Scriptworlds.

Bathrobe sent me a link to a decade-old paper by David Damrosch, “Scriptworlds: Writing Systems and the Formation of World Literature,” and it looks so interesting I’m going to post it immediately. Here’s the start:

Through most of recorded history, literature has not been written within an integrated global system. “World literature” has meant different things in different parts of the globe, and only a very few writers have truly had a worldwide audience. At least through the eighteenth century, most literary works have circulated within fairly discrete fields, whether framed in regional terms (the East Asian world), in political terms (the Roman Empire), or in linguistic terms (the Germanic and Romance traditions). My purpose in this essay is to explore a term missing from most discussions of regional and global literatures: the crucial role of global scripts. Often thought of only in relation to their original language or language family, scripts that achieve a global reach extend far beyond their linguistic base, with profound consequences for literature and for cultural in general. Alphabets and other scripts continue to this day to serve as key indices of cultural identity, often as battlegrounds of independence or interdependence. A global script forms the basis of a broad literary system — what we might call a “scriptworld” — in which works that use that script are composed.

And here’s a passage near the end:

Observing the interplay of language and script in earlier periods can also give us a better understanding of the origins of modern national literatures. When he was formulating the concept of Weltliteratur in the 1820s, during the heyday of European nationalism, Goethe spoke of world literature naturally as based on the interactions of established national literatures, after which world literature was a secondary or even future formation. “The epoch of world literature is at hand,” he announced to his young disciple Eckermann, “and everyone must strive to hasten its approach.” The spread of scripts in earlier periods shows instead that literatures tend to develop in just the opposite direction: within — and often against — an existing regional or global world literature.

In between there’s discussion of Gilgamesh, Job, Cyril and Methodius, Milorad Pavić (“In this way Pavić’s Cyrillic Хазарски Речник became his Romanized Hazarski Rečnik, almost every word of it identical to the original but almost every letter changed”), Iceland (“The Norse sagas are not part of Latin literature, yet they are very much part of the Latin scriptworld”), the Codex Wormianus (with its First, Second, Third, and Fourth Grammatical Treatises), sixteenth-century Mexico and Guatemala (“where Mayan and Mexica writers within a generation of the conquest began to use the Roman alphabet to write down their old stories and poems in their native languages”), and much else. Thanks, Bathrobe!

Comments

  1. David Marjanović says:

    Just the next paragraph:

    An emblematic modern instance of the cultural-political role of scripts was Kamal Atatürk’s wrenching Turkish away from Arabic script to a Roman-derived script in 1928, part of his effort to realign Turkey away from its Ottoman, Middle Eastern past and toward a European future.

    Kamal would be an etymological spelling, but he’s Kemal, with Arabic allophones interpreted as Turkish phonemes and now, thanks to himself, spelled out as such – a self-illustrating example.

  2. David Marjanović says:

    And in the paragraph after that…

    Long written in Arabic characters, the Chechen language shifted over to Cyrillic during the period of Soviet domination, then went to the Roman alphabet when Chechnya achieved independence in 1997.

    I bet that Chechen was, like most Soviet languages, shifted first to Latin and then to Cyrillic. The new Latin version doesn’t seem to be catching on; there’s no trace of it on Wikipedia, and the proposal I’ve seen contains a lot of special characters that aren’t easily available.

    The Berbers of Algeria and Morocco, never having achieved an independent national status, have used Arabic and Roman alphabets during different periods — when their languages were not suppressed outright. Currently, there is a movement among Berber nationalists to escape this either-or choice by reviving the long-dead Tifinagh script, derived from Egyptian hieroglyphics.

    Kabyle nationalists seem to use Latin, with Tifinagh more of a Moroccan thing… I have to dig up Lameen’s scathing summary of how the choice of script aligns with ideology. Anyway, as its name says, Tifinagh is derived straight from Phoenician, so it’s only a tiny bit more directly derived from Egyptian hieroglyphics than Latin and Arabic are.

    I promise I’ll stop liveblogging now. 🙂

    Oh, also, Tifinagh never died out in some Tuareg-speaking places and is still in use there. As you’d expect, it only has letters for consonants and is written right-to-left in this usage. The new nationalist/Romantic version has letters for the vowels, too, and is written left-to-right…

  3. SFReader says:

    -The Norse sagas are not part of Latin literature, yet they are very much part of the Latin scriptworld

    Leaving aside question of Runic script which the Norse used, it is not clear to me why Icelandic script should be considered part of Latin scriptworld, if only 68% of it’s letters coincides with Latin alphabet.

    For comparison, 63% of Greek letters are same as in Latin alphabet.

  4. David Marjanović says:

    63% of uppercase letters, not lowercase or diacritics.

    I’ve finished reading the article and recommend the lords of Totonicapán. 🙂

    Damrosch attributes the Cyrillic alphabet to Cyril and doesn’t mention Glagolitic, right before quoting Pavić as attributing both Glagolitic (“round”) and Cyrillic (“angular”) to Cyril. A more plausible hypothesis I’ve encountered is that Cyril only invented Glagolitic (to some extent as cryptography), while Cyrillic was developed (to be easier to read and write) by a later figure like Clement of Ohrid and named in Cyril’s honor much the same way that the car company Tesla has no direct connection to Nikola Tesla.

    The alphabet isn’t from “highly simplified cuneiform”, it’s from reinterpreted Egyptian hieroglyphs. Cuneiform has no living descendants. Even the Ugaritic alphabet was only cuneiform.

  5. I didn’t count, but I assume that to get the 68% figure for Icelandic you need to count all letters with diacritics as separate, including the ‘acute’ (long) vowels. Comparing that to Greek where the percentage is for basic unadorned upper case is not fair.

    Icelandic has one (1) basic letter form that was taken from the futhark instead of the abc — thorn. Edh is d with a mark, though often using a different design in lower case.

  6. it is not clear to me why Icelandic script should be considered part of Latin scriptworld, if only 68% of it’s letters coincides with Latin alphabet.

    As Lars says (or implies), that doesn’t make sense. Icelandic script is self-evidently Latin; no one who looked at it would doubt it for a moment.

  7. SFReader says:

    “Self-evidently” is not an argument.

    I’ve met Russian tourists in Greece who thought that Greek is written in Cyrillic – it was very hard to persuade them that “ΒΟΤΚΑ ΜΑΡΤΙΝΙ ΚΟΚΤΕΙΛ” is not in Cyrillic.

    The point I am trying to make is that there should be some quantifiable criteria which would tell us that this script belongs to this scriptworld and this one doesn’t. Origin history doesn’t count, because we all know that Cyrillic is just a Greek script with added letters, but then some threshold was apparently reached and from then on it is considered to be a different scriptworld.

    The question is what is this threshold?

    For example, 15 out of 24 letters of Greek alphabet is shared with Russian Cyrillic compared to 24 out of 30 letters of Serbian Cyrillic.

    62% similarity vs 80% similarity.

    Comparison with Pre-Petrine Russian alphabet would result in 95% of Greek letters (23 out of 24) shared with Russian.

  8. In addition to the above listed errors, there is also the absurd idea that Shang oracle bone writing was pictographic (it was just as morphosyllabic as any other Chinese writing, though it’s true that the characters are less stylized and more naturalistic), and the whole fantasy about the supposed Mayan-script version of the Popol Vuh (about which we know precisely nothing) being necessarily less detailed than the alphabetic version we have today. Both of these are another version of the trope that writing systems to be complete must be alphabetic, as if Chinese or Mayans were unable to write everything they could say.

    Similarly, I am incredibly weary of the trope that equates discontinuous change with violence. Re-alphabetizing a dictionary that’s been transliterated from Cyrillic to Latin is not performing an act of violence on it, and anyone who really thinks so self-evidently has neither engaged in nor suffered from actual violence, or they wouldn’t trivialize it.

    Oh yes: the notion that Nahuatl teo- is a borrowing from Spanish dios or Latin deus is absurd. Indeed, in colonial times, Mayans borrowed dios as the name of the Christian God, though it’s true that this has now been superseded by a teo- based neologism in the modern languages. Rather, teo- means something like ‘mana, spiritual power’; it is not personalized.

    In short: Bah.

  9. “Oh yes: the notion that Nahuatl teo- is a borrowing from Spanish dios or Latin deus is absurd. Indeed, ”

    Indeed it is. It doesn’t account for why the final -s was dropped (…if it had been dropped, if this were a borrowing.)

    Someone else might if there are any cognates in Uto-Aztecan. I bet there are.

  10. marie-lucie says:

    Mayan and Mexica writers within a generation of the conquest began to use the Roman alphabet to write down their old stories and poems in their native languages

    The Spanish missionaries lost no time in starting to learn the local languages and worked out spelling systems for the Mayan and Aztecan languages (among others), first to use in their own work and then for general use by the indigenous populations. Students having learned to write their own languages using the new systems were encouraged to record traditional histories and customs and to write poems and other literary texts.

  11. SFReader says:

    List of Uto-Aztecan words for ‘sun’:

    Ta’va
    Taabe
    Tava
    Tape
    Taba
    Tabe
    Dabai
    Tavaci
    Támyat
    Tamyut
    Taamit
    Temét
    Timét
    Taamit
    Taawa
    Taal
    Tonaltzintli
    Tunal
    Xeucat
    Táu
    Tahá
    Taá’a
    Túui
    Rayénari
    Taa’a
    Tash
    Tasa
    Tásai

  12. Oh dear, it does seem less impressive than it looked at first glance. Sigh.

  13. ə de vivre says:

    I’m not sure what you get from the idea of scriptworlds aside from a less-nuanced recapitulation of intellectual and political culture. The claim he’s making seems to be that within a scriptworld works of literature are translated, while across scriptworlds they are deformed; which I’m not sure is tenable in either sense. Heck, deformation, parody, and general intertextual fuckery were integral to literate activity within the cuneiform ‘scriptworld’. Then there’s the question of whether it makes sense to apply the term ‘literature’ to things like Popol Vuh or The Epic of Gilgamesh.

  14. Yeah, I was just carried away by the glittering appearance of sweeping grandeur. Hey, it was late and I needed something to post…

  15. The claim he’s making seems to be that within a scriptworld works of literature are translated

    Transductor treasoner.

    while across scriptworlds they are deformed

    Tell it to the Serbs!

    At most, it’s easier to read another variety of your language (or in some cases another language, depending on the armey un flot) in your own script than it is to read your own language in another script, thank you very much Captain Obvious. This is why the Internet’s system of language tagging uses tags of the form Language-Script-Region-Variant, which is intended to be in descending order of importance in most cases (not all).

  16. J.W. Brewer says:

    The switch of script under Ataturk made it easier for Turkish students brought up under the newer order to go on to learn to read French or English or German, and many of them did. It likewise made it easier for native speakers of French or English or German to learn to read Turkish, but somehow not so many took advantage of that lowering of the barrier in the other direction. Fashions have shifted over time, but more students in English/French/German-etc culture are generally at any given point at time willing to take on the learning-a-new-writing-system burden in order to acquire some knowledge a language that seems to them important or significant, whether that be Ancient Greek or Russian or Mandarin, than are willing to learn to use their existing alphabetical competence to learn Swedish or Polish or Turkish or Malay or some other Latin-scripted language that subjectively seems (whatever the claims of its own partisans might be) less significant/important from the cultural POV of the prospective learners’ society.l

  17. Above all, romanization of Turkish made it possible to read modern(ized) Republican Turkish. Arabic script worked for Ottoman Turkish because so much of it was Persian and Arabic in the first place. Three vowel signs for eight vowels, even with vowel harmony, not so much.

  18. marie-lucie says:

    JC: it’s easier to read another variety of your language …. in your own script than it is to read your own language in another script

    Witness the difficulty of reading your own language in a phonological (or worse, a narrow phonetic) transcription, especially if (like English or French) its usual spelling is not obviously related to its pronunciation.

  19. David Marjanović says:

    Things I forgot to mention (on the upside, I made it to the cafeteria in time):

    the absurd idea that Shang oracle bone writing was pictographic (it was just as morphosyllabic as any other Chinese writing, though it’s true that the characters are less stylized and more naturalistic),

    The pronunciation clues that most characters contain were a lot more transparent and systematic then than they are now, for obvious reasons. Baxter (of Baxter & Sagart) has gone so far as to say that learning to read in Old Chinese times and places was more like learning a syllabary than learning what has become of it today.

    and the whole fantasy about the supposed Mayan-script version of the Popol Vuh (about which we know precisely nothing) being necessarily less detailed than the alphabetic version we have today.

    That looks like a confusion of the Aztec not-so-much-writing system, which consisted of a few mostly mnemonic symbols more or less as described, and the Mayan writing system, which was an ordinary logosyllabic script like Japanese or Cuneiform.

    List of Uto-Aztecan words for ‘sun’:

    Oh, it gets better.

    “Stubbs reconstructs a PUA root **tɨyo “deity” which he only finds in the Aztecan branch, I have hereby demonstrated [scroll down to “5. Sun, heat, deities and sacred energy”] that the root is shared with Coracholan and should be reconstructed as *tɨyaw or *tɨyew.”

    Tell it to the Serbs!

    Both scripts are actually in daily use in Serbia, seemingly almost at random. If you can’t read them both, you’ll feel illiterate at least in the big cities.

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    Three vowel signs for eight vowels, even with vowel harmony, not so much.

    Yeah. The Turkish reading conventions for the Arabic script have interesting consequences when applied to Arabic: during the Egyptian Revolution, there were protests against Mübarek

  20. I, once again, was to register my dissatisfaction with the term “Latin” to describe the alphabets used in Western Europe and the Americas. Without minuscule, my alphabet would be totally different. Indeed, this whole paragraph contains only four examples of letters with one-to-one correspondences to classical Latin.

  21. J.W. Brewer says:

    But what language were the ancestral versions of (most of) those miniscule letters developed to write? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_cursive#New_Roman_cursive

  22. The question is what is this threshold?

    For Unicode purposes, we separate scripts based on legibility and on meaningful associations. We do not identify Latin ABC with Cyrillic АВС, because nobody searching for one would expect to find the other. Similarly, we distinguish Phoenician (including Palaeo-Hebrew) from square/modern Hebrew (historically Aramaic) script because being able to read one does not automatically provide you with the ability to read the other.

  23. @John Cowan: Boy, that was a thread for the ages, even if it was mostly driven by a succession of crackpots.

  24. Christopher S says:

    I don’t know about some of the stronger claims made by the author, but the general idea of a scriptworld seems useful to me. True, people would still learn English even if it was written in Martian script. But when it comes to borderline cases, like what to learn as a second foreign language (or first foreign language in the case of native speakers of English), I do often see people being swayed by whether or not they will need to learn a new script (by their own account). In one case I’ve even seen a very accomplished language learner who is proficient in Urdu admit to not being able to read Hindi only because he doesn’t like learning new scripts. And is there any doubt that more Japanese people would give Korean a go (after learning English) if it shared a writing system with Japanese? So the sum total of these small decisions informed by scripts does point to scripts having some effect on the formation of “language communities”.

  25. Bathrobe says:

    Yeah, I was just carried away by the glittering appearance of sweeping grandeur. Hey, it was late and I needed something to post…

    I don’t think you need to apologise. The guy was far too interested in grand categorising, cast his net far too wide, knew far too little, and was far too arts/literature wishy-washy (this is my own call), but there’s a lot of interesting things to be said about how scripts influence language and culture.

    I came to this paper from an Academia paper called The Twentieth-Century Secularization of the Sinograph in Vietnam, and its Demotion from the Cosmological to the Aesthetic by one John Phan of Rutgers University. It’s not terribly gripping, either, but the abstract is:

    This article examines David Damrosch’s notion of “scriptworlds”—spheres of cultural and intellectual transfusion, defined by a shared script—as it pertains to early modern Vietnam’s abandonment of sinographic writing in favor of a latinized alphabet. The Vietnamese case demonstrates a surprisingly rapid readjustment of deeply held attitudes concerning the nature of writing, in the wake of the alphabet’s meteoric successes. The fluidity of “language ethics” in early modern Vietnam (a society that had long since developed vernacular writing out of an earlier experience of diglossic literacy) suggests that the durability of a “scriptworld” depends on the nature and history of literacy in the societies under question.

    Since it takes “scriptworlds” as its frame of reference, you could almost say that his conclusion negates the validity of the scriptworld concept.

  26. David Marjanović says:

    Since it takes “scriptworlds” as its frame of reference, you could almost say that his conclusion negates the validity of the scriptworld concept.

    Sort of. The scriptworld concept appears to have applied to Vietnam from the mid-16th to the beginning of the 20th century; throughout this time Catholics wrote in Latin letters while everyone else who was literate was more or less Confucian and wrote Vietnamese, if at all, in more or less Chinese characters. What happened in the early 20th century was a local breakdown of the scriptworld concept, around the same time as it broke down in Europe (and probably connected to that) as the formerly very strict association of script and religion came apart by general secularization.

  27. David Marjanović says:

    And now for something completely different from the same author: Mường is not a subgroup: Phonological evidence for a paraphyletic taxon in the Viet-Muong sub-family – although the Mường idioms are mutually intelligible with each other and not with Vietnamese, Vietnamese is a branch in their tree, and there never was a Proto-Mường different from Proto-Việt-Mường.

  28. David Marjanović says:

    Most of the above paper is contained in this one, which argues that Proto-Việt-Mường has a big fat layer of Middle Chinese loans that includes not only cultural, literary and philosophical concepts, but even very basic vocabulary and grammatical particles and came in as a substrate from a Chinese population that adopted the local language (presumably when the empire was kicked out in the 10th century) but kept its prestige. This is compared to the case of English, where most of the French words came in when the Norman aristocracy lost its ties to France and decided to be English faute de mieux.

  29. Hardly surprising. Italian and Spanish are more or less mutually intelligible, whereas French is not, but there is no Proto-Italian-Spanish that excludes French.

  30. David Marjanović says:

    Exactly. I wonder if this comparison occurs in Phan’s thesis (2013, so later than both papers) which I’ve begun to read.

  31. David Marjanović says:

    Oops. Forgot that’s just a “preview” – chapter 0, the first 19 pages.

  32. This incipiently makes a distinction that I have not seen anywhere in general discussions of language shift, between normal language shifts from a low-prestige to a high-prestige language, where borrowings are few but structural interference is common, and what could be called inverted language shifts, from a high-prestige to a (formerly) low-prestige language, where there usually end up being a huge number of borrowings. Cases that come to mind are Swedish to Finnish (“Swedes we are no longer, Russians we don’t wish to be, so let us be Finns!”) and Katharevousa to Dimotiki, in addition to the French to English and Middle Chinese to Proto-Viet-Muong mentioned by Phan.

  33. David Marjanović says:

    Also, there are “aborted language shifts” and other phenomena that produce strange results.

  34. Huh. The conclusion presents “one of two equivalent scenarios”:

    1) In the preliterate or early literate epoch (say, the second half of the 4th millennium BC), a tribe that spoke a language of the Hurro-Urartian family (not necessarily the Hurro-Urartians proper) migrated from the southern Caucasus to southern Mesopotamia, where it entered into interaction with the Sumerian community. The Sumerians appeared to be the dominant group and the Hurro-Urartian newcomers began gradually to give up their language. At the penultimate stage of that language shift, the process was for unknown reasons interrupted, whereas the Sumerians proper were eliminated. If so, the historical Sumerians were actually a Hurro-Urartian-like people that shifted to the Sumerian language, having retained several Swadesh terms of Hurro-Urartian origin.

    2) The second scenario mirrors the first one. A Sumerian-like tribe migrated to the southern Caucasus and then learned the proto-Hurro-Urartian language. If so, the historical Hurrians and Urartians are actually a Sumerian (or related) people that shifted to the Hurro-Urartian language, having retained several Swadesh terms of Sumerian origin.

    Interesting stuff.

  35. And the evidence for this is six fuzzy resemblant matches from the 100-word Swadesh list and a handful more from the rest of the known vocabulary. “O monstrous! Eleven men in buckram grown out of two!”

    Specifically, it is not enough to show statistical significance (as the paper does); some measure of effect size must also be provided:

    A commonly cited example of this problem is the Physicians Health Study of aspirin to prevent myocardial infarction (MI). In more than 22 000 subjects over an average of 5 years, aspirin was associated with a reduction in MI (although not in overall cardiovascular mortality) that was highly statistically significant: P < .00001. The study was terminated early due to the conclusive evidence, and aspirin was recommended for general prevention. However, the effect size was very small: a risk difference of 0.77% with r²  =  .001—an extremely small effect size. As a result of that study, many people were advised to take aspirin who would not experience benefit yet were also at risk for adverse effects. Further studies found even smaller effects, and the recommendation to use aspirin has since been modified.

  36. David Marjanović says:

    six fuzzy resemblant matches

    As the paper shows, the matches are actually pretty good – and get better the more stringent you make your criteria.

    What would effect size be in this case?

  37. Who, me? Ask a statistician. I’m just the village idiot saying “This is Bad.”

  38. Trond Engen says:

    scriptworld

    I think I’ve seen the term ‘graphosphere’ used in that sense.

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