Monday, September 19, 2016

Why? (your e-mail, Part One)

It's "Why?" week here at DQ, where you guys answer the question I posed last Wednesday about the development of written languages.

This is a beautifully written and thoughtful e-mail from C. Lee, who has sent me many such e-mails over the years and continually amazes me with the clarity and precision of his thought. So here's C. Lee, and we're all the better for it, I think.


My short answer would be “A series of historical and geographical accidents.” My longer answer would be “It depended on the people supplying the culture to the empire that did the conquering and also on whether that empire lasted long enough to impress its writing system on the people it conquered.”

So as H.G. Wells pointed out in his “Outline of History,” (what follows is largely from Wells) most writing systems started out as picture-writing, as we can see with Native Americans, Bushmen, etc. Egyptian hieroglyphs, of course, began as pictograms, as did Chinese writing. Those pictograms eventually became ideograms, in which combinations of drawings depicted certain concepts (i.e., “tongue” and “words” combine to make an ideogram meaning “speech.”) The Chinese also used combinations of the pictograms and ideograms to make phonograms, in which a particular symbol could express concepts not so easily drawn as others, but which shared the same sound as something else – a kind of homonym, in other words.

In Sumer, writing also developed as pictograms, ideograms, and phonograms. But the Sumerian language happened to contain a lot of polysyllabic words, each made up of distinct syllables that were themselves the names of concrete things. So Sumerian writing evolved into a syllabary, in which each symbol depicted not consonants and vowels, as in our alphabet, but particular combinations of consonants and vowels, such as “ha” or “he.” (Japan’s native writing system, hiragana, which was derived from Chinese characters, is also a syllabary.) The Sumerian syllabary formed the basis of writing for the Semitic empires that conquered Sumer, such as the Assyrians and Chaldeans.

In Egypt and the Mediterranean, again, pictograms led to ideograms and phonograms. But the hieroglyphs we know came to be used for official matters like monuments and the like, whereas the Egyptian priests used a simplified version of hieroglyphs for mundane matters like letter writing and recipe writing called hieratic script. Another hieroglyph-derived simplified script was taken over by various non-Egyptian people in the Mediterranean, like the Phoenicians, Libyans, Lydians and Cretans, and that third script was used for business purposes.

In the hands of these foreigners, the writing system was cut off from its linguistic roots, losing all but a few traces of its original pictorial, ideographic nature, and becoming a purely sound-sign system, which is to say, an alphabet. For a people that traded with both the Egyptians to their west and the Sumerians or successor empires to their east, having your own writing system was particularly useful. If you had something flexible enough to depict the sounds of the Egyptian and Sumerian languages, then you could avoid having to learn to write in both Egyptian and Sumerian – two completely incompatible writing systems -- and save a lot of work. So to make a strained comparison, let’s say I developed a computer to translate between English and Chinese. The computer itself uses a machine language based on binary numbers; that intermediary language, which can depict both English and Chinese with equal ease, is analogous to an alphabet.

So we might speculate that an alphabet is likely to arise a) when a people hasn’t developed their own writing system and b) when they need to converse in a variety of highly different and incompatible foreign languages. Of course, there are other reasons you might want to create an alphabet. For example, a people might find that a writing system adopted from a neighbor is incapable of depicting the various sounds of their own spoken language; such a people would then naturally want a more flexible script, which would point toward an alphabet. Another motivation is the difficulty of learning to read and write a language with thousands of symbols, like Chinese. The relative ease of learning an alphabet is highly attractive to a government seeking to expand literacy among its people.

So back to the Phoenician alphabet, which was adopted by the Greeks long after they had conceived the Iliad; it was that script and derivations thereof that they used to set it down. A further derivation of that script eventually was adopted by the Etruscans, who adapted it for their uses, and then the Romans adopted/adapted that Etruscan script, which became the Latin alphabet they carried everywhere they conquered in later centuries. Because the culture that fed into the Romans used an alphabet, that was the writing system that the Romans transmitted throughout Europe, and that’s why the languages derived from Latin, including English, all use alphabets.

So back to Asia. In India, there was a kind of syllabary called Brahmi script whose origins are now the subject of speculation. Many people think it derived from the Phoenician alphabet, or some descendant thereof, like Aramaic. This became an alphabet called Brahmic script, which eventually became the basis for a number of alphabets/syllabaries, including the one used in Tibet.

As it happens, the two conditions I mentioned before for creating an alphabet were met by the Mongols, who had conquered an enormous empire full of a Babel of languages. The Mongols didn’t have their own writing system before they set out to conquer, and they also needed to communicate with a vast range of incompatible foreign languages. The Mongols had tried adopting a number of writing systems, including Chinese and an Uighur alphabet, but neither was flexible enough to capture the sounds of the Mongolian language. Kublai Khan therefore assigned a Tibetan monk, Drogon Chogyal Phagpa, to design a unified script able to recreate the sounds of both Mongolian and Chinese. Phagpa used his native Tibetan alphabet as the basis for the 38-letter Phags-pa script that was derived from his name.

It was Phags-pa script that’s believed to have been the basis for the only alphabet that arose in East Asia, which was the 40-letter Korean Hangul script. (Japanese, as I mentioned earlier, is a syllabary.) Until that point, Koreans had been using Chinese characters for writing, but like the Mongols found that it was unsatisfactory for depicting the sounds of the Korean language. In the 1400s, a king named Sejong assigned a bunch of scholars to create a Korean script; since the Koreans, having been conquered by the Mongols, were familiar with Phags-pa, it’s likely that they used it as the basis for Hangul. Another reason Sejong ordered the new script was because Chinese script was so difficult to learn that common people couldn’t read. (This was a condition that also held true in China until the 20th century, when the Communists vastly simplified the writing system, as the Japan Times article mentioned.)

As it happens, the Mongol Empire was relatively ephemeral, and quickly broke up into separate Khanates. Because the Mongols were not under central rule for long, Phags-pa never had a chance to supplant the native writing systems of the various conquered peoples, and the Mongols on the spot tended simply to adopt the writing systems of their particular land before eventually being overthrown. The people in China, in particular, who threw off the Mongol yoke and eventually became the Ming Dynasty, were highly nationalistic and made a fetish of going back to traditional Han Chinese ways and culture, and getting rid of Mongol-imposed things, including Phags-pa.

It’s at this point that we might wonder how history might have changed had China at this point adopted Phags-pa instead and ditched their thousands of characters – a psychological improbability, it’s true, but still. Would it have meant greater literacy in China? A flowering of education and knowledge like the Northern Renaissance in Europe that was fueled by the printing press? (Note that China had printing presses for many years before Gutenberg, but that the difficulty of learning Chinese script meant no such flowering of reading occurred there among the common people.)

Then again, we can look at Korea, which had both an alphabet and printing presses, and which did, in fact, experience a flowering of learning and technological development under Sejong. But Korea was a highly caste-riven country in which the aristocracy valued Chinese culture and clung to Chinese characters and China’s literature-based Confucian educational system. That Confucian-derived education produced people highly suspicious of the corrupting influence of money and contemptuous of mercantile activities, which were not encouraged. That, in turn, meant that the money to fund learning all came from a single source: the royal court. Sadly, Sejong’s later successors were nowhere near as interested in innovation as he was (and to be fair, they may simply have been short of money, which had to be wrung out of Korea’s long-suffering peasants in taxes, a large chunk of which was going to whichever dynasty was ruling China as tribute). So we find that Korea, after being mauled by Hideyoshi Toyotomi’s 16th century invasions, sank into isolationism and stagnation. It may be that even with the adoption of Phags-pa, any Renaissance in China would have been short-lived. And yet, I can’t help but wonder, what if it hadn’t? I can’t say whether the world would have been better or worse, but it definitely would have been different.

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