Category Archives: scholarship

Writing Consonant Symbols for Vowels

New orthographies for Pacific Island languages have had very mixed results. I’ve blogged about some of the less successful attempts at new orthographies in Micronesia: for Yapese and Marshallese. By contrast, the first Hawaiian orthography, developed by missionaries, proved enormously successful, leaving a huge legacy of Hawaiian-language publications now being digitized and translated.

I recently came across another new orthography in a Pacific language that looks bizarre to people who read widely in Latin-based alphabets, but that seems to work for the 4,000 or so people who speak Natqgu, a language in the Reefs-Santa Cruz islands off the southeastern end of the Solomon Islands. A local language committee revised an earlier orthography that was difficult to type because it relied on diacritics to distinguish 10 vowel positions, plus distinctive nasalization on a few of them. Fortunately, they didn’t need all the plain consonant symbols on standard keyboards so they decided to substitute consonant symbols for the diacritic-laden vowels and mark nasalization with a trailing apostrophe.

Language Project advisor Brenda Boerger describes the local committee’s thinking in Natqgu literacy: Capturing three domains for written language use in Language Documentation & Conservation 1 (2007): 126–153:

But by the mid-1990s, when Wurm’s [diacritic-dependent] Natqgu orthography had been in use for over ten years, there had still been little increase in vernacular literacy. So the local community was again asked by the Natqgu Language Project to consider modifying the orthography in order to eliminate the diacritics. This time there was sufficient support for it, and with the consent of the leader who had had reservations, the language group decided to change the orthography. Their reasons were primarily two-fold. The first was exactly what was reported above. That is, speakers continued to find it difficult to learn to read and write Natqgu, apparently as a result of their lack of experience in identifying the letters with diacritics as separate symbols and sounds from those without. Their second reason was related to producing printed materials. Typing the diacritics demanded a special typewriter with at least a tilde. The double quote mark was often used in place of the umlaut. For vowels with both an umlaut and a tilde, it was necessary for the typist to scroll the paper slightly, so that the tilde would be over the umlaut (double quote mark). Typing was tedious, and the end result was not the clean copy normally expected for printed texts. Furthermore, no printing business in the Solomons at that time was able to typeset text with the Natqgu diacritics.

Since the earlier language committee had become inactive, an ad hoc orthography committee composed of leaders literate in Natqgu was formed to make the change. They discussed a number of possible ways to modify the alphabet. For each proposal a paragraph was printed so the committee members could see text in the revised orthography. One proposal included using digraphs to replace the letters with diacritics. Another pattern suggested digraphs, which had Natqgu attempting to follow English pronunciation and spelling conventions, by representing /ə/ as uh and /a/ as ah. However, since this went against the convention for most languages in the world, including Pijin and other Solomons vernaculars, all of which represent /a/ as a, this alternative was rejected. As other digraphs were examined, the committee quickly rejected them all. They realized that not only would using digraphs add to the length of words, but that the added length would also make them even more difficult to read, especially since three of the vowels with diacritics occurred most frequently.

Table 4. Vowel Equivalences in the Old and New Natqgu Orthographies [truncated here]
old = new = IPA
a = a = a
e = e = e
i = i = i
o = o = o
u = u = u
o = c = ɔ (open o)
ü = q = ʉ (barred U)
ö = r = ɞ (close reversed epsilon)
ä = x = æ
ë = z = ə

That situation left the committee with the “one sound, one symbol” alternative. As an advisor to the committee, I showed them orthographic and IPA vowel symbols from other languages in the world to consider as possibilities, some of which had the same disadvantages as the orthography with diacritics. They expressed a strong desire to stick to the letters they already recognized as symbols for written language — those on an English typewriter. As a consequence, they decided to represent the five diacritic vowels by using consonant letters from the English alphabet which were not necessary for writing Natqgu words. The inventory of possible letters was: c, f, h, q, r, x, and z. They rejected the use of f and h because, “Vowels should only be one space high,” leaving only five letters remaining for the five vowels under consideration. They compromised on the descending leg of q because, “Its body has the round shape like most vowels.” Assigning each vowel to a symbol was fairly straightforward. There was already the practice of writing /ɞ/ as ir, so leaving out the i seemed logical. The letter c was the mirror image of the open /o/ which they’d been shown. The pronunciation of the name of the letter q was similar to the sound of /ʉ/. And the name of x sounded almost like axe, which begins with the sound /æ/. That left z to represent /ə/. Thus, the spelling of Natügu became Natqgu, as in the majority of the relevant bibliographical references in this article. They also decided to represent phonemic nasalization with a straight apostrophe following the vowel symbol, so that it could be typed sequentially and no vowel would require a diacritic.

Given that there was little local identification with the old orthography, the new one was easily accepted, even though orthographies have been hotly disputed elsewhere in the Solomon Islands. Occasionally a leader from a more distant village would drop in and say, “I heard you changed our writing.” I countered that a committee of Natqgu speakers had made the change, and gave a quick lesson on how to read the new orthography, complete with a handout delineating the correspondences between the two orthographies and giving key words for each vowel. Each key word used the focus vowel twice. The handout contained the material in Table 4, minus the IPA symbols, and could be used to explain the changes to others.

A side benefit of the orthography change was the continued production of this half-page handout, which over the years took on a life of its own. The team eventually requested that it be the first page in all of our publications. People would regularly come to the door and say, “I want the vowels,” meaning they needed a copy of the pronunciation guide. These copies were simple and cheap to produce, so they could be given without charge. Having a copy of the vowel handout was the starting point for those who decided to informally teach a friend to read, and demonstrated their desire to use Natqgu in its written form, as well as its spoken one. I suggest that the “vowel paper” became so popular because it significantly increased the ease of access to Natqgu literacy using the new orthography, in part by eliminating the need for a teacher on the part of those already literate in English.

As reported in the next section, the most important result of adopting the new orthography has been that speakers are able to learn to read and write in it more easily, apparently because it is more intuitive to them.

The New Testament, Psalms, Ruth, and the Anglican Book of Worship have been translated into Natqgu in its new orthography. Here’s what Psalm 23 looks like in the new orthography.

Sam 23
Kxaolve Sip

Nabz ne Devet

1 Yawe, aolve-zvzq ninge apux sip nem.
X trtxpnz’ngr da kx mnctxpx-ngrneng.

2 Mailz-zvzq ninge me ycngr lue x dakxnzng,
Murde naamax mrgc tqycngr nrwx.

3 Amrnaq nzlu-krnge.
X aelwa-zvz-ngrme lrpzki kxtubq, murde drtqm tr zlwz.

4 Nctrko scm tzmle nzti bange.
X bz scm abrmle drtwrnge mz da kx prtz.

Kxmule-esz’ vztrx mz nzlo, a’ trtxpnz’ngr da kx namwx’lrtix.
Murde nim Yawe, kc tqmncme bange.

5 Alebzme nange dakxnzng,
X aelubzme narnge tolo,

Mz mzlir enqmi rngeng.
X drtwrnge elalzm.

6 Krlz-angidrx kx sa naka-zvzme bange zmrlz x nzokatr-krm,
X namnc-zvzx ma nyz’m.

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World War I Postwar Revisionism

From Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, by Max Hastings (Knopf, 2013), Kindle Loc. 181-228:

In today’s Britain, there is a widespread belief that the war was so horrendous that the merits of the rival belligerents’ causes scarcely matter – the Blackadder take on history, if you like. This seems mistaken, even if one does not entirely share Cicero’s view that the causes of events are more important than the events themselves. That wise historian Kenneth O. Morgan, neither a conservative nor a revisionist, delivered a 1996 lecture about the cultural legacy of the twentieth century’s two global disasters, in which he argued that ‘the history of the First World War was hijacked in the 1920s by the critics’. Foremost among these was Maynard Keynes, an impassioned German sympathiser who castigated the supposed injustice and folly of the 1919 Versailles Treaty, without offering a moment’s speculation about what sort of peace Europe would have had if a victorious Kaiserreich and its allies had been making it. The contrast is striking, and wildly overdone, between the revulsion of the British people following World War I, and their triumphalism after 1945. I am among those who reject the notion that the conflict of 1914–18 belonged to a different moral order from that of 1939–45. If Britain had stood aside while the Central Powers prevailed on the continent, its interests would have been directly threatened by a Germany whose appetite for dominance would assuredly have been enlarged by victory.

The seventeenth-century diarist John Aubrey wrote: ‘About 1647, I went to see Parson Stump out of curiosity to see his Manuscripts, whereof I had seen some in my childhood; but by that time they were lost and disperst; his sons were gunners and souldiers, and scoured their gunnes with them.’ All historians face such disappointments, but the contrary phenomenon also afflicts students of 1914: there is an embarrassment of material in many languages, and much of it is suspect or downright corrupt. Almost all the leading actors in varying degree falsified the record about their own roles; much archival material was destroyed, not merely by carelessness but often because it was deemed injurious to the reputations of nations or individuals. From 1919 onwards Germany’s leaders, in pursuit of political advantage, strove to shape a record that might exonerate their country from war guilt, systematically eliminating embarrassing evidence. Some Serbs, Russians and Frenchmen did likewise.

Moreover, because so many statesmen and soldiers changed their minds several times during the years preceding 1914, their public and private words can be deployed to support a wide range of alternative judgements about their convictions and intentions. An academic once described oceanography as ‘a creative activity undertaken by individuals who are … gratifying their own curiosity. They are trying to find meaningful patterns in the research data, their own as well as other people’s, and far more frequently than one might suppose, the interpretation is frankly speculative.’ The same is true about the study of history in general, and that of 1914 in particular.

Scholarly argument about responsibility for the war has raged through decades and several distinct phases. A view gained acceptance in the 1920s and thereafter, influenced by a widespread belief that the 1919 Versailles Treaty imposed unduly harsh terms upon Germany, that all the European powers shared blame. Then Luigi Albertini’s seminal work The Origins of the War of 1914 appeared in Italy in 1942 and in Britain in 1953, laying the foundations for many subsequent studies, especially in its emphasis on German responsibility. In 1967 Fritz Fischer published another ground-breaking book, Germany’s Aims in the First World War, arguing that the Kaiserreich must bear the burden of guilt, because documentary evidence showed the country’s leadership bent upon launching a European war before Russia’s accelerating development and armament precipitated a seismic shift in strategic advantage.

At first, Fischer’s compatriots responded with outrage. They were members of the generation which reluctantly accepted a necessity to shoulder responsibility for the Second World War; now, here was Fischer insisting that his own nation should also bear the guilt for the First. It was too much, and his academic brethren fell upon him. The bitterness of Germany’s ‘Fischer controversy’ has never been matched by any comparable historical debate in Britain or the United States. When the dust settled, however, a remarkable consensus emerged that, with nuanced reservations, Fischer was right.

But in the past three decades, different aspects of his thesis have been energetically challenged by writers on both sides of the Atlantic. Among the most impressive contributions was that of Georges-Henri Soutou, in his 1989 work L’Or et le sang. Soutou did not address the causes of the conflict, but instead the rival war aims of the allies and the Central Powers, convincingly showing that rather than entering the conflict with a coherent plan for world domination, the Germans made up their objectives as they went along. Some other historians have ploughed more contentious furrows. Sean McMeekin wrote in 2011: ‘The war of 1914 was Russia’s war even more than it was Germany’s.’ Samuel Williamson told a March 2012 seminar at Washington’s Wilson Center that the theory of explicit German guilt is no longer tenable. Niall Ferguson places a heavy responsibility on British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey. Christopher Clark argues that Austria was entitled to exact military retribution for the murder of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand upon Serbia, which was effectively a rogue state. Meanwhile John Rohl, magisterial historian of the Kaiser and his court, remains unwavering in his view that there was ‘crucial evidence of intentionality on Germany’s part’.

No matter – for the moment – which of these theses seems convincing or otherwise: suffice it to say there is no danger that controversy about 1914 will ever be stilled. Many alternative interpretations are possible, and all are speculative. The early twenty-first century has produced a plethora of fresh theories and imaginative reassessments of the July crisis, but remarkably little relevant and persuasive new documentary material. There is not and never will be a ‘definitive’ interpretation of the coming of war: each writer can only offer a personal view.

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Lankov on the Soviet-run Popular Revolution in NK

The Sino-NK blog (“Northeast Asia with a China-North Korea Focus”) has an interesting column with the provocative title, A False Dichotomy: Professor Andrei Lankov on a Popular Revolution Imposed from Without. Here’s Prof. Lankov’s conclusion.

The Soviet involvement with the new regime in Pyongyang was considerable. Soviet control far exceeded America’s rather moderate influence in the South. However, the vast majority of Koreans did not know this. One cannot help but wonder, then: had the extent of Soviet control been fully known in the late 1940s, would such a revelation have had a decisive impact on popular attitudes towards Pyongyang’s regime? It is, after all, difficult to imagine that in 1946 North Korean farmers would have rejected free land had they known that this land had been bestowed upon them by the secretive Soviet viceroy and not by this young, plump guerrilla field commander named Kim Il-sung.

It seems that Korean historians are caught in a false dichotomy when they argue about whether the 1945-50 period was a time of foreign occupation or popular revolution. In fact, it was both. Irrespective of the Soviet advisors, who discreetly but firmly controlled developments, the major ideas resonated well with the majority of North Korean people and provided the language of the revolution. The Kim Il-sung regime of the late 1940s might have been a dependent or even a puppet one, but this does not necessarily mean that it was unpopular. Of course, its popularity was to a large extent based on naive expectations and illusions, but it was quite real nonetheless.

via The Marmot’s Hole

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Wordcatcher Tales: xoc, anagogy

From: Breaking the Maya Code, rev. ed., by Michael D. Coe (Thames & Hudson, 1999), p. 141 (third edition now available on Kindle):

Here were three glyphs … that the leading anti-phoneticist of his day [Eric Thompson] was reading in the Yucatec Maya tongue. That begins to sound subversive! Even further, back in 1944 he had shown that the pair of fish fins, or at times a pair of fishes, which flanked the Month-patron head in the great glyph which always introduces an Initial Series date on a Classic monument, is a rebus sign: the fish is a shark, xoc in Maya (Tom Jones has recently proved that xoc is the origin of the English word “shark”). And xoc also means “to count” in Maya.

These decipherments were all major advances, but Thompson failed to follow them up. Why? The answer is that Thompson was a captive of that same mindset that had led in the first century before Christ to the absurd interpretations of Egyptian hieroglyphs by Diodorus Siculus, to the equally absurd fourth-century AD Neoplatonist nonsense of Horapollon, and to the sixteenth-century fantasies of Athanasius Kircher. Eric had ignored the lesson of Champollion.

In a chapter entitled “Glances Backward and a Look Ahead,” Thompson sums up his views on Maya hieroglyphic writing. “The glyphs are anagogical,” he says. Now Webster defines anagogy as the “interpretation of a word, passage, or text (as of Scripture or poetry) that finds beyond the literal, allegorical, and moral senses a fourth and ultimate spiritual and mystical sense.”

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Evaluating Both Style and Substance in One’s Sources

From the Introduction to History of the Spanish Conquest of Yucatan and of the Itzas, by Philip Ainsworth Means. Papers of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, vol. VII, 1917. (The Kindle edition is available for free on Amazon!)

Though Villagutierre’s Spanish style is far superior to that of such writers as Fernando Montesinos and Antonio de la Calancha, it is, nevertheless, atrocious. Although he wrote about 1700, Villagutierre’s style is excessively archaic; his grammatical construction can hardly be called construction at all, so formless and ambiguous is it. Villagutierre never hesitates to write several long sentences without a single main verb between them, nor does he often refrain from going on and on for a page or so without using a period. In the use of capitals he is most whimsical; usually he has them when they are called for, but he has many that are out of place as well.

The style of Cogolludo, on the other hand, is very good, and that, be it noted, despite the fact that Cogolludo wrote prior to 1688. One remarks with considerable surprise that in several cases Villagutierre and Cogolludo use almost the same words. For example, in speaking of the visit which Cortes made to the island of Tayasal, Cogolludo says: “… y aun que la ida de Cortes se tuvo por ossadia, y demasiada confianza…” Villagutierre, in the same connection says: “… que lo tenian a grandissima temeridad, y ossadia, y por demasiada confianza ….” This is an interesting point, and perhaps it is significant that Cogolludo’s book was published in 1688, whereas Villagutierre was not brought out until 1701. It is to be noted that Cogolludo, the earlier writer, uses only two epithets, and that Villagutierre, the later writer, uses the same two, plus a new one of his own. I know of two other cases where equally close and significant similarity exists between the two. It is possible, then that Villagutierre copied (not to say plagiarized) the work of Cogolludo without giving credit for it. But the important point for us in this matter does not concern the personal integrity of Villagutierre. Rather does the importance of the matter lie in this: if Villagutierre was acquainted with the history of Yucatan by Cogolludo to such a degree that he frequently borrowed whole phrases from it, he must have had a very good reason for diverging widely now and again from the version of events given by Cogolludo. Such a reason could only be supplied by the fact that Villagutierre possessed information which he regarded as superior to and more official than that of Cogolludo. Therefore, since in several instances (as in the account of the events leading up to the visit of Cortes to Tayasal) Villagutierre occasionally departs from the footsteps of Cogolludo, we may safely assume that he was at once more critical and better informed than the latter, whom, however, he valued enough to be willing to draw from his work much of his information and even some of his phraseology.

One rarely reads such introductions in scholarly books these days. This book is one of several I began reading to prepare for our winter vacation in the Yucatan, where my historian brother has retired and now works on Maya language projects.

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Wordcatcher Tales: biombo, subaru

Biombo – The Spanish term biombo ‘folding screen’ comes from Japanese byōbu (屏風 ‘wallwind’ or ‘screenwind’) for the same item. I first learned the term in the caption to Fig. 9 in the book I’ve been reading, Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest. The figure shows an oil-painted canvas biombo depicting “The Encounter of Cortés and Moctezuma” as imagined by the artist Juan Correa c. 1683. It goes on to describe biombo as “a popular Mexican artform introduced by the Japanese ambassador to Mexico City in 1614”! This left me skeptical because Tokugawa Japan (1600–1868) is far better known for its policy of national seclusion (sakoku) than for international outreach.

But in fact Tokugawa Japan did engage in a bit of outreach before the 1630s. In 1613, Date Masamune, first lord of Sendai, had Japan’s first galleon built in Ishinomaki (one of the cities hardest hit by the 2011 tsunami). Later christened the San Juan Bautista and laden with ceremonial gifts, it set sail for Acapulco in New Spain with Japan’s first ambassador to the Vatican, Hasekura Rokuemon Tsunenaga (支倉六右衛門常長, also spelled Faxecura Rocuyemon in Spanish sources), who spent time in Mexico City in 1614 and again on his return trip in 1618. About 60 of his Japanese compatriots who remained in Mexico until his return were baptized there as Christians. Hasekura himself waited until he got to Spain before being baptized as Francisco Felipe Faxicura.

Subaru – I was shocked a few months ago to realize that I had never bothered to wonder what the name Subaru means in Japanese. The logo on Subaru cars should perhaps have given me a hint, but I only found out about the Japanese meaning from a linguist friend who was researching whether the position of the Pleiades marks a seasonal cycle in any languages I was familiar with in Papua New Guinea.

In Numbami, the two words used to translate English ‘year’ are damana, which also means ‘Pleiades’, and yala, which comes from German Jahr. According to Streicher’s (1982) Jabêm–English Dictionary entry for dam(o): “The Pleiades are the main constellation seen in Jabêm during the dry season (October to March), and governing their activities in their gardens, i.e. the felling of trees to clear the ground for new gardens; the burning and planting of fields is done according to the position of the Pleiades.”

In Japanese, ‘Pleiades’ is usually rendered into プレアデス星団 Pureiadesu seidan (= ‘star group’), but the older native Japanese name for the cluster is Subaru, and the Chinese character for it is 昴, pronounced BOU in Sino-Japanese. I’m not aware that the Pleiades play any role at all in Japan’s highly conventionalized seasonal cycles, but the constellation may be a convenient symbol of the five divisions of Fuji Heavy Industries that merged to create the Subaru car company.

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Columbus as Portuguese Wannabe

From Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest, by Matthew Restall (Oxford, 2004), Kindle Loc. 348-399:

Columbus had profound Portuguese connections. Although he was Genoese and the sponsor of his voyages across the Atlantic was Queen Isabella of Castile, Columbus spent much of his life from the 1470s on in Portugal. In the late 1470s he married the daughter of a Portuguese Atlantic colonist, and he repeatedly sought royal Portuguese patronage before and after first approaching the Castilian monarch….

This context is so important because it is by looking at Portugal before and during Columbus’s years there that one can see the degree to which the transplanted Genoese navigator had neither a a unique plan nor a unique vision nor a unique pattern of previous experience. Many others created and contributed to the expansion process of which Columbus became a part. Beginning 200 years before Columbus crossed the Atlantic, southern European shipping broke out of the Mediterranean into the Atlantic. The Vivaldi brothers, most notably, set off from Genoa in 1291 on what turned out to be a one-way voyage west across the Atlantic. Then, in the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries a new zone of navigation was created that was bordered by the Azores in the north, the Canary Islands in the south, and the Iberian-African coasts in the east.

Finally, from the 1420s on, a further stretch of exploration and navigation into the mid- and west Atlantic was created and charted. In the 1450s and 1460s, Flores, Corvo, the Cape Verde Islands, and the islands of the Gulf of Guinea were explored. The Madeiras and Canaries were settled and turned into sugar-plantation colonies and by 1478 the former was the largest sugar producer in the Western world. Maps of the time show how important and extensive was the discovery of Atlantic space; speculation about the lands and features of the ocean was the most noteworthy feature of fifteenth-century cartography.

Although men from Italian city-states were involved from the start, and Castilians increasingly participated in the process (especially, from the late-fourteenth century on, in hostile competition for control of the Canaries), it was Portugal that dominated this expansion. Italian navigators were systematically and most effectively co-opted by the Portuguese monarchy (later joined by the Flemish), permitting the new Portuguese empire to control Atlantic settlement (except for the Canaries) and the agenda of expansion….

Columbus tried to become part of this process with growing desperation in the 1480s and 1490s. He failed for so long because he lacked the connections and persuasive ideas of other navigators. Even after he succeeded in crossing the Atlantic and returning, the extent of his success was questioned and questionable within the context of the time. The islands he had found (in the Caribbean) fell within the zone assigned to the Portuguese by the 1486 papal bull. And although in 1494 the papacy brokered a Portuguese-Castilian treaty that redefined these zones, it became increasingly apparent during the 1490s that Columbus had not found the much-sought sea route to the East Indies—but had been lying about it to Queen Isabella. Then, in 1499, Vasco da Gama returned from his successful voyage around the Cape and it became clear that the Portuguese had won the competition after all.

Columbus’s career was irreversibly damaged. His claim to have found islands off the coast of Asia, and thus the coveted sea route to that continent, rang hollow in the face of mounting evidence that these were new lands entirely. Columbus seemed to be lying for the sake of his contractual rewards. Perceiving the extent of his failure and his duplicity, the Castilian crown dispatched an agent to the Caribbean to arrest Columbus and bring him back to Spain in chains. Although he was later permitted to cross the Atlantic, he was forbidden to revisit the Caribbean and was stripped of the titles of Admiral and Viceroy of the Indies—titles he had fought to be included in his original contract and arguably the chief goal of his career. Meanwhile, those titles were conferred by the Portuguese crown upon da Gama.

The fact that it was Columbus’s voyages, not da Gama’s, that would lead to the changing of world history was not to the Genoese’s credit. His discoveries were an accidental geographical byproduct of Portuguese expansion two centuries old, of Portuguese-Castilian competition for Atlantic control a century old, and of Portuguese-Castilian competition for a sea route to India older than Columbus himself. Furthermore, had Columbus not reached the Americas, any one of numerous other navigators would have done so within a decade. Most obviously, the Portuguese Pedro Álvares Cabral explored the Brazilian coast in 1500, likewise arriving there in an attempt to reach Asia (by rounding the Cape).

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