20 May 2010

Putting fingers to keyboard

The expression has long been "putting pen to paper". But it doesn't really work that way anymore now we do so much communicating by computer. So, I put my fingers to my keyboard for my first post.

It will be a little while before I really get this blog off the ground, busy as I am right now with finishing off a paper for the Berkeley Linguistics Society Proceedings before the end of May, moving at the end of the month, and then travelling to San Francisco for ten days to attend the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) and do some research on writing systems at the UC Berkeley library.

Why did I decide to start this blog? For a long time, linguistics has considered speech to be the essence of language. Yet the revolution in sign linguistics that began in the 1960s and began to gather speed in the 1970s challenged this idea, showing that language can express itself in unexpected ways through the hands and body while sharing most essential characteristics with spoken language. Researchers have also shown that there are interesting differences in the way we organise our thoughts when we write them down rather than speak them. And much more recently, there has been a growing interest in how writing systems are organised and relate to the languages they represent.

So how does this blog fit in?

Since I began my BA in linguistics in 1981, I have been interested in sign language linguistics. Though I am no longer in the academic world, I am still interested in this side of linguistics although my work has been on the sidelines for the past few years. Most recently, I have been working on a system for writing sign languages that shares some characteristics with many notation systems commonly used by sign linguistics but also to some extent with writing systems that have been proposed over time, like B├ębian's Mimographie or Valerie Sutton's "Sutton Signwriting". However, the system I am working on is the result of over two decades of reflection and research on the ways sign languages are structured, from the level of phonology up through word and sentence structure, right up to discourse organization, and the way my ideas influence the form of the system at every level leads to a writing system that is very different from any of the others.

This is the core that the rest of this blog springs from. In my future postings, when I get into the swing of things, I will be talking about theoretical and practical issues that I have dealt with in my research on sign languages over the years. I will also be posting articles about my sign language writing system.

But it doesn't end there. In my research on writing systems and typography, I almost by accident stumbled on what seems to be the solution to a long-time mystery in the history of writing systems. There are a number of scripts formerly used to write indigenous languages in the Philippines and in Sulawesi and Sumatra in Indonesia. Although the most widely known theory, proposed by Hendrik Kern in the late 1800s, claims that these writing systems derived from the Old Javanese "Kawi" script, just like modern Javanese and Balinese script, modern specialists in writing systems of the archipelago don't accept the theory since the differences between Kawi and the Philippines-Sulawesi-Sumatra scripts and Kawi are too great for any plausible close relationship. By chance, I realised that the letters in the oldest examples of these scripts, from the late 16th and early 17th century Philippines, are systematically related in shape to their counterparts in Gujarati script. This led me to look at the relationships with the other non-Kawi scripts in the archipelago and I quickly realised that they all seemed to derive from the slightly changed Gujarati letters that the Philippine script was based on. And this was the key to understanding how all these scripts were related to each other. And as a bonus, I discovered the actual origins of a long-forgotten script used by the Makassarese south Sulawesi.

This is what my paper for the Berkeley Linguistics Society Proceedings is about. When things settle down for me in about a month's time, I will start posting my observations on these scripts. The research has been fun, and there is a lot more to be said than I can say in just the 15 pages I'm allowed for my paper.

To whoever reads this first post, enjoy the month and the summer weather (if you're from the tropics or the northern hemisphere) or a mild winter (if you regularly see the Southern Cross in your night sky)!

Until late-ish in June!