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Alphabet Soup

I have had a deep and abiding interest in language and linguistics for more than 40 years.  Of particular interest to me is the evolution of language through time and, in reverse, an understanding of the ultimate proto-language.  Every few years my interest will revive and I'll add to my already extensive collection of word-lists.  Most recently I have been scavanging for words and phrases added to the English language since my birth in 1949.  There are thousands and thousands!

At the opposite end of the timescale, I was excited to read the following article, The Evolution of the World's Alphabets and Other Symbols:

Writing systems may look very different, but they all use the same basic building blocks of familiar natural shapes, reports Roger Highfield  ...Look at the letters in the words of this sentence, for example. Why are they shaped the way that they are? Why did we come up with As, Ms and Zs and the other characters of the alphabet? And is there any underlying similarity between the many kinds of alphabet used on the planet?

To find out, scientists have pooled the common features of 100 different writing systems, including true alphabets such as Cyrillic, Korean Hangul and our own; so-called abjads that include Arabic and others that only use characters for consonants; Sanskrit, Tamil and other "abugidas", which use characters for consonants and accents for vowels; and Japanese and other syllabaries, which use symbols that approximate syllables, which make up words. Remarkably, the study has concluded that the letters we use can be viewed as a mirror of the features of the natural world, from trees and mountains to meandering streams and urban cityscapes ... "Writing should look like nature, in a way," said Dr Changizi, explaining how similar reasoning has been used to explain the sounds, signs and colours that animals, insects and so on use to tell each other they are, for example, receptive to sex.

To be able to compare Cyrillic, Arabic or whatever, they turned to the mathematics of topology, which focuses on the way elements are connected together in a letter rather than overall shape, so that fonts do not matter and nor does handwriting, whether neat calligraphy or crudely written with a crayon grasped in a clenched fist. For example, each time you see a T, geometrical features and frills such as serifs may differ according to the font or handwriting but the topology remains the same. By the same token, L, T, and X represent the three topologically distinct configurations that can be built with exactly two segments. And, to a topological mind, an L is the same as a V. In this way, the team could classify different configurations of strokes, or segments, to boil an alphabet of alphabets down to their essentials.

Across 115 writing systems to emerge over human history, varying in number of characters from about 10 to 200, the average number of strokes per character is approximately three and does not appear to vary as a function of writing system size. Sticking to letters that can be drawn with three strokes or fewer, the team found that about 36 distinct characters is the universe of letters in a theoretical alphabet. Remarkably, the study revealed regularities in the distribution of (topological) shapes across approximately 100 phonemic (non-logographic) writing systems, where characters stand for sounds, and across symbols. "Whether you use Chinese or physics symbols, the shapes that are common in one are common in the others," said Dr Changizi ... Most striking of all, the team found a high correlation between the most common contour combinations found in nature and the most common contours found in letters and symbols across cultures. For example, contours resembling an "L" or "X" are more common in both human visual signs and natural scenes than anything resembling an asterisk (*) ... "

Fascinating stuff.

April 22, 2006 in Cultural Beginnings | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Playland In Spring


April 21, 2006 in Photographs, Vancouver | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Plamegate Continues...

I have once again updated my Plamegate and Niger Forgery Chronology.  The latest 170-page version is available on the left sidebar, dated April 17.   

The latest filings in the Libby case have thrown up a few interesting nuggets, as did the Sunday Times reporting on Martino (although much was already known through Josh Marshall and Nur al-Cubicle).  In addition, I have added an extensive bibliography in two forms (alphabetical by author, and chronological).


April 17, 2006 in America Inc, Bush Administration, Cheney, Dick, Current Affairs, History, Iraq, Media, Right wing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

The Folks Behind The Bush Catastrophe

How about this for an opening:

With huge torrents of cash from Richard Mellon Scaife, the Ahmanson family and other super-rich ultra-rightists, the fundamentalist church has formed the popular network that has spawned the Bush catastrophe. The totalitarian alliance between pulpit, corporation and military is unique in U.S. history.

With contempt for the Constitution, and unholy opposition to separation of church and state, ultra-rich ultra-right preachers like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, self-proclaimed messiahs like Rev. Moon, and sanctimonious errand boys like Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist, have turned America into a “Christo-fascist” empire whose twice-unelected executive claims Divine right to rule.

Not a bad start, eh?   The rest of it is just as much fun.  Bob and Harvey tell it like it is.

April 10, 2006 in America Inc, Bush Administration, Religion [1], Right wing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack


This week's revelations in court papers filed by Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald have prompted me to update my Plamegate and Niger Forgery Chronoloy. 

The updated document can be downloaded from the link on the left sidebar.  There are quite a few new and updated entries, marked in red.

I still have a whack of material to get through and so I anticipate another edition at the end of this coming week.

April 8, 2006 in America Inc, Bush Administration, Cheney, Dick, Current Affairs, Iraq, Media, Right wing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack