Rën alphabet

Rën is a script (ritë) developed by Justin Mann for a philosophical language of the same name (Lokë Rën). It is designed to be easily learned and written while giving it a beautiful and complex appearance.

I always try to applaud cursive style scripts, if for nothing else than the undertaking itself. However, like many before it Rën suffers from fatigue. While the design of the individual characters is simple and seemingly elegant, the resulting text looks more like apoplectic PhD student hurriedly trying to finish the last lines of her dissertation. There’s also the issue of voiced/unvoiced consonants being distinguished by only a diacritic…not something that I favor, most especially in cursive alphabets.

On to the sounds (orthographic representation). I’m not sure there is a natlang precedent for having [θ~ð] contrast with [ʒ] but not have [z]. And as a note on presentation, the page gives IPA for the diphthongs but not the base vowels. I suppose we could assume /a, e, i, o, u/ but that doesn’t seem accurate based on the diphthongs. Also, the use of the umlaut seems wholly unnecessary and likely ill-informed based on the rest of what phonemic information is available.

Over all, this script gets a 3×1 for aesthetics and functionality.

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Travel Map

I travel for work. I recently tried to figure out everywhere I’ve been and thought I’d post a little map. I might make updates whenever I happen to remember.

Key: Blue = a week or more; Gold = months or years (lived there)

I know it’s a fairly low-rent map, but hey, it works. Also, it doesn’t include overseas locations, which I might add at some point.

Black Panther Alphabet

What I have to say is completely unrelated to the writing, acting, or production value of the movie. All of which I enjoyed. But as a connoisseur of writing systems, I feel as though I should at least give my views on this one aspect of what was, in fact, a great movie.

David Peterson has already covered the fact that the real world language Xhosa is used for Wakanda. So I will leave that alone, except to say that Xhosa has clicks and other features that many languages lack.

Wakandan is an alphabet designed by production designer, Hannah Beachler, for use in the 2018 film Black Panther. It is based on Nsibidi, a system of symbols used in southeastern Nigeria between about 400 and 1400 AD. In the film the script is used to transliterate English text in the credits and other on-screen text. Other symbols that appear on clothes, wall hangings, and other elements in the film, were inspired by Nsibidi, cave drawings and graffiti in Los Angeles.”

So, the geography is all wrong. Based on the Marvel Wiki’s map, and the earliest mention of Wakanda’s location, it’s toward the East and centrally situated between north and south. Relatively far from Nigeria where the Nsibidi script originates.

Now, to the style of the script. I realize the aesthetics for this movie were kept broad, in a sort of Pan-African style, but the entry here talks about “Nsibidi, a system of symbols used in southeastern Nigeria”, which has a modern alphabet and expanded symbols which are sometimes still used. The Xhosa language, spoken in the film has 10 vowels and over 60 consonants. This means that the simple 26 letter cipher-bet used is wholly insufficient. Aesthetically, the script created for the film does not exactly resemble the actual Nsibidi system, never mind the fact that the Nsibidi system is an ideography. By comparison, if I made a fictional Dragon character from a region somewhere in Southeast China, and had them use something that resembles the Tibetan alphabet…that might be as bad as this.

It’s cases such as these that I wish people would simply say that they made something they thought looked good for the project, or matched the aesthetic they were hoping for, rather than loosely tying it to something so different in so many ways. The script isn’t even appealing aesthetically. It’s far too block-ish to fit the overall style of the film, and whoever thought it needed upper and lower case letters needs to spend a day reading about how rare those are in natural writing.

Laala

Laala

Laala is constructed language devised by Simon Ager, the creator of Omniglot, who was inspired to try creating a language after attending the Language Creation Conference in Horsham in 2015. The aim was to create a minimalist language with words based on sound symbolism and onomatopoeia as much as possible. The name Laala means ‘sing speak’, and it is intended to be quite a musical language suited to singing.

Simon seems to have a knack for scripts that function perfectly. This script is no exception. However, it does have an ever so slight hint of Tengwar, it still is quite aesthetically pleasing and looks more naturalistic than many of Simon’s other scripts. I do worry that his orthographical choices far exceed his choice in transliteration schemes, though. What would make this script’s presentation striking is some handwritten samples…free hand. I imagine this script has some quite interesting calligraphic possibilities, possibilities that are potentially enhanced by the isolating nature of the grammar.

I rate this script 4×4 for aesthetics and functionality.

amendment #2

with a firm grasp on the dogma’s tail
you continue to trip and flail

withering on the vine
your temperament is anything but fine

keep losing another day after week
your horrid morals are so painfully bleak

The recent immigration debate

I tend to steer clear of the more divisive political debates, because, who needs the aggravation of it. Right? Well, I was listening to a program on NPR recently and they played a clip of someone saying something like ‘there is a cultural shift in this country, we used to speak English, and we’re becoming bilingual…’ This irked me. As someone who loves linguistics and languages in general, it struck me as odd that language would be such a motivating factor for anti-immigration. I quickly realized that the language issue was likely just a huge fig leaf for what amounts to racism and bigotry. I was right. I decided to investigate. How language dominance has changed in the US over the years. If all we compare is German and Spanish speakers, we get a clearer picture of the debate as being racist fodder that ignores facts.

1910 German Speakers 3,962,624 > 1970 German Speakers 1,201,535
1910 Spanish Speakers 258,131 > 1970 Spanish Speakers 1,696,240

from: census.gov/population/www/documentation/twps0029/tab06.html

What this very basic comparison shows us is that German immigration fell by well more than half, and that Spanish speakers have increased by almost 7 times. What these numbers gloss over is that much of the nineteenth century was spent bringing in new states to the Union which had previously belonged to Spain, and, you guessed it, were predominantly Spanish-speaking. As late as 1850 California had an official government translator for translating all state laws, decrees, documents, or orders into Spanish.1

This image, from WWII era, is warning against speaking German, Japanese, and Italian. Nothing on there about the horrors of Spanish speakers, or how the country is experiencing a cultural shift. In fact, until WWI, German was the second most widely spoken language in the United States. Its decline is directly related to the War, and a backlash against immigrants. 2 So, those numbers above were not the result of fewer Germans wanting to immigrate, or more Spanish speakers wanting to, they were the result of geopolitical shifts that were happening at a macro level and are consistent with trends throughout history.

I’m not concerned with people who want to have a healthy debate about what immigration policy should be, or how it should be enforced, in fact, the debate is good for democracy, and can strengthen our institutions, but when the debate is had, let it be on facts, not some clearly misinformed nonsense that seems to hint that the US was hatched on July 4th 1776 as some fully-formed White, Christian nation of 50 gun-toting, god-fearing, fried turkey-eating states, because it simply wasn’t so.

Of course, all of this quietly ignores the uncomfortable truth that indigenous languages which once were spoken from coast-to-coast are now either dead, dying, or relegated to a few small communities that live in poverty and/or cultural obscurity. The debate will continue, with or without my contribution, but clarity is key if we are to accept that the changes we are seeing as inevitable and simply another chapter of our collective history.

1) Martin, Daniel W. (2006). Henke’s California Law Guide (8th ed.). Newark: Matthew Bender & Co. pp. 45–46. ISBN 08205-7595-X

2) “The War on German Language and Culture, 1917-1925 by Paul Finkelman

Year. Happy. New.

As we enter what is sure to be an interesting year, please, if nothing else, be kind to everyone you meet. You have no idea what others may be living through.