A couple of recent items in the Newspaper of Record:
1) An Iraqi-American named Saad D. Abulhab has invented a simplified Arabic alphabet that he says is easier to learn, with bidirectional letters. Weird but interesting. (Via
2) It’s Gray and Atkinson again. Since historical linguists are mulishly reluctant to push their investigations back beyond the limits allowed by actual evidence, biologists are doing it for them. Indo-European, it turns out, is very very old, and was spoken by farmers who… oh, the hell with it. I just can’t go through this again. Life is short, and crackpottery is long. (Hey, look at that cracked pot—it must be… Indo-European!)
Addendum. The redoubtable Bill Poser has addressed both these stories at Language Log: A New Arabic Alphabet? and Nicholas Wade on Gray and Atkinson.


  1. Time to re-read Dante’s Divine Comedy. I’m sure there’s a crackpot languist [sic] in some ditch somewhere in one of the circles.

  2. I’m sure how important this invention is given that computers already seem to be able to handle this stuff pretty well. It’s also likely to be perceived by Arab readers as pretty darn ugly but, anyway, as you say, it’s interesting.
    United States Patent 6,704,116
    Abulhab March 9, 2004
    Method and font for representing Arabic characters, and articles utilizing them
    A method of, and a font for, representing the extended arabic characters in which a distinctive Arabic based alphabet of minimum constant number of letters would include characters that have unique non-varying glyph representations, detachable forms to render non-cursive strings, and generally symmetric outlines to facilitate bi-directional utilization. Each glyph in the new font has the core characteristics of its traditional Arabic equivalent so that words and text strings utilizing new font and method will closely resemble traditional Arabic. Unlike prior art Arabic fonts and the systems employing them, the invention introduces a significantly smaller font size and a platform independent font-only based character input/output method or system eliminating previously required glyph and ligature substitutions and allowing bi-directional and non-cursive rendering. Articles utilizing the present invention, such as computerized systems, transparencies, or language learning tools, can overcome much of the currently based system complexity.
    Inventors: Abulhab; Saad D. (P.O. Box 1745, New York, NY 10163)
    Appl. No.: 377395
    Filed: August 19, 1999
    The images are TIFFs so for those without a TIFF can see them as JPEGS here:
    here, here and here

  3. without a TIFF reader, I mean.

  4. OT, but there’s new evidence that Japanese is closely related to Sumerian. The Sumerian records speak of an island name Hap or Ghap whose location has always been a mystery. Probably we have the development Hap –> Ap –> Ip –> Nip –> Nippon (which is quite regular in some languages) with the Sumerian nominalizing suffix “on”. A very early pot of unknown origin found in Sumatra probably was Sumerian, representing a stopping place during the migration. (Sumeria –> Suma- –> Sumatra, “tra” being a Sumerian diminutive = “Little Sumeria”.) Some sources speak of the Sumerians as being quite short, as the traditional Japanese were well known to be.
    Next Week: “The Yukagir: ancestors of the Maya?” (Why did the Maya have what seems to be a reindeer in their pantheon?)

  5. zizka, I hear the Times calling you… they want an exclusive…

  6. Zizka,
    Many thanks. I was reminded of my one and only archeological season in dusty steppe between Volga and Kama, place of *Bulgar Kingdom’ capitol* (no connection to Bulgaria) when I was an impressionable 16 y.o. Oh, after bone-breaking day under the scorching sun, to sit and listen to the white-bearded professor going on and on about possible caravan mercantile connections between China and Volga, all because shattered blue fiance teapot we just dug up!…

  7. Tatiana, I would have loved to have been there. Central Asia is one of my great loves, and I’ve actually reconstructed step by step the route by which walrus ivory reached Sung China from Greenland ca. 1000-1100. Even with the resources I have available (no Russian language), there really is only one uncertain link. From the Baltic, the route could have gone south to the Crimea, by sea to Trebizond, and then by land to Samarqand; or else they could have portaged across to the upper Volga and gone downstream to Bulgar.
    Ibn Fadlan’s description of a Viking funeral in Bulgar (an orgy followed by human sacrifice) is the most pornographic primary historical document which has come to my attention so far. But I’m open to suggestions. The Vikings themselves are described as exactly like Hell’s Angels: tall, blonde, muscular, tattooed, filthy, and brutal.

  8. Zizka,
    Of course, it was..oh, more than 20 yrs ago and I can’t be sure, but I think the professors were from Kazan’ University and their expedition was at least a decade-long enterprise. So you might have a chance to get some concrete info, and I would think someone speak English there. (Or if you can communicate in Turc languages, the University is in Tataria’ capitol).
    Nice to find somebody who doesn’t confuse Bulgaria and Bulgar, btw.

  9. When I was in eight grade we used a paperback historical atlas which had the Kingdom of the Volga Bulgars floating out there in the middle of nowhere. There was no explanation but when I found out later that it’s possible to find out about things like that I was ecstatic.

  10. I remember that too, but for some reason what struck me even more was the Kingdom of Samo somewhere in eastern Europe in the early Middle Ages. Mysterious name, no precursors or successors, just Samo in the middle of nowhere. I lay there at night trying to imagine what life would have been like as a Knight of Samo.

  11. We never imagine ourselves as peasants, are we? Hmmmm.

  12. Well, not as teenagers, by and large.

  13. Well, that was ambiguous. I meant “not when we’re teenagers.”

  14. As teenagers, too. I for one wouldn’t want to be one again. All the mood swings, sudden loneliness, awkwardness of your own no-more-familiar body, your friends turning into rude strangers – ouch.

  15. Amen!

  16. I feel compelled to play devil’s advocate.
    “..back beyond the limits allowed by actual evidence, biologists are doing it for them.”
    …sounds suspiciously like a creationist complaint against evolution. Their particular approach may be flawed, but I see no reason to disregard such an analysis as prima facie invalid.
    Indeed, my first objection to their analysis would have been that, unlike in mitochondrial DNA, rate of change in language is not roughly constant. Alas, I remember that I recently saw what seemed to me to be a rather doctrinaire linguistic rant (meaning: written by a linguist) that relied upon the assumption—as a general principle—of a roughly constant rate of language mutation.
    Which I think is funny because I’d dearly like to know what natural mechanism is postulated that would manage to regulate such change. There is one in genetics. Thus, I’m skeptical of both G&A’s analysis *and* the previously mentioned rant.
    The fact of the matter is that linguistics is barely a science—certainly moreso than sociology but certainly less so than (even) biology. That’s not intended as a swipe at either linguistics or sociology—I’m usually inclined to argue against the “hard science” snobs. But both these fields, and many others, exist in a domain of such complexity that I don’t think we yet have sufficient tools with which to make fundamental breakthroughs. It’s not unlikely that some insights will come from afield utilizing emerging techniques that have proven useful in similar problem domains.
    And, as usual, the neophytes will overreach and be arrogant in their professional ignorance while the professionals will howl and defend their territory and deny any success.
    The bottom line on this sort of analysis is that they desperately need to anchor it empirically. It reminds me of the infamous “frequency of intelligent life in the universe” formula—it’d be valuable if it rested upon anything other than obfuscated pure supposition. That is to say, neurolinguists need to establish some physical framework within which such a consequent analysis could take place. Put another way, in their ignorance G&A may have essentially plugged metaphorical phrenological measurements into their method, confusing phenotype with genotype. Just as an example.
    But, again, I’m deeply suspicious of a prima facie dismissal on account of the fact that they’re neither liguists nor recognize that such an analysis is proscribed by linguistic convention.

  17. Samo’s empire. It was a thing from 623 to 658.

  18. Why do they show a map with no Samo on it? Belittlement, I call it, and dangerously close to lèse-majesté.

  19. Samo, like Apuleius and Meleager, will not sue us.

  20. I”d like to see Samo come back and kick some ass. We’ve made a muck of the world, and Samo’s just the guy to fix it.

  21. Well, he was said to be a Frankish merchant, which makes him an early example of rule by the bourgeoisie. Do we really need more of that?

  22. Hmm. Good point.

  23. marie-lucie says

    Keith: I recently saw what seemed to me to be a rather doctrinaire linguistic rant (meaning: written by a linguist) that relied upon the assumption—as a general principle—of a roughly constant rate of language mutation.

    Better late than never: I can’t think of a competently trained historical linguist who would rely on such an assumption. However, not all current linguists are competenly trained (if at all) in this field of linguistics.

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