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.

One response to “Cladistics: part 1

  1. Pingback: Cladistics, part 2 | nydwracu niþgrim, nihtbealwa mæst

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