Saturday, October 29, 2005

Samuel Ajayi Crowther

I don't often comment on the many new writing systems featured on Simon's Omniglot site. I read his website regularly and take its immense popularity for granted.

However, this one time I feel the need to expand on a reference. Once in a while I read a name or word that stirs deep memories. This is a story that must be told. On the new page for Igbo I find,

"The first book in Igbo, Isoama-Ibo, a primer, was produced in 1857 by Samuel Ajayi Crowther, an ex-slave and teacher. "

Here is the recently published biography of Ajayi Crowther. A Patriot to the Core: Bishop Ajayi Crowther by J.F. Ade-Ajayi, 2002, Spectrum Books, Nigeria.

Many short versions of his life can be found on the internet. From Great Christians in History;

"Samuel Crowther (about 1806-91) was the outstanding African Christian leader of his time. Adjai (properly Ajayi) was born in the Egba group of the Yoruba people in what is now Nigeria. When he was about 15, he was captured by slave raiders. But the slave ship was intercepted by a British warship, and Adjai was taken to Sierra Leone where he was converted and baptized, taking the name Samuel Crowther. Outstanding at school (and a foundation pupil of Fourah Bay College) Crowther became a teacher for the Church Missionary Society, ...

He "became convinced that the evangelization of inland Africa must be carried out by Africans. Ordained in London in 1843, he was appointed to the new mission in his own Yorubaland. ... Crowther achieved much as evangelist, translator and negotiator. He impressed many, including Queen Victoria, when he visited England. He led the new Niger Mission in 1857 and in 1864 became the first African anglican bishop."

There are several accounts of Samuel Crowther on the internet and most of them end here. This, unfortunately, is a great disservice to history. The truth is that during Crowther's years as bishop, policy and personnel in England changed, and from the time of Crowther's death in 1891 until 1952 there was no other African bishop in the Anglican Church.

This article from Christianity Today represents the story as I remember it. From the last few paragraphs;

"Venn's replacement further undercut Crowther's authority by handing control of the Niger Mission's "temporalities" to a committee in 1879, following it the next year by appointing a Commission of Inquiry into allegations of misconduct by Crowther's subordinates...

All but three of the Niger Mission's 15 Africans were fired. When Crowther protested, he was charged with violating his code of office. He died shortly thereafter, and a white bishop was put in his place. The continent would not see another African Anglican bishop until 1952, sixty years after Crowther's death."

I read Ade Ajayi's book Christian Missions in Nigeria many years ago and it left a powerful and lasting impression.

Ade-Ajayi J.F. Christian Missions in Nigeria: the Making of a New Elite. 1965. Longmans. London.

Ade-Ajayi J.F. A Patriot to the Core: Bishop Ajayi Crowther. 2002. Spectrum Books. Nigeria.

Friday, October 28, 2005

The All India Alphabet

My sister and I were spending last Sunday evening altering a medieval costume with several yards of fabric in the skirt, with the intention of creating Cinderella's ballgown. We had introduced a hoop and crinoline, and had flounces pinned up half way round the hemline, when we decided to adjust the length. I removed the pins, let the flounces drop and considered starting over again with a new design.

I kid you not - as I later settled in for a few minutes of reading to relax after the sewing, I picked up Colloquial Hindustani, which I had just acquired from a used book store. The book fell open to this page,

"In this simple romanic orthography, Hindustani, though appearing in clothes of new design, is still dressed in a national costume which fits it well, whereas in the usual European transliterations and transcriptions bristling with dots, dashes, and other diacritical marks, which do not really belong to the letters, it looks like a man who has lost his own clothes and has to make shift with an ill-fitting borrowed suit, pinned up here, let down there. To remove the pins and drop the fussy alterations, leaving Hindustani in the bare roman alphabet, is a great temptation to the European. And we know that the dots and dashes do, in fact, tend to wear off. The feeling that diacritics are extraneous to the roman alphabet is very strong indeed among people who do not require them. It is a sound instinct.

Unfortunately the bare unaltered roman alphabet is inadequate for the representation of Indian languages. ...

The alternative is the addition of a minimum number of extra letters of roman type, already well established, enabling us to frame a consistent Indian alphabet. The Indian roman alphabet then takes its proper plce in grammars and dictionaries. A grammatical roman spelling is established, in which all Indians can practise literacy without shame, and which opens the door to easier learning of Indian languages by foreigners of all the continents, It is the method followed in this book." p. xi

I offer this as a bit of history as well as being one possible opinion on diacritics. It is a colourful piece of writing and a perspective on why a certain orthography may or may not gain favour.

Today another roman orthography is often used for transliteration in India, ITRANS. It also lacks diacritics by virtue of being accessible in an ASCII encoding for use on the QWERTY keyboard. Just the unadorned roman alphabet. Even though many sounds require several letters to type, it may still be faster than using the shift key.

I do know that diacritics were used for many languages where the main consideration was to be able to use a typewriter, rather than have to get extra letters for printing. Orthographies are tied to the preferred technology of the day more often than not.

The additional characters of the All India Alphabet in the image above are all available in Unicode in the IPA extensions. As I said, I am posting this quote for historic interest only. I have no particular opinion on roman orthographies in India.

Harley, A. H. Colloquial Hindustani. Introduction by J.R. Firth. 1943. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co. London.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Delphi Tablet II

This is another part of the same tablet in the Delphi Museum, #1637. It was one of the pieces originally found in 1893-4. The title on the table or matrix is ΤΑΥΤΑ ΔΙΠΛΑ (These are the doubles).

This matrix represents the consonant blends such as br, bl, gr, gl, ... rather than 'double' consonants. Across the top are the initial consonants BGD TKP TH CH PH M ... Down the side are the second consonants in the consonant blend, in order of frequency, R L N D M B ...

The first group of blends is BR, GR, BL, GL; other groups are DR, TR, KR, PR; DL, TL, KL, PL; BN, GN, DN, TN; THR, THL, THN, THM; CHR, CHL, CHN, CHM; KN, KM, KT, KP and so on.

Most of these sets of four sound values are created from using one shape in four orientations. X which is symmetrical is modified with a dot in four positions.

This form of writing may have had one or more of the following functions, commercial, academic, political, military, espionage, religious, educational (to record lecture notes), etc. to mention a few possibilities.

Whether it was to facilitate writing at the speed of speech, or to convey information in a secret code, is a good question. However, with a secret code, usually there is a one to one mapping of letters, rather than an abbreviated method as is portrayed here. The phonetic organization of letters also suggests that there is more to this than just a secret code. It is likely, however, that the two functions, as shorthand and as a secret code, are related to each other, and one system may have had many uses.

For me this table of Greek consonants is significant since it shows that the use of a shape in four orientations was used for symbols in the 3rd century BC. Many of the shapes are somewhat similar to the shapes which Evans used when designing the Cree Syllabary.

In Evans' syllabary the first two lines use Δ and Λ, which are letters in the Greek alphabet, and are not shown as symbols within the Greek consonant table. However, five of the remaining shapes are very similar to shapes found in the Greek consnant table, and the principle of using four orientations is identical.

I do not have any knowledge of whether Evans studied Greek shorthand. Since there is very little written in English on Greek shorthand, and the tablet above was discovered in 1893, I would suppose not.

However, we do know that Evans learned a shorthand system in England before Pitman had published his system. I am trying to piece together a history of shorthand from classical to Victorian times.

I do have more examples of shorthand from England to scan in - images that I have not yet found on the internet.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Dzongkha Calligraphic Font

Here is a Dzongkha calligraphic font. Mark of Pinyin News has posted a Dzongkha keyboard with my name on it so I had to look into this.

His article begins,

"Dzongkha, the national language of Bhutan, has been relegated to the status of a dialect of Tibetan in Microsoft products. Rather than being labelled “Dzongkha” or “Bhutan-Dzongkha,” it is identified as “Tibetan – Bhutan” in the recently released beta version of Windows Vista. This is apparently an official Microsoft policy, likely aimed at appeasing China. " Read full post here. Stephen's comment is interesting also.

The Tibetan Computer Company creates and distributes Tibetan and Dzongkha fonts. There are lots of other details on Tibetan and Dzongkha input here. Tibetan is unique in having vertical stacking consonants. I understand that Tibetan input is a one of a kind experience!

There have been a series of sociolinguistic type articles on Pinyin News lately, all of them mind-bending, as they break down popular notions about Asian languages and scripts. I particularly liked the post on the Mystery of old simplified Chinese characters.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Delphi Tablet I

This inscription is #5678 in the Museum of Delphi, Greece. It is part of a collection of pieces found in the Temple of Apollo dated in the third century BC. The first two pieces in this set were found by a French archeological dig in 1893 and the last were found in 1929.

The symbols in the table are not identified in the book I am reading and I have found no reference on the internet. Within the small table are two shapes in three orientations organized in descending columns while the another shape occurs in four orientations. Two other single shapes occur.

The first line below the table starts "TA ANO GRA.." possible GRAMMATA, or letters. After that follows a phonetic organisation of Greek consonants which I am going to set off in groups with spaces between.

ΓΔΒ ΧΦΘ Λ... (the first set of three letters and Λ are modified with a dot)


The following rows continue the pattern with alterations to the letters.

This tablet indicates the antiquity of the phonetic organization of the Greek consonants. I am not able to comment on the purpose of this tablet.


1. Comment from Simon.

"I gave the small session on learning Greek. See here for some pictures and comments :)"

2. Previous posts on Greek Consonants

The Matrix
Classification of Consonants

3. Biblio

Boge, Hebert. Griechische Tachygraphie und Tironische Noten. 1973. Akademie Verlag. Berlin.

Errata: In the table there are actually three different shapes that occur in three orientations and three single shapes.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Byzantine Paleography

Byzantine Paleography is a site with many resources on Greek manuscript traditions. I have yet to explore all the pages but wish to record this before I forget. Here is the introduction.

"This page and the linked pages are not directed at those who are already able to read Byzantine MSS with ease, i.e. Paleographers, a skilled and erudite group of scholars. Rather the goal here is to present basic discussions, images, and a few useful tools to those who are interested in how we come to gain knowledge about the past, and to those just starting out with work on manuscripts. "

I was immediately attracted to a few pages with charts, my favourite venue for organizing information, on Greek Letter Forms, Greek Letter Combinations (Ligatures, etc.) and Common Abbreviations.

While it may seem repetitive, I am posting the page of Bergekios' manuscript again but in a larger format. I hope that with this page open and enlarged and the many pages of Greek ligatures available, this will start to look more familiar to me.

Later, I will scan in few pages of ligatures and abbreviations from the books I have here. I also need to remind myself that I am working here with a manuscript from the 16th century, a manuscript that coexisted with the age of print.

Addendum: I am not sure how to get the size of image that I want posted in blogger. I will be working on this again over the next few days. PS. I think that is readable now.

Bibliography (wil be added to):

Greek Letters: From Tablets to Pixels edited by Michael Macrakis, 1996, Oak Knoll Press, New Castle, Delaware. ISBN 1-884718-27-2

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Angelos Bergekios

This is about two different 'kai's'. In the Lord's Prayer here 'kai', meaning 'and', is written in two completely different ways. The first one I have decided to call 'shorthand kappa with varia', for want of finding a name that someone else has given it, (see yesterday's post ). The second one is better-known and comes with its own codepoint in Unicode. It is called 'U+03D7 : GREEK KAI SYMBOL'. This is because it is used today in Greece, so I understand.

If the first one can be analysed as 'shorthand kappa with varia,' then the second one can be dissected as 'kappa with shorthand alpha-iota.' (Sometimes these are called ligatures but they do not derive from the two original letters, they were established as shorthand. See my bibliography at the bottom of this post for further details on Greek shorthand.)

In any case, the question is, how did these two forms of 'kai' turn up in print in 1713? Fortunately the library has fac-similes of Greek manuscripts. I have found a copy of a manuscript by Angelos Bergekios (Angelus Vergecius).

Apparently Bergekios "used his own writing as a model in designing the 'grecs du roi' types cut by Garamond for Robert Estienne in 1542, the ancestor of nearly all Greek types for more than two centuries." Barbour. xxiv

This excerpt from Bergekios' manuscript illustrates the use of both 'kai's'. Other similar details are the way that 'rho' and 'mu' are tied by a ligature to the following vowel. In the first line, fourth word, ανθρωποις, has a rho-omega ligature and the sixth word, γεγηρακατοις, the rho-alpha ligature. In the Lord's Prayer, linked to above, at the end of the first line, ουρανοις has a rho-alpha ligature.

So, was the type for the Lord's Prayer in Oratio Dominica designed by Bergekios? I don't know for sure, but it was in the same tradition or style. It was an era in which people were using type to imitate manuscripts. I should also note that the types were designed in 1542 and this manuscript was written in 1564. This should not be too surprising since manuscript copying continued to coexist with printing for over a century.

Here is Peter Daniels' take on this, "There was no photolithography in those days, so the only way to publish a faithful reproduction of a manuscript was to cut hundreds of sorts imitating the ligatures. (Cf. the Gutenberg Bible.)" That sounds very labour-intensive! Here is a copy of the full page text of Bergekios' manuscript from Omont. 1974. Click to enlarge. Here the scribe is called Ange Vergèce since the book is in French.

Barbour, Ruth. Greek Literary Hands. A.D. 400-1600. 1981. Clarendon Press. Oxford.

Lehmann, Oskar. Die Tachygraphischen Abkurzungen Der Griechischen Handschriften. 1965. Georg Holms. Hildesheim

Omont, H. A. Fac-Similés de Manuscrits Grecs des XVe et XVIe Siècles. 1974. Georg Holms. Hildesheim.


Thanks to Eli I have found Ricoblog. In this post he has an image of a page of Erasmus' edition of the New Testament. Sure enough, in line 8 and 10 both the 'shorthand kappa with varia' glyph and the word 'kai' are represented. These are both written with an ampersand in Latin.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Life of Και

Here is a peculiar little symbol found in line 3 and line 5 of this version of the Lord's Prayer. From context, it is obviously και meaning 'and'.

This table, on the right, found in Lehmann's book* on Greek Shorthand shows the derivation of this symbol from an earlier 'S' shape shorthand kappa with an accent, called a varia, above it.

Thompson** shows the origin of the 'S' shape from an original zigzag symbol, κε.

Back to Lehmann. He shows these modifications for the shorthand zigzag kappa with the different vowels. This is Greek syllabic shorthand and it is one of the things that I have most wanted to explore in writing system history but have put off since there is so little information available.

So, this little symbol for και could be called "kai - shorthand kappa with varia."

These images can be enlarged by clicking on them.

*Lehmann, Oskar. Die Tachygraphischen Abkurzungen Der Griechischen Handschriften. 1965. Georg Holms. Hildesheim.

**Thomson E.M. A handbook of Greek and Latin Palaeography.

Boge, Herbert. Griechische Tachygraphie und Tironische Noten. 1973. Akademie-Verlag. Berlin.


If you have noticed that the shorthand kappa looks like 'koppa' - it does. If you know why it looks like koppa, or have any suggestions about this, please comment. I don't know why the two look identical. The zigzag shape is identified by Lehmann and Thomson as shorthand kappa, but elsewhere I see it called koppa. Hmm.

If you are not familiar with koppa, then don't worry about it - or read this paper On Greek Letter Koppa by Michael Everson, which shows the various forms and functions of koppa. Very interesting.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Memory of the World Register

In my quest for historic scripts I have found another resource. "The Memory of the World Register lists documentary heritage which has been identified by the International Advisory Committee in its meetings in Tashkent (September 1997), in Vienna (June 1999) and in Cheongju City (June 2001) and endorsed by the Director-General of UNESCO as corresponding the selection criteria for world significance."

For the Russian Federation I have found the Khitrovo Gospel (of the end of the 14th - the beginning of the 15th century) which is in the Russian State Library. The Memory of the World Register's Reading Room provides 4 images from this manuscript.

"The manuscript has a great significance in the human written history of universal philosophy and culture. This Gospel give a salient idea of the stage of the development of ancient Russian Literature, of its book-writing schools and workshops and of the dissemination of the church Slavonic language. Khitrovo Gospel is widely known by eight miniatures and ornaments of Andrei Rublyov and artists from his environment."

Other Russian manuscripts in the Memory of the World Register are the Archangel Gospel of 1092 and Slavonic publications in the Cyrillic script of the 15th century .

Click on these images to enlarge.

From Old Books

This text of the Lord's Prayer is from Oratio Dominica: The Lord's Prayer in above 100 Languages, Versions and Characters by Dan Brown, published in 1713.

While this text was printed in 1715, the notes in the margin indicate that this version of the Lord's Prayer is from a text dated 1581. Click on this image to enlarge or see it here (warning: Give it a minute or two to download - as it is 3880x5568) or on page 8, From Old Books, Oratio Dominica.

This website From Old Books provides a complete page-by-page scan of Oratio Dominica and offers many hours of browsing through pages of old books. Many thanks to Liam for making these images available.

Addendum: There are marks that appear to be aspiration marks in this text. I find a reference to these marks on page 2 of this document.

"The Slavonic writing system was influenced also by the fact that many texts were copied from the original Greek sources—so, the aspiration symbols (hard and soft) are placed arbitrarily and mean nothing in Slavonic texts;"

This is supported by the note,
"Some sources insist that aspirations are conserved in Old Slavonic texts for calligraphic reasons only and are copied directly from the Greek texts; some sources [16] state that placing of aspiration symbols is not arbitrary—although we don’t know exactly what they mean, they are somehow connected with the pronunciation, as in every writing system apart from Hebrew. Nobody knows the truth . . ."

16 Nikolai Serikoff: private communication.

Old Slavonic and Church Slavonic in TEX and Unicode, Alexander Berdnikov, Olga Lapko (pdf)

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Malkuno Zcuro

From my inbox:

"I have read your Sep. 24th entry in your blog on the Aramaic (Syriac) language.The following book might be of special interest to linguists:

"Malkuno Zcuro" Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's "Le Petit Prince" (The Little Prince) in modern Aramaic language (Tur Abdin dialect) spoken in South East Turkey was printed in Germany and will be available in November 2005. The text is printed in Aramaic script (Syriac) with Latin transcription.

The book also contains vocabularies in German, French, English, Turkish as well as in Swedish. BTW "Malkuno" means "prince". It is said to be the first book printed in modern Aramaic ("Suret") worldwide."

Checking back to my Sept. 24 post and comparing the name of the script,

Aramaya ܐܪܡܝܐ
Suryaya ܣܘܪܝܝܐ

I find that the Syriac script cover of this book is labeled 'Syriac', while the Latin transcription is labeled 'Aramaic'. That makes sense.


Here is another interesting website on "The Little Prince", a collection of translations in 142 languages and dialects.

Erasmian Pronunciation

I may mention classical Greek, every once in a while, but I wouldn't dare to be heard pronouncing it out loud. I listened to my teacher using the usual pedagogical pronunciation, which provides a distinct pronunciation for every letter; and my Greek classmate naturally pronounced classical Greek as if it were his mother tongue, which it was. I was remarkably silent in that class, restricting myself to writing Greek, which I thought was a much nicer alphabet than the Latin one.

(I notice that the movie "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" - based on the actress's own life, BTW- was filmed around the corner from where I went to high school in Toronto.)

Anyway... it was Erasmus who established the 'proper' pronunciation for classical Greek and non-Greeks have been slaughtering the pronunciation of that language ever since. Erasmus is also responsible for the "Textus Receptus", an edition of the New Testament that was the "Received" edition, used, I believe, for the King James Version of the Bible and held sacred to many. Such an influential man, that Erasmus.

However, an enlightened American president, Thomas Jefferson, who lived in Paris for some time, balked at the Erasmian pronunciation of classical Greek as he explains in this letter.

All of this is a leadup to Gary's post in Shadow, where he follows the trail of a pronunciation for classical Greek to the Greek Alphabet site of Harry Foundalis. It is a good read with sound files as well. From Harry's Greek Alphabet site,

"If any (non-Greek) scholar attempts to pronounce classic texts in the reconstructed(1) pronunciation, that, to Greeks is tantamount to sacrilege. As a contemporary Greek myself, I can give you my personal feeling for how the reconstructed pronunciation sounds: it is as if a barbarian is trying to speak Greek."

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

A Back Translation

Enough about fonts and all that. I have been thinking of this book on and off for a few weeks. Mission to Asia ed. by Christopher Dawson. 1966. Harper & Row. NY. Click on these images to enlarge.

This book contains the History of the Mongols by John of Plano Carpini, the letter he carried from Pope Innocent IV to Guyuk Khan and the reply he brought back. Maybe not the reply he wanted, but a reply. It contains The Journey of William of Rubrick to the court of the Khan in China and letters of John of Monte Corvino, Brother Peregrine, Bishop of Zayton and Andrew of Perugia. Andrew of Perugia's letter (in a different translation) and tombstone can be seen here.

My copy of this book is a little dog-eared but apparently there are reprints available at I sincerely hope the reprint has the same luscious cover design by Jacqueline Shuman in a heavy and relatively durable paperback edition. I suppose that the 'Nun of Stanbrook Abbey' who translated these narratives remains unnamed.

These narratives include the first description known to the west of the Mongol Uighur script and many fascinating accounts of the struggles these ambassadors had getting their own letters from Rome translated into Mongol.

"Entering we said what we had to say on our knees; that done we delivered the letter and asked to be given interpreters capable of translating it. We were given them on Good Friday, and carefully translated the letter with them into Ruthenian, Saracenic and Tartar characters. This translation was given to Bati, who read it and noted it carefully. " p. 56

Now for the story of getting the Khan's letter translated into Latin. It happened right there in his court. He wasn't trusting the translation of his reply to a later date and interpretation. Here is the vivid account.

"On this occasion we were asked if there were any people with the Lord Pope who understood the writing of the Russians or Saracens or even of the Tartars. We gave answer that we used neither the Ruthenian nor Saracen writing; there were however Saracens in the country but they were a long way from the Lord Pope; but we said that it seemed to us that the most expedient course would be for them to write in Tartar and translate it for us, and we would write it down carefully in our script and we would take both the letter and the translation to the Lord Pope.

...the secretaries came to us and translated the letter for us word by word. When we had written it in Latin, they had it translated so that they might hear a phrase at a time, for they wanted to know if we had made a mistake in any word. When both letters were written, they made us read it once and a second time in case we had left out anything, and they said to us: "See that you clearly understand everthing, for it would be inconvenient if you did not understand everything, seeing you have to travel to such far-distant lands." When we replied "We understand everything clearly" they wrote the letter once again in Saraceic, in case anyone should be found in those parts who could read it, if the Lord Pope so wished." p.67

I would highly recommend this collection of original writings from the 13th and 14th centuries, as a counter-balance to Ghengis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford. Actually one book is not a replacement for the other, they complement each other.

Addendum: I have made a little error and the pictures will not enlarge. I shall be working on correcting that. Update: Fixed.

Now I have a question. I am not sure if the Tartar script which John of Plano Carpini saw was this . He visited the court of Guyuk Khan in 1246.

Addendum: Language Hat has supplied a link to Richard Hakluyt's translation here. The characters are identified there as "Russian, Tartarian and Saracen." Thanks, LH. The text is available in Latin and English, here.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Combining Diacritics Continue

Tonight I am posting an image of Polytonic Greek with combining diacritics in Notepad. I chose Palatino Linotype, but all characters with diacritics are displayed in Microsoft Sans Serif.

Just to record a few thoughts. First, I had assumed a few days ago that I should use the extended Greek range for the combining accents for Polytonic Greek. Now I realize that these accents are in the combining diacritic range.

Second, I am not sure if Palatino Linotype does not combine or if it does not contain the accents to combine with. I dont know if the action and results would be different in every application. In Word, the whole sentence changed to Tahoma, so Word sensed a font that would work.

Ἄδμηθ', ὁρᾷς γὰρ τἀμὰ πράγμαθ' ὡς ἔχει, λέξαι θέλω σοι πρὶν θανεῖν ἃ βούλομαι

Here it is in blogger. In my preview window it looks great. This is the same thing that could not display properly in Word or Notepad.

I just went back to Word again and repasted it in. This time it displayed in Palatino Linotype but the accents were all out of place. Word must have a series of options for dealing with this situation. Don't laugh. These things have a mind of their own. Why did I ever decide that I should learn about combining diacritics. Someone tell me. And I am not complaining - I am just playing around seeing what's up and what people mean when they say 'combining diacritics'!

I keep pasting the same few characters into BabelMap and then into Word and every time I get a different result. Sometimes a mixed font, obviously mixed, sometimes a reasonably even font, but who knows what it is. And no I am not changing the font myself. I chose "Palatino Linotype" and the Word page is just doing its own thing.

Classification of Consonants

This is from page 156 of Elementary Greek by Burgess and Bonner. 1907. Scott, Foresman and Company. Chicago. Today's post is simply to show how one might cognitively process a writing system according to a visual chart or construction. Yesterday's post was all about how the writing system displays in a browser.

I have this book and others left to me by my great-aunt, who taught Greek at McGill University, Montreal, in the 1920's and 30's. This is not the textbook that I used in high school but one very like it. It was not until several years later that I started to study linguistics at university and learned phonetic classes of sounds.

This organization of the consonants into classes was considered necessary to understand the assimilation of consonant sounds in the different verb tenses and noun cases.

In Aristotle's Poetics 1456b "A letter is an indivisible sound, not every such sound but one of which an intelligible sound can be formed. Animals utter indivisible sounds but none that I should call a letter(στοιχειον). Such sounds may be subdivided into vowel, semi-vowel and mute."

Monday, October 10, 2005

Combining Diacritics

Here is a line from Alcestis' famous speech to her husband before she dies. From Euripides' Alcestis.

"Admetus, you see the things I suffer; and now before I die I mean to tell you what I wish."

Click on the above images to see the display of this line as I saw it in Firefox, with an undefined font. The first is precomposed and the second is decomposed. Both show vowels of uneven size and decomposed shows a lagging perispomeni.

Ἄδμηθ', ὁρᾷς γὰρ τἀμὰ πράγμαθ' ὡς ἔχει, λέξαι θέλω σοι πρὶν θανεῖν ἃ βούλομαι.

Ἄδμηθ', ὁρᾷς γὰρ τἀμὰ πράγμαθ' ὡς ἔχει, λέξαι θέλω σοι πρὶν θανεῖν ἃ βούλομαι

In the Greek text which I have posted here with a defined Tahoma font, the first is decomposed with combining diacritics, and the second is precomposed. In the preview window they look identical and correct.

Sunday, October 09, 2005


Everyone has posted about Hangul today. Here are the 24 basic jamos of the Hangul writing system. Read more about it here. At Language Log you can read all about what type of writing system Hangul really is. You probably already have. Here on the west coast I am the end of the line and it is already tomorrow.

I am naturally interested in the arrangement of the vowels in the four orientations. According to Omniglot "The shapes of the the vowels are based on three elements: man (a vertical line), earth (a horizontal line) and heaven (a dot). In modern Hangeul the heavenly dot has mutated into a short line."

Gari Ledyard's Theory has some interest for me but I am content to read what others have written today. If you have a special interest in both Phags-pa and Hangul you may be able to tell me what you think of Ledyard's ideas.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Mandombé in Action

Just in case you were wondering, as I was, what such a geometric script looks like when handprinted, this should help.

There is lots of interesting info on how the idea came from brickwork and the mirrored relationship between the numbers 2 and 5

The Mandombé Syllabary

This is the Mandombé script taught as a syllabary. These are the syllables of the second group. While the table in Wikipedia enables one to read Mandombé, it is not the traditional presentation.

This picture was found here. The explanation above the group of syllables reads "The Mazta of the 2nd group are the Mazta composed of the roots of the 2nd time or angles of 45 degrees." The chart itself makes sense to me but I do not know how to interpret this commentary. Back to Wikipedia where the same terms are mentioned.

The Matrix

Many writing systems are taught in a two dimensional layout or matrix. This matrix may be an arrangement of letters by their phonetic class, it may be a full scale syllabary or a book of rhyme tables.

This is how I learned the Greek alphabet. I also had to learn the alphabetical order but that was secondary.

p t k
b d g
f th ch
ps dz ks
l m n r s
a e ee i u o oo

Oddly enough I am not familiar with any standard chart or two dimensional layout for the Latin alphabet apart from an IPA chart. However, when learning another script this is one of the first things I look for.

I couldn't find this arrangement for Greek on the internet as a chart but in bits and pieces it can be asembled from this site. I would be very interested in hearing if such a table is ever used now for teaching the Greek alphabet.

Addendum: I have altered the image in this post, not out of vanity, but I don't want to post again on the same topic for a new image and I am trying to improve the aesthetic quality of my images as well as correct any obvious errors.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Reversed Letters

Most scripts have a traditional presentation format. This is the visual image of the script that the users are most familiar with. For an alphabet it may be a linear display over the chalkboard in school. For other scripts the traditional organization may be a syllabary chart, as in Syllabics, Amharic, Hiragana and Katakana, etc. For some scripts there is more than one format.

This layout for Phags-pa is derived from the layout for Tibetan as seen here, and here.



Vowels (and HA)


(There are minor irregularities to this organization for the sake of demonstrating the full set of reversed letters. However, I could not find a complete matrix to copy exactly so this will have to do.)

There are six reversed consonant letters, TTA, TTHA, DDA, NNA, ZA and GGA. In each case the reversal creates a separate letter with its own value. However, for the vowels, I, U, E, subjoined Y and HA, the reversed letters are contextual variants and do not in any way alter the phonetic values of the letters. (I have put in HA twice, first in its traditional position, and second with the vowels because its reversed letter is a contextual variant like the vowels.)

In this script CV syllables are written as a unit and a reversed consonant letter requires a reversed vowel letter, without changing the value of the vowel. One aspect of this type of script, an alphasyllabary, is that letters are arranged in syllabic units. Therefore the form of the consonant can affect the form of the vowel.

While reversed letters were an auxilliary way of creating new letters in Tibetan and Phags-pa, reversals and inversions are the basic manner in which letters were created in Mandombé.

Phags-pa fonts and research is from BabelStone

Thursday, October 06, 2005

No Rotation Operator

Richard Sproat carries out a lot of research on writing systems and aproaches it in a very organized way. I asked him last spring about Syllabics and orientation as a factor in reading.

"I don't have a good story for Cree. Given the current calculus I would have to say that it's basically a CV syllabary like kana. This is because I do not have a rotation operator, which is what I would need to express important aspects of the compositionality of the system. The superscript dot for the long "o" and "i" is easy enough,but I have no way to handle the fact that orientation is a significant component of the system. This is actually a pretty unusual device and indeed the only systems that make any systematic use of it that I know of are Evans' Cree/Ojibwe and Bell's Visible speech. The latter is of course was a purely scientific notation (though Bell did intend it as a script to replace normal English orthography). So that just leaves Cree and Ojibwe as systems that make systematic use of rotation. I could add such a device to the formal calculus of the system, but I am reluctant to do it just for two writing systems."

So there you have it. I cannot find any further research on orientation as a factor in the readability of a script. In the meantime I have spent long enough working on Mandombé, over the last few days, that I can indeed say that for me, at least, it is significantly easier to learn how to read than Arabic or Chinese, very much so. (I don't really want to admit how long I have been working on Arabic.)

I realize that the layperson may remain unconvinced and simply, based on pure supposition, insist that Mandombé is hard to read, but I haven't got the research to back that up and I have, in fact, looked for it.

Of course, after Tamil, Phags-pa, Cree, Vai, etc. it is possible that my expectations of how a script works are a little different from others'. It is not an alphabet.

Many thanks to Denis Jacquerye for posting enough detail about Mandombé that I can actually figure out how to read it, even if the article is still in progress.

I have used this page and this text to work on learning this script.

PS Personal emails are quoted with permission. Otherwise they are treated as confidential.

Cree Literacy

Book of Common Prayer, 1860
Here's a little anecdote for the day - something that wouldn't make it into a research paper. However, it is worth recounting since it suggests one reason why there is a lack of research on the relationship between orientations in a writing system and difficulty of reading.

When I was first researching the Cree writing system, I visited John W. Berry a cognitive psychology professor at Queen's in Kingston, Ontario. He has written the book on Cree Syllabic Literacy.

Here is an abbreviated outline of the conversation as remembered many years later.

Me: (painfully embarassed) So, I have to confess that I am finding it quite difficult to remember the directions of the syllabics and I can't really read it.

John: Well, that is probably because you are a woman ..

Me: (inwardly bristling) Oh.

John: (jolly, as usual) Women perform less well on tests of spatial awareness than men.

Me: Uh...

John: But Cree women don't have this problem, of course.

Me: They don't?

John: No, this effect only applies to women in industrialized societies. Most brain research which indicates a gender difference does not apply across cultures. It is not universal.

Me: The differences between men and women are not universal?

John: Only biological and hormonal differences. The differences in spatial and verbal abilities has not been confirmed across cultures. Hunter gatherer societies do not reflect the same patterns....

Me: So the Cree, neither men nor women found the script difficult to read.

John: Not at all. They could all read it within a few years of its being introduced. They were for the most part not aware that it came from missionaries and literacy was transmitted within a very short time over thousands of miles. They could all read.

Me: And today?

John: We have tested the literacy skills of adults in several villages and have not found anyone in the older generation who had difficulty reading Cree. However, for the younger generation, the telephone, radio, TV and English are replacing reading in Cree.

Me: But it is not difficult to read?

John: I have never heard of that.

And he wrote the book.

Berry, J.W. and Bennett, J.A. (1991) Cree Syllabic Literacy: Cultural Context and Psychological Consequences. Tilburg University Monographs in Cross-Cultural Psychology. Tilburg: Tilburg University Press.

PS. I have since discovered that I can't read any script at all if I don't speak the language. Now, when I want to learn a new script I find 10 to 20 words in that language and learn to say those words, then I learn to read them. No problem. Then I know all the letters in those words.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Chinese Dyslexia

Dyslexia is often associated with an inability to either percieve or create the correct orientation in a letter or character. The classic visual image of dyslexic writing showed frequent reversals between the letters 'b' and 'd'. In this view it would be difficult to impossible to be dyslexic in the Chinese writing system. However, this view is outdated, perhaps by 20-30 years according to this article.

I met C K Leong at a conference in Vancouver several years ago and was able to view his pages of overheads showing the writing of dyslexic Chinese children. Many portrayed misformed and reversed characters. Unfortunately I didn't ask him for copies. (Next time!)

In fact, it is not neccesary for the actual symbols to represent reflected sets like 'b' and 'd' for children to have this confusion. The component parts of a Chinese character offer as much opportunity for difficulty to Chinese children as the various letter shapes, and irregular spellings offer English children. There is also a difference in phonological processing at a certain level. However, that is one component of the problem, not all.

I recommend to you this article by C K Leong, P W Cheng and C C Lam.

Exploring reading-spelling connection as locus of dyslexia in Chinese.

"This persistent difficulty with spelling, particularly writing to dictation, seems to apply even more so to Chinese children with dyslexia, as compared with children using alphabetic language systems (Leong 1999b). It is only during the last seven years or so that real progress has been made in greater public awareness and understanding of developmental dyslexia in Hong Kong. ... it was estimated that there could be as many Chinese children with specific learning disabilities as estimated in western countries."

So I submit that an absence of transformations in the writing system does not significantly reduce the incidence of reading difficulties. This is, of course, apropos the assumed difficulty of reading Mandombé. I am of the personal opinion that writing systems may vary in terms of the demands put on the readers, but that these effects are more diverse and scattered than one might think and are not easily analysed.

PS If your child has letter reversals you should know that this is a common developmental stage in writing and is usually outgrown. It is only incidentally associated with dyslexia.

Addendum: Shadow has a full bibliography and an image of Chinese dyslexia from one of C K Leong's articles.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005


I will soon read further on the mirrored letters of Tibetan and Phags-pa. They are still the earliest examples of reflections being used to create new letters that I am aware of and that is a history I am eager to pursue.

In the meantime, I would like to post about Mandombé. For this post I will be depending on information in part only available in Wikipedia. There are times when we just have to eat our words, for some of us this comes sooner rather than later.

First, thanks to the person who sent me this link with much related information - all of it very interesting. I tried to reply but my email client is suffering from an overactive spam blocker and I can't respond at this moment.

This Wikipedia page on Mandombé gives detailed information of how to read this script. The article was written by Denis Jacquerye and comes recommended by Don Osborn of

Since I am constantly reminding myself to return to the visual aspects of a script as the focus rather than its linguistics aspects, which I can't resist but enough of that, here is a page of art inspired by the Mandombé script. It is important to see how this script is understood visually by its users.

Matters of note related to this script. It was invented by David Wabeladio in 1978 in the Congo and makes use of rotations to create both vowels and consonants. Scan down this page to see Wabeladio writing in Mandombé on a blackboard.

This script will lead into the very interesting question of whether transformations and rotations make a script difficult to read - that is more difficult to read than say Chinese or Arabic.

More information here and here.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Rotations or Reflections

I have been thinking about whether rotations or reflections is a more productive principle in letter formation. Some day I would like to think about how these transformations came about.

It all started with Meditations on Utopia. The transformations that the letters undergo in the Utopian alphabet are certainly rotations. However looking at Phags-pa, I realized that I was also looking at transformations, but of another kind, reflections or reversals.

I haven't been able yet to figure out what the rational is to these reversals or if there is one. No doubt I just need to read further. In the meantime I have decided to post this to record and share these inconclusive observations.

I am also wondering if there was a two dimensional layout for the Phags-pa script that I have not yet come across, as there is for Devanagari.

Unfortunately, I have not used a phonetic transcription for these letters so I wouldn't put to much stock in these Ascii transcriptions. Maybe tomorrow I will work on the phonology.


Explanation for reversed letters is found near the bottom of this page. The reversed letters correspond to Tibetan letters and represent retroflex consonants used for transcribing Sanskrit loan words.

Saturday, October 01, 2005


I have heard back from several people that they are getting better display in Firefox and Opera than I am in IE. About a year ago someone strongly suggested that I switch to Firefox. So why am I still using IE?

The most important reason is that I need to figure out how one thing works before I move on to another. A couple of years ago I bought a new computer and downloaded as many fonts and keyboards as I felt like. The upshot was that I got a little confused, nothing seemed to work as I expected and I couldn't explain my problem because I didn't know what application I was working in half the time. Well, that computer had a little accident.

So this time I am going nice and slow, one thing at a time. One application a week, maybe installing one new keyboard or learning one new thing and testing that out for a while.

Now the real reason for deciding that IE is the browser I am sticking with in the short term is because the Devanagari/Tamil Syllabic Editor was developed for IE and so far only works in IE. This is an application I am working with frequently so ... Here is Richard's take on this.

"Internet Explorer also offers some useful non-standard capabilities that Firefox doesn't. For example, the page the Tamil 'syllabic input' picker was adapted from uses an IE feature that allows the javascript to track cursor movement over arbitrary dynamic HTML text and thereby allows the insertion of formatting mark-up. "

I don't exactly understand this but I use it.

In the meantime if characters in Extended Latin don't display on a webpage I change the font in my browser to Microsoft Sans Serif since it displays 179 characters. I found browser font display under the Tools menu> Internet Options.

I am a bit of a technophobe actually but I am trying to deal with it in order to indulge in my love of writing systems. Thanks for your help.

An Irregular Syllabary

From Ed Vajda's Linguistics 201 Syllabus. View the original image here.

These comments are taken from Ed Vajda's class notes posted in 2001. Dr. Vajda is a linguistics professor at Western Washington University, Bellingham, Wa.

"Common misconceptions about Chinese characters
-not concept writing, denote sound
-not logographic; only 40% denote monosyllabic words
-not really morphosyllabic, 11% of Chinese morphemes are polysyllabic: hudian (butterfly), putao (grape)" From Alternatives to the Western Alphabet

He further explains the use of the term 'irregular syllabary' here.

"Syllabaries ... may be highly irregular, with the meaning of words and morphemes being taken into account in the writing of the sound of each syllable: this is the case with Japanese Kanji and modern Chinese characters, as it was with all the earliest syllabaries in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Mexico." From Study of Writing

So Dr. Vajda is saying that Chinese writing is not ideographic, not logographic, not even morphosyllabic, but syllabic. Otherwise put, Chinese writing is a heterographic syllabary and its characters are heterographic syllabographs.

Which is why I have been so taken by the simple word 字 zi. If Unicode were being constructed today, I hope that I would be able to enter U+5B57 : CJK UNIFIED 字-5B57 : zì instead of U+5B57 : CJK UNIFIED IDEOGRAPH-5B57 : zì . However, we live with the legacies of yesteryear and ideograph is a legacy term.

PS. Thanks for all the feedback on font issues.