Saturday, 30 April 2016

Dreamed-Up Alphabets

The last entry on this blog mentioned Vai.  Sarada complained that this was an unwarranted irrelevance, but a while after writing it I realised that the example makes quite an interesting story in connection with autonomous learning and invention.

The Vai people live in Liberia and Sierra Leone.  Almost all languages spoken today in Africa use either Latin or Arabic script.  There are some exceptions, notably Amharic, spoken in Ethiopia and using the Ge'ez script, and Berber languages of North West Africa, which use the Tifinagh scripts.  Coptic, which was originally Ancient Egyptian, uses an alphabet derived from demotic hieroglyphics and Greek, but is now only a liturgical language and is no longer spoken.

Vai, by contrast, uses this syllabary:


Unlike alphabets, syllabaries use one sign per syllable, as the name suggests.  The history of the Vai script is quite remarkable.  It was first written down in the early nineteenth century by Momolu Duwalu Bukele and is said to have been revealed to him in a dream!  This could, of course, merely be a picturesque origin story, but it's entirely feasible that this could have happened.  The Bach flower remedies are another example of a system revealed in a dream and are quite involved and complex.  I feel I should trust the opinion that it did come to him in a dream because the doubts expressed seem to be about not trusting people in an in-group.  It's also difficult to know whether to call the appearance of the Vai script discovery or invention:  did he think it up subconsciously or did he consciously invent it?  If the former, how much is that a revelation and how much is it subconscious invention?  It's similar to the issue of confabulation and false memories, which edges towards Mandela Effect territory.  Whatever else was the case, it's highly likely that Momolu Duwalu Bukele got the idea, consciously or otherwise, from another equally remarkable writing system.

Liberia has an unusual history, and forgive me if you know this because I have no idea what other people do and don't know.  Its history is evident in its flag:


which of course resembles a certain other flag.  In the early nineteenth century, the American Colonization Society established Liberia as an African homeland for free African Americans because they believed their presence in the American South would make slaves there rebel.  This policy was supported by Abraham Lincoln.  Later, other colonies were established in the area which did include freed slaves.  In 1847, the area became an independent republic based on the US constitution.  More recently, Liberia became known for being used as a flag of convenience and had the largest shipping registry in the world.

Due to its connections with North America, members of the Cherokee nation also emigrated there on occasion, and an early Vai inscription was in fact found on a Liberian house belonging to Austin Curtis, who was Cherokee.  This is significant because it so happens that the Cherokee language itself is one of the few Native American languages to have its own script.  Excluding Quechua with its quipu, the knotted strings used for I think accounting purposes, the only languages with their own script there which come to mind are Yucatec Maya, Nahuatl (which is arguably not a form of writing as such) and the Cree syllabary.  There may be others but I don't recall them.

Cherokee is unusual by virtue of the fact that its writing was invented by someone who was previously illiterate, namely Sequoyah.  Here it is in its modern form:



This is Sequoyah.  He was born in the late eighteenth century and invented the syllabary in the early nineteenth.  It was so successful that literacy among the Cherokee soon surpassed that of the European-American settlers around them.  Although he originally intended fot the characters to be ideograms - one symbol per word - he changed his mind and settled on one symbol per syllable, as it is today.  The Vai script has a similar history in that it too used to have ideograms but has mainly dropped them with one or two exceptions.  Latin has a few widely used ideograms today, including "@" and "&", and the numerals we use could also be seen in that way although they're not strictly part of our script as such, being used by peoples all over the world, including Cherokee itself.

Sequoyah developed his script by studying his copy of the Bible, which, being illiterate, he couldn't read.  The script is still used today by the Cherokee.

There are a couple of other examples of illiterate people creating scripts about which I know far less.   One of them is Hmong, a language spoken in parts of China and Indochina.  This is written in a script called Pahawh Hmong:

Once again, this is a syllabary, invented by one Shong Lue Yang, also known as the Mother Of Writing, in the twentieth century.  Living in Vietnam, he was an illiterate farmer and basketmaker living hand to mouth, who probably did see writing at some point.  Starting in 1959, he received a series of visions in which divine twins taught him this writing and commanded him to pass it on to his people, which clearly he proceeded to do.

Finally, although there may be others, there is the Nüshu script, a secret writing by otherwise illiterate women in Hunan province, China:


Nüshu came into existence many centuries ago but nobody knows exactly when except that it was some time between the years 900 and 1600.  Most of the population was illiterate at the time but women learned to write this script, which they used for poetry, and again it's syllabic.  In a sense, like some other forms of communication such as Laadan, it's a specifically female mode of writing.  It was suppressed by the Japanese in their occupation because of the possibility of being used for secret messages, and again later by the Maoists during and after the Cultural Revolution for the same reason.  The last native user of Nüshu died in 2004 although it's not lost, since it's known in academic circles.  I wish I knew more about it, and shortly will.  There's a website here.

The notable feature of all these scripts is that they're all syllabaries in spite of the other writing used where they came to be.  Hmong and Nüshu had ideographic script, namely Chinese characters, used around them and Vai and Cherokee, with alphabets used around them.  To me, this suggests that the "natural" form of human writing is not alphabetic, ideographic or even pictographic but for some reason syllabic - one syllable per symbol.  Also, this has happened at least four times.

Why is this here, on this blog?  Well, to me this is a supreme example of what can be achieved by supposedly uneducated, illiterate people without any formal instruction, at least from other human beings.  Also, given the sources of information, at least two arrived in the human psyche from dreamlike states, at least according to the origin stories.  This shows how there's a sense in which we don't need to be taught to learn how to read and write, although on the whole if we never were we would presumably end up with hundreds or thousands of mutually unreadable forms of writing.  It also illustrates how we can even learn, discover and invent massively useful things in our sleep or at least in non-waking states of consciousness, even if it turns out that the information is from supernatural sources.  That's not a necessary supposition of course, and I prefer to think of this as in those two ways a marvellous instance of how amazing human beings are as a species.