What I'm reading

Best Journalism of 2016

Welcome to the Winter Syllabus™ for 2016. I’ve gone with ‘Winter’ this time, in honour of my change in hemispheres.

A very interesting year in digital journalism. I loved Nieman Lab for its commentary on journalism, Quartz for being consistently good, Shortlist Daily was masterful, Reductress was hilarious and even Meanjin was no longer crap (just in time to lose its funding). And through it all, Apple News continues to suck as if trying its hardest to be terrible.

Laurie Penny pictured here being younger and more talented than you

Laurie Penny pictured here being younger and more talented than you

Some stand out pieces for 2016 are ‘Fear of a feminist future‘ by Laurie Penny in The Baffler, ‘Get mad and get even‘ by Eleanor Robertson in Meanjin, ‘The arrangements‘ by Chimananda Ngozi Adichie in The New York Times (though it was perhaps more poignant before the Turd Astroid hit the US), ‘Uncanny valley‘ by Anna Wiener in N+1, and the ‘Voyeur’s Motel‘ by Gay Talese in The New Yorker. And one more, because I can’t help myself: ‘The Unbelievable tale of Jesus’s wife‘, by Ariel Sabar in The Atlantic. 

As always, the pieces are listed if they made me think differently about something but I do not agree with everything that is written. This is a syllabus, not a manifesto! For those who want more, you can read up on 2013, 2014 and 2015 by following the links.

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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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What I'm reading

Academic texts I have known and loved

I have a habit of telling everybody what I’m reading online, but not so much about what I’m reading for research. Here is a short list of books and papers that I’ve come across over the last ten years and that I consider to be personal landmarks for one reason or another.

Looking back over the list, I’m almost disappointed in myself. If I was really out to impress others I would have added lots of monumental tomes staking out various important paradigm shifts and intellectual turns and been more attentive to diversity.

But that wasn’t the aim of the exercise. Texts are listed here because the authors have influenced my thinking in some way, or presented a Big Idea that has captured my imagination, or they may simply have an engaging writing style that has sucked me in despite making poor arguments for which I have decided to forgive them.

These are all the works that I can think of off the top of my head. I will update this post as I think of more.

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Collection fishing

Secret intelligence files as illuminated manuscripts

Tim Sherrat has been trying to automate the process of finding redactions in ASIO files. You can read about it here.

Some of the censor’s redactions are appealingly whimsical. Here are a few of my favourites:






Recently, I enjoyed some pleasingly artistic East German ‘manuscripts’ at the Stasi Museum in Leipzig. These two are favourites:


Inquiry into the defacement of Comrad Honecker’s image



Complaint to the national broadcaster: ‘The Black Channel Sux’


Collection fishing

All the best Philippines studies resources in one place

For some time I’ve been collecting and organising links to digital sources on the Philippines on this page. It’s been ‘under construction’ for about two years and I’ve finally got around to finishing the damn thing after a conversation with a Philippine scholar at a recent workshop.

This is the kind of digital bibliography that I would have loved to have at my fingertips when I began my research and it’s very much skewed towards themes that are dear to my heart. But now that I’m setting Philippine studies to one side for a while, I can safely say that the page is in a form that is mostly final. Click here and enjoy!

P.S. Below are a few images that appear in one of the texts included on the resources page. They’re from the English edition of Paul de la Gironière’s 1853 memoire Vingt années aux Philippines: Souvenirs de Jala-Jala. 

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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. 

Writing systems

One ring to fool them all?

Sven Van Haelst of Maaseik in Belgium is an archeologist by training who recently discovered this copper/bronze ring in his backyard. He would like help identifying the script used in the inscription.
Sven_Ring inscription
From haphazard corridor discussions at the MPI we have arrived at the following:
  • It may be a kind of decorative script since there seems to be quite a lot of repetition, but if the signs are purely decorative, why are they on the inside of the ring?
  • 3, 5 and 7 are possibly the same character, and this might be modified with a diacritic in 9
  • 4 might be a diacritic modification of 1, by the same mechanism
  • If it’s not decorative and is representing language, there are higher odds that it is an alphabet or alphasyllabary, given the rate of repetition (albeit in a tiny sample) as opposed to a syllabary
  • Not sure 1 is a character at all, people often use this sign as decorations/fillers inside rings.
  • This might be some alphabetic rendition of a name, or perhaps a private cipher (possibly recent)
If anyone has any ideas about this please let me know and I will update this post with new theories or information.
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Seven pieces of luggage, three planes, two trains, two days, two kids. We’re in Jena. Spring has also arrived and everything is blossoms and light – a far cry from my last visit in November when the town felt dark and empty of people.


We’ve had one exciting day when it snowed just a bit. I never realised that snow does not fall silently as the poets claim. You can hear it faintly crackling through the branches of trees before it hits the ground.


Our flat in Damensviertel is perfect and our neighbours are really the best. In amongst all the paperwork I have started pecking around the edges of the research project. I’ll keep you up to date.



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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