Monday, October 08, 2007

Hobos, Angels, and Klingons

I recently came across a story about the Dance Notation Bureau that talked about the near-death and resurgence of "Labanotation", a written system for annotating dance allegedly accurate down to the eyeball-blink.

Then, the other day, Davey, in one of his various efforts to make sure I go insane or at least don't get as much work done as I might otherwise, sent a link along about the Voynich Manuscript which has yet to be translated, if in fact any translation exists.

It has me thinking about all the different ways we humans use writing, and all of its various forms. How very many of them that were once used are now exceedingly rare or entirely forgotten. On the one hand, it seems a great pity to have lost so much knowledge that was part of humanity's development; on the other, as languages die and are folded into each other, more people are able to communicate, and that can't be all bad. Taken to its natural extreme, we would expect that, given enough time and globalization, everyone will speak the same tongue.

Then there is the idea that all of language springs from some (lost) original, single language, termed Adamic[link] by some, Enochian[link]
by others, and probably known by myriad other names. Those of you who have read Genesis will remember the story of the Tower of Babel, and of the confounding of tongues [link] as punishment for attempting to reach heaven by mere architecture. It's not the only account of a perfect, original language being lost. Some time ago now, I started but never finished The Search for the Perfect Language, by Umberto Eco (Amazon is kind enough to tell me I bought it in May, 2004). From the back copy: "The idea that there once existed a language which perfectly and unambiguously expressed the essence of all possible things and concepts has occupied the minds of philosophers, theologians, mystics, and others for at least two millennia. This is an investigation into the history of that idea and of its profound influence on European thought, culture, and history." I wish I'd read it all, but (and I say this as a fan) Eco's not all that easy to read. Maybe I'll put it back in the queue.

But, for now, we're losing languages and methods of notation. And, reason would argue, it's bound to happen. That linguistics and systems of writing or notation should follow 'the survival of the fittest' comes as no surprise. Probably we would be correct if we said that any such system or language passed out of use because it was no longer needed by those who knew it, or because they themselves failed to pass it on.

Still, part of me pines to know all such things. I doubt I could even come to know the full list of disappeared or little-used systems of writing, much less actually learn any of them.

Here are a few, in broad strokes:

And so forth. Totally useless to my modern life - all of them. And yet... I mean, if I could mark my street with hobo signs saying this wasn't a good place to stop, that'd keep the hobos away, right? Or, if I could read alchemical symbols, I could, uh, make something? If I spoke Navajo, I could be a WWII Codetalker? See, there's no reason to want to know any of it. But that doesn't stop me.

So here's a point to ponder: let's say you woke up tomorrow as a perfect example of Xenoglossia; you can now speak or read/write (but not both speak and write) any language or notational system, living or dead, that is currently known by no more than 100,000 people. Which do you choose, and why?


Unknown said...

I'm still picking my language, but found one I really don't want to know, but is seen every day. Laundry Codes!

Dave Y said...

Nice one. Sadly there doesn't look like any direct overlap between those and the hobo signs on the little picture I included. I have a book at home with more hobo signs, though; I'm still hoping for some amusing overlap that would cause a hobo, upon viewing a label, to assume that handouts are given nearby, or for a laundry washer to see a hobo sign and assume that the designated place must be washed with color-safe bleach.

Maren said...

Nynorsk, although it is spoken by lots of Norwegians, is the primary written language of roughly 470,000. I once had a grasp on Bokmal, but it is fading. I would love to learn some kind of Gaelic or Icelandic.

Hieroglyphs and shorthand are also very cool.

Disco Mom said...


I asked for it, didn't I? I guess I'd have to go with any of the Khoisan languages - it would be a rush to hear - and understand - all those meaningful clicks coming out of my mouth.

I like Davey's, though. I'm actually going to try to learn that one, I've always wondered...

Dave Y said...

ooh, nice one, Kari. click-kliik clho clchlu to you!

David said...

the battered and bruised form of english muttered by our president, that's what i'd like to learn how to speak.


hmm... yeah, i think i'd go with one of those click clocky ones

Unknown said...

Found my language I want to speak.
Sure, only two seem to speak it, and three others understand it, but it would be cool.