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Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Where My Linguistic Interest Began

 I'm reading another book about linguistics. This one is even older than the book referenced in the link at the end. I'll tell you what I'm reading in a minute.

However, I think I can safely say that this is the book where my interest began. Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories (1902). This is the edition that I had as a child. Do you know them? They are funny make-believe tales like "How the Elephant Got His Trunk." (the crocodile kept pulling on his nose). Or "The Cat Who Walked by Himself." (how cats are always independent and don't want to be friends like other animals). This was one of my favorite books as a small child, which is interesting, because I was an extremely literal and serious child, but these stories are funny, and I did understand that.
Just So Stories

One of the stories is "How the Alphabet was Made." It's a fanciful tale of a girl named Taffy who starts to create drawings of sounds that her father makes. The thing that makes it silly is that they are making shapes that would make sounds that we use in English. But it starts with "ah," and Taffy watches her father make the ah sound and decides that his open mouth looks like a carp, so she draws a carp mouth pointing downward because they are bottom feeders. Her father suggests that she put a line across it for the carp's feeler so people would know it was a carp and not a trout or a perch. They ended up with this...
the letter A as a carp mouth

Which turned into this... A
the letter A

OK, even as a preschooler I somehow knew that this was silly because nobody who lived that long ago was speaking English and using the Roman alphabet (my mother taught me the Greek and sign language alphabets right along with English). And yet, that is approximately how the early picture languages evolved into phonetic languages.

So yesterday, through reading another fiction book, I found another linguistics book, The Story of Language, by Mario Pei, written in 1949.
The Story of Language

I probably should find something on the topic that is more recent, but it's still a lot of fun.

He talks some about the pictographic writing morphing into ideographic symbols with meanings beyond nouns. For example, in Chinese the symbols for sun and tree were combined to mean "east"- the sun rising through the trees.

Or how the Egyptian symbol for the sun, and the sun god Re, easily transformed to the phonetic character for the re sound.

He says the Phoenicians (which I knew), and the Hebrews (I did not know this) were the first to transform symbols to exclusively phonetic values. Here is the Phoenician alphabet... if you know the Greek capital letters, you will see the obvious similarity.
Phoenician alphabet

And the Hebrew (read it right to left). Aleph began as a picture of an ox, beth was a picture of a house- the Hebrew word for a house is beth. (Beth-el= house of God)
hebrew alphabet

He also says that we only hear about 50% of sounds produced by a speaker which is why context is so important. And for a more contemporary example, part of why we had so much trouble understanding each other when we all wore masks during Covid.

I edited, I wrote about 1000 words, I did some other stuff.

See A Bunny Trail to Treasure


Ann said...

I'm not familiar with either of those books. I bet I would have enjoyed that first one.

The Oceanside Animals said...

Lulu: "Our Dada says he read that book! And also other stories by this author, including 'Rikki Tikki Tavi', which gave him an irrational fear of cobras showing up in his bedroom."
Java Bean: "Ayyy, cobras?! Where?!?!?"

Sharkbytes said...

Ann- I'm sure you can find it free to read online.

Lulu- Yes, Kipling was one of the authors I was raised on. RTT was a good one!