Using Ancient Languages to Understand Our Own

Using Ancient Languages to Understand Our Own

The writings below compare Chinese characters, Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, and Sumerian cuneiform—the oldest scripts—in order to find patterns that help us understand the alphabet's origins. All ancient written languages reflect what was important to humans at the time they were created: sex and procreation. Linguists, who focus on spoken language, say there is no hierarchy to the alphabet, but anything with an order has a top and bottom. We use letters to grade students, meat, and, inversely, breasts: a "D" is a bad grade but a great cup size. Our alphabet is a clue to early human survival strategies. "Z" represented a weapon and used to be the seventh letter. Why did it move to the end if there's no significance to the order? Why are all the letters near "Z"—U, V, W, X, and Y—suggestive of women? (The shape of "Y" means "slave girl" in Chinese.) Read the chapters below for insights into how ancient appetites translated into our current writing system.

Friday, January 30, 2015

How can these signs be arbitrary if they fit together so well?


JosephK said...

Since when have linguists called pictographs or ideographs arbitrary?

Jennifer Ball said...

Often. "The signs for sheep and goat have an abstract character," Archaic Bookkeeping, Writing and Techniques of Economic Administration the the Ancient Near East (page 89). Also on page 116: "Abstract or arbitrarily shaped signs lacking any comprehensible association to the object depicted, for example the circle and cross denoting 'small cattle...'"