Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Other alphabets

For the first time in 12 years, the International Phonetic Association is amending its official alphabet. A sound called the labiodental flap will be granted its own letter, one that looks something like a v with a hook.[...]The new symbol had been recommended by a fellow linguist, Geoff Pullum, who described it "as if a fishhook R had been slammed leftward into a lowercase v so hard its vertical had merged with the right leg of the v, and the dangly bit had been left hanging there like the drain pipe out of an upstairs toilet in a partially demolished building." —Michael Erard, "With Sound From Africa, the Phonetic Alphabet Expands," New York Times, Dec. 13

Linguists say the Armenian alphabet is one of the oldest in the world that is still in use. It has proved remarkably durable, surviving a carousel of empires, vast migrations and even genocide. Armenia is a small country with a big diaspora, and its language is valued as the glue that has held the community together. Today's 38 letters vary little from the original 36, which were first brushed by an Armenian monk around A.D. 405 in order to translate the Bible.[...]In the fourth century, Armenia was split between the Persian and the Byzantine empires, and the little country had to make a choice: East or West. Eastern letters (as in Arabic) tend to be horizontal. Western letters tend to be vertical. The Armenians chose a vertical script inspired by Greek and Syriac and thereafter cast their fate with the West.
—Jeffrey Gettleman, "Armenians Celebrate Their Letters," New York Times, Dec. 13

When I think of the professor whom the state asked to give his ideas on Turkey's minorities, and who, having produced a report that failed to please, was prosecuted, or the news that between the time I began this essay and embarked on the sentence you are now reading five more writers and journalists were charged under Article 301, I imagine that Flaubert and Nerval, the two godfathers of Orientalism, would call these incidents bizarreries, and rightly so. —Orhan Pamuk, "On Trial," The New Yorker, Dec. 19

The best way to imagine the kingdom [said the monk] is not to think in terms of climate or colors or culture. Simply imagine a place where numbers have not yet been invented. Where there is nothing remotely like a number—and yet where a natural order abounds. It cannot be found, for it does not respond to mathematics. No coordinates can capture her.[...]Men do not know letters in the Kingdom; their vocabulary, monitored by means of water, is severely limited; they are permitted five hundred words; for every word over these five hundred, they lose a word previously gained—at the other end, at the start. —"Digression: The Numbers and the Letters," from Project for 26 Bottles


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