Re: [xmca] Magpie Writing Systems

From: Mike Cole (
Date: Thu Jan 04 2007 - 17:59:38 PST

Di David K-
I am still puzzling over the specific Janet-Vygotsky linkage you invoke....
I am uncertain of the use of the term, function (language is a function).
When J writes that
An idea is a function which is beginning, while a function is an idea of our
ancestors which has aged" it is kind of like a thought becoming embodied and
therefore not
returning to the hall of shadows (taken from Mandelshtam) but its difficult
for me to see the "law of cultural development" in this. Is that what you

As to Tomasello and writing.
I never even noticed Tomasello's comment about writing. I guess I was too
focused on his work on chimps!! (There a lot more subsequently).
Of course, he is repeating the story that Gelb tells and Havelock tells and
(I am unsure) that Olson tells.

I could not find out much about the Hangguel alphabet. The one entry I found
said that it has 14 consonants and 11 vowels? Is there a good source a
duffer could read about

I am unsure what to think of the claim that there is no pure alphabetic
language on the basis of A historically having an ideographic origin. The
Schmandt-Besserat work,
which is about Euphrates-->> alphabets clearly shows early origins in terms
of pictographs and from what I have read of the Summerian system if
increasingly included
phonetic markers, but no sure that makes the Greek alphabet unpure.

Interested in learning more about both issues!!

On 1/3/07, David Kellogg <> wrote:
> 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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