Category Archives: language

Great Googly Moogly!

When I was a wee lad in elementary school I was a bit on the bored side. As a consequence, I spent a lot of time devising activities to keep my little mind occupied and one of my favorites was to radically change my handwriting style. I don’t recall them all and no examples are extant but the point is that I sat down and forced myself to write habitually in a different manner. I recall one script especially in which all the letters were formed from bananas and cannot imagine what my teachers must have thought upon receiving a paper printed in banana font. The point though, is that I took something I do every day and by force of will changed it completely. In fact, the handwriting I use today (I never use cursive) is a derivative of the ‘windswept’ font I used after the bananas.

Random silly anecdotes aside, I was reading a dictionary of interjections the other day and thought how cool it would be to force a few of these into my personal vernacular…

  • “Ahoy” – Bell’s choice for standard telephone greeting
  • “Boots and Saddles” – American cavalry slang for “let’s go”
  • “Bung-Ho” – Drinking toast from the 20s
  • “Cushlamacree” – Expression of Joy, Irish in origin
  • “Gadzooks!” – General expression of surprise; more interestingly it’s a corruption of “God’s Hooks” which referred to the nails used to affix Jesus to the cross. (ouch, or more impertinently, gadzooks!)
  • “Gardyloo” – Expression of warning. Formerly used to warn people in the streets when a chamber pot was about to be emptied into the street.
  • “Absit Omen” – Latin form of “Bless You” or “Gesundheit” uttered after a sneeze.
  • “Hekinah Degul!” – Lilliputian for “What the devil!”
  • “Horrors!” – Expression of disappointment
  • “Mazel Tov!” – Congratulations
  • “Oh, Winifred” – An expression of disbelief from 1890.
  • “Twenty-Three Skidoo” – “Let’s get out of here”
  • “Ye gods and little fishes” – Expression of exasperation

* Almost finally, I’d like to push the word ‘Kleberg’ into popular usage. Kleberg County is the county in Texas that passed legislation replacing the greeting ‘hello’ with ‘heaven-o’ because they didn’t like the word ‘hell’ coming up so much. A ‘Kleberg’ can be any overly religious person or action. I so decree it.

* Final note to self: move Yiddish up on the ‘to learn’ list. That language is chock full of happy and inscrutable expressions. Gotta keep the shicksas guessing…

(Reprint of an entry I published on my Blogspot blog on 6/11/06)

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* Books: Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World’s Undeciphered Scripts


Introduction
Writing evolved about 4000 B.C. due to the need to store accounting information. Farmer A had to know how many things Farmer B had given him so he wrote some symbols that looked like cows and some lines representing numbers and from there writing evolved into what we have today. Even thousands of years later, most of the texts found boil down to basic accounting.

As writing systems evolved, they became less pictographic and more symbolic. Rather than draw a picture of a cow a farmer might draw a rebus that represents the sounds in the verbal word for cow. Then even the rebus symbols became abstracted until a proper alphabet was developed.

Ferdinand de Saussure – “Thought is one side of the sheet and sound the reverse side. Just as it is impossible to take a pair of scissors and cut out one side of the paper without at the same time cutting the other, so it is impossible to isolate sound from thought or thought from sound.”


Egyptian Hieroglyphics
Deciphered in 1823 by Jean-Francois Champollion. For centuries even the Greeks had been mistranslating Egyptian Hieroglyphics (Greek for “Sacred Writings”) assuming they were pictographs as did more modern translators. Champollion finally cracked the real meaning using the Rosetta stone, a 3/4 ton slab of rock found in 1799 by Napolean’s army. The stone which describes an agreement between priests and Ptolemy V Epiphanes, a thirteen-yeary-old newly-crowned Pharaoh in which they’ll offer their support for the new ruler for certain unspecified privileges. Good to know some things never change. The stone was written in Greek, Egyptian Hieroglyphics and Demotic (the language of common Egyptians.) As it turns out, Hieroglyphics are both pictographic and phonetic (each symbol can represent an idea or perhaps a sound.)


Linear B
The first examples of Linear B were discovered in Crete in 1900 by Arthur Evans. It was written around 1450 B.C. in clay tablets and comprised mostly of inventory lists. Evans kept the finds to himself for the most part in hopes that he could decipher them. It was not until after his death that they were published and translated by Michael Ventris. Evans believed the tablets to encode a lost Minoan language but as it turns out they represented ancient Greek.


Mayan Glyphs
Only four books (bark paper with jaguar skin covers) survived the Spanish conquistadors who burned Mayan artifacts as works of Satan. The longest is the Dresden Codex which folds out to 12 feet in length. Until the 1970s, Mayan Glyphs weren’t even considered writing. When they eventually were decoded they bespoke of a warlike people who were overly obsessed with hallucinogenic enemas and astronomy. Their calendar was complex sporting 18 named months of 20 days plus a single month of only 5 days. The workings of their calendar are well understood and allow the exact dating of several Mayan artifacts. The Mayan calendar begins on August 13th 3114 B.C. and ends on December 23rd 2012 leading some to believe this date represents the end of the world. The script would have been indecipherable except that in 1547 Fray Diego de Landa wrote down a partial rendering of their alphabet with pronunciations. That in combination with existing Mayan spoken languages has allowed interpretation of existing manuscripts.


Meroitic Script
The Meroitic civilization thrived along the Nile where Sudan is today. In 712 B.C. they conquered Egypt to become the 25th Dynasty. The Egyptians later repelled the invaders and subsequent Pharaohs carefully removed evidence of the outside rulers. By the first century A.D. the Meroitic civilization had evaporated leaving behind its undecipherable writings. Only 26 written words have been translated despite the discovery of some loosely translated documents written both in Egyptian and Meroitic.


The Etruscan Alphabet
Located in what is now Tuscany, the Etruscans are credited with bringing the Greek alphabet to the attention of Rome. The spoken Etruscan language is extinct and apparently bore no resemblance to any modern tongue. The Etruscans were highly literate and borrowed their alphabet from 8th century B.C. Greece. About 13,000 examples of Etruscan are known with 4,000 of those being graffiti or fragments of inscriptions. Of those, only about 250 words have been deciphered, mostly numbers and terms used later by Latin authors.

Most abundant among the artifacts are about 3,000 bronze mirrors bearing engraved pictures and brief Etruscan inscriptions. The Zagreb Mummy was wrapped in an older Etruscan linen religious text of about 1,200 words. The Tabula Cartonensis was found in 1992 and bears 200 Etruscan words. The artifact appears to be a contract for the sale or lease of land.


Linear A

Linear A was used in Crete between 1750 and 1450 B.C. and was believed for some years to be the ancestor of Linear B. As it turns out, it was used before Linear B and in many of the same areas but is not related. Only about 1,500 examples exist totaling about 7,500 characters. Linear A has been found throughout Greece and as far away as Israel. Emmett Bennett Jr. worked out the numerical system of Linear A in 1950 but the bulk of the written language is still undeciphered.



The Proto-Elamite Script
Used between 3050 and 2900 B.C. in what is now Western Iran, Proto-Elamite is the oldest known undeciphered writing system. Despite the fact that 1,500 examples have been found containing over 100,000 characters, only the numeric system has been translated. The primary difficulty in decoding the writings stems from the relative lack of variety. The vast majority of items are simple accounting records. Like other languages, the numbering system has been worked out along with a few simple words and it seems that counting was done in base 10 when counting people or workers but base 6 was used for counting grain products.



Rongo-Rongo
Rongo-Rongo is the only written language of Polynesia and was used solely by the inhabitants of the isolated Easter Island. Rongo-Rongo is written in reverse-boustrophedon, meaning the writing proceeds from left to write on the object, and then the object is turned 180 degrees and writing proceeds again from left to right on the opposite end. Writing continues until the two lines of text converge in the middle of the piece. Only 25 wood carvings survive from the island carrying a total of 14,000-17,000 characters.

The island was discovered in 1722 and later claimed by the Spanish in 1770. At that time, the local chiefs were asked to sign a treaty with the Spanish and they did so using pictograms but did NOT use the Rongo-Rongo language. When Captain Cook arrived in 1774 he reported no signs of a written language whatsoever; for this reason and others some speculate that the language developed only after contact with the west. In 1864 when Peru raided the island for slaves the written language seemed to be dying. By the time missionaries arrived in 1869, their attempts to save the language by asking the islanders to read the markings aloud were unsuccessful. Subsequent attempts similarly failed but it is believed by some that the language may not be in fact a complete writing system but instead a system of mnemonics to aid local leaders in remembering oral histories and genealogies.



The Zapotec & Isthmian Scripts
Zapotec is the oldest known script of the new world, used from 600 B.C. to 800 A.D. About 1200 inscribed objects survive but only 570 are indisputably writing. No apparent relationship with Mayan scripts from the same area but it is clear that the Zapotec originated the calendar system used by the Mayans though the Mayans improved upon it significantly.

Isthmian script is scarcer with only about 600 total characters discovered so far. The artifacts themselves are unusual:

* In 1902 a jade statuette was discovered in a field in Olmec. It depicts a man dressed as a duck and includes about 70 written characters. Included is a date of 162 A.D.
* In 1986 a 4-ton basalt stone was found a La Mojarra. The stone was 8×5 ft and contained a stunning carving of a prince and 400-500 written characters. This item was dated 143 and 156 A.D. Several decipherments of this item have been published but all are highly suspect.



The Indus Script
At it’s height between 2500 and 1900 B.C. the Indus Valley Civilization covered much of Pakistan and N.W. India. It had maritime trading as far away as the Persian Gulf and Mesopotamia and was larger than either it’s Egyptian or Mesopotamian rivals. Over 1500 sites have been found, 5 of them major cities. Yet when Alexander the Great traveled in the area in 326 B.C. all he found were abandoned villages.

3,700 inscribed items have been found with 60% being seal stones containing very brief inscriptions. The longest inscription found is 26 characters with most less than 4. Since so little is known about the people or culture of the area at the time, all that can be said with certainty is that the reading order is right to left and the language seems to be made up of 400-450 distinct signs.



The Phaistos Disc
The enigmatic Phaistos Disc is unique. No other written example of this language exists and therefore it’s thought by many to be a fake. Discovered in Crete in 1908 in the Palace Ruins at Phaistos, this 6.5 inch diameter disc dates from 1850 to 1600 B.C. It contains 242 characters demarcated into 61 groups. The text is written along the outside edge and spirals inward and rather than being marked in the clay with a stylus the signs are actually stamped into the clay making it the first ‘printed’ document. The disc includes several scribal ‘corrections’ which many believe lends credence to its authenticity. Its uniqueness seems to lend credence to the theory that it is not of Cretan origin but has also acted to bring out all manner of crackpots who believe it to be an extraterrestrial artifact of some sort.



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Para Jóvenes

According to the most accurate recollections available, today marks about two and a half months I’ve ben off trying to learn Spanish. Looking at the big pile of vocabulary flashcards on the desk I’ve added about 1,000 new words and phrases to my Spanish comprehension vocabulary and looking at the bookshelf I’ve ploughed through four books ranging from insultingly simple to amusing only because it was a pain in the ass to understand in the first place.

Despite all this pointless studying there is at least one interesting non-Spanish observation to be made here. I’m amazed at how much lower my intellectual standards are when I’m working outside my native tongue. If I’d been reading ‘Noche Oscura en Lima’ in English I would have never finished. Despite its brevity, its attempt at a mystery story is just too transparent to be interesting. But when you add to a sophomoric story the fact that half the words are incomprehensible nonsense, each a tiny puzzle to be solved, you somehow get a much more satisfying whole.

The same phenomenon can be applied, amusingly, to pop music. If this were in English, I’d dismiss it as crap immediately. Here, go listen. So, in English, automatic crap. It’s a given. In Spanish, I felt compelled to buy the CD. This song runs through my head endlessly. It’s insanity. Heck, I can only really understand enough of what they’re saying to get the general idea but for some reason the tune and those few comprehensible words just stick. I mean honestly, it’s not that good. But for some reason… it is.

Funny thing is though, that I still feel insulted by what I’m reading somehow. This weekend I found a book in Spanish that actually seemed like something I might actually want to read in English. So I got it home, took a peek at the dust jacket:

Nacida en la Perú, Isabel Allende se crió en Chile. Sus libros, <> encabezan la lista de bestsellers en varios paises del mundo entero. El Reino del Dragón de Oro, la continuación de La Ciudad de las Bestias, es su segunda novela para Jóvenes.

First of all, this is apparently a sequel. Well that’s a crap an a half. No matter, I can deal with that. But para Jóvenes… so I’m reading a CHILD’S book. Well, more properly a teenager’s probably. Most really young children don’t ready 411 page books but still. Momentarily, I felt like an idiot. Then I quickly remembered that I don’t actually KNOW Spanish and felt a little better about it. In any case, it’s hard to know if the text is actually entertaining or if it just the fact that I have to stop and look up every 10th or 20th word.

So… if you’re reading these words months from now and wondering aloud to yourself in a very schizophrenic way, “Where the hell’s Rob?” then just be assured that I’m reading some Spanish novel and scouring the Argentinean pop charts looking for the next great Spanish language pop phenom.

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The Measure of a Man

Earlier this week I passed a personal milestone. Yes, that’s right, I finally finished that book in Spanish that I told you about and then suddenly deleted all reference to. For the first time in a very long time, I’ve accomplished some tangible portion of one of my inane personal goals. This sort of thing hasn’t happened since years ago when I finally got my world banknote collection all nicely sorted out. Subsequently of course I’ve tried maddeningly to rid myself of that same collection but at least it was finished… for a while.

Banknote tangents aside, this Spanish thing brought me around to the usual depressing thoughts that accompany any of my rather arbitrary goals. The first is the usual ‘Why?’ which I covered at length in my ‘Empty Erudition’ post from April of this year. The question remains a valid one but one that I’m happy to ignore for the moment. The question that really bothers me is how one measures any of this. Obviously, slogging through an entire book in Spanish can’t be hurting my grasp of the language but is it really doing any good? Would I be better served to go sit in a Mexican restaurant at lunch hour or religiously read a few dozen Spanish blogs? I’m a simple man with simple needs and one of those needs is to have at my disposal a set of several thousand real-time metrics that measure my mental acuity in a multitude of subject areas.

It is ironic that for all of mankind’s efforts to measure, quantify and explain the universe around him, his own mind is almost completely unknown to him. Mankind has absolutely no reliable tools to assess the human mind… well, except for one. More on that later. In general, people believe that tests exist which will plumb the depths of human knowledge. The SAT, IQ Tests and a myriad of others attempt to determine exactly what you know and reduce your knowledge to a simple integer value but despite all the hubbub and the allure of such tests, they’re nothing more than humbug.

Take the SAT as an example; it measures mathematical and verbal skills for students heading for a University education. Its testing base is relatively broad and is widely accepted as THE test to take if you’re going on for more education after High School. The problem with this is that people cheat the system. They don’t write the answers on their arms but they study materials directly related to the content of the test. In any bookstore you can find a plethora of books whose sole purpose is to help you improve your SAT scores. Worse than that, many schools focus their curricula on the content of standardized tests. Because of all this outside influence on the minds being tested, these tests aren’t a measure of your aptitude so much as a measure of your ability to buy and study a book. It has always been my decided opinion that studying for any test is a form of cheating. The test was intended to measure what you learned or what you know, not your ability to cram a litany of facts into your short-term memory. This is as true of the SAT as it is of the final exam in Mr. Shilling’s calculus class.

As a supplement and formalization of the testing procedure that society uses to measure our intellects we now have hundreds of certifications and degrees that are aimed at proving just how intelligent we are. In the computer trades especially, there is a wide range of tests and certifications designed to quantify technical intellect and reduce it to a three or four letter abbreviation. You can be an MCSE (Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer) or an OCP (Oracle Certified Professional) and for each of these esteemed positions there’s a test (or tests) and of course for each test there’s a big $50 book to study. Personally, I find these tests utterly laughable. All the really good engineers I know don’t bother with such certification and those who have them always seem to be the most intellectually vacuous. But yet this process is supposed to be the main basis by which we hire and promote people in the technology sector? Pish.

So a few hundred words back I mentioned a wonderful and objective tool that would help us to really measure our own intellect. Obviously from my previous ranting it’s not in the form of any test so what is it? Well, unfortunately, it’s complicated, it’s not objective but it is wonderful. The only tool anyone can use to estimate the breadth and depth of a person’s psyche is another human psyche. As humans, we’re REALLY good at assessing each other. We do it instantly without even trying. If I went up to a native speaker of Spanish and tried to address her in her native tongue she’d be able to tell me more about my level of skill in 10 seconds than hours and hours of standardized testing. The same goes for just about every facet of human knowledge plus or minus the much practiced art of ‘bullshit’ most commonly seen in job interviews and used car sales.

Ultimately though, even that tool does us little good. Brains are good at comparing but they lack good points of reference. I can say “I know more about calculus than Joe” and Joe can say “Rob knows more about calculus than I do” but that’s about it. Without any absolute measure of intelligence we both run the risk of being total idiots relative to someone who really knows what they’re talking about. Beyond meaningless relativistic measures of intelligence with no grounding in anything strictly quantifiable the problem is completely insolvable. I suppose I’ll have to be content in the knowledge that my Spanish is at least better than the local car dealer who proudly displays the sign:

“Seablamos hespañol.”

But yet probably worse than the average Madrid-born 6th grader’s. C’est la vie. Crap. Wait, that’s not even Spanish. Hrmph.

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