetic systems of writing is that they are not actually inefficient, they are just harder to learn. And ascribing their continued use to the mere ‘heavy weight of tradition’ dismisses their merits.

The early history of the alphabet is quite instructive in that regard, as for a very long time after its invention the alphabet remained a rather marginal way of writing. It just wasn’t that useful: the existing cuneiform might require intensive (and expensive) training to master, but allowed scribes to write at a speed (and with concision) that is impossible with any alphabet. So in the bronze-age city of Ugarit, for example, you find an alphabet in use for writing the local patois – but any serious business was conducted in Akkadian cuneiform. Only after the bronze-age collapse, when the kind of societies that could sustain the necessary scribal schools became rare in the near east, could the alphabet gain a competitive advantage.
posted by trotz dem alten drachen at 4:07 AM on January 28 [2 favorites]

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