Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Writing of a Different Mind

Wow it's November. I didn't post any entries for the entire month of October. Me bad. So I figure I return to this long-neglected blog and writing about something different for a change.

I am a huge science fiction fan. I especially like topics related to space and space exploration, and the news of more and more rocky exoplanets had me thinking about astrobiology or perhaps even xenolinguistics. If there are intelligent and sentient species out there, would they have writing systems, and if so, how would they look like?

For one I am a huge skeptic of UFO's as alien crafts so I am tossing out right away all the claims of "hieroglyphs" on supposed artifacts recovered in various Roswell-like incidents. Instead this is going to be a purely theoretical discussion and exploration.

Before we even start to think about alien languages and writing systems, we need to think about, well, how the aliens think and communicate. Here on Earth, humans communicate using sounds, primarily consonants and vowels but also pitch and clicks. Therefore all human writing systems always encode sound in various degrees. Even writing systems claimed as "ideographic" or "logographic" like Chinese do have roots in phonetic representation.

Now, imagine a species that communicates using non-sonic means. One possibility is communication via light. In that scenario, this species would have a light-emitting organ that generate light pulses in a certain range in the electromagnetic spectrum. Each recognizable frequency would represent a basic unit in their "language". Writing system is a way to record ephemeral communication into a more permanent form by a certain encoding scheme, so in the case of this species, their writing will encode light. Instead of "phonograms" (glyphs that represent sounds), maybe they'll employ "photoglyphs" (fyi the word "photograms" already mean something in photography) which would represent frequencies considered to have meaning in their language.

Polarization, the direction of the light wave oscillation, is also another property of light, and might also be encoded in this system. However, like tones among humans, perhaps some cultures of this species would use polarization to distinguish words while others might use it as a extra-linguistic information such as emphasis or subtext.

Another species might have echolocation capabilities and communicate via sonic means like songs or clicks like cetaceans (dolphins, whales, etc). This means that just be focusing their sound "beams" they can visualize three-dimension structures. So it is possible that signs in their writing is three-dimensional. To human eyes, their writing would appear to be abstract sculptures. Like our two-dimensional scripts, shape and position will carry certain meanings or sounds, but depth of indentation or protrusions can also carry linguistic values as well.

The material on which this species's writing system is inscribed might also affect how information is presented. For example, texture of the surface might encode information. Some beams can even penetrate certain materials so there might be nested levels or "shells" of writing inside one another. Echo might also come into play in this writing system, as certain materials might generate echoes that would represent yet another level of meaning, a phenomenon perhaps exploited by the poets of this species.

Another possibility could be a purely chemical-based language. Because chemicals are less transient than light or sound, it is possible that instead of encoding the language in a stable medium, the species could invent a technology to capture the communication chemicals that can be released later by replicating the compounds from the captured ones. Therefore in this scenario, the writing system is not an encoding mechanism, but a purely record/replay mechanism. It might not even be a writing system at all.

While it was a lot of fun coming up with this crazy stuff, whatever imagined species and their languages I can come up with will no doubt be nowhere near as amazing as real extraterrestrial species that we encounter in the future. However, I kind of doubt we'll have any alien contact in my life time. I'll just be happy with some bacteria on Mars or Europa. Just to know there's life out there.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Surat Batak

A few weeks ago I received an email from Indonesia, from someone named Andre Samosir who said that he was a member of the Batak tribe, and that he had emailed me years ago about writing a paper on the Batak script but hadn't gotten the chance to complete it until recently.

Remarkably I actually remembered that email conversation from 2007. So I opened the attachment and read through the paper on the Batak script, or Surat Batak. I thought that it was pretty well-written, especially about the script's changes through time from the earliest stage to the modern age. And since I haven't gotten a chance to write a page on Batak yet, I figured that I would share it here on the blog.

Here is a quick preview:

The full paper can be downloaded through this link. Also, the bibliography is separately listed below:
  • Sihombing, T.M. (1986). Filsafat Batak: Tentang Kebiasaan-kebiasaan & Adat-istiadat. Jakarta: Balai Pustaka.
And here is a little about Andre as written by himself:

I am Andre Somba Gugun Samosir, a 28-year-old guy from the Batak tribe in Indonesia. Andre means "man". The "Somba Gugun" in my name is a wordplay from Batak words meaning "asked/prayed for fervently". Samosir is just a family name (albeit being also the name of the island in the center of Lake Toba in Indonesia) of hundreds of people in Batak Toba. Batak clans zealously keep track of their family trees, so for that matter, I am the 15th Samosir in my line of genealogy. I graduated from the medical school of Padjadjaran University, Bandung, West Java in early 2007, and now worked as a general practitioner in a small hospital in Palembang (South Sumatra). In my leisure time among the tiring weeks, I am a passionate reader of just about everything except economy and political stuff. Supercars, gems, quantum physics, linguistics, Esperanto studies, world writing systems, philosophy, and Walt Whitman and Michael Crichton to name a few interests.

To contact Andre, you can find him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/k273

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


Over at Archaeology magazine there's a blog post titled "How Henry VIII’s Racy Sex Life Turned Me into An Archaeological Writer" that talks about how archaeologist Heather Pringle got inspired for her choice of career by reading popular historical fiction.

This got me thinking why I'm so interested in archaeology and linguistics and all things old that I've been working on Ancient Scripts on and off for almost 15 years now. I can think of a few different reasons why.

When I was a kid way back in the early 80's there was this French/Japanese cartoon/anime called "The Mysterious Cities of Gold" which a mash-up of various legends including El Dorado and Atlantis set among the Spanish conquest of the New World in the 16th century. I was more fascinated by this anime more than big giant mecha or kung-fu superheroes or Ultramen. It didn't take me long to figure out all the Atlantis stuff was fluff, but the fascination with Aztecs and Mayas and Incas stayed to this day.

Another thing that really caught my eye when I was growing up in Hong Kong was the front of my Chinese class workbook at 1st grade (I think). It had ten simple Chinese characters like 山 (mountain), 月 (moon), 水 (water), etc, and their evolution from pictograms and Oracle Bone script through the seal and calligraphic scripts to modern types. I recalled being fascinated by the fact that the pictograms are stylized but recognizable natural objects. I didn't know how far back in time the pictograms were, but I understood that writing systems are not static but fluid and changing. Most of all, I think I developed an understanding of the time scales of human history.

I also have to credit my excellent education in St Francis College in Moravia, Costa Rica ("college" or "colegio" is actually secondary school in Costa Rica, sort of equivalent to middle school and high school together in USA), for inspiring my interests in all things ancient. First in 7th grade there was Maya arithmetic in math class. Learning to do math in base-20 is fun! Then there was units on ancient history and for some reason I got really interested in Ancient Egypt. I even did a project on Pre-Dynastic Egyptian art for Art class. The teacher took a look at my giant tome and promptly gave me 100%.

Then there was Linguistics 11 at UC Berkeley. While I was pursuing a computer science degree in university, I also took a lot of archaeology and linguistics classes. I even tried to figure out if there was an anthropology minor, but they didn't have that at the time. Linguistics 11 was Writing Systems. In other words, that was the beginning of Ancient Scripts. I started the website shortly afterwards, around 1996, and it's been alive ever since.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Future Plans

It's been a while since I've last posted as I've been just ridiculously swamped. So instead of talking about something really interesting, I'll talk about what interesting things I'd like to do on Ancient Scripts. Aside from creating new pages for scripts, I'm planning some new higher-level content:
  • Bibliography on each page. Right now all my references are jammed into a single page. I would like each page to display its source material, as I actually get quite a few number of requests for that.
  • More interactive pages. I'm working on an Alphabet comparison chart. It's sort of based on the South Asian script comparison widget but a bit more complicated because alphabets are far more diverse than South Asian abugidas. One letter in one alphabet could correspond to two letters in another alphabet.
  • Page(s) on decipherment. This will walk through how the decipherment of a writing system actually happens. And why some scripts can't be deciphered yet.
  • Unicode. A lot of ancient scripts are being included in the Unicode standard, which means if there's a font for it, you can see it on your computer/smart phone/tablet screen. It'd be cool to display which scripts have Unicode and assemble a more comprehensive list of fonts.
  • Glossary. Certain keywords like "logogram" or "boustrophedon" will be active when the mouse pointer is over them and display a brief explanation
Script-wise right now I'm working on Lao, but for some reason I can't get it to work on my ancient version of Photoshop. So I'm using GIMP instead which is just different enough that it drives me bonkers. But do expect that coming soon.

I also uploaded a revised Aztec page the past weekend. I added the syllabary and new examples of glyphs including pure logograms, rebus, and phonetic signs. The link is http://www.ancientscripts.com/aztec.html

Lastly I have a lot of suggestions and corrections to make. Keep those emails coming!

Sunday, May 30, 2010

What's in a name? Part II

Years ago when we were expecting our first child, my wife and I decided to name our son Alexander. We thought that it's a good solid name because it (a) can't be teased, (b) is not the most common but not too rare or weird, and (c) is a very ancient name. According to dictionaries, it is Greek in origin, Αλέξανδρος, meaning "protector of men" (while seemingly a lofty goal, in fact it has a martial connotation and implies one who protects others in battle).

Perhaps the most famous Alexander in history was Alexander III of Macedon (356–323 BCE), also known as Alexander the Great who conquered a big chunk of the eastern Mediterranean as well as Mesopotamia, Persia, and even bits of India. But even at this time, the late Classical Greek/Early Hellenistic period, Alexander was already an ancient name. There were earlier Alexanders from Classical Greece, such as Alexander of Corinth who lived from the 9th to 8th century BCE.

However, the name is even earlier than that. A clay tablet from the Mycenaean period (16th to 12th century BCE) of Greece found in Mycenae itself contains the sequence of Linear B signs a-re-ka-sa-da-ra (see figure 1.b), which reads Alexandra, the female form of Alexandros. Since Greek names typically can have both male and female forms, there is no doubt that Alexandros was being used as a name at least in the 12th century BCE.

Coincidentally, the late Mycenaean period is also widely believed to correspond to when the Trojan war happened. In the 19th century German archaeologist Henrich Schliemann discovered the ruins of Troy in Asia Minor (Turkey), bringing the Trojan war from legend into history. Later archaeological discoveries revealed the powerful Hittite Empire which ruled much of Turkey except for the very western part where a number of somewhat independent principalities existed. The imperial Hittite archives mention one particular kingdom named Wilusa, and one of its king was called Alaksandu (see figure 1.c) who lived around 1280 BCE.

What is really interesting is that Troy is actually Ilion in Classical Greek, and likely Wilion in Homeric and Mycenaean Greek. This means that Wilusa mentioned in the Hittite archives was probably Troy.

And what about this king Alaksandu, whose name suspiciously sounds like Alexander? Going back to the Iliad, we find that Paris, the prince of Troy who stole away Helen, was in fact also named Alexander. In other words, the mythological Paris of Troy was based on the historical Alaksandu (or Alexander) of Wilusa. Once again we find some grain of truth in myths and legends.

This brings up an interesting question. Earlier I mentioned that Alexander is a Greek name, but Trojans in the 13th century BCE most likely did not speak Greek. The most probable language spoken in Troy/Wilusa was Luwian. Does this mean that Alaksandu was actually a Luwian name that the Greeks adopted and reinterpreted into having a Greek meaning? Or Alaksandu a Greek name adopted by Luwians? Or maybe even a Greek named Alexander somehow weaseled his way into being king of a foreign city? Like the Trojan War, it's part history and part fantasy and we'll always be guessing as to what really happened nearly three thousand years ago.

Regardless of whether Alexander is Greek or Luwian, I find it amazing the depth of history and stories carried in everyday names. Why don't you investigate your name and see where it leads you?

  • Chadwick, John, et al, "The Mycenae Tablets III", Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, New Series, Vol. 52, No. 7 (1962), pp. 1-76
  • Hahn, E.A., "Hittite genuš(š)uš, genuš(š)i, and pankuš(š)i", Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 85, No. 3 (Jul. - Sep., 1965), pp. 295-307

Sunday, March 28, 2010

History of My Life, Part II (in Nahuatl)

On and off I've been working on my "autobiography" using Nahuatl (Aztec) hieroglyphs for a few years now. It'd be somewhat like Mixtec manuscripts documenting the history of various towns in pre-Columbian Oaxaca, but using Nahuatl naming conventions. But since my Nahuatl is pretty rudimentary and the Nahuatl writing system isn't that well-understood, my progress is pretty glacial.

Two years ago I started the whole thing by figuring out how to write names of various local places that I've lived in Nahuatl, which I've detailed in History of My Life, Part III (in Nahuatl). I only managed to translate the names of two places, namely Mountain View (my hometown) and San Francisco, the nearest big city (and which I tell people is where I'm from when I'm not in California since Mountain View will draw blank stares):

The first glyph is that of San Francisco, phonetically transcribed using Nahuatl syllabograms because the meaning of San Francisco would be difficult to represent.

In case of Mountain View, I translated its name to Nahuatl as Tepetlachiayan, which written in a mixture of logograms and syllabograms. I actually made up a logogram for tlachia, "to see", by overloading the sign for "eye" and attaching a phonetic complement of tla (the set of teeth) on top of it to yield the reading of tlachia "to see" instead of ixco "eye".

My next attempt is to translate the other places I've lived. I spent my first ten years of life living in Hong Kong (香港), which in fact translates as "Port of Incense" in English. So I translate that into Nahuatl as Copalacaltecoyan, which is actually composed of copal ("incense"), acal(li) ("canoe"), teca ("to put something"), and -yan (location suffix). Probably not the best Nahuatl but what the hey, it got the job done.

On the left is Hong Kong, written in a mixture of logograms and syllabograms to spell out Copalacaltecoyan. Both copal and acal(li) are written in logograms, but when it came to write the verbal conjugation teco, I decided to fully use phonetic signs, but with a twist. The sign for the sound te is a stylized stone with wavy lines, and that of ko is a pot. I could've written a stone with a pot, but instead I combined or conflated the two signs into a single sign that looks like a pot made of stylized stone.

The next place I lived was Costa Rica, which means "rich coast" in Spanish. The Nahuatl name is Necuiltonolanahuac. While the second component, anahuac, has a well-known glyph as it means a body of water, the first part, necuiltonol- is actually a complex verbal conjugation from the root cuilonoa which means "to become rich" and completely stumped me as to how to represent it in Nahuatl glyphs.

Eventually after much futile research I just gave up and decided to write the name of the city that I lived in, San José. Once again, like San Francisco, I'll have to phonetically transcribe that using Nahuatl syllabograms. San José is written using the syllabograms sa-xo-se. First of all, Nahuatl writing doesn't write consonants at the end of syllables, and that's why "San" is written with only sa. Also, Nahuatl of the 16th century does not have the 21st century Spanish sound represented by the letter j (so called uvular fricative), I went for the closest sound, "sh" as in English "ship", represented by the 16th-century Spanish letter x. Modern transcription of Nahuatl in the Roman alphabet retains the letter x and so is used also in academic works.

The Nahuatl syllabary can be found at old Ancient Scripts preview at LiveJournal, or in real academic works:
This is all I got for now. Next time we should get to Part I, which would be my name.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Relaunch of the (Two) Millenia

In addition to obsessed with things ancient, I'm also a big foodie, so what's better to talk about then news of an ancient food establishment coming back to life again.

According to this article, an ancient Roman thermopoolium (fast food joint) once owned by proprietor Vetutius Placidus before being shuttered by a rather extreme form of healthy code violation known as the volcanic pyroclastic flow caused by the 79 CE eruption of Mount Vesuvius is being reopened by presumably whatever Italian governmental agency running Pompeii (the article didn't mention it).

A typical thermopolium would serve quick snacks like wines, meat, cheeses, or lentils. An establishment typically served just a few specialized items, rather like tapas bars in Spain.

If I were back then I'd seek out the best ham in ancient Rome. We know they had salt-cured hams like prosciutto di Parma or jamón de Serrano. Yes, pig is my weakness, and salt-cured ham my poison. Oh wait I think there's some prosciutto in my fridge. Hold on...

Anyway, before you lose me, I should tell you that you can see the thermopolium of Vetutius Placidus using Google Maps. In fact you can explore parts of Pompeii that way. It's pretty cool actually.

View Larger Map

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

What's in a name?

A while ago when I was working on revamping my Chinese page I stumbled upon this cool website called Chinese Etymology. It is actually a bit of a misnomer, because it doesn't tell you about the etymology of Chinese words but in fact allows you to type in a character and then shows the evolution of a character from Oracle Bone script (甲骨文, 12th century BCE) to Lesser Seal (小篆, 3rd century BCE) script.

So, curious, I typed in my family name, 盧, to see how far back it goes and what did it mean. To my surprise there is actually an ancient version of 盧 in the Oracle Bone script:

From the look of it, it is a compound of two other characters. On the left is some kind of pottery vessel (modern Chinese 皿), and on the right is a stylized tiger (modern 虎).

For a while it baffled me why such a combination. Was it some kind of ritual pottery that involved mythological tigers? Tiger drinking out of a basin in some hitherto-unknown poetic metaphor? I was getting a bit obsessed with the tiger since I was born on the Year of the Tiger. I wanted some magical way of tying my name to my birth year.

Further investigation revealed that the tiger character has a mundane, but not necessarily less interesting, explanation. You see, in modern Chinese dialects, tiger is pronounced hu in Mandarin and fu in Cantonese. My name is either lu in Mandarin and lo in Cantonese. However, using the wonders of historical linguistics, scholars have reconstructed the sounds of these words as far back as the Zhou dynasty, around 800 BCE, at an ancient form of the Chinese language called Old Chinese.

Using the STARLING Old Chinese reconstruction database, I found that 盧 had a reconstructed pronunciation of *rā (the asterisk indicates a reconstructed sound), and 虎 was pronounced *hlāʔ. While not identical, the two pronunciations are actually fairly similar, so it would've been likely that the tiger character was used to write the word for vessel in a rebus writing sort of way that is pretty common in early Chinese (another example was using the world for elephant *ziang to write the word for image, also *ziang).

At some point using the tiger character to write both "tiger" and "vessel" must've caused a lot of confusion, and so the vessel character 皿 was paired with the tiger character 虎 to provide the general meaning of some kind of vessel or container. In other words, 皿 was used for its general meaning but not phonetic value, whereas 虎 provided the rough phonetic value but no meaning whatsoever.

And what exactly is the original meaning of 盧? It's still a bit ambiguous but most
likely some kind of vessel used to hold food. That's a bit of a fall from a tiger crouching over a ceremonial cauldron, no? Actually, I much prefer the phonetic explanation of the tiger. This is a snapshot of the important step of introducing what's called "semantic determinatives" (which roughly correspond to modern Chinese radicals) in the evolution of the early Chinese writing system.


Sears, Richard, "Chinese Etymology", http://www.chineseetymology.org/.

Starostin, S., Bronnikov, G., Krylov, P., "Database query to Chinese characters", http://starling.rinet.ru/cgi-bin/query.cgi?basename=\data\china\bigchina&root=config&morpho=0

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Rabbit Scribe's Adventures

One of the icons on the Ancient Scripts home page is a rabbit scribe, a seemingly anthropomorphic bunny using a brush to jot down some ceremony he is witnessing. It is my favorite characters out of all Maya painted works, not only because it is so well executed artistically but also because of the story that is hinted. A story of whimsy and humor.

I have had the pleasure to see this rabbit in person. The pottery that he resides upon, a tall cylinder cup used to drink chocolate, was on exhibit a few years ago at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco and I managed to see the collection. I was quite surprised to see how small the cup was, and as a consequence, how fine the lines of the painting. It must've been a very experienced artist with a very sure hand who did it.

Fortunately, archaeological photographer Justin Kerr has taken rollout pictures of a good number of Maya vases and placed them on the web at http://www.mayavase.com/. And for your viewing please, this is the home of the rabbit scribe, the so-called Princeton Vase.

The scenery of the cup was very detailed. It is most likely a depiction of the Maya Underworld. The rabbit scribe is actually writing into a book bound in jaguar pelt. Above him, on the platform, is a group of women surrounding an old man in a wide-brimmed hat. To the left are two masked-and-head-dressed men wearing jaguar pelts in the processing of executing a bound prisoner on the ground.

The old man is likely God L (the name is still undeciphered), a god associated with trade, sorcery, and war. But despite his fearsome reputation, in this scene he looks nothing more than a lecherous old geezer, sweet-talking to the nubile woman in front of him. Behind God L is a lady eavesdropping on him, and below her are two girls, one pouring chocolate from a cylinder vase and the other waiting to drink the liquid. A really neat detail is the lady watching the execution is tapping the foot of the woman God L is hitting on with her finger.

The two men in masks are probably the Hero Twins, sons of the Maize God summoned to the Underworld to endure a series of trials and tribulations, all of which potentially fatal. According to the 16th-century Quiche Maya epic Popol Vuh, having realized they'll never be set free until they were dead, at their last trial they threw themselves into the fire and were burnt into ash. The ash were thrown into the river where they came back to life and became a duo of wandering entertainers that delighted the denizens of Xibalba by performing feats of magic such as sacrificing each other and then resurrect him. The lords of Xibalba heard of these magical feats and summoned them to their court, where they defeated Xibalbal by tricking God L's cohorts into offering themselves for sacrifice. The scene on the Princeton vase is most likely a moment from the disguised Hero Twins back in God L's court dispatching a god of underworld.

In most sources, both Popol Vuh and Classic vases, the narrative continues with the Hero Twins resurrecting their father, the Maize God, who was also killed by Xibalba many years earlier, transforming into sky gods (the sources don't agree on who becoming what), and leading to the beginning of the current world and of humanity.

But what happened to God L? In Popol Vuh, the equivalent of God L was killed, but it seems that in Classic times God L survived but is stripped of his clothes, jewelry, and hat and humiliated by the resurrected Maize God and the Hero Twins.

On the left that looks like one angry Maize God yelling and stomping on a lord of Xibalba. In the middle, God L is taking off his loincloth (!) which the dwarf is demanding. In Mesoamerica, complete nudity in males is a sign of complete defeat, and so the bare state of the lords of Xibalba indicate their defeat and humiliation.

The story continues in a vase from Naranjo with a reappearance of none other than the rabbit, who has stolen the bundle containing God L's possessions.

Starting on the right, the rabbit is holding a bundle in one hand and a staff and a headdress in the other. Note that staff is the same as the dwarf was holding earlier. He is standing on a mountain or earth monster in front of God L (in his godly appearance), who appears to be arguing with the rabbit to give back his possessions. This argument was apparently fruitless, as in the next scene on the left, God L has supplicated himself in front of the Sun God and the speech scroll emanating from his mouth says that the rabbit has stolen his possessions and he asks if the Sun God has seen the thief. In response, the Sun God says that the rabbit is not with him, and addresses God L as "grandfather", although whether that is an actual familial relationship or a figure of speech in reference to an older man is unknown. What is truly fun is that the rabbit is actually hiding behind the Sun God.

The story concludes in the final vase in which the rabbit is finally "apprehended".

In this scene, the Moon Goddess on the right (identified by a stylized moon) is holding out the rabbit, who still has the hat and cloak of God L (still in godly appearance and unclothed). The poor old God L is half-kneeling in front of the Moon Goddess. In all likelihood, the rabbit is forced to give back God L's possessions.

Does the rabbit get punished for this episode? Nobody knows. Maybe it was a light punishment, because the rabbit is also the constant companion of the Moon Goddess, as depicted in countless sculptures and vases. Maybe he got away without consequence at all. That trickster thief. But don't we all love a good ruffian, especially a cute and cuddly one? Or maybe he was the distant ancestor of Bugs Bunny?

On that note, it's back to the 21st century.

All images used on this post are copyright Justin Kerr. http://www.mayavase.com/.

Dialogue between God L and Sun God taken from:

"The First-Person Singular Independent Pronoun in Classic Ch’olan", Kerry Hull, Michael D. Carrasco and Robert Wald, Mexicon, Vol 31 No 2, April 2009, http://www.mayavase.com/First-Person.pdf