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.


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