The sonic boom of galactic fan-jets

I’m reading Sarah C. Gudschinksy’s How to learn an unwritten language, published in 1967. The lessons are still relevant, but some of the examples are charmingly quaint (as is the convention of addressing the prospective fieldworker as ‘he’).  Her examples of open-class lexemes must have been considered cutting-edge in their time. This from p25:

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A forensic analysis of a forensics poster

What to make of this crime scene?

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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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The ANU Filipino Association has been a tremendous force for fundraising, from soliciting online donations to hosting barbecues and film nights.

You can donate and follow their progress here.

The original target of $10,000 for the Red Cross has been exceeded and they’re now tracking towards $15,000.

I don’t want to add anything to the commentary on the tragedy but for those concerned about aid not getting through, I recommend reading this article.



Idiots and imbeciles in Scotland

A. W. Howitt and Lorimer Fison’s Kamilaroi and Kurnai: Group marriage and relationship and marriage by elopement  (1880) was an early work on Australian kinship, grounded in a progressivist assumption that human social organisation evolved through incremental and predictable stages from a state of Barbarism to Civilisation.

As it happens,  the kinship evidence brought to light in this work actually contradicted the specifics of evolutionist theory but this didn’t stop Howitt and Fison’s book from generating a great deal of interest. Among other influential works it was cited by James Frazer in The golden bough and in Frederick Engels’ (1891) The origin of the family, private property and the state. It also got a brief guernsey in Sex and society (1907) by the sociologist W. I. Thomas with its sensational chapter names like ‘Sex and Primitive Morality’ and ‘The Adventitious Character of Woman’. It was this book that famously described women as “intermediate between the child and the man”, but men also come in for a bollocking, being statistically more likely to be idiots and imbeciles. Of course, ‘idiot’ and ‘imbecile’ were once serious diagnostic terms without the exclusively pejorative sense they have today, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying this little table on page 25:

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(All sources mentioned can be accessed via CACHE.)


Bohol’s earthquake and the meaning of church ruins, part 1

It’s now been ten days since Bohol’s tragic earthquake in which at least 198 people have died, both within and beyond the island. I watched the tragedy unfold on social media from a safe distance and after ascertaining that all my friends and colleagues are safe I’ve had space to reflect on how the tragedy is being processed by Boholanos. We have all become accustomed to the truism that social media is well suited to disaster situations when—constraints on electricity and networks notwithstanding—individuals can share vital information in a way that is fast, relevant and decentralised. But as an outsider I was baffled, and a little angered, by how Filipino social media became saturated with images of ruined churches and desperate appeals for prayer. I couldn’t help being left with the impression that an almost hysterical cycle of conspicuous piety was drawing attention away from more pressing human needs. Which towns and villages were most affected? What roads and bridges were still open? Where were resources, money and volunteers needed?

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They did not appear to live in societies

On the AustKin project I’m going through 19th century sources in rough chronological order to try to trace European conceptualisations of Aboriginal social organisation.

The lexicographer finds it hard to resist early mentions and antedatings – whether or not they offer anything of substantial research value.  So far, the earliest European reference to Aboriginal social organisation that I can find is certainly a little disappointing. It’s from William Dampier, who wrote in 1699 in the vicinity of Shark Bay:

Among the New Hollanders whom we were thus engaged with, there was one who by his appearance and carriage, as well in the morning as this afternoon, seemed to be the chief of them, and a kind of prince or captain among them.

The phenomenon of identifying European hierarchies in indigenous populations is well known (and discussed at some length by Benedict Anderson in Imagined communities). The Spanish recognised kings, nobles, commoners and slaves in Philippine communities, and James Cook wrote of the Tahitians in 1770 (p239):

Their orders are, Earee rahie, which answers to king ; Earee, baron ; Manahouni, vassal ; and Tou-tou, villain.

Speaking of which here is Cook’s earliest stab at describing Australian social organisation in Botany Bay (May 1770):

All the inhabitants that we saw were stark naked ; they did not appear to be numerous, nor to live in societies, but, like other animals, were scattered about along the coast, and in the woods. (p90)

What? No kings or barons? Preposterous!

More usefully for the project, the earliest settler description of an positively identifiable social category system is from George Grey (1841) who described sections in use in Western Australia between the 30th and 35th parallels; in other words, Noongar country:

One of the most remarkable facts connected with the natives is that they are divided into certain great families, all the members of which bear the same names, as a family, or second name: the principal branches of these families, so far as I have been able to ascertain, are the:


But in different districts the members of these families give a local name to the one to which they belong, which is understood in that district to indicate some particular branch of the principal family. The most common local names are:



These family names are perpetuated and spread through the country by the operation of two remarkable laws:

1. That children of either sex always take the family name of their mother.

2. That a man cannot marry a woman of his own family name.

As far as I can tell nothing else was written of Australian social categories until William Ridley’s paper of 1856 on Kamilaroi which created something of an international sensation. But that’s the subject of another post.