[xmca] Magpie Writing Systems

From: David Kellogg (vaughndogblack@yahoo.com)
Date: Wed Jan 03 2007 - 11:23:58 PST

A couple of months ago, a propos ape language, Mike told me to go and read Tomasello's "The cultural origins of human cognition". I'm ashamed to say that I've only just got around to it.

I've already solved one mystery with it (that is, the question that I've been bugging the list with for several years now, namely the extent to which Vygotsky's principle that "each higher function was thus originally shared between two persons" (Collected Works, Volume 3: 96) can be called Janet's Law, as Valsiner and van der Veer claim (The Social Mind: 370).

A couple of months ago I offered the following quote from p. 87 of Janet's 1909 book, Les neveroses, which Vygotsky probably read:

  “In any case, is there really a big difference between an idea and a function? A function is, like an idea, a system of images narrowly associated with one another in such a way that they are able to mutually evoke each other. The sole (?) difference is that a function, such as that of language, is a much more considerable system than an idea; it contains thousands of terms rather than a small number of images reunited in the polygon constituting the idea. The second (!) crucial difference is that an idea is a system recently formed in the course of our lives, while a function is a vast system established long ago by our ancestors. An idea is a function which is beginning, while a function is an idea of our ancestors which has aged.”
  You can see that the second difference (not to be confused with the sole difference!) involves cultural transmission, and that Janet is making a link between phylogenesis (of language) and the microgenesis (of an idea). Vygotsky later posits two culturally mediated transitions, linked, but distinct: from phylogenesis to ontogenesis and from microgenesis to ontogenesis. Yes, they are both examples of cultural transmission, but no, they are not at all the same thing. "Janet's Law" is really Vygotsky's; these Russians are intellectual magpies, constantly hatching their own eggs in other nests.
  But of course mysteries lead on to mysteries. Tomasello claims that in the course of the phylogenesis of language, alphabetic writing was invented exactly once, and all other instances of it are examples of cultural diffusion.
  I find this highly doubtful. Did King Sejong the Great import the Hanggeul alphabet from the West? What about the Japanese syllabary or the one invented in Taiwan?
  Even if I believed it, I think it is meaningless.
  First of all, there is no such thing as a “pure” alphabetic writing system, and that for two reasons: a) alphabetic writing has non-alphabetic origins (the letter “a” originally meant the head of an ox, for example), and b) writing systems require punctuation, spaces between words, and other non-alphabetic elements to work.
  Secondly, there is no such thing as a “pure” non-alphabetic writing system. We Chinese speakers know very well that only a very few Chinese characters are “ideographic” (interestingly, they are usually things that writers in other languages use ideographs for too: numbers, the sun, the moon, etc.). Most Chinese characters do have a phonological element
  Similarly, very few English words are purely alphabetic; one reason why our spelling system is so fiendishly difficult is that many words have components that indicate something about their semantic content, and these come from other languages (as scientific concepts generally do; these scientists are magpies...).
  Halliday says that all languages systems eventually evolve the sort of writing system they deserve. English is a promiscuous sort of tongue, and we’ve got the spelling system that loose morals will land you with. But note the use of “evolve” rather than “invent”!
  David Kellogg
  Seoul National University of Education

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