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 […]


Collection fishing, Writing systems

Just how wrong-o is this Rongorongo board?

I came across this outstanding paleograph sitting quietly in a glass case in the Archeology and Anthropology building of my university. The quality of the image is somewhat reduced due to the fact that I was pressing my phone against the pain. The caption reads ‘Easter Island rongorongo board with approx5 500 glyphs, collected in 1870.’

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Easter Island rongorongo board with approx 500 glyphs, collected in 1870

According to the Wikipedia entry on Rongorongo, this artefact would represent one of only 26 known objects worldwide bearing a Rongorongo inscription. Considering that Easter Island may be the last place where writing was independently invented — after Central America, the Middle East and (perhaps) China — it’s remarkable that such a rare item is sitting casually amongst a collection of Austronesian and Southeast Asian sherds and flake tools.

Of course, the question of whether Rongorongo represents actual writing remains vexed as does the authenticity of many of the surviving artefacts. The meaning and traditional use of Rongorongo has tormented scholars from their earliest encounters with it.  By the time examples of Rongorongo were being collected for analysis, no literate Easter Islanders remained and the wooden texts were being used for fishing spindles or being burned as firewood. If Rongorongo is writing, as we know it, there is no consensus as to what kind of system it represents or whether the glyphs are merely mnemonics for the oral reproduction of ritual speech.

The date of 1870 suggests that this specimen was collected on the O’Higgins scientific expedition to the island in which the famous Rongorongo text I was obtained. I contacted the person responsible for maintaining the exhibit who then contacted the original collector, the archeologist Professor Peter Bellwood who gave the following succinct and highly informative reply:

“I bought it in Santiago in 1975. If it wasn’t a replica it would be worth millions, and certainly not in that glass case! It is probably made of plaster of Paris – not to be dropped.”

Mystery solved.



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.