“Philologia Rediviva?”

Tony Woodbury at the University of Texas passed me this recent article by Sheldon Pollock on the meaning and prospects for philology in the 21st century. And there’s a nice shout-out to Zukunftsphilologie.

In short, we may well be standing on the verge of a historic event: the inauguration of a world without philology for the first time in three thousand years. […]

… philologists must develop a new disciplinary formation, with a new intellectual core. For as defined here, philology, unlike philosophy and mathematics, has never had a disciplinary home in which its real capacities could develop. If it did achieve some measure of institutional dominance in the nineteenth-century European university, this was because of the veneration then paid to the study of the classics. […]

Beyond the academy, philology – though one that does not know its name – continues to broadly influence the public domain. It is ironic to observe, given the decline I have charted, how significant are the philological energies across the Internet on sites like “Rap Genius” (http://rap.genius.com), a self-described “crowd-sourced (and artist/producer-sourced) annotation of rap lyrics/beats, from ‘Rapper’s Delight’ to ‘To Pimp A Butterfly.’” Users, including original creators, provide annotation to the often complex lyrics of songs, as well as intertextual linkages and contextual material. The purpose of Rap Genius, originally named Rap Exegesis, is precisely to make sense of texts. It has recently been branching out to include other musical forms, as well as law, history, and more; it is, in fact, now simply named “Genius.” The site seeks to “annotate the world,” “to help us all realize the richness and depth in every line of text.” This is pure philology in terms of practice, albeit practice that as yet has little awareness of its history, theory, or method. Providing that context, and formalizing the discipline, is the role of the university; and today’s academy must also recognize and channel the energies of these popular philological enterprises. […]

Our goal is not only to enable students to gain a historical and theoretical grasp of textual understanding – to understand why Supreme Court Justice Scalia is wrong to assert, about the text called the U.S. Constitution, that “words mean what they mean,” and “their meaning doesn’t change” – but also to see the remarkable continuities in global philology, and, equally important, the differences, sometimes startling differences, in what it has meant for people to make sense of texts. We also want to show them how philology can be more than an academic discipline; indeed, it can be a way of living. You are how you read, and learning to read better – with greater precision, self-awareness, and, above all, respect for the diversity of textual truth in a world ever more unified and ever more in need of unity – means, potentially, learning to be better. […]

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Moving to Germany!


Image of the young Hegel in 1806 observing Napoleon through a pair of locally manufactured Carl Zeiss binoculars

Starting in April 2016 I’m taking up a two-year research fellowship at the new Max Planck Institute in Jena. I will be working within the Minds and Traditions group under Olivier Morin, looking at the evolution of writing and graphic codes. This is a question that hasn’t been addressed in any serious or sustained way for a long time and I really can’t wait to be involved.

Fittingly, the Max-Planck-Institut für Menschheitsgeschichte or the Max Planck Institute for Human History was established in the very same town in which the end of history was declared by Hegel when he was a professor at the University of Jena.

(And it’s also where Hegel famously spied Napoleon riding through town and declared “It is indeed a wonderful feeling to see such an individual who, here concentrated in a single point, sitting on a horse, reaches out over the world and dominates it” —a remark that has been much anthologised and mythologised, most recently in one of Slavoj Žižek’s letters to Nadia Tolokonnikova during her recent imprisonment.)

Beyond Hegel, Jena is famous for aggressive cyclists, relatively expensive accommodation, and for manufacturing high-end binoculars and camera lenses. And if you type “Why is Jena … ” into Google, it auto-completes to “Why is Jena called student paradise?” We will report our findings! It’s certainly a charming town in a very charming part of the world, and its strangely quiet despite its population of 400,000.


Looking forward to doing full time research again, learning German, going on weekend family jaunts to France and the Czech Republic, and of catching up with my lovely friends and colleagues in Halle, Cologne, Potsdam and Berlin.

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Litterae non dant panem

I came across an apt Latin proverb today: Litterae non dant panem, meaning “Letters do not give bread”.

The earliest reference I can find for it is Horace (65 BCE to 8 BCE) and it is usually interpreted to mean that writing poetry or literature is no way to sustain yourself. I would assume that it holds for a narrower reading of “letters” in the study of writing systems and literacy, and for a broader interpretation of humanities research, or Letters.

It calls to mind a much more recent proverb from Alain de Botton: “Trying to make a living from writing is like attempting to power a city from wind turbines”.

The Romans knew it, the Carthaginians knew it, and now we know it.



Collection fishing, Uncategorized, Writing systems

An alphabetic Cinderella

The Eskayan word for ‘alphabet’ is abadiha, generally spelled ‘abadeja’ following Hispanic orthographic rules. I analyse this  as a compound of four syllables ‘a’, ‘ba’, ‘di’ and ‘ha’. This is fairly typical way of forming words for ‘alphabet’. Consider the word alibata from the Arabic recitation order of ‘alif’, ‘ba’, ‘ta’, abakada from ‘a’, ‘ba’, ‘ka’, ‘da’, and even alphabet from ‘alpha’, ‘beta’.

But earlier this year Kristian Kabuay drew my attention to the story Abadeha: The Philippine Cinderella as a possible folkloric source for the Eskayan word. I found a copy at my local community library. Here is the frontispiece:


de la Paz, Myrna J. 2001. Abadeha: The Philippine cinderella. Auburn, California: Shen’s Books.

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Nagcodeswitching tayo

I’ve been paying attention to reports of columnist Jessica Zafra’s collapse and recovery. The most recent news is that she is expecting to be discharged from hospital. What attracted my attention in the latest account, is how normal Taglish codeswitching has become in Filipino media, at least in quoted speech. I’ve read many Filipino newspapers from the 1960s through to the 1990s and never seen anything like this:

Pelicano said Zafra’s condition has gotten better since she was admitted to the MMC before dawn on May 27.

“She’s responding well, nakakausap na siya ng maayos, nagrerespond siya sa mga questions ng attending physicians,” Pelicano said.

I love it! It suggests to me that Taglish codeswitching is in the process of becoming an accepted part of written discourse. I expect the next logical development for Filipino news media will be the introduction of codeswitching in non-reported speech.


The Australian PhD Prize for Innovations in Linguistics

Screen shot 2014-05-12 at 1.29.26 PMI have just received notification that I am this year’s winner of the the Australian PhD Prize for Innovations in Linguistics! Feeling very pleased with myself.

Piers Kelly is the winner of the second Australian PhD Prize for Innovations in Linguistics for his thesis entitled ‘The word made flesh: An ethnographic history of Eskayan, a utopian language and script in the southern Philippines’. The thesis was submitted to ANU in December 2012 and was an outstanding piece of innovative and creative linguistic scholarship.

The Australian PhD Prize for Innovations in Linguistics is a $500 prize awarded to the best PhD (judged by the Panel) which demonstrates methodological and theoretical innovations in Australian linguistics (e.g. studies in toponymy, language and ethnography, language and musicology, linguistic ecology, language identity and self, kinship relationships, island languages, spatial descriptions in language, Australian creoles, and language contact.).

A lite version of my thesis (abstract-contents-intro) can be downloaded here.




A forensic analysis of a forensics poster

What to make of this crime scene?

2013-10-29 13.42.35

First, and most confrontingly, the author has chosen to use Comic Sans, the most socially stigmatised of all fonts. Was the culprit attempting to provoke outrage? Perhaps this indicates repressed feelings of guilt and a latent desire to be ‘discovered’ and punished.

The ‘doughnut’ spelling suggests the culprit is a native of the Commonwealth while the absence of a capital and full stop on the final sentence points to the habitual use of computer code and its lowercase conventions. Or perhaps “lecturer: Dr Paul Sidwell” is the key here! (Sorry Paul!). All this reminds me of the case of the intriguing and unsolved case of the so-called ‘identity killer’:


The International Workshop on Endangered Scripts of Island Southeast Asia

I’m very excited to be presenting at the International Workshop on Endangered Scripts of Island Southeast Asia in Tokyo, 27 February–1 March. Here is the abstract for my presentation. Comments welcome.

The Eskayan alphasyllabary of the Philippines: history and description of a utopian writing system

Over the course of the twentieth century, leaders of grassroots movements in Southeast Asia have sought to elevate the status of minority languages by rendering them visible in unique scripts. The Pahawh Hmong script, invented by Shong Lue Yang between 1959 and 1971, is perhaps the most celebrated case, but new writing systems are also reported for the Loven language of Laos (1924), and Iban in Malaysian Borneo (1947–1962) among others.


Pahawh Hmong

This paper describes the largely undocumented Eskayan writing system of the Philippines (ca. 1920–1937) and discusses the motivations and practicalities of its inspired (re)creation. Although Eskayan is used for the representation of Visayan (Cebuano)—a widely used language of the southern Philippines—its privileged role is in the written reproduction of a constructed utopian language, also referred to as Eskayan. Held to have been created by the ancestral ‘Pope Pinay’, the Eskayan language and writing system are used by approximately 550 people for restricted purposes in the upland region of southeast Bohol. Eskayan makes use of an inherent vowel in a small set of consonant characters, a strategy reminiscent of the endangered baybayin systems found elsewhere in the Philippines. For the most part, however, its approximately 1000 syllabic characters can be decomposed into what local scribes refer to as an inahan (‘mother’) standing for CV onsets and a diacritic sinyas (‘gesture’) indicating consonantal codas. Although the onset is often predictable from the graphic form of the inahan, coda diacritics are inconsistent, meaning that each syllabic character needs to be acquired independently.

Eskaya alphabet

Eskayan letters with dual alphabetic-syllabic values

I argue that the relatively unsystematic nature of the Eskayan writing system, and the redundancy of the majority of known Eskayan characters, is explicable with reference to the circumstances and ideologies that attended its emergence in the 1920s. From its beginnings, Eskayan was promoted by members of an anti-colonial movement that rejected the US occupation of Bohol in 1901 and sought to valorize an alternative indigenous cultural order. In my analysis, the writing system was likely to have been first developed for the cryptic transliteration of Visayan and Spanish text. Later, the syllabary was expanded to accommodate and preempt the exotic syllable shapes of the emergent Eskayan language, while anticipating the fulfillment of a local prophecy that Eskayan would one day be used for writing all the languages of the world. This dynamic between the particular and the universal plays out in traditional Eskayan literature, where written language is presented metaphorically as both a national flag substantiating indigenous difference and independence, and an expression of organic truth emanating from the human body.



Workers vs. Players

A great article by Miya Tokumitsu (‘In the name of loveJacobin January 2014 and republished in Slate 16 January 2014) is doing the rounds of social media, and it’s timely that Crikey has just done a short feature on the brilliant Sarah Kendzior who has a similar schtick.

All this puts me in mind of one of the best articles I’ve ever read in Harper’s. As far as I know, it’s only available in the print edition but long ago somebody lovingly typed it up and republished it online at which point I copied it to a document and stored it on my hard drive. I’m now releasing it back into the web. Enjoy!

Crap shoot: Everyone loses when politics is a game

by Garret Keizer (Harper’s, February 2006)

I’m sure I was only supposed to be motivated, but I fear that I may accidentally have been enlightened, that day some years ago when my fellow teachers and I were treated to a videotaped lecture by the then reigning “National Teacher of the Year”. None crane6of us thought to ask how such a distinction had been or could be determined. It was enough to know that he was in a different league from ours. He had recently shaken hands with the President of the United States.

Squeezed into our student’s grubby desks, the underpaid servants of a grossly underpaid working-class community, we listened to his depiction of the future with our eyes uplifted to the screen. Eventually there were going to be only two kinds of people: those who deal in information and those who serve their needs. In such a society, many of the facts and crafts we taught would be obsolete. Teaching students to write essays was irrelevant, we were told, when what they needed to know was how to write good memos. As befitting an oracle, the alpha teacher delivered his news in a tone of gleeful authority. There were but two choices open to us: pointless defiance of the inevitable and creative acceptance of the brave new world (the one that Thomas Friedman has since announced is flat). Teachers who chose the latter would endeavor to make their better students into players, with the possible reward of becoming players themselves. Like the man on the screen.

I forget if “players” was the word he used, but it was implicit in all he had to say. It has become increasingly explicit in the American vernacular. The internet was still a novelty then, so the chosen few already “dealing in information” would not have been able to tally the more than five million hits that presently appear for a phrase like “key players,” among which you can learn who really counts, counted, or will count in such diverse domains as “the left’s war against conservative judges,” the global economy, the Kuomintang, World War III (as predicted in the bible), and the cheese industry.

But my colleagues and I had no trouble getting the point. It wasn’t necessary to hear the word; we knew the game. In one form or another, we had been teaching it for years. The touted “promise of education” always comes down to a veiled threat: those who fail to be players in the classroom will never amount to players later on. Yes, they also serve who only stand and wait, but mostly they serve burgers.

Or listen to motivational speeches while squeezed into grubby desks, as the case may be. There was the rub, and the National Teacher of the Year and the patrons for whom he spoke knew just how to rub it in. What message could have moved us more, with our HoHum State diplomas and our Payless shoes, that the promise that we could be players too?

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