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March 19, 2003

Characters & letters

An observation-it seems that the idea of writing has appeared many times. The Maya, and likely the Near Easterners & Chinese stumbled upon the concept without outside input (there is a possibility that the Chinese were influenced by western Eurasia). Chinese writing comes from oracle bones & Near Eastern writing from the clay token accounting system, not quite the original idea that characters developed from pictures. The Inca with their quipu account system would probably have also advanced to literacy. On the other hand, phonetic script, which makes writing more than the preserve of scribes, seems to have been invented just once among the Aramaeans and Phonecians [1]. It spread by cultural diffusion from one end of Eurasia to the other by a chain so that Mongolian, Khmer and the Latin script all share a common ancestor amogn the city-states of Syria [2].

[1] The transition from the more archaic written systems to the alphabet was a quantum leap in efficiency. Likewise, the introduction of the codex, paper and finally the printing press has made universal literacy a possibility. Scribes of Sumeria were more like the rocket scientists of their day, dealers in a rare and precious art that required years of study of arcana.

[2] Mongolian was forced to become Cyrillic, and I now believe it is Latin, but its original script came from the Uighers (who I assume now use Arabic, though I'm not sure).

Posted by razib at 10:27 PM




A decade ago a Chinese scholar of the ancient Chinese writing that went obsolete before Confucious claimed he could read the inscriptions on the Mayan pottery shards in the Mexican Anthropology Museum. Whatever became of that claim?

Posted by: Steve Sailer at March 19, 2003 11:24 PM


i've never heard of this...anyone?

Posted by: razib at March 20, 2003 12:00 AM


The Mongols in Mongolia are supposedly transferring from the Cyrillic back to Uighur script, but it's hard because their whole educational system was based an Cyrillic. In Inner (Chinese) Mongolia the Uighur script is used for Mongol, but the educational system is based on the Chinese language.

My guess is that the guy saying that he could read Maya was bluffing. Any two scripts that use ideographs or pictographs will have a few similiar signs (I've seen one, two, up, sun).

In Taiwan women think thick glasses on men are sex. Scholarly, successful guys. They also think that scholarly guys will be successful.

Posted by: zizka at March 20, 2003 03:13 AM


I did Peace Corps in Kazakhstan and knew some Ouigars. They mostly use Cyrillic, but traditionally use (the Ouigar dialect of) Turkik

Posted by: michaelvassar at March 20, 2003 11:22 AM


Hangul, also alphabetic, is alleged to be independent of other writing systems, at least in the "genetic" sense that, in creating it Koreans didn't just take someone prestige culture's writing system and fudge it a bit until it fit their own sounds. Though presumably the scholars who King Sejong commissioned to come up with it (c. 1443) had at least heard of the existence of other phonetic scripts (i.e. they'd already caught the "break sounds up into component phonemes" meme, rather than having to independently invent the idea as well as the specific system for doing it).

as for the Chinese professor of turtle-bone writing who claimed to be able to read Maya inscriptions, he seems to have been a hoax. this site (chinese GB encoded) features an excerpt from a World Journal article of August 1998. According to that, the guy's name was Wang Ping, and he claimed not only to be able to recognize the characters but read aloud their pronunciation. He took some rubbings of the inscriptions, went back to China, and no one ever heard from him again.

Posted by: Eric at March 20, 2003 01:54 PM


Buddhists and/or Hindus in India did a phonetic analysis of Sanskrit long before anything as good showed up in Europe. (I heard this from a linguistics prof. who was absolutely not a multiculturalist). As a result we know what Sanskrit sounded like, whereas we don't know what classical Greek or Latin sounded like.

Mystical and metaphysical meaning was given to phonemes -- when someone chants "om", that traces back to an inventory of Sanskrit phonemes. There are chnats for the other vowels too, IIRC.

The Korean script not only gets the phonemes right, but it gets the significant features right, so that phonemes that are closely related (p and b, t and d) also look similiar. This is its originality. This traces back to Sanskrit though, I'm pretty sure, which traces to the Middle East. (All second hand knowledge from a quality source).

Under the Mongols a Tibetan monk produced a very complex "square script" which could represent the sounds of most of the significant languages of the Mongol Empire (Turkish, Persian, Chinese Mongol, Tibetan being the main ones).

Posted by: zizka at March 20, 2003 04:49 PM