An Example of the Infinite Possibilities of Writing Systems: Mandombe

I recently came across Endangered Alphabets, a Vermont-based nonprofit organization engaged in “preserving endangered cultures by using their writing systems to create artwork and educational materials”.

An article in Colossal pulled several examples from the Endangered database. The most striking of them, I thought, was Mandombe. It was created about 40 years ago by David Wabeladio Payi. His work was influenced by the look of a brick wall and a wish to connect the direction a shape pointed with pronunciation.

Endangered Alphabets Mandombe-script-example Sm

Apparently, Mandombe is based on consonant and vowel graphemes, but they are organized into syllabic blocks (like written Korean) instead of word-length units.

Endangered Alphabets Mandombe Script Table Sm

Today, Mandombe is taught in Angola, the Republic of the Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, France, and Brussels.

Wikipedia Mandombe Book Sm

Isn’t it fascinating?

P.S. Did you know that the United Nations declared 2019 The Year of Indigenous Languages (IY2019) in order to raise awareness of the thousands of languages that are in danger of disappearing? Also, go ahead and visit the gallery or atlas at Endangered Alphabets for even more eye candy!

Images: script sample and table via Endangered Alphabets. Mandombe book via Wikipedia.

The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?

Advertisements

New Find: Most Uralic Speakers Share Siberian Ancestry

(This post is mostly a Note to Self—I don’t want to forget about the study below—but if other people are interested, that’s great.)

The majority of languages spoken in North Eurasia belong to three language families—Turkic, Indo-European, and Uralic. My native language Finnish is a part of the Uralic languages; the main branches of the family are the Finno-Ugric and the Samoyed.

While there’s rough agreement over where and how Uralic languages developed and spread, and over what types of material cultures were found in the corresponding areas, no-one’s done comprehensive studies on the genetic history of Uralic-speaking peoples before.

This interdisciplinary study, lead by Kristiina Tambets from the University of Tartu, Estonia, compared genome-wide genetic variation of nearly all extant Uralic-speaking populations from Europe and Siberia.

From the abstract:

“The genetic origins of Uralic speakers from across a vast territory in the temperate zone of North Eurasia have remained elusive. Previous studies have shown contrasting proportions of Eastern and Western Eurasian ancestry in their mitochondrial and Y chromosomal gene pools. While the maternal lineages reflect by and large the geographic background of a given Uralic- speaking population, the frequency of Y chromosomes of Eastern Eurasian origin is distinctively high among European Uralic speakers. The autosomal variation of Uralic speakers, however, has not yet been studied comprehensively. […]

“Here, we present a genome-wide analysis of 15 Uralic-speaking populations which cover all main groups of the linguistic family. We show that contemporary Uralic speakers are genetically very similar to their local geographical neighbours. However, when studying relationships among geographically distant populations, we find that most of the Uralic speakers and some of their neighbours share a genetic component of possibly Siberian origin. Additionally, we show that most Uralic speakers share significantly more genomic segments identity-by-descent with each other than with geographically equidistant speakers of other languages. We find that correlated genome-wide genetic and lexical distances among Uralic speakers suggest co- dispersion of genes and languages. Yet, we do not find long-range genetic ties between Estonians and Hungarians with their linguistic sisters that would distinguish them from their non-Uralic-speaking neighbours.”

And the conclusion:

“Here, we present for the first time the comparison of genome-wide genetic variation of nearly all extant Uralic-speaking populations from Europe and Siberia. We show that (1) the Uralic speakers are genetically most similar to their geographical neighbours; (2) nevertheless, most Uralic speakers along with some of their geographic neighbours share a distinct ancestry component of likely Siberian origin. Furthermore, (3) most geographically distant Uralic speaking populations share more genomic IBD segments with each other than with equidistant populations speaking other languages and (4) there is a positive correlation between linguistic and genetic data of the Uralic speakers. This suggests that the spread of the Uralic languages was at least to some degree associated with movement of people. Moreover, the discovery of the Siberian component shows that the three known major components of genetic diversity in Europe (European hunter-gatherers, early Neolithic farmers and the Early Bronze Age steppe people) are not enough to explain the extant genetic diversity in (northeast) Europe.”

I find the question of which material cultures may have spread together with which languages absolutely fascinating. Having my own small language / culture be a part of a larger study like this makes it even more special.

I was also surprised to learn that only three Uralic languages—Hungarian, Finnish, and Estonian—are not listed as endangered in the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. (I did know that several of the tiniest ones like Mari or the Permic languages have been endangered for decades, but I had thought that some of the Samoyed or Ugric languages had more speakers than that.)

While I doubt these three will go extinct very soon, there’s pressure at least in Finland to adopt more and more loanwords from English. Then again, we three may end up being rather rare, all in all, and I’m not quite sure whether to be alarmed over our potential disappearance or proud of our preciousness—or both.

Found via Helsingin Sanomat (NB. Finnish only). (Related article on the Siberian genes of Finns and the Sami in English via University of Helsinki.)

Tambets, Kristiina et al. 2018. “Genes reveal traces of common recent demographic history for most of the Uralic-speaking populations”. Genome Biology 19:139. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1186/s13059-018-1522-1. The article is openly accessible (CC BY 4.0).

Image screencapped from Kristiina Tambets et al.

On, of, and about languages.

Quotes: If Anyone Hated Me and I Hated Them

As you may know, speakers of Modern English are struggling to find a non-clunky and commonly accepted gender-neutral third person singular pronoun to replace the generic use of he or she.

The issue’s been periodically debated for decades, really, but lately the calls seem to have gained more urgency. There are many contenders, among them e / em / eir and ze / hir / hir.

Singular they may be gaining some ground, or at least growing in popularity here in the U.S. I’ve seen references to a long history of using they in that manner, but these references usually give no examples. (Maybe I just haven’t been reading the better articles? Also, one sometimes wonders why the British use of one has fallen out in other world Englishes.)

In any case, as an Anglo-Saxonist, it’s beyond my era and/or expertise. Nevertheless, I’m curious about any early examples. Here’s the oldest I’ve noticed so far, from a 1938 Hercule Poirot novel:

“Pilar said gravely: ‘If I had an enemy—if anyone hated me and I hated them—then I would cut my enemy’s throat like this….’”

– Agatha Christie: Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, p. 18 (original emphasis)

This example is great, because it’s clear and unquestionable. I’m pretty sure there are a few singular theys in Jane Austen’s novels, but I can’t remember where. Maybe it’s the perfect time for a re-read. 🙂

Christie, Agatha. Hercule Poirot’s Christmas. New York, NY: Black Dog & Leventhal, 1938.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Tamias

Let me tell you about the word tamias.

Tamias is a word in Ancient Greek. It was the title of the official in charge of the Athenian state treasury. It is related to the verb temnō, which means to cut something up into pieces, especially used of carving meat.

Now, meat was not always easy to come by in ancient Greece. Most people would not have eaten meat on a regular basis, at least not from land animals—bird and fish meat was probably a little easier to come by, but meat from animals like cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs was a rarity. In fact, meat from these animals was almost always consumed as part of a sacrifice. When the ancient Greeks offered an animal to the gods in sacrifice, only a small representative portion of the animal was usually burned for the gods. The rest of the meat was cooked and consumed by the community.

Since sacrifice was a religious act, there were important rules about the procedure. One was that the portions of meat shared out among the participants had to be of equal size. To do otherwise would be to suggest that the blessings of the gods invoked by the ritual should come down unequally. The carver who prepared the meat for cooking therefore had a job that required both expertise and a solemn devotion to the good of the whole community.

When the Athenians were organizing their state and assigning one official to responsible for managing the state finances, it makes sense that they would invoke the image of the old sacrificial carver for an official who would take on a post of such weighty responsibility, but this is not where the saga of tamias ends.

A treasurer’s job is not just to share out funds equitably but also to store and guard valuable goods so they will be available in the future when needed. This is the idea invoked by the scientific name Tamias striatus (literally ‘stripey treasurer’) for this fellow. The chipmunk carries food in its big cheek pouches and stores it for the winter in its burrow.

From food to gold and back to food again: that’s the history of tamias.

Image: Eastern chipmunk, photograph by Cephas via Wikimedia

On, of, and about languages.

A Way of Talking Which is Spoiled and Full of Errors

I cannot support those who make the grave mistake of thinking that a way of talking which is spoiled and full of errors, which revels in the looseness of its words, or frolics with childish expressions, or swells up with bombast, or tosses around inane sayings, or adorns itself with blossoms that fall if lightly shaken, or treats outrageous things as sublime, or runs mad under the name of free speech, will be most pleasing to the crowds.

Quintillian, The Institute of Oratory 12.10.73

(My own translation)

September is upon us, and as students head back to school, one can hear everywhere the clucking of tongues about kids these days who don’t know how to talk proper any more and say all kinds of weird and outrageous things. Thus it has ever been, all the way back two thousand years to the first-century CE Roman orator Quintillian, and before.

The kids are fine, everybody. They always have been. They always will be.

YOLO.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Quotes: Trail Goes Down Between Two Hills

“[T]he Pima of Central Arizona have historically embedded in their landscape the stories, histories, and lessons of their way of life and culture. Thus, the Pima, when they wish to remind someone of their past, or of a lesson they would like that person to remember, make what seem to white people abstract references to locations on their territory, such as ‘Trail Goes Down between Two Hills.’ The target of their comments, however, will know what they mean.”

– Matthew Barlow, Griffintown: Memory and Identity in an Irish Diaspora Neighbourhood, 11

Historian Matthew Barlow here cites the work of anthropologist Keith Basso on how memory can be embedded in a landscape to explain how the Irish-Catholic population of Montreal imbued the working-class neighborhood of Griffintown with meanings important to their identity as Irish-Canadians, such that even after the neighborhood was redeveloped, Irish-Montrealers could invoke generations worth of memories by reference to churches, pubs, streets, and other landmarks.

It’s a fascinating way of thinking about how we relate the landscape we live in, but, of course, the first thing I thought of was:

Image: Still from Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Darmok” via IMDb, text added by Erik Jensen

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Christopher Robin Trailers with Thoughts on Gender

The movie Christopher Robin opens in a week, on August 03, 2018.

Here’s a trailer from the end of May:

Christopher Robin Official Trailer by Disney Movie Trailers

And a sneak peek from July:

Christopher Robin “Adventure” – Sneak Peek by Disney Movie Trailers

I remember liking Nalle Puh stories (as they were translated into my native language) quite a bit, so I wonder what my reaction to the voice acting will be, since I didn’t grow up thinking of the characters in terms of gender.

You see, Finnish does not have grammatical gender at all; we only have gender-neutral third-person pronouns (singular hän or plural he). This means that for me the only explicitly female character in the gang was Kengu because she was a mother, and the only explicitly male character was Risto Reipas because he was a human boy. The others were their own individual, quirky, stuffed-animal selves.

I guess the closest I can come is associating the stuffed animal characters with the non-binary gender identity. They didn’t need categorization into male or female, because that’s not how I saw their world working. I still don’t, even though talking about them in English forced me to learn which pronouns English associates with each.

It’s fascinating to notice myself using gendered English-language pronouns and yet at the same time still thinking of the stuffed animal characters as not fitting into those divisions. Eating too much honey and getting stuck in someone’s doorway, or figuring out that a popped balloon and an empty jar of honey go splendidly together do not require the gendering of anybody in the story.

I really do wonder how my perception changes after hearing voice actors and their intonational choices—or whether it will change at all.

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.

My Silliest WoW Pet Battle Pet Names

As a word nerd, I love puns. Nevertheless, I usually keep my RPG characters’ names pun-free if the setting or play style demand it, because I don’t want to ruin anyone’s enjoyment.

Likewise, in World of Warcraft, my hunters usually have appropriate names for their tameable companion pets. Since pet battling is so much more meta than anything else, I do go all out naming my pet battle pets. Here are some I find most groan-worthy.

WoW Battle Pet Hello Legs

Legs came as a quest reward during Children’s Week. Mine is called Hello.

WoW Battle Pet Finley Chuck

Chuck is a pet crocolisk and a fishing quest reward. I’ve seen people joke about Chuck Norris, but I haven’t yet had anyone recognize my Burn Notice reference (Chuck Finley is an alias for one of the POV characters, played by the legendary Bruce Campbell).

WoW Battle Pet Bob Ghostly Skull

The floating ghostly skull named Bob is a reference to Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden books.

WoW Battle Pet A Void Dance Lesser Voidcaller

The lesser voidcaller has a chance to drop from High Astromancer Solarian in The Eye. Mine is named for a muddled-up pun on the word avoidance and the fact that it’s a voidcaller. Not perhaps my best, but good enough of a name to keep.

WoW Battle Pet Iraknok Mirror Strider

Mirror striders can be found just hanging around in The Jade Forest in Pandaria. The name for mine is a bit esoteric: in the Finnish translation of The Lord of the Rings, Aragorn’s nickname Strider is translated Konkari; Konkari spelled backwards is, you guessed it, Iraknok.

WoW Battle Pet Wonka Willy

Willy is another Children’s Week quest reward. Appropriately, as a reference to another child-related work (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), I named mine Wonka.

WoW Battle Pet Never Lupus Worg Pup

I can’t remember how I got my worg pup. I named mine Never Lupus, because whenever House encounters a case that defies his diagnostic abilities in the eponymous series, he always says “It’s never lupus.” We must’ve been just watching it.

WoW Battle Pet Dammed Bound Stream

My bound stream is called Dammed. Because that’s how you describe one. This one reminds me of a crossword puzzle clue, but AFAIK isn’t.

Any good pet names—of any kind—you want to share? Please do!

Images: screencaps from the MMORPG World of Warcraft

Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.

Dirty Jokes in Ancient Gaul

It’s been said that one of the measures of skill in a language is the ability to tell a dirty joke. It looks like some women in central Gaul were up to snuff in their Latin.

The evidence comes from a set of loom weights with Gaulish and Gaulish/Latin inscriptions. Loom weights are small weights, often made from stone, pottery, or metal, used to keep tension on the fibers in certain types of loom. They are a very common find in archaeological sites because they were simple everyday objects that lots of people used, people needed a lot of them, and they were easy to replace if they got damaged or broken. (So many loom weights turn up in archaeological digs that there’s a joke among archaeologists that if you find something you can’t identify it’s probably a loom weight.) Most loom weights are quite simple objects, like the Saxon examples in the illustration here, but a collection of loom weights with inscribed texts have been found in France, dating from some time during the Roman period.

The texts on these weights are short sayings, often with a good rolling rhythm like these:

Nata imi daga uimpi

Gaulish for: ‘I am a good and pretty girl.’

Nata uimpi curmi da

Gaulish for: ‘Pretty girl, bring me beer.’

But then there are some like this one:

Nata uimpi uim pota

Now, nata uimpi is Gaulish for ‘pretty girl,’ like in the previous examples, but uim pota is Latin. Pota means ‘drink,’ which is clear enough, but uim is a little trickier. Uim is abbreviated from a longer word, and there are two possibilities. If it is shortened from uinum (more typically written as vinum), then the inscription says: ‘Pretty girl, drink wine.’ On the other hand, uim could be short for uirum (or virum), in which case the meaning gets a bit naughtier: ‘Pretty girl, drink the man.’ (Which probably means exactly what your dirty mind thinks it means.)

Early researchers concluded that this naughty loom weight must have been made by a man and given to a woman who didn’t understand the double meaning, because women are delicate flowers who would never say such a thing. More recent scholarship has pointed out that those earlier researchers clearly haven’t spent enough time around women.

These and other (even naughtier) loom weights suggest that there was a community of Gaulish-speaking women who were also sufficiently familiar with Latin to make dirty jokes. Textile work was traditionally a women’s activity and would have taken up a significant part of their time. It could also be a social activity. We should imagine these Gaulish women gathered together weaving, sewing, and chatting, not unlike a modern craft circle. In that context, these loom weights with their rhythmic sayings and naughty suggestions would have been a playful accent to enliven the working day.

Image: Saxon loom weights, photography by Simon Speed via Wikimedia (currently Bedford Museum; stone)

On, of, and about languages.

Magic Words

From Gandalf’s “Naur an edraith ammen” to Harry Potter’s “Expelliarmus,” words carry the power to work magic in many stories. The idea is not a new one. Here, for example, is some medical advice from the early Roman writer Cato the Elder’s treatise on agriculture:

A dislocation can be made whole with this incantation. Take a green reed four or five feet long, split it in half, and have two people hold it at your hips. Begin to chant: “Motas uaetas daries dardares astataries dissunapiter” and continue until the halves touch. Flourish an iron blade over them. Where they touch one another, take them in your hand and cut left and right. Bind the pieces to the dislocation or fracture and it will be healed. Keep chanting every day like this: “Haut haut haut istasis tarsis ardannabou dannaustra.”

– Cato the Elder, On Agriculture 160

(My own translation.)

Cato was a Roman traditionalist who preferred folk remedies like this one to the more scientific Greek medicine that was becoming popular in Rome in his day, but Greeks had magic words of their own. A set of six words, known as the “Ephesian letters,” were believed to be particularly powerful: askion, kataskion, lix, tetrax, damnameneus, and aision. These words may have been used for spoken incantations like Cato’s charms, but they were particularly used in writing. Reportedly, they originally came from an inscription on the statue of Artemis at Ephesus. It later became a common practice to write the words on scraps of papyrus which were then tied up in small pouches and carried or tied to various parts of the body for magical protection. Boxers were especially known to use these sorts of amulets for strength and defense in competition.

Magic words often seem to sit somewhere on the line between meaning and nonsense. These magic words—both Cato’s spells and the Ephesian letters—are not meaningful in themselves, but they suggest meanings to those who know Latin and Greek. Cato’s incantation implies the movement of something broken. The Ephesian letters suggest words relating to power—damnameneus, for instance, seems to derive from the verb damazo, meaning to tame an animal.

Other examples of magic words from Greece and Rome are derived from real words in other languages the Greeks and Romans had contact with, such as Egyptian, Hebrew, and Persian. Osoronnophris, for example, another magic word used in various Greek and Roman spells, comes from an Egyptian phrase meaning “Osiris (god of the dead) is beautiful.” In much the same way, although J. K. Rowling’s “expelliarmus” may not be a real word, it sounds a lot like Latin and it is not hard to guess that it is intended to disarm an opponent.

Another way of invoking the magic of nonsense is to use words in ways that disrupt normal understanding. Repetition, for example, like Cato’s “haut haut haut” makes real words into magical nonsense. In written spells, words were sometimes written backwards or with letters reversed.

There’s magic in words, spoken or written.

Image: “Expelliarmus” from Doctor Who, “The Shakespeare Code” via Giphy

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.