Mabuchi vs. Kanji.

Kamo no Mabuchi, an eighteenth-century Japanese poet and philologist, had some striking ideas about the use of Chinese characters, as reported by Victor Mair at the Log quoting Peter Flueckiger’s translation in “Reflections on the Meaning of Our Country: Kamo no Mabuchi’s Kokuikō” (JSTOR), pp. 247-8:

[An interlocutor said,] “This country, though, has no writing of its own. Instead, we use Chinese characters and through these are able to know about everything.” My response was that first of all, it goes without saying that China is a troublesome and poorly governed country. To give a specific example, there are the characters in the form of pictures. When we look at the characters that someone has put forth as just the ones necessary for ordinary use, they amount to some 38,000. To describe a single flower, for example, one needs to use different characters for blooming, scattering, pistil, plant, stem, and more than ten other things. Moreover, there are characters that are used in the name of a specific country or place, or for a particular type of plant, but are used nowhere else. Could people remember so many characters even if they tried? Sometimes people make mistakes with characters, and sometimes the characters change over time, leading to disputes over their usage; they are burdensome and useless.

In India, though, using fifty characters, they have written and passed down over five thousand volumes of Buddhist texts. Just knowing fifty characters, it is possible to know and transmit a limitless number of words from both past and present. Moreover, it is not only a matter of the characters; the fifty sounds are the voice of Heaven and Earth (ametsuchi no koe [characters omitted]), so what they contain within them is natural (onozukara). In the same way, there seem to have been some kind of characters in our Imperial Land as well, but after the introduction of Chinese characters, this original writing sunk wrongly into obscurity, and now only the ancient words remain. Although these words are not the same as the fifty sounds of India, they are based on the same principle in that fifty sounds suffice to express all things. To repeat the example of the flower discussed above, we can just say “blooming,” “scattering,” “budding,” “fading,” “pistil,” “stem,” and the like; without needing to resort to characters, one can easily express both the good and the bad, and there is nothing troublesome. In Holland they have twenty-five characters, in this country there are fifty, and, in general, characters are like this in all countries. Only China concocted a cumbersome system, so things are disorderly there and everything is troublesome.

Too bad more people didn’t think like him!

Comments

  1. Why? There’s no questioning that Mabuchi is a fascinating and important literary figure, but this is transparent revisionist polemics. Chinese characters were no longer foreign by his period, Chinese literary culture no longer alien. Whence the sympathy for a man who would gut his own literary tradition for some hazily imagined alternative of pure Japaneseness that never existed? Switch out characters here for any other cultural item, and the same passage would be ringing people’s alarm-bells for Japanese exceptionalism. Weird.

  2. Eli Nelson says:

    The atitude expressed in this passage might be sinophobic, but it doesn’t seem to me like an expression of Japanese exceptionalism. Instead, Mabuchi presents Chinese writing as exceptional here, and groups together Indian, Dutch, and the imaginary ancient Japanese phonetic writing system.

  3. Why?

    Because, nationalist politics aside, he was absolutely right that it’s ridiculous for Japan to use Chinese characters, and if they’d bit the bullet and switched to kana for everything Japan would be better off today. (Yes, ancient cultural yada yada, we’d be saying the same thing if English were written in kanji and it would be just as linguistically absurd.)

  4. I don’t think it’s that ridiculous to use kanji for words and morphemes borrowed directly from Chinese. Inconvenient, but it has a certain logic to it. Using kanji to write native Japanese content words is a bit ridiculous, but okurigana goes a long way to ease the pain. Using kanji to write native Japanese function words, okay, that’s a lot ridiculous, but Japan stopped doing that after WWII.

  5. I don’t think it’s that ridiculous to use kanji for words and morphemes borrowed directly from Chinese.

    As long as you’re on board with the whole “learn thousands of arbitrary glyphs before you can even think about reading anything,” sure. I realize that people who have already gone through that process have an investment in the system, but if you don’t have an investment, it sure looks ridiculous.

  6. Eli Nelson says:

    learn thousands of arbitrary glyphs before you can even think about reading anything
    As far as I can tell, native Japanese speakers don’t acquire literacy that way (it might be more like how foreign students learn the kanji). I think children learn to read using the kana first, then gradually are introduced to the kanji through schooling, and with okurigana to help. Even though the overall system of writing used for Japanese seems more complicated to me than the one used for Chinese, the Japanese one seems to me to be easier to learn in a gradual manner because of the integration of phonemic spellings.

    if you don’t have an investment, it sure looks ridiculous.
    The same thing could be said of the English spelling system. The most common English words are among the most irregularly spelled, so they cannot be read out using phonemics but have to be memorized.

  7. As far as I can tell, native Japanese speakers don’t acquire literacy that way (it might be more like how foreign students learn the kanji). I think children learn to read using the kana first, then gradually are introduced to the kanji through schooling, and with okurigana to help.

    Fair enough, I should have said “before you can even think about reading anything interesting.”

    The same thing could be said of the English spelling system.

    Absolutely (and of course it often has been). The difference is: 1) the Japanese system is more unwieldy and hard to learn by orders of magnitude, and 2) in English you can read perfectly well even if you can’t spell worth a damn.

  8. Rather than doing English in kanji, use yingzi.

  9. J. W. Brewer says:

    I don’t know that much about the details of the politics of the slow-and-partial abandonment of the kanji-equivalents in South Korea in favor of all hangul all the time (the process being more quick-and-total in the totalitarian north) but I assume there was a substantial dose of post-colonial anti-Japanese sentiment built into it as well as some desire to get out from the much “softer” power of Sinitic cultural influence. I’m not sure how you could recreate the same dynamic in Japan, because they got to a point where using the kanji did not make them feel in any sense subservient to China many many centuries ago, just no one in England at the time of the Reformation, however nationalist/xenophobic, thought it desirable to bring back futhark rather than use a script historically associated with the Vatican; the script was simply no longer understood as foreign.

    There is also the problem that Japan has done rather well for itself, so it’s rather hard to sell the notion that it needs modernization in this area in order to escape from medieval poverty and backwardness etc. That makes the if-it-ain’t-broke inertia much stronger. Who is going to be impressed by the supposed superiority of the Brahamic script originally used for Buddhist scriptures when they can use their smartphone to check the relative GDP-per-capita standing of Japan v. India?

  10. There is also the problem that Japan has done rather well for itself, so it’s rather hard to sell the notion that it needs modernization in this area in order to escape from medieval poverty and backwardness etc. That makes the if-it-ain’t-broke inertia much stronger.

    Sure, that’s why it’s a pity it wasn’t done back in the eighteenth century.

  11. David Eddyshaw says:

    This is undoubtedly a manifestation of Japanese linguistic chauvinism, pretty characteristic of Kokugaku generally.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kokugaku

    Roy Andrew Miller’s (admittedly somewhat irritating) “The Japanese Language” has an account of Mabuchi’s yet greater disciple Motoori Norinaga proving to his own satisfaction that Japanese was the most advanced language because none of the Fifty Sounds of Japanese could be produced by non-human means, unlike Chinese with its pings and tings …

    Which is not to say that Mabuchi doesn’t have a point …
    And the attitude of the Kokugaku folk is at least understandable among a people grown up in the colossal cultural shadow of China.

    Kokugaku was also very much a piece with the increasingly fraught politics of late Tokugawa times, and the increasing threat from the West.

  12. David Eddyshaw says:

    Motoori was a paediatrician, incidentally. He’d make an excellent patron minor deity for all greatly gifted linguistic amateurs. Sort of uber-Whorf.

  13. Eli Nelson says:

    in English you can read perfectly well even if you can’t spell worth a damn.
    It really depends; this is true for some people, but others have difficulty with both writing and reading. It’s useful to differentiate between people who are “bad spellers” in the sense that they mix up its and it’s, or often forget how to spell words like accommodate or address, from people who have real problems with both reading and writing. I didn’t have any problems learning to read, but for many other English speakers that is not the case. There’s some evidence that issues like dyslexia may also be a bigger problem for users of phonologically complex writing systems, like English’s. Although some might be tempted to blame it mainly on the educational system, it’s still a fact that severe difficulties with reading are more common among English-language students than students learning to read in a language with even a moderately complex orthography such as German or French.

    Masha Bell, an English spelling reform advocate, has a page about such difficulties here: http://englishspellingproblems.blogspot.com/2012/11/the-costs-englishspelling-literacy-is.html

  14. it’s still a fact that severe difficulties with reading are more common among English-language students than students learning to read in a language with even a moderately complex orthography such as German or French.

    I’m sure that’s true, and it’s an excellent point.

  15. David Eddyshaw says:

    Mabuchi’s reference to a script in Japan prior to the introduction of Chinese characters refers to a myth which (I am happy to report) Motoori Norinaga himself played a major role in debunking

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jindai_moji

  16. J. W. Brewer says:

    Ms. Bell speculates that the disproportionate ratio of male versus female prisoners is a result of the greater difficulty boys experience with mastering English orthography compared to girls (despite inter alia the widespread and persistent lack of equitable gender distribution of criminal behavior in societies with different orthographies or in those earlier periods of English history when most members of both sexes were illiterate). I know a little bit more about crime rates than I do about cross-national studies of dyslexia, but as the saying goes “Crackpotius In Uno, Crackpotius In Omnibus.”

  17. David Eddyshaw says:

    @JWB:

    The saying is plainly false. Who has not met numerous people who are perfectly rational on all subjects but one?

    (I suspect many of my friends think this about me, though possibly I am showing a lack of insight in thinking it’s only *one* subject.)

    Granted, in this particular case … spelling reform does seem to bring out the lunatics (if you’re lucky) and totalitarians (if you’re not.)

  18. J. W. Brewer says:

    Yes, but when the topic on which someone is irrational is spelling reform (but perhaps I repeat myself . . .) it ought to make the reader skeptical of all empirical claims (even the plausible-on-their-face ones) made that relate to that issue. (I do hope it was sufficiently clear that I’m not talking about Eli Nelson as opposed to the author of the piece he linked.)

    I had been tempted to respond to one of the comments in the LL thread with “you say ‘occultist/ultra-nationalist fringe’ like it’s a bad thing . . . .”

  19. David Eddyshaw says:

    There seems to be no logical reason at all why the perfectly sensible notion of script simplification should be associated with loopiness or terror. Perhaps a less tendentious way of putting it would be to say that it brings out, on the one hand, the idealist dreamer who believes that the sheer common sense of his proposals will ensure that they prevail in the face of vast vested interests, and on the other, the Man (always man) who knows that it his manifest destiny to help the People whether they understand their need for help or not.

  20. David Eddyshaw says:

    “learn thousands of arbitrary glyphs”

    They aren’t arbitrary; if they were, the task would indeed be hopeless (and it wouldn’t even be possible to look up characters in a dictionary.)

    That is not to assert they they form an ideal writing system for Japanese …

    However:

    The downside of the Japanese writing system is pretty obvious. The fact that the Japanese are still using it (much simplified since WW2, mind) is unlikely to be entirely explicable in terms of cultural conservativism and wholesale sunk-costs-fallacy behaviour on the part of those who’ve already experienced the pain of learning it. There must be (at least some) advantages to it which perhaps our own ethnocentricity and chronocentricity make it harder for us to appreciate. In particular, the untroubled assumption that simplicity is the only really important measure of a writing system depends on a whole host of further assumptions, few of which have probably been shared by other cultures than our own.

  21. J. W. Brewer says:

    We Anglophones obviously do not ourselves value abstract simplicity uber alles, or spelling reformers would not be viewed as marginal crackpots but at some point over the last few centuries would have succeeded in implementing their program (at least until enough time had passed for new changes in phonology to overtake the reformed system . . .). And notions to discard and replace the existing script altogether (as opposed to tweaking the details of how it is used to represent particular phonemes or morphemes) are an order of magnitude more ambitious than that.

    Of course, once you get used to alternatives it becomes easier for one to switch from the exception to the rule. Maybe this happened to some extent with hangul. Certainly the extent to which the boundary between default-latin and default-cyrillic may have shifted around somewhat in the former Yugoslavia was facilitated by the fact that two different scripts for approximately the same language were already extant, so there was a switch of allegiances or emphases rather than a leap into the unknown. If more L1 Japanese-speakers were in the habit of reading large chunks of running text in all kana (not usually done for texts beyond early-elementary-school level of sophistication?) or all romaji (not done at all? although maybe there are internet-type instances of which I’m unaware?), the situation would be rather different.

  22. They aren’t arbitrary; if they were, the task would indeed be hopeless (and it wouldn’t even be possible to look up characters in a dictionary.)

    You’re using a much more scientific definition than I was. From the point of view of a learner, they certainly seem arbitrary.

    The fact that the Japanese are still using it (much simplified since WW2, mind) is unlikely to be entirely explicable in terms of cultural conservativism and wholesale sunk-costs-fallacy behaviour on the part of those who’ve already experienced the pain of learning it.

    I don’t see why not.

    There must be (at least some) advantages to it which perhaps our own ethnocentricity and chronocentricity make it harder for us to appreciate.

    That strikes me as classic bending-over-backward-to-avoid-the-sin-of-ethnocentricity. Don’t get me wrong, ethnocentricity is a bad thing and should be avoided, but that doesn’t mean using kanji for Japanese isn’t objectively silly.

  23. David Eddyshaw says:

    @Hat:

    Certainly wasn’t attempting any such acrobatics (I’m no fan of cultural relativism); it’s more that I’ve learnt by experience that it’s a lot harder than you’d think to think beyond the assumptions you’ve been brought up with.

    Proverb in Kusaal: “if you see a lizard wearing trousers, be sure *he* knows how to fit in his tail.” (i.e don’t make unwarranted assumptions about what looks like irrational behaviour on someone else’s part.)

  24. it’s still a fact that severe difficulties with reading are more common among English-language students than students learning to read in a language with even a moderately complex orthography such as German or French.
    Anecdotal evidence for that. My son is a bilingual German-English speaker, but stronger in English. One of his good friends is a also a bilingual German-English speaker, also slightly stronger in English. As is fairly typical in Austria, neither child could really read before starting 1st grade this year. My son attends a German language local school, his friend goes to an English language international school. By December my son could read German texts easily, while his friend is still struggling with English, and is starting to get demoralized, which of course makes it worse. Obviously there are a lot of variables involved – pedagogy, natural aptitude, etc. but my son’s friend is clearly very bright, and I can’t help thinking he would have been better off starting to read in German.

  25. David Eddyshaw says:

    The point that it’s not always true that a person may not be able to spell English yet be perfectly good at reading …

    It seems to me impressionistically that German and French orthographies differ substantially in difficulty in a way which might affect this very thing.

    German, of the three languages, has easily the least complex system overall, though with quite enough difficulties to be going on with, admittedly. But French is a skewed case; it’s mostly not too hard to work out how to pronounce a word, even if you’ve never encountered it before (I actually remember realising this for the first time one day as a schoolboy); but it is very much more difficult to do the reverse, and guess how an unfamiliar spoken word is supposedly written.

    Somebody must have studied this … it seems highly likely on first principles that there would be an awful lot of French speakers with no reading difficulties who are nevertheless terrible spellers, compared with their German friends.

  26. J. W. Brewer says:

    On where the lizard fits his tail, there is perhaps a difference between situations where the other society’s behavior is rational once we understand something about the situation that’s not obvious to us at first or second glance (i.e. once we understand the full context, we could plausibly see ourselves doing the same) versus situations where the other society’s behavior is rational (in the instrumental sense) only as an attempt to pursue goals or values that do not, themselves, seem rational to us, such that we wouldn’t act that way in that context unless we had somehow previously been socialized into having significantly different goals and values than we do and perhaps than we can easily imagine having.

  27. Rudolf Flesch was saying 60 years ago (at a time when U.S. orthodoxy claimed that no normal child could benefit from the teaching of reading before age seven) that whereas on the Continent children were taught to read starting at six, the U.K. started the subject at age five in recognition of the greater difficulty of English orthography. I’m not sure how old I was when I first read Why Johnny Can’t Read, but I was instantly and forever persuaded of the efficacy of phonics as the final approach to reading; that is, a child must learn numerous irregular words early and by sight, but in the end you have to know the system before you can read by sight.

  28. David Eddyshaw says:

    Isn’t that more a question of degree rather than a radical dichotomy?

  29. David Eddyshaw says:

    Replying to JWB, sorry. I really should have learnt by now ….

  30. Elessorn says:

    Well, I’m a big fan of cultural relativism. If only as a corrective to the last two centuries of cultural imperialism, and especially as we head towards a world where Western dominance is on the wane, I honestly defy anyone to explain to me why we should *encourage* people to relate to the world like a nail that needs their hammer.

    But that’s probably a different debate. On the issue of The Japanese writing system, I submit that everything said against it here clearly only makes sense from the foreign learner’s point of view — which is to say, from a point of view that couldn’t possibly matter from the native user’s perspective. No question that dumping characters would be awesome for foreign students, but it’s clearly not causing the Japanese much grief.

    An arbitrary system of thousands of glyphs that must be painfully mastered before you can read anything intetesting does not describe how kanji are experienced by Japanese speakers. Ridiculous is clearly not how the system is perceived by natives who are well aware that illiteracy is almost non-existent is their community. Silly is not an obvious way to describe a system that natives know has never been a stumbling block to the formation of a vibrant literature or a broad readership. And though as seen from Western eyes– as seen from Mabuchi’s chauvinism– this may seem uncompelling, kanji give Japanese people an inside access to Chinese civilization, which for most of their history was coextensive with Civilization, period.

    No need to fetishize characters. There’s nothing mystical about them. But it seems only good sense to give greater weight to the comfort of an orthography’s native users than the pain of its foreign learners. Where are our good descriptivist habits?

  31. No question that dumping characters would be awesome for foreign students, but it’s clearly not causing the Japanese much grief.

    This is the argument that’s always trotted out to justify the use of characters for Chinese, and it’s clearly nugatory. It makes no more sense to privilege insider views than outsider ones; both are necessary to even have a hope of seeing clearly. Of course it’s causing the Japanese grief, just as the lousy English spelling system is causing its users grief. If a woman says she loves her abusive husband and doesn’t want him arrested, should that be the end of the story?

  32. David Eddyshaw says:

    “Cultural Relativism” is unfortunately rather an ambiguous term, and I’ve probably muddied the waters by using it at all. Laziness.

    My own feeling is that no single existing culture (in space or time) begins to approach a monopoly on truth and wisdom, and that each culture has characteristic blind spots which are hard to impossible to detect from within. If for no other reason, this means that it is a good idea to look outside your own culture, a process which (if you take it seriously) is going to involve a painful process of bootstrapping because to begin with you’ll misinterpret most of what you see by forcing it into the inappropriate mould of your preexisting ideas, and you’ll fall into Said-damned Orientalism or whatever.

    What I do vehemently object to is the idea that there isn’t really anything real out there to be discovered anyhow because “it’s all relative.” People who subscribe to that are welcome to stay at home and be smug with their Derrida.

  33. gwenllian says:

    Certainly the extent to which the boundary between default-latin and default-cyrillic may have shifted around somewhat in the former Yugoslavia was facilitated by the fact that two different scripts for approximately the same language were already extant, so there was a switch of allegiances or emphases rather than a leap into the unknown.

    The recent lack of cyrillic script in Montenegro and the competition between latin and cyrillic in Serbia (which cyrillic is losing) are still pretty contentious issues.

  34. David Eddyshaw says:

    By morphic resonance, I just happened to be reading this, by Annick Payne, on Hieroglyphic Luwian:

    “The fact remains that all Neo-Hittite states continued to write in a hieroglyphic script, despite it
    being not only a more complicated and possibly archaic writing system but also not even par-
    ticularly well suited to the language recorded with it, as its syllabary cannot record consonant
    clusters, a frequent feature of Indo-European languages. Yet even today we can notice that writing
    conventions are particularly sensitive issues and that traditionalism often prevails over practical
    considerations; only think of English orthography.”

  35. It’s specifically the “ridiculous” I object to, though. No argument at all about convenience, although I am one of the Stockholm Syndrome sufferers who likes Japanese (language and literature) as it stands and wouldn’t roll the dice on a kanji-free history giving us a canon of equal interest.

    But what I mean is, I don’t think anyone calls it ridiculous that we write “hors-d’oeuvre” instead of “orderves” in English, or set Greek quotations in the Greek alphabet rather than transliterate them. Kanji for Chinese words strikes me as the same principle. It wasn’t until relatively recently that these words were even recognized as part of the Japanese language, after all.

    (And yes, I know people are more inclined to transliterate Greek than they used to be… barbarism, I call it, he said without reflecting on the irony.)

    Norinaga, incidentally, had one good thing to say about Chinese characters: using them for the Kojiki and Man’yōshū rendered those works so hard to understand that scribes had no choice but to copy the text exactly as it was written (as opposed to silently “correcting” archaicisms), preserving it safely for the Kokugaku scholars a thousand years later.

  36. Elessorn says:

    It doesn’t seem nugatory at all to me, though I would agree it also applies in the Chinese case just as validly. Nor am I trying to be provocatively dense when I say I don’t think it’s in the least obvious that the current system is causing its users grief. And I definitely think that insider perspectives are the only thing that matter here.

    But why so? Because language is not a technology, I would argue. We don’t choose to speak English because we approve of its streamlined inflectional system, no? The world doesn’t speak English because they were won over by its analytic beauty, no? We join a linguistic community, or opt not to, because of how we feel about that community, not because of the language. The descriptivist mantra that any language which supports a human community is clearly adequate to that community’s needs, and inferior to no other, seems to me quite applicable to scripts. I might feel exactly as you if I encountered kanji as a drawing board proposal– like the yingzi linked above. But instead I encounter it as the habit of a clearly, clearly thriving linguistic community, and with that human evidence before me, all arguments in putativity fall away.

    The abused wife analogy seems honestly way over the top to me, Hat. I see no scars, no trauma. Go to a Japanese bookstore, ride a Japanese train, peer over the shoulder of people typing a mile a minute on their smartphones,go to a Japanese bar, visit a Japanese school. This is not what a people pining for an exit from the cave of linguistic oppression looks like. I think we would both find it absurd for, say, apparatchiks of the Chinese state to argue that the degree of angst and complaining about our system in the American political press obviously demonstrates a battered-spouse like denial that we live in a rotten regime requiring overthrow. Drawbacks come with benefits in a package– isn’t this everyone’s experience?

    Catholic opinions about how Muslims should fast during Ramadan; Muslim opinions of the Eucharist rite–why should these matter? Honestly, not polemically, isn’t use everything with language? Japanese and Chinese aren’t public utilities. Why should non-users like us be consulted? At the end of the day, it’s not our house. The attraction for native speakers of joining the preexisting community of character-dwelling Chinese or Japanese users seems to me the only relevant fact. Alternatives are widely known: if that preexisting community ever loses its attraction, surely the characters are done for.

  37. Eli Nelson says:

    We don’t choose to speak English because we approve of its streamlined inflectional system, no?
    Well, I never chose to speak English at all. And I’d imagine most of the speakers of Japanese didn’t choose the language, either. The drawbacks of kanji may go along with the benefits of entering the community of Japanese literate speakers, but that hardly implies that that the kanji themselves are a net advantage.

  38. My own feeling is that no single existing culture (in space or time) begins to approach a monopoly on truth and wisdom, and that each culture has characteristic blind spots which are hard to impossible to detect from within.

    Quite right.

    What I do vehemently object to is the idea that there isn’t really anything real out there to be discovered anyhow because “it’s all relative.” People who subscribe to that are welcome to stay at home and be smug with their Derrida.

    I emphatically agree.

    The abused wife analogy seems honestly way over the top to me, Hat.

    Well, of course it is. But look, I’ve seen “cultural relativism” used as an excuse for everything from brutal colonial wars (“they don’t value life like we do”) to slavery to genital mutilation to denial of human rights and democracy (because “they’re not Asian values”). While I recognize and value the good things it’s meant to represent (see the David Eddyshaw quote I agreed with above), I’m afraid the phrase stinks in my nostrils because of its abuse by people who want to abuse other people and justify it by a high-sounding phrase.

  39. J. W. Brewer says:

    Children lack autonomy, but purporting to promote their autonomy by taking them away from their parents and native culture for their own good (let’s say just for example by sending them away to boarding schools where they will get in trouble if they speak their L1 rather than English) is an approach with a lousy track record. Note FWIW that the Japanese are pretty much the all-time champions of the non-Western world at adopting Western innovations they believe will be advantageous while resisting or ignoring others, presumably because they do not believe they will be advantageous on net. This extends not just to military/industrial/technological innovations, but culturally-symbolic ones. They chucked the Lunar New Year and transferred the associated cultural events to Gregorian-calendar Jan. 1 way back in the Meiji era, for example, which the Vietnamese never did with Tet even though they dumped their kanji-equivalent approach to writing. So David Eddyshaw’s prior points about the lizard and the pants are enhanced by our having specific grounds to believe that this particular lizard seems as a general matter to know what it’s doing (subject of course to the separate Eddyshavian [?] point that every culture probably has a blind spot or two).

  40. I agree that language is not a technology, but writing is quite another matter: it is a technology. Like many technologies, it’s tied up with formal rules that people will defend strongly and emotionally (my go-to example is eating technology, knife-fork-spoon vs. chopsticks).

  41. George Gibbard says:

    So (I think I agree with Hat?) the point is that acquiring literacy is vastly easier for Finnish speakers than English speakers, and easier for English speakers than for Japanese speakers, and presumably easier for Japanese speakers than for Mandarin speakers, and that ease of acquiring literacy (which is the consequence of phonemic spelling) is a good thing. Of course one loses the ability to read older texts with orthographic reform, but I think no one would anyone advocate that an orthography for a newly written language should be Kanji-based. So it’s a trade-off between access to older texts versus efficient orthography.

  42. David Marjanović says:

    There is also the problem that Japan has done rather well for itself, so it’s rather hard to sell the notion that it needs modernization in this area in order to escape from medieval poverty and backwardness etc.

    Well, there’s still the teenage suicide rate.

  43. David Eddyshaw says:

    @George Gibbard:

    I’m not sure that acquiring literacy in Japanese is in fact easier than Mandarin; at least conceptually the Chinese system is simpler, involving in principle a separate graph for each morpheme, whereas the Japanese use of kanji involves at least one “Chinese” reading and for most everyday kanji at least one Japanese reading which is related only by meaning and not by sound at all. Before the war, when the system was even more complex, it sometimes approached in reality what the ill-informed have always supposed Chinese writing to be, viz a script that writes ideas rather than words – a truly “ideographic” script. Even now it’s sometimes possible to understand a sentence perfectly well without being able to determine what exact wording the writer intended, though this is now happily rather marginal.

    The other point that should be made is that “literate” is not an all-or-nothing thing, especially in the context of kanji; native Japanese readers vary a good deal in how many kanji they are familiar with. Because Japanese has at least an accepted fall-back system in the kana syllabaries, this means that it is easy to be “literate” at the most basic level, and this is likely to confound surveys of just how well the system is functioning in reality.

  44. Sir JCass says:

    There is also the problem that Japan has done rather well for itself, so it’s rather hard to sell the notion that it needs modernization in this area in order to escape from medieval poverty and backwardness etc.

    Sounds a bit like the “Anglosphere”‘s reluctance to swap the imperial for the metric system, despite the ludicrious complexity of the former. How many yards in a mile? I can never remember.

  45. Elessorn says:

    I’ve seen “cultural relativism” used as an excuse for everything from brutal colonial wars (“they don’t value life like we do”) to slavery to genital mutilation to denial of human rights and democracy (because “they’re not Asian values”)…I’m afraid the phrase stinks in my nostrils because of its abuse by people who want to abuse other people and justify it by a high-sounding phrase.

    Probably not even the travesty of deconstructionism deserves association with this, but I’m the last person to defend Derrida. Roast him and I’ll bring kindling. But then most of these examples aren’t cultural relativism at all. A philosophy of restraint and humility clearly has nothing to do with colonial wars, slavery, and other deliberate, predatory interferences in the lives of other peoples. Of course, warmongers will use anything, but I’m really having trouble recalling anyone who justified such crimes through cultural relativism. “They value life less than we do” is not the viewpoint of someone by definition against ranking cultures against each other. Is the problem that it resembles certain slanderous caricatures by relativism’s opponents? I grant this is possible.

    But more to the point, and hoping not to get bogged down in terms: I think it was clear I was arguing against what I feel is an ill-considered dogmatism against characters, one that completely ignores the obvious thriving of the communities that use them. In my mind the only meaningful evaluation of a script is the vote of usage. Matt alluded to it already, but in the record of past usage the literary cultures of China and Japan can easily suffer comparison with their alphabetic compeers. And if anything the present case is even clearer. This is what I meant by over the top: I just can’t understand someone standing at a busy thoroughfare in Tokyo or Shanghai, surrounded by the most literate generation in either country’s history, as rivers of people wash past him enjoying lives of rich linguistic fullness, all against a background saturated in character text– and yet still nurse a conviction of hidden abuses and conspiracies of silence. I cannot experience this as a scene of oppression and sublimated grief.

    If users of the script are flourishing, I think it’s …odd, to say the least, when we insist that they must somehow be suffering from sunk-costs or misguided conservatism — essentially arguments for false consciousness. Outside perspectives on a script are surely educational for, but all the same simply not relevant to the native who necessarily experiences the script in a different way. Only a misplaced faith in the universality of our own particular standpoint makes us think otherwise, it seems to me. Cultural relativism doesn’t mean rejecting reality, only accepting our limitations. Either two huge, intricate, successful cultures are screwed up, or our gut-level reactions to them are.

    I know which I think is more likely. Maybe I’m just a squish?

  46. So (I think I agree with Hat?) the point is that acquiring literacy is vastly easier for Finnish speakers than English speakers, and easier for English speakers than for Japanese speakers, and presumably easier for Japanese speakers than for Mandarin speakers, and that ease of acquiring literacy (which is the consequence of phonemic spelling) is a good thing. Of course one loses the ability to read older texts with orthographic reform, but I think no one would anyone advocate that an orthography for a newly written language should be Kanji-based. So it’s a trade-off between access to older texts versus efficient orthography.

    Very well put; with the proviso that I agree with David Eddyshaw about Japanese vs. Mandarin, I couldn’t have said it better myself.

    I hope it’s clear, by the way, that I am not in the least suggesting that the Japanese should change their writing system now; they’re obviously used to it and fond of it, and more power to them. I was just expressing a wistful wish that they had changed it to something more sensible a long time ago.

  47. A philosophy of restraint and humility clearly has nothing to do with colonial wars, slavery, and other deliberate, predatory interferences in the lives of other peoples. Of course, warmongers will use anything, but I’m really having trouble recalling anyone who justified such crimes through cultural relativism.

    The problem is that you want to restrict “cultural relativism” to good uses by good people, whereas in fact it simply refers to the idea that we can’t judge the Other by the same standards we use for ourselves, and this is the exact same idea used by people justifying colonial wars, slavery, and the other bad things I mentioned. You just don’t like feeling lumped in with those bad people, which is quite understandable, but ideas are like tools, they can be used for good or ill. One reason I oppose hate-crime laws (not the basic reason, which is my fervent belief in freedom of speech) is that they are inevitably used to oppose “hate crimes” against those in power, not the top-down aggression that proponents of such laws have in mind. One of my favorite movie quotes:

    William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!

    Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

    William Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

    Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!

    Be careful what tools you hand people. The idea that those people are not like us and cannot be expected to live by our standards is one of those things that sounds great from a certain angle, but when you step to one side and look at it from a different angle it reveals its downside.

  48. Because Japanese has at least an accepted fall-back system in the kana syllabaries, this means that it is easy to be “literate” at the most basic level, and this is likely to confound surveys of just how well the system is functioning in reality.

    But wait, if kana are a fall-back system allowing only “basic literacy,” then surely kanji are a crucial part of Japanese literacy? How does it make sense to say on the one hand that kana (or similar) alone would be sufficient for an orthography of Japanese, but on the other that kana alone can allow only basic literacy?

    I do understand your point about literacy not being an on/off quality, but I think it’s begging the question to argue that kana might be distorting our perceptions because it doesn’t offer enough literacy. If someone knows kana, they are literate enough to read books aimed at high school students and most citizen-focused government publications. That’s not as literate as someone who reads Oe Kenzaburo, or even detective novels, for fun, and it’s surely limiting in many ways, but it’s enough to participate in civic life (to get a driver’s license, to vote) and it’s more than enough to justify including them in any meaningful definition of the “literacy rate.”

  49. Sounds a bit like the “Anglosphere”‘s reluctance to swap the imperial for the metric system, despite the ludicrious complexity of the former. How many yards in a mile? I can never remember.

    But if we stop using yards and miles, how will we remember when George III became king?
    Though I enjoy the system I hear from some people in the UK, “drive 4 miles, then take a left and go on for 300 metres”, “the ceilings in there are only 2 metres high, which is tough for him because he’s 6 foot 5”, etc.

    No question that dumping characters would be awesome for foreign students, but it’s clearly not causing the Japanese much grief.

    Perhaps not Japanese adults, but my experience is that Japanese schoolchildren usually hate learning kanji, finding it a time-consuming, difficult, daunting, tedious experience.

    But as with any ridiculous writing system which could be simplified (Japanese, English, Thai, etc), the people who are in a position to change it are the ones who have already spent the time and effort learning it, and have developed an emotional connection to it. No one wants to think “I wasted x-many years of my life pointlessly learning this ridiculous system”, and the memories of the struggle to learn it fade with time. Instead, people focus on the benefits, the stability, the comfort in the familiar, the bond they have with the written word and the “it never did me any harm”. And as most significant language change seems to come with a side order of revolution or other political upheaval, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

  50. J. W. Brewer says:

    But what standards do we use for ourselves when it comes to choice of writing system? We use what we have inherited without much concern about whether it is what would be optimal if we were starting from scratch. Except for crackpots. Defenders of the status quo in Japan are not asking to be held to a lower standard than that, are they? They simply don’t need to play the “don’t impose your imperialist Western subjective value judgments on me as if they were universal truths, dude” card in this context.

  51. It was worth it for the quote, from a great movie indeed.

    But the point about ideas as very unloyal tools was never up for debate– who would dispute it, really, after the 20th century? And as for the lumping, I not only don’t reject it, I insist on it. Thinking pure thoughts cannot ward off the ties that bind the the best to the worst in any cultural space. Of course cultural relativism isn’t necessarily saintly. But it is necessarily relative.

    The problem is not the refusal to pass judgement: it is the refusal to trust judgement. The objection with “up to our standards” isn’t the “standards” part, but the “up” part.

  52. We use what we have inherited without much concern about whether it is what would be optimal if we were starting from scratch. Except for crackpots.

    Absolutely. This is what I was trying to get at with my hesitation in calling script a mere technology, though I admit there’s definitely bleed into the technological category. We choose the script only insofar as we choose– or more realistically insofar as we make no effort to avoid choosing– the speech community we belong to.

    Defenders of the status quo in Japan are not asking to be held to a lower standard than that, are they? They simply don’t need to play the “don’t impose your imperialist Western subjective value judgments on me as if they were universal truths, dude” card in this context.

    But then, this isn’t really a debate the Japanese are part of. This is a debate among Westerners about the proper attitude to take towards outside groups like the Japanese. Though current power relations ensure that the debate will nonetheless affect them…

  53. David Eddyshaw says:

    @Matt:

    Absolutely. I don’t disagree at all with anything you’ve said. But in a way that’s what I’m trying to get at.

    The thing about simpler writing systems is their *accessibility,* whether it’s kanji vs kana, Luwian Hieroglyphs vs Aramaic (what Annick Payne was discussing in my example above), Demotic vs Coptic …

    This means that the benefits of literacy can permeate much further down the ladder of privilege, and there is at least a potential argument that that in itself can affect a culture profoundly. Two things that I would immediately add are, firstly, that our own feeling that this would be unequivocally a good thing reflect a whole set of our own cultural assumptions which are far from universal (though they may be true for all that); secondly that this is going to be a lot less important in a system of compulsory universal free education.

    In the more specific case of learning to read and write Japanese, this involves in a way learning to read and write (nowadays a small subset) of Classical Chinese, the last legacy of the genesis of the whole system in Kanbun. It’s rather like the old canard that it’s good to learn Latin because it helps you to spell English (don’t let’s go there) except that it’s true; you need to learn to associate a symbol which is used to write a familiar Japanese word with a SinoJapanese morpheme of similar meaning but completely different sound. This has actual benefits, inasmuch as it makes the huge numbers of SinoJapanese compound words more transparent, so that (sorry, I just like this word) a non-medical person may well not actually know what a 好酸球 kousankyuu “eosinophil” actually is, but he’ll recognise the components love+acid+ball already, and if you’re a medical student learning the word is in any case part of learning its meaning, and certainly no harder than the task his Anglophone colleague has. But this is at the cost of a system which if it were transposed into English vs Latin/Greek instead of Japanese vs Chinese would produce

    HIC DIES, TU seem to be in BONUS SPIRITUS for “you seem cheerful today”

    a form which most of us here would actually find easy enough, but seems harsh to foist on those with less educational opportunities.

  54. I’m surprised the attitudes here towards English spelling reform seem to range from hostile to indifferent. I would have thought the crowd here to be more open to the idea.

  55. This means that the benefits of literacy can permeate much further down the ladder of privilege, and there is at least a potential argument that that in itself can affect a culture profoundly. Two things that I would immediately add are, firstly, that our own feeling that this would be unequivocally a good thing reflect a whole set of our own cultural assumptions which are far from universal (though they may be true for all that); secondly that this is going to be a lot less important in a system of compulsory universal free education.

    I basically agree, both in substance and tone. But I question the reality of an actual correlation between the reach down that ladder, and “accessibility.” I know it seems obvious, and I used to think so. But then I learned about Edo, and alongside modern Japan, I had to conclude that literacy is more complicated than the smoothness of the child’s initial approach.

  56. But then, this isn’t really a debate the Japanese are part of.

    Really? There isn’t a single Japanese who considers the writing system unwieldy? Seems implausible, but what do I know?

    As for the rest, I enthusiastically assent to everything David Eddyshaw says.

  57. Greg Pandatshang says:

    Oft have I suggested a compromise in which my beloved native country of America will switch to using the metric system for everything except temperature, and the rest of the world will switch to using Fahrenheit (0 degrees is a very cold day and 100 degrees a very hot day. A sublimely humane system.)

    Let me now propose an additional compromise: English and Japanese shall simultaneously abandon our outmoded orthographies and instead write phonetically in Siddham. Hopefully, the French will be involved, too. As for southeast Asian alphabets, I find them so imponderable that I am too daunted even to moot changing them. Let’s just pretend they’re not there.

  58. Really? There isn’t a single Japanese who considers the writing system unwieldy? Seems implausible, but what do I know?

    No, sloppy phrasing on my part. Of course there are, though less than one might think. I meant this debate– how should they have to defend it, etc., which of course they have no obligation to do at all.

    It’s actually a common pull-off-the-shelf anecdote: “our language is so terrible, with three writing systems: hiragana, katakana, and kanji– ridiculous, eh?” The way some people can almost brag to you about how terrible their town’s weather is, or corrupt its government.

  59. 0 degrees is a very cold day and 100 degrees a very hot day. A sublimely humane system

    Perhaps for North Americans. Fahrenheit looks pretty arbitrary here in southern Thailand, where people would consider 70 degrees to be “a cold day” and 65 degrees “a very cold day” (not that many people here have actually experienced such extreme weather). People actually start putting on jumpers and jackets once the weather gets colder than 80.

  60. David Eddyshaw says:

    Reminds me of the old point that a pint has been established over many centuries as the optimum amount of beer that a typical man can consume without needing to interrupt his enjoyment by going off to pass water before he’s finished. And those Continentals expect us to replace it with a purely arbitrary unit like the litre …

  61. I very much recommend that people read the Wikipedia article on cultural relativism, which makes it eminently clear that people use the term in different ways, and are often talking past one another, as can be clearly seen here. In particular, when used by anthros, it means “understand people’s behavior in their own context” and not “judge people’s behavior only by their own rules”. Those really are separable ideas, and the latter has its own name: moral relativism.

    HIC DIES, TU seem to be in BONUS SPIRITUS

    That works as an analogy only if you write the Latin parts in Devanagari script.

    I would have thought the crowd here to be more open to the idea [of spelling reform].

    I very much support English spelling reform, and have particular ideas about how to do it (basically: don’t attempt a one-spelling-per-sound system; keep distinctions that matter in any accent; revise spellings that don’t conform to any rule). I just don’t think it’s going to happen, what with 50 different countries using English as (one of) their de jure or de facto national languages.

    Fahrenheit looks pretty arbitrary

    Or, as Jack London says in one of his stories, “It was very warm, almost ten above” (-12 C). I’m not sure if that was Alaska or Northern Canada, but definitely North America.

  62. a pint has been established over many centuries as the optimum amount of beer that a typical man can consume

    You can never buy beer, You can only rent it.

  63. David Eddyshaw says:

    @Paul Ogden

    So true …

  64. purely arbitrary unit like the litre

    And yet Americans manage to drink their beer by the 473-ml unit rather than the 528-ml unit. (At least I think they do. I don’t drink and can’t stand the smell of beer anyway.)

  65. J. W. Brewer says:

    Americans consume beer in a fairly wide variety of portion sizes. It is not unknown for U.S. bars (at least in some parts of the country) to sell draft beer by the (at least approximate) imperial pint rather than U.S. pint (or smaller portion like 12 U.S. fl. oz.), presumably because (in such parts of the country) a critical mass of their patrons know that an imperial pint is bigger (and thus more desirable) but the bar owner prices it accordingly and comes out ahead. (I just noted with some dismay the other day that I bought what seemed to be an imperial pint bottle of something English – I think from Samuel Smith’s — but on closer inspection the portion size had been rounded down slightly to an even metric 550 ml. That’s only about a 3% shortchanging, but it was the seeming pettiness of it that irked me.)

  66. David Eddyshaw says:

    With such physical limitations, it’s hard to see how the Americans won their War of Independence. Must have cheated (perhaps by remaining sober?)

  67. J. W. Brewer says:

    Or may not have relied on a potable as weak as beer. As every schoolboy probably no longer knows, the first serious domestic threat to its own authority the new government faced after the adoption of the Constitution and the election of Washington to the Presidency is conventionally called the Whiskey Rebellion.

  68. David Eddyshaw says:

    @JWB

    Your very name commands respect for your opinions on this matter.

  69. It’s unclear, but I suspect that America was still using the ale gallon (4.62 liters) for beer then, before standardizing on the wine gallon (3.79 liters) in the early 19C. Parliament standardized on the ale gallon for all purposes in 1824, well after the Late Great Unpleasantness. 8 pints = 1 gallon in both systems.

  70. David Eddyshaw says:

    The mystery resolved. Had we but known, we could have bided our time before striking …

  71. The Imperial gallon, weighing in at precisely 10 lbs (if the liquid therein is water), makes all kinds of sense and even allows for fairly easy metric conversion. However and why did the smaller gallon come about?

  72. J. W. Brewer says:

    Quoth wiki “Some research concludes that the wine gallon [ancestor of the standard U.S. gallon] was originally [i.e. circa the 14th century] meant to hold 10 troy pounds of wine.” I suspect that “concludes” (as opposed to e.g. “speculates”) might be too strong a verb, but would you rather have a U.S. gallon of wine or an imperial gallon of water?

  73. Why would ale or wine measurement system rely on number 10. After all there are 12 months in a year, 12 evangelists, 12 hours in a day and 12 in a night. What number 10 ever done for us?

  74. I am one of the ‘lunatics’ who advocate modernisation of English spelling. I do so because I am absolutely certain that if at least some of its worst inconsistencies were reduced – http://improvingenglishspelling.blogspot.co.uk/2015/02/worst-irregularities-of-english-spelling.html – children would have much more time for other learning. But even more crucially, far fewer Anglophones would be condemned to leaving school knowing woefully little of anything. Difficult spelling systems like the English one are elitist, because they make learning to read and write much harder than need be. The longer time needed for literacy acquisition entails many other costs:
    http://englishspellingproblems.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/the-costs-englishspelling-literacy-is.html

    But I don’t believe “that the disproportionate ratio of male versus female prisoners is a result of the greater difficulty boys experience with mastering English orthography compared to girls”.
    What i have said is:
    To what extent criminality is a direct result of illiteracy may be hard to calculate precisely, but government statistics tell us that far more prisoners have literacy problems than the 1 in 5 among speakers of English generally. According to a recent report by the Scottish prison service, half of all prisoners are functionally illiterate: http://news.stv.tv/scotland/150989-fifty-per-cent-of-male-scots-prisoners-are-illiterate/

    This is disadvantageous for the rehabilitation of offenders. Poor literacy skills often help to land them in jail in the first place, because they reduce their chances of employment. They also handicap efforts to prevent their re-offending. Improving the employment prospects of offenders through education is one of the generally accepted best ways to prevent re-offending, but this is difficult for inmates who still have profound difficulties with reading and writing. This may help to explain why Britain and the US both have exceptionally high incarceration and re-offending rates.

  75. I was flabbergasted to find out that any spelling system could be as rotten as the English one when I first encountered it at the age of 14, after first learning Lithuanian and Russian. And the question that began to bother me those 56 years ago was: How can the English bear to be so cruel to their children?

    I thought they could surely not fail to see that learning to read and write with spellings that had one pronunciation (a fat cat sat), and the use of identical spellings for identical sounds (keep sleep deep), was vastly easier than with the likes of ‘once, only, other’ or ‘blue, shoe, flew, through’. So why make young children’s lives so much harder than need be?

    I had no idea then of the effect of culturally conditioned myopia and indifference. I think that’s the main reason why many lousy systems change very slowly.

  76. HIC DIES, TU seem to be in BONUS SPIRITUS

    Pahlavi!

  77. Hittite is even worse:

    ΣΗΜΕΡΟΝ TU seem to be in BONUS SPIRITUS

  78. David Eddyshaw says:

    Pahlavi indeed. Worst writing system ever to be written with an actual alphabet. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the vested interest there was basically that of the professional scribes.

    Actually, come to think of it, that’s not a factor to discount lightly. We’re so used to the idea that literacy is just a normal adult accomplishment that it’s sometimes difficult to remember that in many if not most premodern societies it was a preserve not so much of the privileged in general but of professional scribes with every reason not to want to see their livelihood threatened by the spread of systems simple enough for amateurs.

  79. Il vergognoso says:

    Edo-period literacy is even more incredible, if we consider that:
    1) Edo-period kana is illegible mashed spaghetti;
    2) Edo-period Kanji comprehends the whole continuum from the regular script to the most wild grass script;
    3) Edo-period epistolary and official style is far removed from a) contemporary spoken Japanese, b) Classical Chinese, c) Classical Japanese, d) the stylized Japanese of theatre and popular literature.

  80. David Eddyshaw says:

    Indeed, I can think of at least two systems which got not simpler but more complicated over time:

    The later development of Egyptian hieroglyphic is one, with the relatively “simple” Middle Kingdom system of mere hundreds of signs getting more and more elaborated over the centuries, into thousands.

    And another Middle Kingdom: with Chinese after Li Si’s reforms for the would-be totalitarian First Emperor had produced some wholly laudable simplification and rationalisation. After that, century by century, more characters per morpheme, until another totalitarian script reform in the last century.

    In both cases, part of the grief for the hapless learner was due, as with English, to the fact that the spoken language had changed but the writing reflected the older sounds; but most of the increased complexity has nothing to do with that at all.

    Another one, come to think of it: the cuneiform writing of Old Babylonian is significantly simpler than that used for the later Standard Babylonian.

    Professional restrictive practices …

  81. David Eddyshaw says:

    I suppose pre-Meiji Japanese essentially goes into the “more complicated over time” group too, though it’s complicated also by the issue of genre, so you can’t make a straightforward comparison between classical Japanese Heian literature written mostly in kana and later things written in Hentai Kanbun and the like. And nobody would say man’yougana was simple, exactly.

  82. David Eddyshaw says:

    Certainly pre-WW2 kana spelling had got more complicated over time, because, as with English, the spelling was historical. But that must have been the very least of the problems with becoming literate.

  83. David Eddyshaw says:

    To be fairer to my scribal forefathers (if there were any), I suppose that the issue of a script becoming harder just because it reflects an older rather than contemporary spoken language is not really cleanly separate from what looks like sheer wilful perversity in making the system more difficult for civilians. After all, once language change has begun to seriously obscure the link between what you see and what you hear, scribes are going to have to start making up their own hypotheses for how the two *ought* to be related, and these hypotheses aren’t going to be informed by the best 21st century theories.

    Moreover, the realisation that natural languages change over time is basically modern, so they would not at all have seen what seems obvious to us as the explanation of the poor fit between sound and symbol in their traditional scripts.

    None of which can excuse Pahlavi. I mean …

  84. @David Eddyshaw

    This means that the benefits of literacy can permeate much further down the ladder of privilege, and there is at least a potential argument that that in itself can affect a culture profoundly.

    An argument, but there is oddly very little actual evidence that this is true. In Asia at least, the countries with the most illogical and difficult writing systems seem to have done the most to raise the living standards of the less privileged segments of the population, whereas countries whose national languages use efficient, simple, logical alphabets, like Indonesia or the Phillipines, still struggle. I suspect this is because deep literacy is not as important as we hyperliterate like to imagine. Victor Mair likes to point out that even well-educated Chinese tend forget how to write everyday words like “scissor”. But the truth is most people just don’t need to write very much in day to day life, and don’t notice the gaps in their literacy. And if you were a cynical person, you might suspect that many governments might actually prefer a writing system that allows most people access to the basic tools necessary to be effective consumers and workers in an industrial society, but restricts more esoteric knowledge to a limited few.

    Staying in the cynical vein, difficult writing systems are probably a fairly useful way for school systems to sort children into potential white collar and blue collar workers. Children who are able to successfully remember large amounts of abstract symbols and regurgitate them correclty, are more likely the children with the aptitude to become successful lawyers, politicians, and investment bankers.

  85. David Eddyshaw says:

    @Vanya:

    I think any such effects, if real at all, would be much less evident in modern states with widespread compulsory education systems; what I had in mind was the possibility that relatively simple writing systems might have affected the organisation of preindustrial societies.

    The major difficulty would be separating out any such effects from myriad confounding factors. There’s also the unfortunate fact that until fairly recent times literacy doesn’t seem to have been all that widespread in *any* society. I suppose the typical pattern has generally been that writing has been the preserve of specialists in that sort of thing.

    Reminds me of the story about Chinggiz Khan (I think it was.) He told his advisers that he wanted his sons taught to swim before they were taught to read; when one brave soul questioned this priority, he said “they can always find someone else to read for them.”

  86. David Eddyshaw says:

    Dunno, though. Some of the graffiti in Pompeii immediately come to mind as not obviously reflecting the outlook of professional scribes …

    I think your broader point is all too valid, though. We easily overestimate the degree to which literacy could realistically make any difference in the life chances of someone in a premodern society. I don’t expect it made a lot of odds to Roman peasants that writing Latin was a whole lot easier than writing Chinese was for their Han contemporaries.

  87. Il vergognoso says:

    And Japan, with its feindishly difficult spagetti-Akkadian writing system, was the only pre-modern society that has a modernish literacy rate and literate mass culture, as the Japenese themselves love to brag about.

  88. fisheyed says:

    professional scribes with every reason not to want to see their livelihood threatened by the spread of systems simple enough for amateurs.

    Whenever I would whimper about the lack of word separation, ambiguity in certain vowel cases, aggressive use of sandhi etc, in palm leaf manuscripts, my teacher would comment that mss. are mnemonic aids for texts scribes were already familiar with, and not written texts in the way we think of them now.

  89. An excellent point.

  90. David Marjanović says:

    In my mind the only meaningful evaluation of a script is the vote of usage. Matt alluded to it already, but in the record of past usage the literary cultures of China and Japan can easily suffer comparison with their alphabetic compeers. And if anything the present case is even clearer. This is what I meant by over the top: I just can’t understand someone standing at a busy thoroughfare in Tokyo or Shanghai, surrounded by the most literate generation in either country’s history, as rivers of people wash past him enjoying lives of rich linguistic fullness, all against a background saturated in character text– and yet still nurse a conviction of hidden abuses and conspiracies of silence. I cannot experience this as a scene of oppression and sublimated grief.

    The most literate generation in either country’s history, yes, absolutely. But.

    Go here and scroll down to chapter 3 (halfway down the page). As mentioned above, Victor Mair has made the same observation.

    I’m surprised the attitudes here towards English spelling reform seem to range from hostile to indifferent. I would have thought the crowd here to be more open to the idea.

    After this, nothing further can be said. 😐

    0 degrees is a very cold day and 100 degrees a very hot day. A sublimely humane system.

    On the other hand, you can look out the window and see if it’s above or below 0 °C.

    (…and technically also if it’s above or below 100 °C.)

    a pint has been established over many centuries as the optimum amount of beer that a typical man can consume without needing to interrupt his enjoyment by going off to pass water before he’s finished

    Or you could just train harder, like the Bavarians.

    Oktoberfest beer is sold by the “measure”, which is exactly a liter (no idea since when).

    None of which can excuse Pahlavi. I mean …

    Evidently, that horror was cooked up by people who genuinely didn’t understand that Imperial Aramaic wasn’t Persian.

    He told his advisers that he wanted his sons taught to swim before they were taught to read

    I’m immediately reminded of the Roman insult nec nare nec litteras novisti, “you know neither how to swim nor the letters”…

  91. David Eddyshaw says:

    @David Marjanović

    Thanks for the links, especially to

    “One could say that Chinese is phonetic in the way that sex is aerobic: technically so, but in practical use not the most salient thing about it”

  92. David Eddyshaw says:

    Unfortunately I am now having to speculate about anaerobic sex …

  93. David Eddyshaw says:

    @David Marjanović:

    “Or you could just train harder, like the Bavarians.”

    I did say *typical* man. That was of course intended to exclude Bavarians specifically.

  94. David Eddyshaw says:

    I’d forgotten about “nec nare nec litteras.” I wonder if the reading/swimming thing is actually an established trope in some other languages/cultures?

    Obviously the reason China withdrew from maritime exploration after Zheng He was nothing to do with Ming politics but in reality due to the fact that Chinese swimming is so much harder to learn than alphabetical swimming.

  95. Elessorn says:

    Go here and scroll down to chapter 3 (halfway down the page). [David Moser’s piece on pinyin.info –E] As mentioned above, Victor Mair has made the same observation.

    A great piece, thanks. But it’s also a piece explicitly directed towards foreign learners. And there is just no debating that phonetic systems like the Roman alphabet/kana/hangul are hands down more convenient for outsiders like myself. Who would even dispute it? Certainly not current native users! Characters cannot share in many of the core benefits of rigorously (or even less-rigorously) phonetic scripts, very true. I only take issue with our assumption that this *must* be a problem for native users, which clearly seems contradicted by the evidence of usage today.

    Take Moser’s case of the Chinese characters for “sneeze”. It’s a good demonstration of the weakness of characters vis-a-vis phonetic scripts—not even natives can reliably write a character from knowledge of its sound and meaning alone. What it doesn’t demonstrate is that this weakness is actually a problem. That step is just assumed.

    I know this sounds just bonkers. I used to think it was crazy, too. But the human evidence cannot be argued away. Even in pre-modern conditions Chinese characters do not seem to have been any disadvantage. Modern adult users show that they clearly aren’t a block to universal literacy today. Thus, if despite all our expectations to the contrary we observe the system to be flourishing, it seems only logical for us to question the assumptions behind those expectations. In a word, I don’t think it’s wrong to think this is odd, but it is odd not to wonder if we’re wrong.

  96. Even in pre-modern conditions Chinese characters do not seem to have been any disadvantage.

    The key word here is ‘seem.’ We simply don’t know, any more than we know that an alphabetical system is a disadvantage. Sure, Whorf et al have been pretty much dismissed, but their focus was the language rather than the writing system. Maybe there *is* something inherent to some writing systems that confers advantages. There appears to be a very old Chinese tradition that education confers benefits. Do we know for sure that this is not an outcome of the Chinese writing system?

  97. Unfortunately I am now having to speculate about anaerobic sex …

    I’m sure you’ll enlighten us, assuming that anaerobic sex entails light.

  98. Universal literacy is neither really universal, nor is individual literacy ever going to be complete. But the “sneeze” story obviously isn’t unique (Moser gives several other examples), and being unable to write a word at all isn’t consistent with Latin-script notions of literacy.

    I’ve certainly experienced lactic-acid cramps even at crucial moments: nothing strange about that.

  99. op tipping says:

    I’ve never really understood how Chinese speakers put up with their writing system. How does anyone keep 50000 characters straight? To encounter a new character and have no idea how it is pronounced, then go and look it up and find it is a word you already knew in spoken form… that would infuriate me. I mean English is bad enough in terms of the untrustworthy connection between spelling and pronunciation but at least you usually have some clue.

    It goes against my assumption that, at its core, writing is meant to represent speech.

    But then… a billion people can’t be wrong. It obviously does work, and I am just futilely trying to generalise from my own mindset. There does not seem to be any impetus in China to change to an alphabet, syllabary or abjad, and as this is the Chinese Century, I’d better start getting used to it.

  100. George Gibbard says:

    Eleessom said: “Even in pre-modern conditions Chinese characters do not seem to have been any disadvantage. Modern adult users show that they clearly aren’t a block to universal literacy today.”

    But in fact China doesn’t have universal literacy, and Victor Mair has been pointing out that even people of the most literate class actually can’t write a lot of the standard language. None of which would occur if alphabetic writing were standard.

  101. David Marjanović says:

    lactic-acid cramps

    I haven’t kept up with the latest research, but I think those aches are now mostly thought to be related to the healing of micro-rips, not anything related to lactic acid.

    Take Moser’s case of the Chinese characters for “sneeze”. It’s a good demonstration of the weakness of characters vis-a-vis phonetic scripts—not even natives can reliably write a character from knowledge of its sound and meaning alone. What it doesn’t demonstrate is that this weakness is actually a problem.

    How could it not be for those people who actually have to write a lot in their daily life, for instance the people at Běi-Dà from whom the examples are taken?

    (Scroll down to chapter 5 for what it means to look up a character – let alone a word – in a dictionary.)

    …Actually, that question has an answer these days: they cheat. They use the Pinyin input on their electronic device and, of the several suggestions, pick the character that is closest to what they may or may not passively recognize.

    How does anyone keep 50000 characters straight?

    Nobody does, and nobody needs to.

    Furthermore, a large proportion of graphs in the exhaustive single character dictionaries were only used once in history or are variants and miswritten forms. Many of them are unpronounceable and the meanings of others are impossible to deter- mine. In short, most of the graphs in such dictionaries are obscure and arcane. Well over two-thirds of the graphs in these comprehensive single character dictionaries would never be encountered in the entire lifetime of even the most assiduous Sinologist (unless, of course, he himself were a lexicographer). This is not to say that large single character dictionaries are unnecessary as a matter of record. It is, rather, only to point out that what bulk they do have is tremendously deceptive in terms of frequency of usage.

    […] It is generally acknowledged that a passive command of about 5,500 characters is sufficient for reading the overwhelming majority of literary texts. Five to six thousand distinct graphs are certainly quite enough for anyone to cope with, but they are a far cry from fifty to sixty thousand.

    Functional literacy (the ability to read newspapers, letters, signs, and so forth) in today’s world requires that an individual command a knowledge of no more than 1,500-2,000 graphs (cf. Ho, p. 33). Not surprisingly, this figure is approximately the same as the amount of jōyō or tōyō kanji (characters approved for common use by the Japanese Ministry of Education).

    That is overly optimistic. From chapter 1 of Moser’s article:

    Everyone has heard that Chinese is hard because of the huge number of characters one has to learn, and this is absolutely true. There are a lot of popular books and articles that downplay this difficulty, saying things like “Despite the fact that Chinese has (10,000, 25,000, 50,000, take your pick) separate characters you really only need 2,000 or so to read a newspaper”. Poppycock. I couldn’t comfortably read a newspaper when I had 2,000 characters under my belt. I often had to look up several characters per line […]. (I take it as a given that what is meant by “read” in this context is “read and basically comprehend the text without having to look up dozens of characters”; otherwise the claim is rather empty.)

    This fairy tale is promulgated because of the fact that, when you look at the character frequencies, over 95% of the characters in any newspaper are easily among the first 2,000 most common ones.4 […] In addition, there is the obvious fact that even though you may know 95% of the characters in a given text, the remaining 5% are often the very characters that are crucial for understanding the main point of the text. A non-native speaker of English reading an article with the headline “JACUZZIS FOUND EFFECTIVE IN TREATING PHLEBITIS” is not going to get very far if they don’t know the words “jacuzzi” or “phlebitis”.

    …though that still doesn’t get you anywhere near 50,000 characters.

    There does not seem to be any impetus in China to change to an alphabet, syllabary or abjad

    Of course there is, and has long been; it just doesn’t bubble to the cultural, let alone political, surface – and as long as it doesn’t get to the political surface, very little can happen.

  102. David Marjanović says:

    Oh, I should have gone on quoting. A bit after my quote from here, there’s this:

    Even the most highly literate Chinese scholars can almost never recognize more than 10,000 characters and the person who can accurately produce as many as 5,000 is exceedingly rare. It is a simple fact that the written vocabulary of modem Chinese texts consists largely of words that can be written down using no more than 3,500 different characters….

    (I think “….” is where the text is cut off.)

  103. Yes, I admire Elessorn’s principles, and I appreciate the fact that I’ve been forced to think harder about my position than I usually do, but really, it’s stone cold obvious that the characters are a problem for the literacy of the populations that use them, and anyone who disagrees should follow David M’s links and read as much Mair as it takes until they realize the truth of the matter.

  104. op tipping says:

    One reason for China to keep the characters is that it means that Hokkien/Cantonese/Teochew speakers can pretty much read the Mandarin papers without difficulty. Switch to a phonetic system and that goes away.

  105. it means that Hokkien/Cantonese/Teochew speakers can pretty much read the Mandarin papers without difficulty.

    In fact, this is not true. Hokkien/Cantonese/Teochew speakers on the Mainland are taught in Mandarin. The old tradition of teaching them how to read in their own dialect is dying out.

    When people were taught the pronunciation of characters in dialect in a systematic fashion, what op tipping says was true. But now that they are taught using Mandarin pronunciation, the link between characters and dialect is broken. Of course there is a link between dialect pronunciation and Mandarin — you don’t need characters for that. But the idea that characters facilitate the reading of Mandarin by dialect speakers is no longer valid. They aren’t taught to read the characters in dialect. It’s all gone by the board.

  106. Il vergognoso says:

    What Bathrobe said.

  107. it’s stone cold obvious that the characters are a problem for the literacy of the populations that use them

    I am sorry, but is it not obvious. What seems to be the case is that most of the population still manages to acquire as much literacy as they care to have or need to function effectively in a modern society – they can read instruction manuals, celebrity magazines, sports pages, bank statements, restaurant menus, etc. Most people in the West aren’t all that literate on a day to day basis either. What Mair’s and Moser’ evidence suggests to me is that it is much harder to be a part time member of the academic/hyper literate classes in China. In the West you can be more of a dilettante, you can work at an office job as an actuary and still read Proust or even write a history of Byzantine military tactics in your spare time. It seems like that would be much harder to do in Chinese society. You either dedicate yourself to reading deeply, or you don’t bother. But again it raises the question of who the constituency for reform is – the people who have the most to gain are paradoxically the people who have invested the most in the current system.

  108. What seems to be the case is that most of the population still manages to acquire as much literacy as they care to have or need to function effectively in a modern society

    Yes, yes, of course. What is stone cold obvious is that the characters are a problem — they make it harder to acquire that needed literacy. If English switched over to kanji, sure, everybody would eventually learn to write in it and would “acquire as much literacy as they care to have or need to function effectively in a modern society,” but it would be harder to do. I’m not sure why there’s so much resistance on the part of the defenders of the glory of characters to admitting that. Nobody’s going to take away the characters; it’s just an inconvenient fact about them that is no less a fact for being inconvenient.

  109. What is stone cold obvious is that the characters are a problem — they make it harder to acquire that needed literacy. … I’m not sure why there’s so much resistance on the part of the defenders of the glory of characters to admitting that.

    I’ll happily admit that that particular aspect is harder. I just don’t think that that’s necessarily a problem, because I believe that kanji bring enough benefits to the system — the whole shebang, orthography, culture, literature — to make them preferable to the no-kanji alternative. That is, I think the kanji themselves bring benefits as well as drawbacks, and I think the latter outweigh the former.

    It’s like living in a nation with high taxes funding a high quality of civic life. I’ve read the arguments for lowering the tax rate, and obviously I’d rather pay less in taxes, but the necessary trade-offs in reduced services have never seemed to me a good deal overall. This status quo might not be what everyone would prefer, but the fact that I prefer it doesn’t make me delusional or illogical. Different stroke counts for different folks.

    (Of course, I’m speaking about Japanese specifically here. China, Korea, etc. obviously have their own history and current circumstances to deal with and I don’t presume to pass judgment on their situations.)

  110. Many people argue that leaving English spelling in its current chaotic state is preferable on cultural grounds to making it more regular, because it makes earlier writings more accessible. This is complete nonsense, because modern computer technology can easily enable people to switch between the two. What they really mean is that they don’t give a fig for the millions whom English spelling inconsistencies leave educationally, linguistically and culturally far behind them. They merely want to protect their own elitism.

    Much of the English spelling mess was created quite deliberately, with things like minim stroke avoidance by substituting o fur u (month), 15th C court scribes wrecking Chaucer’s quite regular use of open long e (seke, speke, reson) and short e (fether, frend) when they had to switch from French to English, Johnson exempting many Latinate words from the English rule of doubling consonants after short, stressed vowels (rabbit – habit, merry – very) and standardising the totally pointless use of heterographs (there/their): http://englishspellingproblems.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/history-of-english-spelling.html .

    These things were all done to make literacy less accessible to the masses.

  111. I wonder what percentage of Chinese permanently living abroad (think San Francisco, or Vancouver, BC, or even Singapore) ever gain proficiency in the country’s traditional writing system. It seems passing on the spoken language would be relatively easy but the written form exceedingly difficult.

    Conversing with an Armenian resident of Jerusalem a few years ago, I was surprised to learn that though she spoke Armenian fluently, she couldn’t read or write the language. I guess having to gain at least a basic level of reading and writing proficiency in the three major languages of the city — Arabic, Hebrew and English — made the Armenian alphabet a non-starter.

  112. I could speak German a bit before moving to Germany at the age of 15, but because at school we learnt Lithuanian and Russian, and English from 14 onwards, i had not learned to read or write German before leaving Lithuania.

  113. @Masha Bell, those decisions you listed that resulted in English spelling being irregular were made due to a number of different reasons (avoiding scribal confusion, scribes being unfamiliar with the native orthographic tradition, trying to preserve familiar Latinate spelling), and “to make literacy less accessible to the masses” was certainly not a primary motivation if it ever came into play at all.

    Also, I would definitely not call heterographs such as “there” vs “their” totally pointless. The phonetic purism that maintains that everything in spelling should correspond rigorously to the surface pronunciation such that homophones should always be spelled identically does not produce the most optimal orthography for readers. In speech we can call upon various strategies to disambiguate homophones; in writing, we are at a disadvantage because many of those same strategies are not available (it’s difficult to notate prosodic features), but we have the obvious strategy of spelling homophones differently so that it is easier to recognize at once which meaning is intended.

  114. I’ll happily admit that that particular aspect is harder. I just don’t think that that’s necessarily a problem, because I believe that kanji bring enough benefits to the system — the whole shebang, orthography, culture, literature — to make them preferable to the no-kanji alternative. That is, I think the kanji themselves bring benefits as well as drawbacks, and I think the latter outweigh the former.

    We’re sort of getting into philosophy here, but do you really think the value of the culture and literature depends on the kanji? In other words, if Japan had adopted a Korean-style solution, going over more and more to kana, or if it had never adopted the Chinese writing system in the first place, developing an independent syllabary, would its culture and literature have suffered? Impossible to know, of course, but I find it hard to believe. Things would have been different, obviously, but why worse?

  115. Bathrobe says:

    Languages like Mongolian offer an interesting example. The Inner Mongolians have a strong emotional attachment to their script (traditional), which is beautiful and has a long history behind it. But even though the Cyrillic script is easy to hate because it was imposed by Josef Stalin and destroyed the old tradition, it is without the shadow of a doubt a far more practical script for Mongolian than the traditional script. Yes, I love the traditional script, but it’s damnably hard to read.

  116. That is indeed an interesting example. Do you have any opinion on the relative state of literature in the two areas? I realize there are plenty of other factors, but I’m still curious.

  117. Scripts evolve under contradictory constraints: they have to be easy to write, and also easy to read. In some places and times more than one script has been in use for different types of documents where reading and writing were differently valued. For example, Devanagari script (the now-standard script for Hindi and other languages of India) was originally used for religious works, where reading must be easy but writing is rare and is basically copying rather than original writing. The Mahajani script, also used for Hindi and other languages up to the 20C, was optimized for writing commercial records, where a great many had to be written quickly, but it was unlikely that any specific one would have to be re-read later, and if so, it was okay to take some time over it. This is taken so far that Mahajani is in effect an abjad like Hebrew: that is, writing may be and usually is entirely consonantal, and vowel letters (there are no Devanagari-style vowel signs) are inserted only where needed as disambiguators.

  118. @Jongseong Park
    Suddenly having to switch from French to English was probably tough on 15th C court scribes, but their anger about having to do so and loss of their earlier prestige as users of the language of the upper classes must have been much greater. So it’s not unreasonable to suspect that this led them to deliberately make English spelling less penetrable. There is no doubt that they did so, and nobody has come up with a better explanation as to why.

    Re heterographs
    Once u have been trained to believe that heterographs like it’s/its have some value, it becomes difficult to shake that view. All those years of having them drummed into u leave their mark. But over 2,500 English words get by perfectly well with just one spelling for their different meanings (mean, lean, found, sound, bound….). And even tiny children, long before they learn to write, have no trouble using heterographs correctly in speech.

    If they were all abolished, fluent readers would be taken aback at first, but they would soon get used to them and never miss them again. Nobody in the US is calling for the restoration of the British practice/practise differentiation.

    They are all nothing but retardants of literacy acquisition and an endless source of spelling errors.

  119. David Marjanović says:

    In speech we can call upon various strategies to disambiguate homophones; in writing, we are at a disadvantage because many of those same strategies are not available (it’s difficult to notate prosodic features)

    Dutch does it systematically with accents: een “a”, één “one”…

  120. @Masha Bell, I think you go too far in ascribing the effect of the failure of 15th-century scribes to maintain Chaucer’s model had in making English spelling more impenetrable to their direct intent due to their anger. We should be wary of blaming ill intent where simple incompetence is a simpler explanation. Maybe it is easier psychologically if one could assign blame for something as monstrous as English spelling on supposed agents of evil, but I don’t buy it.

    Perhaps your opinion is mainly informed by English spelling. Of course, in many cases in many languages heterographs do more harm than good. Chinese is an extreme example, and I’m used to being on the side of the argument that Korean has not been harmed by discarding the use of hanja in everyday writing, defending it from those who claim that it has caused confusion because it can’t distinguish all those homophones anymore.

    But my opinion is informed by my familiarity with the eternal debate in Korean orthography between phonetic and morphophonemic spelling. A very rough caricature of the phonetic spelling camp is that they want a one-to-one correspondence between pronunciation and spelling. Once you know how to pronounce something, you would automatically know how to spell it. This idea is quite seductive because it seems so intuitive, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is the optimal solution.

    The morphophonemic camp, which included King Sejong, the creator of hangul himself, want the spelling to reflect a level of morphophonemic analysis that may not always be apparent in the surface pronunciation. So two homophones in isolation may still be spelled differently to reflect the different pronunciations that they might have if a particle is affixed. Morphemes like verb stems, word roots, and affixes may keep the same spelling whenever possible. The result is still very regular in the sense that if you know the regular sandhi rules of Korean, then you can tell from the spelling how something is pronounced. But it is no longer a one-to-one correspondence between pronunciation and spelling but one-to-many, creating heterographs. And such heterographs that help you recognize morphemes immediately are quite useful in reading.

    I have to repeat John Cowan’s point that there are two contradictory constraints working here. If you only consider what makes writing easy, then you will go for full phonetic spelling. And this type of spelling is of course legible. Look up old issues of the Le Maître Phonétique, the precursor to the Journal of the International Phonetic Association, which was written entirely in IPA transcription. But this kind of writing is not the most reader-friendly.

    When we hear someone speak, the string of speech sounds that can be encoded in writing is not the only information we are relying on to interpret it—we get the full complement of prosodic features as well as a wealth of context cues. In writing, you are at an immediate disadvantage if the context of the speech sounds that can be encoded in letters is stripped away. That is why we have developed so many strategies in writing that do not correspond to the phonetic information—punctuation, casing, italicizing, and spacing. And spelling that is not fully phonetic may in fact be more helpful to the reader.

    It is because there is not a perfect match between the representations of language that we have in our mind and what is ultimately produced as speech sounds. If the spelling is a better fit to the representation in the mind than the surface pronunciation, then it will be more helpful to the reader because it lessens the workload in processing that the brain engages in while it tries to get from the surface pronunciation to the internal representation.

  121. Bathrobe says:

    Mongolian: From what I understand, literature is more vital, varied, and vigorous in Mongolia. But that is due to totally different factors, the main one being China. China is a heavy weight on the literatures of all minority ethnic groups:

    For ideological reasons (Communist party ideology);

    For reasons of linguistic competition (Chinese offers a far bigger market, and politically the use of Chinese by authors is encouraged);

    For reasons of linguistic decline (the number of speakers and their linguistic competence is declining and Mongolian is only holding out in rural areas; urban experiences are pretty much the domain of Chinese).

  122. Mongolian: From what I understand, literature is more vital, varied, and vigorous in Mongolia. But that is due to totally different factors

    I’m just going to ignore your caveat and use Mongolia to club my adversaries in the Alphabet Wars.

  123. David Marjanović says:

    The really bad thing about the Mongolian script isn’t anything inherent in the script – it’s the orthography that goes with it, which is historical of English proportions.

  124. David Marjanović says:

    Opponents of Reform #3: The Homophonophobe

    …which brings me to the opposite phenomenon: spellings that distinguish homophones can keep homophones alive well past their expiration date. Would English really retain the verbs sight, cite and site if their spellings didn’t keep them alive in writing? Would Japanese have so exceedingyl many homophonous Chinese loans if it hadn’t also loaned the characters to write them with?

  125. This is taken so far that Mahajani is in effect an abjad like Hebrew: that is, writing may be and usually is entirely consonantal, and vowel letters (there are no Devanagari-style vowel signs) are inserted only where needed as disambiguators.

    I have always wondered how much the lack of vowel markings affect the ease of learning Arabic. Has there been any interest in the modern era to mark the vowels in texts for adults? (In ajamis like Arwi, vowel marking was always the norm.)

  126. Bathrobe says:

    The really bad thing about the Mongolian script is indeed inherent in the script. It doesn’t have enough letters. However, the Manchus managed to remedy that when they took over the Mongolian script by adding diacritics. I think Todo bichig is also clearer, although I’ve never learnt it.

  127. George Gibbard says:

    Dutch een and één are not homophones: the indefinite article has schwa. Meanwhile, “In standard Dutch, syllable-final /n/s can be dropped after a schwa, except in the indefinite article een /ən/ ‘a'” (https://books.google.com/books?isbn=019823869X, p139).

  128. I think that what most enables us to access the right meaning of homophones is context, and this is more open to us in texts than with speech. In speech we also have to comprehend them far more quickly. But the main evidence for the pointlessness of heterographs remains the fact that at least 2,500 English homophones (arch, bar, post ,,,) get by perfectly well with just one spelling.

    I am not aware of any evidence that suggests that phonetic spelling is not the optimal solution. It works beautifully in Finnish, with the result that Finnish children take an average of 3 months for learning to read and 1 year,for learning to write, while speakers of English need 3 and 10 years respectively to acquire moderate competence in those skills, and a much higher failure rate despite the longer learning time.

    But because English spelling has not been modernised for nearly 400 years (not since the on-the-hoof cutting of surplus letters during the Civil War of 1642-9, mainly from the likes of ‘olde, worlde, inne, itte, hadde) and has repeatedly been made less regular (even if perhaps not always deliberately), making it phonetic in one go would be an enormous challenge. It would also make it very different from what it is now.

    It is however perfectly feasible to make it much more learner-friendly by reducing some of its worst inconsistencies: http://improvingenglishspelling.blogspot.co.uk/2015/02/worst-irregularities-of-english-spelling.html.

    There is also no need to get rid of all heterographs in one go, despite their enormous wasting of learning time, but having to conflate some of them is not a real obstacle to spelling reform. It should not be accepted as a serious objection to reform.The /ee/ sound for example occurs in 47 sets of heterographs (here/hear, see/sea, feet/feat). Having to reduce them to just one spelling in order to make the 452 totally unpredictable spellings for /ee/ (speak, speech, shriek…) more consistent would be a good thing, not a bad one.

  129. I think there’s also an exception for verbal forms like open, from openen.

  130. @Masha Bell, Finnish orthography is not entirely phonetic, though, even if one makes all the distinctions (b vs p, s vs š) and ignores loanword or

    historical spelling with q, w, or z. The spelling doesn’t reflect the assimilation of n to a following bilabial sound, nor does it reflect consonant

    assimilation at word boundaries (including between a word and a particle, e.g. konekin. [konekkin].

    Finnish has the advantage of having relatively stable word stems despite the consonant gradation and using the Roman alphabet which is linear in the sense that we simply write each symbol sequentially one after the other. So to the layperson, the morphophonemic depth of its orthography (which is pretty shallow to begin with) might as well be invisible.

    Hangul, the Korean alphabet, is not linear but groups its symbols in syllabic blocks, so in the process introduces more opportunities to reflect a morphophonemic analysis. I wasn’t explicit in my earlier post, but the morphophonemic camp won out in Korea due to the strong endorsement of linguists, despite the opposition of figures like Syngman Rhee, the first South Korean president. So Standard Korean orthography (in both the North and the South) is morphophonemic.

    The sequence /ma.ni/ may be written 마니 {ma.ni} if it is an unanalyzable name, 만이 {man.i} if it is analyzed as 만 {man} plus a particle or a suffix 이 {i}, or 많이 {manh.i} if it is a form of an adjectival verb with the stem 많- {manh} whose silent h surfaces in other forms like 많다 {manh.da} /man.tha/ and 많고 {manh.go} /man.kho/. In a linear writing system like the Roman alphabet, the distinction between {ma.ni} and {man.i} would normally be collapsed into {mani}. The silent h might raise eyebrows if you’re not familiar with the language, but in addition to allowing the verb stem to be spelled identically as 많- {manh} in all its forms, it also allows the endings -다 {da} and -고 {go} to be spelled the same way whether they surface as /da, go/ (as after 가- {ga}), /ta, ko/ (as after 안- {an}), or /tha, kho/ (as after 많- {manh}).

    It’s the same sort of advantage that you see with the fixing of the spelling of the endings “-s” and “-ed” in English in words like “hats”, “bedz”, “showed”, “walked”, and “ended”. Of course, multiplying these to “-s”, “-z”, “-d”, “-t”, and “-ed/-id” based on the surface pronunciation might not be the most confusing thing in the world, but if you were able to do with just “-s” and “-ed” and derive the pronunciation in each case from transparent, regular rules, then it is not an entirely foregone conclusion that the most phonetic solution is still the optimal one.

    Phonetic spelling looks “optimal” if you think Finnish orthography is phonetic and English orthography is your other data point. But think of it this way—start from a purely phonetic orthography (think of a pure phonetic transcription of the speech sounds) and see if it can’t be improved. Spelling uses non-phonetic distinctions all the time. Would it be better to do away with punctuation, spacing, and casing? They cause all sorts of confusion in spelling, after all. In Korean, I’d wager that the vast majority of people can’t write an average paragraph without making spacing errors (the agglutinative nature of Korean makes the problem of identifying word boundaries really difficult). But my opinion (which is entirely uncontroversial) is that word spacing makes Korean much easier to read than it would be if it were written without spaces like Chinese. It is a trade-off since the introduction of word spacing makes writing more difficult, but I think the gain in the ease of reading more than makes up for it. If you accept that it is possible to improve spelling by introducting non-phonetic elements, then you may become more open to the notion that a purely phonetic spelling might not be the optimum.

    From a practical point of view, all attempts at a purely phonetic orthography would also fall short due to the fact that pronunciations differ according to the speaker. A system of phonetic spelling based on the speech of someone who distinguishes “father” and “farther” would produce heterographs for those who pronounce these as perfect homophones. No language community is without such variation in pronunciation such that there are pairs that are homophones for some speakers but not others.

  131. @Jongseong Park
    What mainly makes learning to read and write gratuitously harder are inconsistency and the resulting bigger rote-learning burden. Finnish spelling is consistent and learning to read and write therefore take much less learning than English.

    Nothing shows more clearly why learning to write English takes so long than the sensible spellings of children when they first start to write their own stories. Here are some which my grandchildren used at that stage: Munday, scool, dolfins, frend, sed, hot cros bun, froot. Because over 4,000 common English words are spelt perversely instead of sensibly – http://englishspellingproblems.blogspot.co.uk/2014/10/4219-unpredictably-spelt-common-words.html – it takes at least 10 years to become a moderately competent writer.

    When i helped weak readers in our local primary school for a while, i made a note of the words that gave them trouble (e.g. read, trouble, one, once, beautiful). They had no difficulty reading them when respelt more sensibly: reed, trubl, wun, wunce, butiful.

    This proves to me that learning to read and write English could easily be made less difficult and less time-consuming, if there was a greater desire to improve literacy levels and overall educational attainment.

    The s ending for plurals is fine by me, btw.
    For the past tense -d would be better as the default ending instead of -ed. It would obviate the need for the pointless consonant doubling before it (begd, can, patd) which children take a long time to master.

  132. @Masha Bell, you don’t have to convince anyone here of the perversity of English spelling or the grief it causes all learners. What may be happening here is that because English spelling is so off the deep end, if that is the only thing you’re looking at it is easy to lose sight of all the subtleties of comparing the pros and cons of different orthographies that are mostly regular and consistent (imagine that!) but vary in their level of analysis. But thinking that a purely phonetic orthography is the most optimal because it seems to be the furthest from the current English spelling is like saying that because the American tax system is broken and convoluted (which is uncontroversial), the optimal solution is to move to a flat tax (which is controversial).

    English spelling is so messed up that any system that replaces it would be a huge improvement regardless of whether it is nearer the phonetic end or the morphophonemic end as long as it is regular and consistent (ignoring the external factors such as links with tradition and other languages). But it is not always obvious what the optimal point is along this spectrum. It is this kind of debate I’m familiar with for Korean, where I firmly side with morphophonemic orthography (without going to the extreme version called 조선어 신철자법 “New Korean Orthography” that was briefly tried in North Korea from 1948 to 1954). And this is what informs me when I reject the kind of fundamentalist approach to spelling that would insist that there should only ever be one way to spell one sound.

  133. Chris McG says:

    I’m not completely opposed to simplifying English spelling (and I’m certainly in favour of it on a small scale, like just getting rid of the b in doubt and similar things), but almost all the respelling proposals I see are very far reaching and take no account of regional variation. I’m from the South West of England, and there are plenty of words on that 4,219 word list that are already spelt perfectly phonetically for me that apparently should change – e.g., ‘pretty’ /pɹɛti/ or ‘warm’ /wɑɹm/ – and plenty of words that are homophones for me that I would have to continue spelling in different ways like ‘cold’/’code’, ‘hat’/’at’. If we have a standardised spelling based primarily on pronunciation, then either a correct pronunciation has to be prescribed which will place more of a social stigma on those with non-standard accents, or each individual pronunciation will have to get its own spelling leading to words splintering apart like ‘eether’ and ‘ither’. And at least the current system is about equally useless and complicated for everybody, a simplified spelling system based only on the standard form(s) of the language would give an immense advantage to those children who speak a very standardised form at home with their families while offering little improvement to those who don’t – typically children from lower socio-economic backgrounds who are already at an educational disadvantage.

  134. @Masha Bell, you don’t have to convince anyone here of the perversity of English spelling or the grief it causes all learners.

    Yes, my reaction is not “You’re wrong” but “You’re wasting your time and would do better to take up some other cause.” People have been riding this hobbyhorse for centuries and gotten nowhere (beyond a few minor fixes due to Webster). Shaw was obsessed with it and left a substantial chunk of money to create a new alphabet and actually publish a book in it (The Shaw Alphabet Edition of Androcles and the Lion, which I own). If it makes you happy, by all means keep riding, but you’re not going to accomplish any more than he did.

  135. Also, what Chris McG said.

  136. there are plenty of words on that 4,219 word list that are already spelt perfectly phonetically for me

    That is indeed troubling for a spelling reformer, at least one who respects polycentric pronunciations. There are two separate issues in case-by-case spelling reform: which are the words to be reformed, and what the new form should be. All can agree that any and many are irregularly spelled (nobody rhymes them with zany), but whether they should become (m)enny, (m)anny, or (m)inny is a question which I would answer in favor of the first choice, that being the pronunciation of a large majority of speakers. But when words are regular for a few and irregular for the vast majority, it’s not clear what to do at all.

    Similarly, I would not merge away distinctions that are current in any living dialect: as long as there are people for whom pain/pane and tow/toe are not homophones, the distinction should not be discarded, though perhaps the utility of these particular distinctions has already come to an end.

    plenty of words that are homophones for me that I would have to continue spelling in different ways

    That is absolutely inevitable if we are to retain a single, or nearly single, orthography for our complexly polycentric language. (I know at least one spelling reformer who wants to replace th everywher ewith either t or d, on the grounds that his older-person’s NYC accent makes no distinction between alveolar stops and interdental fricatives, and no one else should either!) In the best of reforms, some people’s usage will be disregarded, and most people will have to put up with making distinctions in writing that they do not make in speech. The most we can hope for is universal decoding: that, given almost any written form, almost everyone will be able to recognize it as a particular spoken word. This is more or less the situation in French, for example: the rules are complicated, but there are only a handful of exceptions.

  137. David Eddyshaw says:

    When we were talking a while ago about football/soccer I mentioned Chomsky and Halle’s “The Sound Pattern of English”, a remarkable work of almost entirely wrong-headed genius which basically sets up a underlying phonemic system for English while studiously ignoring the fact that the relationship between spoken words like “nation” and “national” (say) evidently has something to do with the traditional spelling, on which the spoken pronunciation is in some sense parasitic.

    As a consequence of this practically oulipan self-limitation they end up producing underlying phonemic shapes for spoken English words which often bear an eerie similarity to the traditional written forms. While the exercise is a horrible example of great gifts wickedly abused, it does make one realise that traditional English orthography is by no means as arbitrary as some suggest; in particular, a thoroughgoing morpheme-preserving orthography (as in Korean) is not going to look very like a “phonetic” one. Finnish can get away with something like a conflation of the two because its structure is a relatively transparent agglutinative one where suffixes mostly don’t induce radical changes in the form they’re suffixed to; this is not the case with spoken English, at least as far as derivation is concerned.

    That’s not to say there isn’t plenty of scope for improvement. I wonder if the enthusiasts for wholesale replacement of the current system by a “phonetic” one might not have inadvertently brought the game of spelling reform into disrepute and made it less likely that we’ll be seeing full acceptance of wholly unproblematic small-increment improvements like “thru” for “through” and so forth. There are quite a lot of rough edges like that which could be knocked off without frightening the horses, including many that are routinely paraded by apostles of wholesale reform as proving their point but which are actually fairly marginal to the system, like the various pronunciations of “gh.” Briton though I be, I have no objection to plowing my field henceforth with a solid American plow; though I have (I must admit) known a man who actually did plough his own field with what he called a pleuch, in the proper Scots way. He’d probably allow us city folk our plows, though. Tho.

  138. David Eddyshaw says:

    In other words, we could take tips from the Japanese in this matter.

    Whatever harsh things one might be tempted to say about the current Japanese writing system, it is actually quite significantly simpler now than it was before the War. If they can do it …

    In spelling reform as elsewhere, il meglio è l’inimico del bene.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perfect_is_the_enemy_of_good

  139. Finnish can get away with something like a conflation of the two because its structure is a relatively transparent agglutinative one where suffixes mostly don’t induce radical changes in the form they’re suffixed to; this is not the case with spoken English, at least as far as derivation is concerned.

    Actually, Standard Finnish is intensely conservative and is a case of people pronouncing the written form, as distinct from spoken Finnish varieties, which are fairly remote from it. It’s as if anglophones reverted to 14C English whenever they had to address an audience.

  140. David Eddyshaw says:

    A problem with any change for the better, of course, is the fact that English is so multicentric; nevertheless if Americans could all be persuaded to adopt some evidently sensible improvements, there might be hope for the rest of the Anglosphere.

    Mind you, it hasn’t worked so far with Noah Webster’s almost entirely sensible changes, so perhaps there is no hope after all. Still, it won’t matter any more when English is extinct and we are all speaking World Hausa. Is there yet time to get everyone to mark vowel length and tone in Hausa orthography before that day dawns?

  141. David Marjanović says:

    Dutch een and één are not homophones:

    Oops, sorry. What about voor “for” and vóór “before”? Is voor reduced as well?

    Also, what Chris McG said.

    Opponents of Reform: #11 – The Cockney Patriot.

    While the exercise is a horrible example of great gifts wickedly abused, it does make one realise that traditional English orthography is by no means as arbitrary as some suggest; in particular, a thoroughgoing morpheme-preserving orthography (as in Korean) is not going to look very like a “phonetic” one.

    Opponents of Reform: #12 – The Morphophonologoster
    🙂

    I would not merge away distinctions that are current in any living dialect

    That would leave you with a very large system of distinctions. I would rather do two things:

    1) Define “English”. Specifically, cut the Scots loose. (They retain a particularly large number of distinctions noone else makes, AFAIK.) Let them officially have their own language – they might even thank you for it.

    2) Acknowledge the fact that written English is, descriptively speaking, much more standardized than spoken English; define “Standard English” and ignore the rest. That would, of course, still leave you with a pluricentric standard; from just RP and General American alone, you’d have to distinguish TRAP, BATH, PALM, START, LOT and THOUGHT… note, BTW, that the current spelling system lumps TRAP, BATH and PALM most of the time.)

    Of course I have my German experience in mind. Ever since there was such a thing as Standard German, it has merged Middle High German long i into ei and long u into au (MHG ou). Every German dialect I know anything about lacks both of these mergers; but the spelling reflects the mergers (even though it contains plenty of other purely etymological features), and everybody observes them when speaking Standard German as well.

    It’s as if anglophones reverted to 14C English whenever they had to address an audience.

    As pointed out at the link above, that’s pretty much what you do when you write.

  142. David Eddyshaw says:

    @David Marjanović:

    YIVO Standard Yiddish (if you call that a German dialect) merges the Baum and Haus vowels; but Standard Yiddish is an artificial construct so I would concede it’s not a real counterexample. AFAIK no actual Yiddish dialect does it. The ich weiss/weisse Rose vowels are distinct everywhere including in YIVOid.

    Solomon Birnbaum gets quite cross about this very point, which he reckons is a Germanism, which he thinks is ironic given YIVO language ideology.

  143. So what’s the origin of those vowel mergers in standard German? Is it purely artificial, or was there some influential dialect that did merge them?

  144. David Eddyshaw says:

    @David Marjanović:

    I don’t think the Scots pronunciation *of English* makes a particularly large number of distinctions; Scots as in “Lallans” is a different thing with a reasonable claim on being a distinct language, but that’s not what most Scots actually speak (more’s the pity …)

    With the consonants there’s the fact that Scots English is rhotic, but that hardly makes it unique, and the w/wh contrast, likewise hardly unique.
    The Scots ‘ch’ is absent in England-English, but also in the English of Scots except in culture-words like “loch” and proper nouns; you don’t hear it in its historical place in words like “night” any more.

    [My own idiolect has all these features but in its general effect of vowel quality and intonation and so forth sounds sufficiently English that I’m generally supposed by strangers to be the product of an English public school.]

    I would make no objections to using your pan-English orthography to represent my own speech. Don’t cut me loose!

  145. The main Scottish English feature that comes to mind is the fern-fir-fur distinction, which AFAIK isn’t preserved anywhere else. There’s also the horse-hoarse distinction, although that pops up here and there in the rest of the English-speaking world too.

  146. David Eddyshaw says:

    @Lazar

    I suppose – more rhoticker than the rest. Mind you, it wouldn’t impose a great burden on the rest on Anglophonia to distinguish fern/fir/fur. It seems fair enough what with our having invented electromagnetism and television and so on for you all.

    The discussion reminds me a bit of Yuen Ren Chao and his proposal for a unified romanised orthography for all the Chinese “dialects”, a somewhat more challenging proposition, to put it mildly.

  147. David Eddyshaw says:
  148. I meant to say “any living accent”. Trying to be cross-dialectal is too hard, it’s a cross-accentual orthography for Standard English I want. The hardest ones are the non-RP English accents, because that’s where the maximal diversity is, and the least amount of documentation of where they stand in the 21C.

  149. I also think that in practice distinguishing TRAP from BATH (and CLOTH from LOT) is a mug’s game, and we shouldn’t even start. BATH doesn’t have the same members in the other non-merging-with-TRAP accents as it does in RP, and CLOTH is pretty much confined to me and other Northeasterners, and is probably dying anyway. In these cases the 14C wins.

  150. to distinguish fern/fir/fur

    Particularly since we already make the distinction. Continuing to make older distinctions isn’t against my program, and this one has all three distinctions in Scottish English and two in many varieties of Irish English. The vein/vain merger has run to completion in all varieties of English, and I’d be willing to do away with this use of ei, but I don’t insist on a change.

    (Sorry for the multiple postings; I’m using an unreliable box, so I keep saving as I get a bit written and edited, so as not to lose anything.)

  151. Eli Nelson says:

    I’ve actually been trying to figure out which distinctions are merged in all dialects, just for fun, and it’s a surprisingly small amount (in fact, most of the difficulty of English spelling is probably due to the inconsistent use of consonant letter doubling rather than to the vowel digraphs, as numerous as the latter are).

    So far, I have:
    HOPE=SOAP: As far as I know, every dialect pronounces words with the digraph “oa” the same as those with orthographic “long o”, so “oa” can safely be eliminated in a diaphonemic English spelling system.
    CLUE=GREW: I don’t believe there are any dialects that distinguish “eu/ew” from “long u/ue”, and the choice between them in current spelling doesn’t correspond to any etymological principle that I can find, either. So the “eu/ew” digraph could also be eliminated.
    HOARSE=SOURCE: I think these are merged in all dialects, even those without the toe-tow merger.

    And as far as I can tell, both e_e and the “ei” of “conceive” etc. represent the MEAT lexical set, so we could finally get rid of the “except after c” rule and just spell this word “conceve”. (I’m afraid someone will probably pop in now to tell me about some British dialect were “conceive” and “meat” are pronounced with different vowels.)

  152. Eli Nelson says:

    Oh dear. The discussion on this Wikipedia page suggests that some West Country dialects have [ei] for at least some words where other dialects have /əu/; it’s not clear if this is associated with extra distinctions though. There’s also a link to a blog post complaining about young British women TV presenters’ pronunciation where three different realizations are listed impressionistically for “no”, “road” and “two”:
    The Teletotty accent does appalling violence to all vowels. “U” is flattened to “yee”, as in “Thank yee”. “O” is mangled in two different ways – either lengthened in the manner once confined to antipodeans, so that “no” becomes “no-yoo”, or else squashed into an A so that “road” becomes “raid”. “Two” becomes “tuy”, “put” becomes “pih” and “good” becomes “gid”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:West_Country_English#Pronunciation_of_standard_English_.2F.C9.99u.2F

  153. Eli Nelson says:

    I guess “two” doesn’t belong to the same lexical set as “no” and “one” even in the standard–I must have been thinking about the spelling.

  154. David Marjanović says:

    So what’s the origin of those vowel mergers in standard German? Is it purely artificial, or was there some influential dialect that did merge them?

    I don’t know.

    The biggest contribution to the standard is Saxon, but Saxon retains the distinctions (that and the Interior German Consonant Weakening is about the only way it differs from the standard).

    In Swabian the two ei are distinguished, but just barely: one is [ae], the other is [ɛɪ]. Maybe that contributed, but it’s been a long time since Swabian had any prestige.

    I would make no objections to using your pan-English orthography to represent my own speech. Don’t cut me loose!

    Oh! I thought you were Welsh!

    What about the mystifying TIE-FLY split?

    And as far as I can tell, both e_e and the “ei” of “conceive” etc. represent the MEAT lexical set, so we could finally get rid of the “except after c” rule and just spell this word “conceve”.

    What about ie as in achieve?

    CLUE=GREW: I don’t believe there are any dialects that distinguish “eu/ew” from “long u/ue”,

    Not long ago someone posted a link to a YouTube video where someone from Wales distinguishes blue from blew. Maybe that’s extinct now, though…

    BTW, the “except after c” rule doesn’t exist. This page used to say so; I have to run and can’t tell for sure if it still does.

  155. David Eddyshaw says:

    “Oh! I thought you were Welsh!”

    I like to think that I exemplify hybrid vigour. My grandparents were rather like those jokes that begin “an X, a Y and a Z walk into a bar …”

    The only thing that I lack is that I am, sadly, not at all Irish.

  156. David Eddyshaw says:

    … which seems to make me ineligible for the presidency of the USA, even had I taken the precaution of being born in Hawaii.

  157. Yes, well, if You British hadn’t held Us Irish down politically for so long, we might not have wanted so badly to do politics in Leftpondia. But as it happens, all our Presidents (with the exception of Martin Van Buren, who was purely Dutch) have a common ancestor …

    (… wait for it …)

    … King John of England.

    Explains a lot, doesn’t it.

    This blogger is batshit on the subject of the Blood Royal, but he has links to the facts.

  158. David Eddyshaw says:

    At least John was not quite such a nasty piece of work as his big brother Richard, whose sole gifts seem to have been killing people and amassing undeserved good publicity. (Both gifts useful in their way, I dare say.)

    And I have some vague recollection of John’s being associated with some document or other granting some limited legislative freedoms; Americans always seem keen on such things, what with their failure to appreciate the joys of monarchy and all.

  159. J. W. Brewer says:

    John Cowan’s link and the info linked therefrom, if taken seriously, says that President Van Buren was a direct descendant of King John’s mother Eleanor of Aquitaine (though his older half-sister Marie, Countess of Champagne). Given that Eleanor has rather better historical PR than John, she seems a perfectly adequate common-ancestor-of-all-U.S.-Presidents-thus-far.

  160. At least John was not quite such a nasty piece of work as his big brother Richard

    Are you kidding me? Revisionism is all well and good, and certainly Richard has a better reputation than he deserves, but as a villain he can’t hold a candle to John. From Jill Lepore’s recent New Yorker article “The Rule of History: Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, and the hold of time”:

    In 1189, John married his cousin Isabella of Gloucester. (When she had no children, he had their marriage ended, locked her in his castle, and then sold her.) … In 1200, he married another Isabella, who may have been eight or nine; he referred to her as a “thing.” He also had a passel of illegitimate children, and allegedly tried to rape the daughter of one of his barons (the first was common, the second not), although, as Church reminds readers, not all reports about John ought to be believed, since nearly all the historians who chronicled his reign hated him. Bearing that in mind, he is nevertheless known to have levied steep taxes, higher than any king ever had before, and to have carried so much coin outside his realm and then kept so much coin in his castle treasuries that it was difficult for anyone to pay him with money. When his noblemen fell into his debt, he took their sons hostage. He had a noblewoman and her son starved to death in a dungeon. It is said that he had one of his clerks crushed to death, on suspicion of disloyalty.

    And I have some vague recollection of John’s being associated with some document or other granting some limited legislative freedoms

    Which he successfully got the pope to annul as soon as he was away from the barons who made him sign it.

  161. Most criticisms of John seem to involve him either a) doing things that were likely commonplace for rulers at the time, or b) treating the nobility very badly. A lot of the revisionism seems to derive from the simplistic idea that if he was bad for the nobles, he probably was good for the common people. From what I have seen, there seems to be rather little reliable information about how John’s rule impacted the vast majority of commoners, so I find it hard to say whether he was really significantly worse than his contemporaries or not.

  162. David Eddyshaw says:

    Nobody’s perfect.

  163. David Eddyshaw says:

    I have a soft spot for Nero, myself. At least he gave that horrible man Seneca what he deserved. (I speak with a bitterness that can only be appreciated by one who has read Seneca’s letters. The high repute of Seneca in mediaeval times is probably the main threat to my belief that people in those days were just as capable of wisdom as we are. What’s “sanctimonious prig” in Latin?)

  164. I think a huge number of au words and names in German derive from the Classical diphthong, not MHG uː and ou. So it’s at least three major sounds that were merged, assuming that au was distinguished from uː and ou in MHG? Or was it merged to one of those (ou?) before the uː–ou merger? How are words and names like August and Klaus pronounced in dialects that distinguish the uː and ou forms?

    So what’s the best way of finding out which of the un-merged sets a particular German word or name spelled with ei or au belongs to? Any good dictionaries that give Middle High German etymology, dialectal forms, and cognates for an extensive number of German words and names?

  165. “Common ancestor”, applied to a group, generally means “most recent traceable common ancestor”. Obviously that person’s ancestors are ancestors of the group too.

  166. Eli Nelson: Two is GOOSE, no is GOAT, and one is idiosyncratically STRUT with a parasitic /w-/, though its close relatives alone < all one and lonely < alone-ly remain GOAT.

    David Eddyshaw: John was about as associated with Magna Carta as Hirohito was with the Japanese Instrument of Surrender, except that Hirohito stuck with his agreements.

  167. David Eddyshaw says:

    @JC:

    Interesting analogy, which doesn’t altogether vitiate my (admittedly scarcely defensible) point. There are ways and ways of losing; some ways do a lot less damage than others. In both cases, though the freedom of action was very slight, one can imagine different choices which would have led to worse outcomes.

  168. Chris McG says:

    1) Define “English”. Specifically, cut the Scots loose. (They retain a particularly large number of distinctions noone else makes, AFAIK.) Let them officially have their own language – they might even thank you for it.

    Well if we’re allowed to start carving off groups containing millions of native speakers as actually belonging to other languages, it would be completely easy to make a universally applicable phonetic English orthography. Not sure what to do about the spelling of American, Australian, Wenglish, Scouse, Geordie, Brummie, Janner and whichever language the people three streets away from me speak, but us English speakers are set. Oi deno wat aw u vez waz uboat, peiz uv keik vur ez.

    Though seriously, there’s already enough of a stigma attached to regional accents and dialects – I don’t think “You’re not speaking English correctly.” changing to “You’re not speaking English at all.” will be an improvement.

  169. David Eddyshaw says:

    @Jongseong Park:

    I think Latin loanwords with -au- fall together with the reflexes of MHG ou; they do in Yiddish too, I think, but I can’t actually think of all that many examples of Latinate loans except in YIVO-Yiddish, which doesn’t help. Oytomobil!

    Augsburg, from Augusta Vindelicorum, has the MHG ou-diphthong.

  170. I think we should go the other way — I might actually support a revision of English orthography if Scots was used as the default dialect when deciding what to do about vowel sounds, etc.

    Things would have been different, obviously, but why worse?

    Well, it’s a subjective thing. I like the obscure and cryptic. I like the interplay between Japanese literature and the Chinese classics, like when an Edo author will gloss a string of Chinese characters with a wildly vernacular interpretation. I like the way that you can set up multiple styles that even look dramatically different (like mostly-kana action interspersed with patches of almost straight Chinese commentary). I like the visual rhythm of a single character containing four or five morae. Some of this, like the stylistic variation, the references to the classics, etc., could be replicated even without kanji, but it wouldn’t be the same.

    Could Nabakov have written great literature even if for some reason he’d been forbidden from making puns? Probably — his genius wasn’t just in wordplay — but that alternate-universe Nabakov still doesn’t sound as good as the one we actually got, right? That’s how I feel about kanji.

    Whether I am callous about the downside of using kanji is also subjective, I suppose, but since as you say this is about the general principle and not a debate about whether the situation we actually face should be changed, it probably isn’t worth getting into. I’ll just note for the record that I am aware that the real story behind the Japanese “literacy” rate isn’t as rosy as it seems and that I support efforts to ameliorate this, but I strongly doubt that eliminating kanji would have beneficial social effects overall.

  171. @David Eddyshaw, thanks for the info! I see that there are about a thousand search results for the spelling Ogschburg which I guess imitates the dialectal pronunciation of Augsburg, though I don’t know enough about the local dialect to tell if it is indeed a reflex of MHG ou (or even if that spelling reflects the local dialect at all).

  172. David Marjanović says:

    Many Latin words, probably including proper names, were reborrowed after the vowel shifts from MHG to NHG; “paradise” first became Paradeis, but is now Paradies “again”.

    The local pronunciations of placenames are generally not widely known in other places, even to speakers of quite similar dialects; they’re prone to spelling-pronunciations.

  173. David Eddyshaw says:

    Come to think of it, I would imagine that the vast majority of Modern German words with au for Latin/Greek au have either been borrowed since MHG times or reworked since then, as David M says.

    There’s also the question of whether the Classical Latin au and ae diphthongs would even have *been* diphthongs in the pronunciation of Latin that was the source of the borrowing. The name of Augsburg presumably goes all the way back to actual Roman times, and the name was adopted by people who weren’t even speaking Old High German as such yet. (Similarly with the name/title Caesar/keiser.) I know nothing whatsoever about the mediaeval pronunciation of Latin by High German speakers, but If they rendered Latin ae as /aj/ I think they’d have been pretty much unique at the time; I think the au-diphthong was more often preserved but I’m far from sure.

  174. fisheyed says:

    I have always wondered how much the lack of vowel markings affect the ease of learning Arabic. Has there been any interest in the modern era to mark the vowels in texts for adults?

    Sorry to reply to myself, but in googling on this topic, I discovered Alphabet in the Boiling Pot of Politics, an interesting article on script reforms in Azeri. The article says that al-Biruni was pro-vowel-markings for Arabic!

  175. David Eddyshaw says:

    There’s MHG klôster, come to think of it, which is ultimately from Latin claustrum; wouldn’t prove much unless the word was directly borrowed from mediaeval Latin, though.

    And also kôl from caulis. In both words the ô is the expected reflex instead of ou before an alveolar consonant. The loss of the Latin finals makes both of these look like very old borrowings, though, rather than learned loans from mediaeval Latin. And Old English has cawel “cole” which suggests that the Germanic peoples learnt to eat their vegetables from the Romans pretty early on.

  176. Thanks for all your answers. For what it’s worth, I found a 16th-century painting of Brother Klaus where he is labelled “BRŮDER KLOŬS” (or more precisely, “BRVDER KLOVS” with a superscript “o” over the first “V” and a breve over the second). Klaus or Niklaus of course comes from Latin Nicolaus, itself from Greek.

  177. David Eddyshaw says:

    Thinking about it, that can’t be correct; the borrowing of claustrum and caulis must have been independent in English and German, though the forms do support the idea that they were borrowed from a reading tradition that had /aw/ for Latin au.

    Neither Old English cawel “cole” nor clauster “cloister” corresponds regularly to the German (in inherited English words au has become ea.) It’s not really surprising that the borrowing doesn’t date to the period of West Germanic unity prior to the separation of English and German, of course; but the forms show at least that the Latin au was pronounced /aw/ in the English tradition when the borrowing took place, and that the borrowing was later than the change of au to ea. On the other hand, in German the borrowing must have been early enough for the au to develop just like inherited Germanic au (already shifted to ô before alveolars in OHG; if I remember right, with few exceptions OHG stressed ô comes only from au in inherited words.

    I’m sure I must be reinventing the wheel – there must be vast numbers of studies of Latin loans in the old Germanic languages.

  178. David Eddyshaw says:

    @Jongseong Park

    Nice discovery. Brother Klous/Klaus looks somewhat intimidatingly ascetic there …

  179. David Eddyshaw says:

    Rather late in the day, it occurred to me to look at the Alemannic pages in Wikipedia

    Daub “deaf” vs Duubi dove
    Baum “tree” vs Huus house

    etc etc showing the expected different reflexes of MHG ou vs û

    Auti “car”
    Autor “author”
    Augschburg “Augsburg”

    However Ouguscht “August” to confuse matters.

    I’m not convinced that there actually are great numbers of German words with au from Latin au now that I’m actively trying to think of any, once you’ve accounted for all the auto- compounds.

  180. David Eddyshaw says:

    Astronaut …

    Almost all the ones I can come up with are evidently from post-MHG times. FWIW the convention is evidently that Latin au goes with the reflex of MHG ou not û, unsurprisingly.

  181. David Eddyshaw says:

    Bavarian seems to be the opposite to Alemannic:

    Haus “house”
    Baam “tree”
    Auto “car”
    August “August”

    from which the (dull) conclusion seems to emerge that modern loans just adopt the form for “au” nearest to the sound of Standard German.

  182. David Marjanović says:

    It’s not really surprising that the borrowing doesn’t date to the period of West Germanic unity prior to the separation of English and German, of course

    That’s not surprising for “cloister”, but not self-evident for “cole”. There were Latin loans into West Germanic: caupo “some kind of merchant” > English cheap, German kaufen “buy”; ceresia “cherry” > cherries, Kirsche; cista (from Greek) > chest, Kiste “usually wooden box”. German Keller “cellar/basement” must have been borrowed from cellarium very early, too, but the BrE form must be a later import.

    Anyway, kaufen has /a/ in the more conservative Bavarian dialects, just like Baum.

    However Ouguscht “August” to confuse matters.

    Different articles are written in different dialects.

    from which the (dull) conclusion seems to emerge that modern loans just adopt the form for “au” nearest to the sound of Standard German.

    Of course: modern loans are made by Standard German and then passed on to the dialects.

  183. David Eddyshaw says:

    @David Marjanović:

    Hoped you’d show up! I happily cede my place to someone who actually knows about the subject.

    The answer to Jongseong Park’s question is evidently the entirely unsurprising one that the fate of Latin ‘au’ in German dialects depends on the linked questions of (a) when the particular word was borrowed and (b) whether the dialect in question inherits the loan from an earlier stage of German or has borrowed it from the standard language/another dialect and adapted its phonology to fit.

    YIVO-Yiddish is a bit different in that it borrows the NHG forms of modern Latinate words but rather than matching the sound it applies the same across-the-board equation NHG au = Yiddish oy that it does to the German component. But then, thinking about it, it hasn’t actually got a diphthong like au or ou.

    Does anybody who speaks Polish-type Yiddish say “outomobil” like “houz” instead of “oytomobil” like “boym”?

  184. Eli Nelson says:

    I think “cherries” in English is not descended from West Germanic, but from French, though.

    More thoughts about English diaphonemic spelling:
    What about the mystifying TIE-FLY split?
    As far as I can tell, TIE-FLY-DYE are all in the same historical lexical group; I don’t even know of any splits that have occured in this sound in modern dialects, and if a split exists I doubt it would correspond with the spelling.

    What about ie as in achieve?
    Going on the spelling (not always a safe thing to do) I’d assume achieve is in the FLEECE lexical set for dialects without the meat-meet merger, so if we’re keeping all historical distinctions “achieve” would have to keep its distinct spelling.

    In fact though, Wiktionary quotes some sources that actually attest a 3-way distinction in some dialects between /ɪə/, /eɪ/, and /i/ from different historical sources, so it seems even my respelling of “receive” and the like is problematic. The front high vowel/diphthong mergers between Middle English and most modern varieties are pretty complicated!

    Not long ago someone posted a link to a YouTube video where someone from Wales distinguishes blue from blew.
    It appears this is the case for some speakers, but this distinction does not appear to be etymological, but rather the result of incomplete lexical diffusion of the sound-change eliminating /ju/ for /u/ after /r/ and /l/ in RP. I found a source saying both /flu/ and /flɪu/ can be heard for both “flew” and “flue”, so it doesn’t seem to be a case of the diphthong being consistently maintained in past-tense forms but simplified in nouns or something regular like that. So the orthography distinction seems to only accidentally line up with the distribution of these phonemes in this case, and the distribution itself is currently in flux and differs between speakers.

  185. David Marjanović says:

    Hoped you’d show up! I happily cede my place to someone who actually knows about the subject.

    Warning: it’s not like I’ve studied this, or even have an etymological dictionary. I fear I come across as more authoritative than I really am. Most of what I’ve read about this and similar subjects is on teh intarwebz anyway.

    dialects without the meat-meet merger

    …Oh.

    I think “cherries” in English is not descended from West Germanic, but from French, though.

    Now I remember having read this, probably right here. I don’t understand why a northern French version would have che- for southern ce-, though (modern standard cérise).

    As far as I can tell, TIE-FLY-DYE are all in the same historical lexical group; I don’t even know of any splits that have occured in this sound in modern dialects, and if a split exists I doubt it would correspond with the spelling.

    Apparently it’s conditioned by the Scottish Vowel Length Rule (though I don’t know how that’s supposed to distinguish open syllables from each other – perhaps analogy in morphological paradigms is involved, I have no idea). Indeed it doesn’t correspond with the spelling.

  186. I don’t know about cellar, but cell was definitely borrowed from Latin cella in OE, lost, and reborrowed from Central French

  187. a northern French version would have che- for southern ce-

    Isn’t Jèrriais for cent chent?

  188. George Gibbard says:

    I believe Norman French had ch [t͡ʃ] for the earlier palatalization of Latin c, where Old French had c [t͡s]; meanwhile the second Old French palatalization of Latin c to ch [t͡ʃ] before Latin a (> (i)e unstressed open syllables, schwa in unstressed open syllables, but a in closed syllables) did not take place in Norman. As a result, from Latin captiāre we have Norman ‘catch’ as well as (I guess) Parisian ‘chase’ (Modern French chasser).

  189. George Gibbard says:

    Hmm, obviously pti̯ is not the palatalization of Latin c, so I guess that’s only a good example of what I was talking about for the first consonant. Anyway I believe the sounds pti̯ and palatalized c did merge and MMcM is right.

  190. George Gibbard says:

    According to the American Heritage Dictionary (1981, and it doesn’t say what edition it is) “Middle English chery, from Norman French cherise, variant of Old French cerise“. Auto-correct tried to change (multiple times!) “chery” to “cherry” and “cherise” to “cheese”.

  191. The online Fifth Edition (2011-), which you can access from the blogroll (it’s the second entry under “Language resources”), says:

    [Middle English cheri, from Anglo-Norman cherise, variant of Old French cerise, from Vulgar Latin *ceresia, from *cerasia, from Greek kerasiā, cherry tree, from kerasos.]

  192. Красная площадь

    Says Wiki: The name Red Square does not originate from the pigment of the surrounding bricks (which, in fact, were whitewashed at certain times in history) nor from the link between the color red and communism. Rather, the name came about because the Russian word красная (krasnaya) can mean either “red” or “beautiful” (the latter being rather archaic; cf. прекрасная, prekrasnaya). This word, with the meaning “beautiful”, was originally applied to Saint Basil’s Cathedral and was subsequently transferred to the nearby square. It is believed that the square acquired its current name (replacing the older Pozhar, or “burnt-out place”) in the 17th century. Several ancient Russian towns, such as Suzdal, Yelets, and Pereslavl-Zalessky, have their main square named Krasnaya ploshchad.

    Wiki on cherry: The English word cherry, French cerise, Spanish cereza, and Turkish kiraz all derive from the classical Greek (κέρασος) through the Latin cerasum, which referred to the ancient Greek place name Cerasus, today the city of Giresun in northern Turkey in the ancient Pontus region, from which the cherry was first exported to Europe. The ancient Greek word κερασός “cherry” itself is thought to be derived from a pre-Greek Anatolian language.

    A footnote at the end of the last sentence adds: Robert S. P. Beekes (2010). Etymological Dictionary of Greek. Brill. ISBN 978-90-04-17418-4. “As the improved cherry came from the Pontos area (cf. Κερασοῦς “rich in cherries”, town on the Pontos), the name is probably Anatolian as well. Given its intervocalic σ, the form must be Anatolian or Pre-Greek. For the suffix, cf. ▶-θíασος, ▶-κάρπασος, which too are of foreign origin. Assyr. karšu has also been adduced. Cf. on ▶κράνον ‘cornelian cherry’. Gr. κέρασος, -íα, κεράσιον were borrowed into many languages: Asiatic names of the cherry-tree and the cherry, like Arm. ker̄as, Kurd. ghilas, and in the West, Lat. cerasus, -ium, VLat. ★cerasia, ★ceresia, -ea; from Latin came the Romance and Germanic forms like MoFr. cerise, OHG chirsa > Kirsche. Lit.: Olck in PW 11: 509f. and Hester Lingua 13 (1965): 356.”

    Krasnaya Красная seems very much related to Greek kerasos, Old French cerise, etc. Does anybody know this word’s etymology?

  193. This word, with the meaning “beautiful”, was originally applied to Saint Basil’s Cathedral and was subsequently transferred to the nearby square.

    I’ve never seen that before and have added a {{Citation needed}} tag.

    Krasnaya Красная seems very much related to Greek kerasos, Old French cerise, etc. Does anybody know this word’s etymology?

    No, the ‘red’ sense is secondary. The Slavic kras- words are probably related to Old Norse hrósа ‘boast,’ Icelandic hrós ‘glory,’ and more distantly to OHG hruom ‘glory’ and Lithuanian grõžis ‘beauty,’ gražùs ‘beautiful.’

  194. I’ve never seen that before and have added a {{Citation needed}} tag.

    What does the parallel Russian Wiki entry say?

  195. It says a small area between St. Basil’s Cathedral, the Spassky Tower of the Kremlin, and the Lobnoe Mesto (place of execution) was called the Red (i.e., beautiful) Square, and Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich officially extended the name to the entire square. And looking at that, I’m pretty sure whoever added that line to the English Wikipedia misunderstood the Russian, so I’m going to delete it.

  196. I’m pretty sure whoever added that line to the English Wikipedia misunderstood the Russian, so I’m going to delete it.

    Damned Sisyphean, that Internet.

  197. per incuriam says:

    The main Scottish English feature that comes to mind is the fern-fir-fur distinction, which AFAIK isn’t preserved anywhere else
    It is also common in Ireland.

  198. David Marjanović says:
  199. Bathrobe says:

    Incidentally, I agree with Elessorn’s comment that Kamo no Mabuchi was engaging in transparent revisionist polemics. The ‘nativists’ (国学者) had a definite bias. For instance, Motoori Norinaga believed that the Kojiki represented an oral narration of pristine Japanese beliefs untouched by the ‘Chinese mind’, an expression of a natural community in ancient Japan. Among other things, this foreshadows modern Nihonjinron ideas that Japanese don’t think ‘logically’. Later nativists hung entire theories on single words of dubious import that occur only once in the Kojiki.

    The most attractive of the whole nativist camp from the modern viewpoint was Ueda Akinari. The guy was a man of the world who knew his Chinese literature and didn’t have much time for Motoori Norinaga’s fantasising about the ‘oral’ nature of the Kojiki in describing the Age of the Gods. You also have to love the way he started life (born of an Osaka prostitute and an unknown father, later adopted by a wealthy businessman), and the fact that he wrote two volumes of stories that are still read today (Tales of Moonlight and Rain and Tales of Spring Rain.

    It’s a pity the whole nativist tradition turned into a playground for people with wacky theories, culminating in Hirata Atsutane, who taught that all Japanese were descended from the gods. The predilection for developing elaborate theories of Japanese uniqueness based on slender hints is alive and well today in Nihonjinron.

  200. David Eddyshaw says:

    Mindful of Hat’s blessings on those who resuscitate old threads (not that this one is exactly prehistoric), I found this when searching for something else entirely, as one does

    http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/huzwares

    which is a very interesting account of the whole business of Pahlavi writing and Aramaic “heterograms.”

    The entire site is well worth wandering in …

  201. It’s interesting how it can be vere difficult to tell if an Aramaism is a heterogram (part of the script system) or a mutuum verbum.

  202. To return briefly to the topic of whether John was or was not an exceptionally bad king: Medieval monarchs were unlikely to be what we would today consider “good” people. Yet the best-known critiques of their behavior do not always hold up to modern scrutiny. John earned the ire of the nobles because he tried to centralize control of England in his hands. In the abstract, this seems to be a morally neutral act, and it would seem to have been a pretty natural response as Lackland lost control of the Angevin possessions elsewhere.

    What got me thinking about this topic again was something that happened a generation earlier—the famous conflict between John’s father and Thomas Beckett. King Henry is usually cast as the villain in the conflict, but when viewed through the lens of current understanding, Beckett comes out looking pretty bad. After all, what was he principally trying to protect? The right of the church to protect sexually predatory priests. Only a few decades ago, this wasn’t recognized as a serious problem, but can anyone imagine Beckett being written today?

    All I know from these ruminations is that centuries-old conventional wisdom about who was a good guy and who was a bad guy can seem hopeless wrong today.

  203. The right of the church to protect sexually predatory priests.

    Well, that’s contentious in the equal and opposite direction. In some ways, Henry and Thomas were talking past each other. Henry did not wish to abolish ecclesiastical trial for clerks/clerics (same thing then). Rather, he wanted the ability to administer additional punishments to felonious clerks who had already been tried, convicted, and punished by the ecclesiastical courts, rather than letting murderers and rapists who would have been executed if they were not clerks go free after degradation.

  204. felonious clerks

    What about Felonious Monks who also happen to be musicians?

  205. John earned the ire of the nobles because he tried to centralize control of England in his hands.

    That’s not why he earns my ire, or the ire of most modern people who read about him.

  206. J. W. Brewer says:

    When the actual Thelonious Monk got in trouble with the law, he was saved not by the Church but by the Nobility, in the person of his friend/patroness/muse/etc. Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter.

  207. Named after a moth, no less.

  208. David Eddyshaw says:

    @John Cowan:

    “It’s interesting how it can be very difficult to tell if an Aramaism is a heterogram (part of the script system) or a mutuum verbum.”

    Yes indeed. I had no idea that Parsis actually read the heterograms as Aramaic(ish.) I wonder how long ago the knowledge was lost of how this part of the system originally functioned?

  209. David Eddyshaw says:

    Although in this case the matter seems to be a straightforward error from a historical point of view, it’s a little reminiscent of how Chinese characters in Japanese are in principle ambivalent between a Japanese and a “Chinese” (loanword, more or less) reading.

    If the Sasanian scribes had really wanted to shut down all hope of literacy among the masses, they could have developed a system in which the Aramaic writings were *sometimes* pronounced as Persian, but at other times actually represented Aramaic loanwords. They were obviously mere amateurs in obfuscation.

  210. David Eddyshaw: When you quoted me, you changed my heterogram “vere” to English “very”, but it should have been read “truly”.

    *chuckle*

  211. David Eddyshaw says:

    Ach! I fell into your evil trap. Curses!

  212. David Eddyshaw says:

    Colour me Parsee!

  213. David Eddyshaw says:

    Was just reading this (unfortunately only available if you have access through JSTOR)

    http://www.jstor.org/stable/4132111?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

    the basic idea of which is that those Amarna letters one was brought up to think were written by Canaanite scribes in (variably) bad Akkadian are in fact written in perfectly good *Canaanite.*

    It’s quite persuasive (not least in anticipating and taking seriously a number of objections); the more persuasive after this LH thread. There are quite a few analogies (if von Dassow is right) with systems like Pahlavi.

  214. Looks very interesting, thanks!

  215. As John Huehnergard has it (quoted in my Essentialist Explanations page): Peripheral Akkadian is essentially bad Akkadian. Amarna Akkadian is essentially Peripheral Akkadian as written by monolingual Canaanites.

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