Just published

The evolution of the Chinese script

I have a new publication with Simon Jerome Han, Charles Kemp and James Winters on the dynamics of visual complexity in Chinese writing from the Shang Oracle Bone script onwards.

You can read it at Open Mind here. If you don’t feel like struggling through it, you can read our Conversation article here.

Short concordance table published on page 28 of Pauthier, G. 1842. Sinico-Ægyptiaca: Essai sur l’origine et la formation similaire des écritures figuratives chinoise et egyptienne. Paris: Firmin Didot Frères.

Jerome led the research while he was still an undergraduate at the University of Melbourne and he did a terrific job. He started by applying the same method of measuring visual complexity that James and I applied to the Vai script, but at a much more significant scale, measuring upwards of 750,000 individual characters.

The result is also surprising: while Vai writing simplified in line with the assumptions in the literature, Chinese writing got more complex over time. The whole collaboration was very satisfying even though peer review turned into a bit of a wild ride lurching from trollish depths to ultra-constructive heights.

Research about Chinese writing seems to provoke strong reactions, both good and bad.

[UPDATE: The research has now featured on Language Log (‘The complexification of the Sinoglyphic writing system continues apace‘) and on SBS Mandarin which you can listen to here.]

Just published

New blog post at Hiphilangsci: the return of the human in the study of writing

I have a new blog post at History and Philosophy of the Language sciences on how the study of writing is returning to human-centric practice-based framework, and why this is a good thing.

Written production generates new practices but it is also an activity that is recruited into existing social routines. These routines might be concerned with the management of labour and its products, the projection of political power, the elaboration of myth, and the performance of ritual including communications with the supernatural world. In effect, writing is a practice that is seemingly bound up in the reproduction and maintenance of social orders.


Just published

Insights from the new scripts of West Africa: new publication

I have a chapter ‘The Invention, Transmission and Evolution of Writing: Insights from the New Scripts of West Africa’ in the recently released volume Paths into script formation in the ancient Mediterranean, edited by Silvia Ferrara and Miguel Valério.

Most other chapters cover scripts and graphic codes of the ancient Agean, Iberia, Anatolia and Egypt. But the final section, titled Patterns and Diversity: A World of Possibilities, has a paper by Gordon Whittaker on Aztec Hieroglyphics and one by me on emergent West African scripts.

What does West Africa have to do with Mesoamerica or the ancient Mediterranean, I hear you gasp in utter astonishment? Quite simply, these are all environments where a great deal of writerly invention has happened, with isolated scripts developing along their own peculiar trajectories.

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Just published

Messianic literacy in Zomia, or Chapter 6¾

I have a paper that has just come out in its English version in a writing-themed edition of Terrain.  In the same issue there are contributions from Olivier Morin, Pierre Déléage, Cécile Guillaume-Pey, Silvia Ferrara, Ramon Sarró, Cédric Vincent, Stephen Chrisomalis, Jean Dubuffet and an interview with Stephen Houston.

The journal is exquisitely typeset, and if you have institutional access you can see the whole thing here.

My paper is “The art of not being legible: Invented writing systems as technologies of resistance in mainland Southeast Asia“.

Access a pre-print here.

I cover the histories of nine writing systems of the mainland Southeast Asian highlands, all invented between 1844 and 1959 within traditionally non-literate communities.

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Just published

New data paper: A diachronic comparison of the Vai script of Liberia (1834–2005)

An emergent script is a writing system wholly invented from scratch by non-literates. The Vai script of Liberia is by far the longest lived and best documented of such scripts. Olena Tykhostup and I have recently aggregated and tabulated the history of this script for the Journal of Open Humanities Data

From: Forbes, F. E. 1851. “Despatch communicating the discovery of a native written character at Bohmar, on the Western Coast of Africa, near Liberia, accompanied by a vocabulary of the Vahie or Vei tongue.” Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London 20:89-101. p111

(It’s not a fancy journal but I love the concept. There are scores of open data journals for the hard sciences but very few for the humanities and social sciences, meaning that our data becomes less visible, less citable, less accessible and ultimately less valuable.)

The paper explains how the data was evaluated and extracted, and what sources were included or excluded. It links directly to a Figshare repository where you can view or download it for yourself, including vector files. There are all kinds of practical and theoretical applications for this material and you can read about these in the paper. A teaser:

At present there is a growing interest in so-called emergent languages, such as the Nicaraguan and Bedouin Al-Sayyid sign languages [3435], and mixed languages like Light Walpiri [36] and Gurindji Kriol [37]. Emergent sign languages have been developed ex nihilo by linguistic communities and are thus independent of any ‘parent’ languages and lineages. Mixed languages are also set apart because they involve a naturalistic re-engineering of existing linguistic structures to generate a new system. Since emergent languages (and to a lesser extent mixed languages) sit outside established language families, studies of these systems have the potential to reveal the spontaneous emergence of structure without the ‘noise’ of inheritance and contact. We contend that the Vai writing system has comparable value in tracing the evolution of graphic codes, a field of study that has so far been limited to laboratory settings.

The first preregistered study to draw on the evidence we have collected can be found here, and our analysis is nearing completion. Drop me a line if you want to know more, or watch this space.

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Just published

Making up words is harder than it looks

I have a new article “The origins of invented vocabulary in a utopian Philippine language”, out in William Labov’s new journal, Asia-Pacific Language Variation. This is the last time I’m going write about the Eskayan language until my book is eventually complete.

The take-home message? Inventing exotically ‘foreign’ vocabulary is as hard as creating authentically ‘native’ vocabulary, but engineered lexicons are nonetheless great for expressing subtle language ideologies.

Spanish-English-Eskayan wordlist. An explanation of the script in column three is here.

You can download the article here.

And if you don’t want to read it, here are a few representative quotations:

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Just published

The bells, the bells

I have an article just published in the Journal of Folklore Research, “Excavating a hidden bell story from the Philippines: a revised narrative of cultural-linguistic loss and recuperation“. A word of caution to anyone considering submitting work to a prestige journal – after passing peer-review this took more than two years to be published!

A snippet:

As an outsider to the Philippines I have been intrigued by these stories for what they appear to reveal, not about the locus of lost wealth but about the postcolonial national psyche. A striking common theme is that of resources unjustly withheld from their deserving recipients, corresponding to periods of colonial occupation and political suppression. Just as the original confiscation of resources was overshadowed by violence, there is always a danger associated with their recovery. Here, a kind of malignant agency is ascribed to the treasure such that the undeserving claimants are always punished for their presumption. I argue that these stories are not just about lamenting a loss of resources but are also a way of accounting for a perceived cultural deficit in terms of intangible heritage. In other words, they serve as a cryptic response to what the pre- eminent Filipino nationalist José Rizal described as “the specter of comparisons” (el demonio de las comparaciones).

Update: Over at Rappler I have an op-ed covering the most tabloid-sensational aspect of this research: ‘Yamashita’s gold has been found and it’s not what you think‘.

And the MPI media release has been picked up in a few places:


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Just published

In joyful strines: The ultimate record of Australian vocabulary

Pinned to the wall of one of the offices of the Australian National Dictionary Centre in Canberra is a cartoon of a monk being interrupted as he patiently illuminates the Book of Kells.

The caption: “Deadline? Nobody told me anything about a deadline.”

Such was the journey of the Australian National Dictionary, a tome that last emerged from its hermit’s grotto in 1988, to reappear 28 years later in even greater splendour.

Late last year the manuscript was piled on a desk and illuminated in red ink:

Australian National Dictionary manuscript

And here it is now, all bound and jacketed:

Advance copy

The continuity on this project is truly remarkable with a number of the same lexicographers contributing to both the 1988 and 2016 editions.

Oz lexicography's larrikin rat-pack: Mark Gwynn, Amanda Laugesen, Bruce Moore, Julia Robinson.

Australian lexicography’s rat-pack: Mark Gwynn, Amanda Laugesen, Bruce Moore, Julia Robinson.

I would like to think that since 1988, attitudes to Australian English have matured. In linguistic research, more and more regional diversity is being detected, and despite the occasional self-hating wacko most speakers recognise the richness, expressiveness and sheer oddness of our lexicon.

When I read British or American stories to my children I often flip the text into Oz English. I’m not being a nationalist, I just enjoy owning the words.

I worked on the new edition of the AND for a mere six months in 2011, plodding through Aboriginal words in Australian English beginning with ‘M’; marn grook and Moomba are particularly memorable.

As an historical dictionary the AND is not only a record of the words we now choose but an account of how we once spoke. Many of the terms I investigated were utterly unfamiliar to me and may have entered into speech for a decade or less. These words are lexical polaroids of a society in transition, and a reminder that even if relatively new and popular terms like budgie smugglers eventually pass into obscurity, they will still be remembered by the AND. 

Just published

A peacock’s tail of a script: Why Eskaya is the least probable writing system in the world

After years of being tangled up in the esoteric Eskaya script from the southern Philippine island of Bohol, I have an article in the latest issue of The Australian Journal of Linguistics that summarises everything that I’ve learned about it. This is certainly not everything that there is to know on the subject and it’s been a case of ‘the more you look, the more you see’. I’ve decided it’s high time for me to look away before I either damage my eyesight or come up with another analysis.

You can view and download it here, and if your institution doesn’t give you access please grab the pre-publication version here.


(The article contains examples of the early ‘demonstration set’ of the Eskaya font created in consultation with Marsiana Galambao, advice from Siva Kalyan, and the vector graphic skills of designers in Bohol, Luzon and Australia.)

To consider only at its outward graphic form, the Eskaya script appears ostentatiously calligraphic with a profusion of loops and curls that seem to mimic cursive handwriting in the Roman script. But the complex system underlying the script is just as excessive, with multiple mechanisms for representing linguistic sound. This abundance goes against the grain of how we might assume ordinary writing systems to evolve: towards greater simplicity and consistency.

Eskaya is no ordinary writing system. It belongs to a little-known tradition of new indigenous systems that have emerged independently of major script families – even if they may be influenced by them in the graphic shape of some of the letters. Cherokee and Vai are two such scripts from the nineteenth century, but a more fertile period of independent script creation was the first half of the twentieth century when talented individuals created dozens of new varieties of writing across West Africa,  the Asia-Pacific and the Indian subcontinent. These emergent scripts were frequently associated with local demands for self-determination, ethnic revitalisation and a revised moral order, sometimes in the aftermath of violent struggle.

Photograph by Cherry Policarpio 1991. In the foreground is Raymonda Acerda, the child on the left is Jessame Maquiling.

Photograph by Cherry Policarpio 1991. In the foreground is Raymonda Acerda, the child on the left is Jessame Maquiling.

Eskaya writing has intrigued Philippine tabloid journalists and local enthusiasts ever since it became known to the wider world in the early 1980s. Mystics and lay historians have suggested an origin in any number of the following scripts and script families: Greek, Indic, Egyptian, Phoenician, Arabic and Javanese. But surprisingly, the most common theory is that both the script and its associated language are derivations of Hebrew, a notion that goes hand in hand with an increasingly popular view on the island that the people who use the script are descended from a Lost Tribe of Israel.

By contrast the roughly 550 people who write in this script today contend that Eskaya was created by the heroic ancestor Pinay and later ‘revealed’ in the 1920s to the veteran rebel Mariano Datahan (ca. 1875–1949) whose Messianic agenda had by that time attracted a large following in the southeast of the island. Having endured brutal conflict and successive occupations, Datahan’s followers valued the script as an index of an uncorrupted pre-contact civilisation free from foreign influence.

Pinay inmunsiktur

Pinay inmunsiktur (‘Pinay the Pope’)

Pinay was more productive than most other script inventors since this ancestor was also responsible for creating an entirely new language—referred to as Eskayan or Bisayan Declarado—to go along with the script. As far as I know, the Medefaidrin language-script of Nigeria is the only other case of dual creativity of this type.

The identity of Pinay—described as the first ‘Pope’ in the Philippines—is comfortably plural. It is not so much contested by Eskaya people as variously expressed. For some, Pinay was a man, for others a woman. In certain stories Pinay lived prior to Spanish colonisation while others place him or her in the contemporary period. The late chieftain of the Eskaya village of Taytay believed that Pinay and Mariano Datahan were the same individual, and this particular conceptualisation is most consistent with what I have been able to learn from my analysis of the script.

Eskaya displays a plausible influence from the pre-contact alphasyllabic Philippine script in its use of inherent vowels and also in the emic metalanguage that scribes use to identify graphic elements of letters and their vocal realisations. There is, however, a much more obvious influence from the Roman alphabet, and from Hispanic orthographic rules. The borrowing of the ‘k’ form (for /-k/) among other pieces of evidence suggests an early twentieth-century origin (see the article itself for my explanation).

What is so fascinating about Eskaya is that it violates every common sense maxim of how a writing system ought to work. While Eskaya is used for writing the Eskayan language, as well as Visayan and occasionally English, there is absolutely no ‘underlying rational of efficiency‘ when it comes to expressing the phonology or morphology of any of these languages. In fact, extravagant superfluity of both form and system is the order of the day.

Eskaya is primarily a syllabary since its characters tend to express discrete syllables, but it nonetheless combines a wide array of systems: (cypher)-alphabetic, alphasyllabic, syllabic and ideographic. One aspect of the system that is particularly challenging from the perspective of a learner is the use of what I term ‘pseudo-diacritics’. These are one-off graphic elements for representing syllable codas but they have no independent or consistent sound value outside of the specific syllable they are attached to. In other words, a graphic element representing a glottal coda in one syllabic letter may represent a semi-vowel coda in another and an engma in a third. And although the hand-written reference syllabaries used by contemporary scribes include up to 1065 characters, only about 460 are actually used today. At least 37 recorded Eskaya letters represent sounds that are not phonotactically possible for the language.

A peacock's breakfast. Words in red are emic terms.

A peacock’s breakfast. Words in red are emic terms.

On this basis I made the bold claim that Eskaya is “the least systematic writing system on record and in regular use today”. (Well, it passed peer review, so it must be true!)

I also argued that the lack of systematicity is a feature and not a bug, and that there is evidence that Pinay introduced a degree of deliberate opacity and misdirection. I suggested that its ‘inefficiency’, ‘superfluity’ and the huge personal commitment required for its acquisition make it both impenetrable to outsiders and appealing to its scribes and scribes-in-training.

Much like Darwin’s famous example of the peacock’s tail, the Eskaya writing system is cumbersome and impractical but also attractive in its intricate excess—and it is perhaps this inelegant beauty that has ensured its survival as new generations continue to acquire the system nearly a century since it was first revealed.

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