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The writing systems thread

  1. Dec 30, 2014 #1
    I'm just sending out a general call for people who have an interest in the study of writing systems and some knowledge on the subject. Linguists, anthropologists, sociologists (and even philologists if those still exist) are especially invited to reply.

    As a pump primer, I read the abstract of a 2010 paper that said there is conclusive evidence the Mayan writing system showed signs of deterioration for at least two centuries before the Spanish first landed in South America. This contradicts the established notion that writing systems deteriorate only under trauma or because of external influence. There may well be something analogous to senescence in writing systems. What do people think?

    Of course, if anyone else wants to raise a different discussion point about writing systems, please go ahead.
     
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  3. Dec 30, 2014 #2

    Stephen Tashi

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    As a non-social scientist, let me ask:
    What does it mean for a writing system to "deteriorate"?
     
  4. Dec 30, 2014 #3

    Bystander

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    "Verbing nouns." Possibly "nouning verbs." Edubabble. Spin. Post-modern deconstructionism. Reduction of words to meaningless noises or strings of symbols on paper?
     
  5. Dec 30, 2014 #4

    Stephen Tashi

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    The Mayans had such problems?
     
  6. Dec 30, 2014 #5

    Bystander

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    Bipedal. Social hierarchy. Don't see how they possibly could have avoided it.
     
  7. Dec 30, 2014 #6
    Stephen,

    They found a few things:

    1) Inaccurate copying of signs, where the signs were increasingly more ambiguous or became incomplete or corrupted by elements of other signs.

    2) Comparing the same types of inscriptions in different periods (such as temple dedications engraved centuries apart), the later ones were more ambiguous etc. (see above).

    3) Some linguistic corruption as bystander mentioned. (Although I consider writing systems to be a completely different animal from language, and we could perhaps discuss that.)

    That's what I remember. I wish I could dig out the reference.

    Bystander:

    As for your second comment, being bipedal and having a social hierarchy are not enough to develop a writing system in the first place. Genetic analysis and field anthropology suggest that homo sapiens sapiens first arose about 200,000 years ago, and genetic analysis by itself indicates those first humans had spoken language, so we've had language for quite a long time. The earliest attested writing system, however, first arose about 8,000 years ago. There might have been other writing systems used on perishable media that did not survive, and we do know that there were proto-writing devices such as tally cords in use earlier, but there's still gotta be a reason why, even today, 98% of spoken languages have no associated writing system developed strictly by native speakers.
     
  8. Dec 30, 2014 #7

    Bystander

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    Just had to spring that that suddenly on me ("What's your home phone number?" Uh - duh - duh.). Diamond? E. O. Wilson? Hopefully it'll burble to the surface of the junk closet before this thread dies out --- totally tangential background reading for an entirely different project and odd notes and observations on languages and writing systems. And probably not even relevant. Related but probably not germane, there is a recent thread in Gen. Disc. on what may be some very old deliberate scratches on a shell fragment. https://www.physicsforums.com/threads/worlds-oldest-engraving-by-homo-erectus.785628/
     
  9. Dec 30, 2014 #8

    Evo

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    This is a perfect example of how language/writing deteriorates. "Gotta" is not a word in the English language. It's slang.

    http://www.learnersdictionary.com/qa/what-does-gotta-mean-and-how-is-it-used
     
  10. Dec 30, 2014 #9

    Stephen Tashi

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    To formulate a general definition of the deterioration of a writing system, it seems wise to consider a variety of examples. What are some?

    Would we consider deterioration to be a pheomenon that is defined only for writing systems that are not phonetic? I think of using "signs" as a different system than using an alphabet.

    If we accept that there is a standard way of writing for a writing system, then how do we judge an increase in ambiguity? I interpret ambiguity to mean that a new sign comes into use that may stand for any of several old signs. For example, the old signs might be a pictures of a bird with certain features on it and the new sign might be only the picture of the bird.

    The way signs are written in a given era is objective evidence, but I'd think that cultural events must be considered in order to explain what's going on. For example, if writing was done by educated specialists then errors in writing might increase for any of the following reasons:

    1) Demand for written work exceeds the supply of competent specialists and writing is done by less skilled labor or specialists in big hurry.

    2) The significance of written work decreases (rather like the dates in Roman numerals that appear on movie credits) so there is less inspection and proof reading of it.

    3) People who read written become better able to infer the meaning of a sign from its context, so there is no need to disambiguate among certain sets of signs.
     
  11. Dec 30, 2014 #10

    Vanadium 50

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    I share Evo's opinion of "gotta", but at least it's better than "wanna".

    The 98% number is misleading. Half the world speak 0.2% of the languages. 98% of the languages doesn't necessarily mean many speakers.

    There are three writing systems in major use: Chinese-derived, Phoenician-derived, and Brahmic-derived. (The fourth largest is Hangul, which is a latecomer and used in only two countries) Three of the four are alphabets, and in the case of the last two supplanted existing writing systems because they were simply better, much as the Arabic numerals supplanted Roman numerals.

    I don't see that ambiguity has anything to do with "deterioration". In alphabets, you end up with having multiple sounds for one letter, largely because the spoken languages shift faster than written ones. Consider the word "Boston". The B is pronounced "B" in Virginia, but "Bw" in Massachusetts.
     
  12. Dec 30, 2014 #11
    Bystander,

    I read that thread and it looks like what's on that shell is not a writing system. In fact, I think the researchers themselves say it's not even proto-writing. They seem to be saying it's abstract decoration.

    Evo and Vanadium:

    I pepper my writing with occasional slang, odd word choices and even foreign-language words simply because that's how I communicate. Most often I do it unconsciously as an emphasis technique, because such heterogeneities stand out. If it offends you, I can stop. Let me know.

    Stephen,

    The research related to the Mayan writing system, which was a syllabary. I don't know whether it can be generalized to alphabets, abjads, etc. And you're absolutely right that cultural events have to be considered. In fact, my wild guess is that cultural events are the primary driver of what I've called the senescence of writing systems. I doubt there is some kind of philosophical "Intrinsic property" of writing itself that is responsible for such senescence in the same sense as telomeric deterioration might be responsible for biological senescence.

    Vanadium,

    I agree that the research I've referred to doesn't necessarily say anything about alphabetic writing systems. It would, however, be interesting to compare changes-over-time in different writing systems to find out what the communities and differences are. And I should add that cuneiform, although now extinct, lasted 100 years longer than the Chinese writing system has existed so far, so it shouldn't be left out of the conversation.
     
  13. Dec 30, 2014 #12

    Evo

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    Yes please stop, proper English is a requirement for posting here. Thank you.
     
  14. Jan 1, 2015 #13
    Baby is born, and soon picks up verbalizations and language easily enough.
    A written language requires an formal education system, even if for the select few.
    If one recalls history, few people could read or write before the advent of the printing press and mass production of the written word, making it then a desire to read and write a preferred option.

    Do all researchers assume that all peoples of the population could understand the written language?

    A village cryer voicing a proclamation from the government (ruling class ) would be a preferred means of communication before the illiterate. Reproduction of the proclamation would entail errors, or differences, as no two scribes are alike. If we go back to Stephan's item 1 in post 9 ...

    Why the term deterioration? that implies that the original was somehow superb and improvement unnecessary or impossible.
    Why not simpilication, generalization, enrichment, or just plain old changing and evolving.

    Rather than an external influence, or trauma, the change could have been internally introduced for any number of reasons.

    Linking a "deterioration" of language to "200 years before the Spaniards arrived" seems to me to be an irresponsible statement. So the Spaniards did not actually destroy the Mayan society - they were on there way there themselves, just look at their written language already falling apart. Cynical me.
     
  15. Jan 1, 2015 #14

    Stephen Tashi

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    I have a feeling you're only getting replies from people in the "hard sciences". Such people often have disdain and skepticism about any claims made by social science. (I won't completely exempt myself from that trait. I've exchanged posts with linguists on other forums and they don't accept what I consider counterexamples to their findings.)

    If there is going to be a "social sciences" section of the forum then it ought to be focused on discussing social science topics within framework typically used by social scientists. A certain amoung of criticism from the hard science point of view is to be expected. However, I'm sure that social scientists who began criticizing posts in the physics sections because they ignore culture would be booted out. So I think most of the discussion in the social sciences section should be within the framework used by social scientists. People who think social science is baloney should post elsewhere, perhaps in General Discussions.

    My problem is that I don't know how writing systems have been studied. In particular, I don't know whether the "deterioration" of writing systems has been defined (by the standards of the social sciences, not the the standards of mathematics) and widely studied or whether paper on the deterioration of the Mayan writing system introduced the concept of "deterioration" as a new idea. I'm not asking for a definition of "deterioration" of writing system because I expect a mathematically rigorous statement I want to know how it is defined and studied within the social sciences.
     
  16. Jan 1, 2015 #15

    Evo

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    Mickey, if you wish to have to have a discussion about this, you need to provide us a link to that paper so that we can all read what you did so we are all on the same page.
     
  17. Jan 10, 2015 #16

    symbolipoint

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  18. Jan 10, 2015 #17

    Evo

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    I wouldn't say it's evolving with the use of slang and poor grammar by a minority. The slang isn't actually replacing proper words, slang comes and goes, only time will tell. Personally, I think it's horrible, but I understand that people learning English from the internet wouldn't have a proper understanding of the language, which is why native speakers using such slang just irritates me to no end. You don't have to agree with me.
     
    Last edited: Jan 10, 2015
  19. Jan 11, 2015 #18
    Please let me ask a simple question. Couldn't it be possible that the culture of the Mayans was far from static even before Columbus arrived and that influences from within the American continent shaped the writing system as well? (This was already pointed to here and there in some way in this thread it seems.) Even when I think about European texts written now and two hundred years ago, some differences can be seen. But I do not know how big the observed differences in the Mayan writing systems are, and maybe cultures were changing more slowly in the old days.
     
  20. Jan 11, 2015 #19

    symbolipoint

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    Right! Languages DO change, and are not static. We LIKE for everyone we communicate with (SPEECH) to understand the same form of the language, which is typically standard English, for the reasonably enough educated English language speakers. This standard is represented in the written system taught. The trouble is, languages still change, so what we speak today could become altered twenty, or thirty, or a hundred years from now. Let the linguists argue about this.
     
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