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:

Continue reading

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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Just published

Dork of the dead

I have a thing in The Conversation on representations of anthropologists in cinema. An excerpt:

Anthropologists have a unique expertise that allows them to mediate between worlds, and this turns out to be a useful skill set in the event of a zombie apocalypse or an exorcism gone wrong.

Scholars of cultural diversity serve as convenient plot devices for explaining the unexplainable to the viewing audience and helping the hero make better decisions. Just like the ingenious nerd who knows how to repair a wrecked spaceship or delve into a government mainframe, so too fictional anthropologists are available to “hack” the behaviour of otherworldly actors.

Read it here.

Just published

Of unicorns and winged pigs

I have a new(ish) article out in Lumina: a journal of the southern Philippines. This issue is something of a small miracle. In the course of producing it, the editors had to deal with two natural disasters: after Bohol’s earthquake their office was condemned as unsafe, then typoon Haiyan took out their electricity and servers. So everyone else can stop whingeing about the trials of academic publishing for a moment!

She went on to reveal a deep secret intimated to her by the head Eskaya teacher which she had promised to conceal under solemn oath, an oath she would now ‘have to violate for the sake of Science’. Somewhere in the mountains of Bohol was the lost City of the Sun where the world’s destiny was controlled by three judges, and goods could be obtained cheaply by all. The site of the city could not yet be disclosed since the world was about to be renewed. Far from merely reporting ethnographic details from local folklore, Abregana presented thiFig1-Tasadays information as a series of stand-alone facts for the urgent attention of the governor.

Talk of unicorns and winged pigs may not necessarily have been beyond the pale for the fantastical realm of Visayan tabloids, but some of those who knew her recall that in this period her grasp of reality was increasingly tenuous […]


Just published

Multiplied by languages

An article on my intellectual hero Dr José Rizal is out now in History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences. A shorter version of it has been published in Rappler.

jose_rizal_4_1It is something of a cliché to assert that Dr José Rizal’s thought is as relevant as ever to the Philippine nation, but it can hardly be denied. His brilliant essay ‘On the indolence of the Filipino’, can be read as a devastatingly witty rebuke to every foreign tourist who complains about poor service or a lack of initiative amongst locals, unaware of the long shadow of colonialism they are projecting. But it was his unflinching critique of the friar orders and their oppressive governance of the Philippines that continues to resonate with such force, despite the freedoms won by the Rizal-inspired independence movement.