Monthly Archives: April 2014

The Express Gazette is not good at geopolitics

Mysterious and unnamed Russian ‘experts’ have a map in the Express Gazette predicting what Europe will look like in 2035.

Every secession movement in Western Europe wins, as do some that don’t even exist; Bosnia and Moldova disappear; and for added comedy value, France clips a bit of the hexagon off and gives it to the Arabs. Russians are honest: “Мультикультурный крах уже претерпевает Франция.”

Russia’s expansion confirms what the sub-4chan quality of the map already suggests: one of these “experts” works for the Express Gazette, and all the others are bottles of vodka. In 2035, Russia will have invaded Ukraine so hard that they end up with a third of Moldova. Right. Also Belarus, half of Latvia, and… Narva, because they lost Kaliningrad to Germany. Wasn’t there a largest ethnic cleansing in European history about that?

Best part: sovereign Carpathian Ruthenia. Because seven microstates weren’t enough.

“If Aesop was not an African…”

The anonymously authored Aesop Romance (usually dated to the 1st or 2nd century CE) begins with a vivid description of Aesop’s appearance, saying he was “of loathsome aspect… potbellied, misshapen of head, snub-nosed, swarthy, dwarfish, bandy-legged, short-armed, squint-eyed, liver-lipped—a portentous monstrosity,”[25] or as another translation has it, “a faulty creation of Prometheus when half-asleep.” …

A much later tradition depicts Aesop as a black African from Ethiopia.[29] The presence of such slaves in Greek-speaking areas is suggested by the fable “Washing the Ethiopian white” that is ascribed to Aesop himself. This concerns a man who buys a black slave and, assuming that he was neglected by his former master, tries very hard to wash the blackness away. But nowhere in the fable is it suggested that this constitutes a personal reference. The first known promulgator of the idea was Planudes, a Byzantine scholar of the 13th century who wrote a biography of Aesop based on The Aesop Romance and conjectured that Aesop might have been Ethiopian, given his name.[30] An English translation of Planudes’ biography from 1687 says that “his Complexion [was] black, from which dark Tincture he contracted his Name (Aesopus being the same with Aethiops)”. When asked his origin by a prospective new master, Aesop replies, “I am a Negro“; numerous illustrations by Francis Barlow accompany this text and depict Aesop accordingly.[31] But according to Gert-Jan van Dijk, “Planudes’ derivation of ‘Aesop’ from ‘Aethiopian’ is… etymologically incorrect,”[32] and Frank Snowden says that Planudes’ account is “worthless as to the reliability of Aesop as ‘Ethiopian.'”[33]

Nevertheless, in 1932 the anthropologist J.H. Driberg, repeating the Aesop/Aethiop linkage, asserted that, while “some say he [Aesop] was a Phrygian… the more general view… is that he was an African”, and “if Aesop was not an African, he ought to have been.”

Cladistics: part 2

Continued from here.

The concept of the alphabeta writing system with letters for both consonants and vowelshas probably only been invented once: by the Greeks, who took the Phoenician writing system, which, like most writing systems for Semitic languages, only marked consonants, and used the letters that represented sounds absent in Greek to write vowels.

Most writing systems for Semitic languages are abjads: writing systems of the Phoenician type, marking only consonants, but sometimes reusing consonant letters for long vowels. This form of writing is uniquely suited to the Semitic languages, which base their grammar on triconsonantal roots: each root word consists of three consonants, to which vowels and consonantal affixes are added to decline nouns, inflect verbs, and derive more complex words from roots.

The triconsonantal root analysis is now taken by some as an oversimplification: the Semitic languages, the argument goes, do not really have consonantal templates, and the processes of vowel addition, deletion, and alternation are merely complicated forms of ablaut, or vowel alternation of the Indo-European type, as exemplified by the English verb paradigm singsangsung. Ablaut is reconstructed for the Proto-Afro-Asiatic languagethe Ursprache of most of the languages of northern Africa, including not only the Semitic languages but also the Berber, Cushitic, and Chadicas well as the proto-language of the Northwest Caucasian family, which is most known for containing Ubykh, a now-extinct language that holds the distinction of having the most consonants of any non-click language.

While this system worked well for the Semitic languages (and still does: Arabic and Hebrew are both written in abjads), it hindered the comprehension of Indo-European languages like Greek, which, due to its large consonant clusters and its reliance on vowels, was best suited to an alphabet. Greek had, in fact, been written in syllabaries long before its speakers invented the alphabet sometime in the eighth century BC: the well-known Linear B script and the Cypriot syllabary preceded that invention.

Thus we begin to see the utility of cladistic analysis: almost three thousand years later, we still write like the Greeks!and thus, with the rest of the West, distinguish ourselves from the rest of the world! Well, not quite: the Latin and Cyrillic scripts had the great adaptivity of being attached to empires, which proceeded to spread them throughout their sphere of influence, sometimes displacing native scripts where they existed. Mongolian today is written in Cyrillic everywhere outside China, and the click languages of the African Bushmen are written in Latin. Writing systems, however, spread more easily than patterns of thought or elements of culture, and are more resistant to influence from what was there before: no tribe but the Saxons added elements of their pre-Latin writing systems to Latin when it came to them, but Christianity rarely spreads without significant syncretism. (And the letters derived from runes have all disappeared, wiped out by the damned French everywhere but Iceland, where only one, the thorn, survives.)

Mencius Moldbug’s formulation of cladistic analysis, unlike the morphological or perhaps the genealogical, requires the investigation of conversion patterns. Greek is not Latin, and there must have been one first scribe to write down Latin in something recognizable as the Latin alphabet; so what script, what language, did he write in before that?

There were many alphabets in Italy at the time, each developed from the Greek, and each associated with a language that, with the exception of Latin, no longer survives. The particular form from which the Latin alphabet derives, a ‘red’ form, adapted some letters differently from the ‘blue’ form that led to the modern Greek alphabet: the letter H was used for the consonant /h/ that still survived in those dialects, and the letter X was used for the combination /ks/.

To answer the question: the alphabet spread to the Romans through the Etruscans, speakers of a language unrelated to anything else known today, and the Etruscans got it from the Greeks.

From the Romans and the Greeks came the English use of the digraph th. It, ph, and ch were originally used to write aspirated consonants, which sound like sequences of the plain stops and h, and were also written as such in the ‘green’ versions of the archaic Greek alphabet. Aspirated consonants appeared mostly in Greek loanwords, though they developed from plain stops in some positions in native Latin words; they disappeared from the language with the fall of the Roman Empire, but the pattern of equivalence remained: ph, th, and ch were the Roman equivalents of the Greek letters φ, θ, and χ. Later, the aspirated consonants in Greek fricated, becoming f (still written ph in Greek borrowings today), th, and the Scottish ch.

The other pecularities of the English alphabet, like all Latin alphabets and like all writing systems, are similar to the sequence th, in that they all have identifiable historical originsorigins unknown to most speakers of the language, origins which must be recovered through investigation of the history.

This is one thing to do for writing systems, but another entirely to do for patterns of thought: the latter are identified with, taken, unlike the former, as objective truth, or as indisputable moral fact which one must be evil to even think about questioning. Besides, they’re much more complicated: it’s hard not to suspect that Moldbug’s restriction of cladistics to the investigation of patterns of conversion was intended as a heuristic to simplify the process of coming to understand history.

Cladistics: part 1

Mencius Moldbug lists five ways to categorize belief-systems: nominalist, accepting each system’s name for and narrative of itself; typological, categorizing systems according to shared traits; morphological, constructing historical descent trees according to analysis of shared traits; cladistic, constructing historical descent trees of conversion patterns; and adaptive, ignoring traits and history and focusing solely on how the belief-system succeeds.

He prefers the last two of the five, leading to results that are often prima facie unintuitive. But if you’ve studied linguistics, the last two make sense.

Linguistic nominalism is unworkable: Sanskrit, Albanian, and Basque can’t all be the ancestors of all the world’s languages. Typology and morphology have their usesone can compile a list of tonal languages, or of languages that put the verb before the subject and the object in a sentence, and examine their other traitsbut they can’t do everything: Chinese and !Xóõ are both tonal, but they are unrelated and share few other features. Historical linguistics is typological by necessity: Old English resembles Classical Latin more than it does English, but, as the name implies, is more closely related to English than to Classical Latin. Similarly, French, like English and unlike Classical Latin, has definite articles and a case system eroded to almost nothing—but it is more closely related to Latin than to English.

Typology, however, has other uses in linguistics. Another Romance language, Romanian, is part of the Balkan Sprachbund; and the Sprachbund is a thoroughly typological concept. Over centuries of influence, and perhaps due to the shared influence of a now-lost substrate language, Romanian has converged with Albanian, Greek, and the Slavic languages of the region, now sharing many traits with them that are absent in the other Romance languages: a suffixed definite article, the loss of the infinitive form of the verb, and the superessive construction for the numerals between eleven and twenty, to name three. It can be difficult to distinguish between a Sprachbund and a language family: it is currently debated whether the Altaic languages of Asia, ranging from Turkish to Mongolian and perhaps including Korean and Japanese, descend from the same proto-language or have simply converged over time.

Languages are complicated: enough so that they cannot serve as useful illustrations here. Writing systems, however, can.

The concept of writing has only been independently invented three times: once by the Sumerians, creators of the first city; once by the Chinese; and once by the Mayans. Every writing system existing today can claim cladistic descent from one of these threeeven those that did not evolve organically from an older script, but were invented consciously, of which many examples exist. Perhaps it is a change to the concept of cladistics to include these; but if so, it is a change that proves useful in the philosophical realm, where so many have claimed originality despite influence, acknowledged or avoided, conscious or otherwise. Or perhaps it is not: the Tangut script, designed by a figure given the badass name of the Teacher, Iri by the Tangut (and known in Mandarin as Yělì Rènyóng), is one such invention, and its appearance betrays the influence of the Chinese logography. (As does its structure, but only to a limited extent: though The World’s Writing Systems points out that “all the main structures of the Chinese script” may be found in it, nobody knows quite what Iri was thinking.)

Even those scripts which were designed by illiterates familiar with only the concept of writing show signs of outside influence. Pahawh Hmong, which its otherwise illiterate creator, Shong Lue Yang, claimed he received in a series of divine revelations near the city of Nong Het in Laos, is similar in appearance to the Lao script; and the Cherokee syllabary, invented by Sequoyah in nineteenth-century America, contains a near-complete copy of the Latin alphabet, though with radically different sound values: Ꮓ, for example, represents the syllable no.

Next time: alphabets.