I am copying into this blogpost an email which appeared on the Language Policy List email@example.com about the ancient languages of the Caucasus Mountains. I have edited out some parts of it which were technical, in order to make it a tidy size for a blog post, and to make it accessible to non-specialists. The title of the original posting is “New Book: A Proposal for Pan-Caucasian Alphabet,” posted on March 24th.
[Several of the languages of Northern Caucasian languages were not traditionally written down.] Standardized writing systems for the North Caucasian languages have been implemented only in the 20th century. Initially based upon the Latin script, the adapted alphabets have been shifted to Cyrillic-shaped graphics during the mid 30s. … These writing systems are incapable to represent [sic], in an unambiguous way, the phonetics of the North Caucasian languages, which in their turn possess an outstanding feature of having one of the richest consonant inventories among all the languages of the world….
For instance, the language of the Ubykhs (extinct since 1992) has 86 consonants and two vowels; the Archi language, presently reduced to 1200 speakers, distinguishes 81 consonants and 26 vowels (many of the former do not have exact correspondences in other languages); the consonant inventory of the Bzyp dialect of Abkhaz includes 68 phonemes, etc.
All Caucasian languages have a regular three-level phonation for stops and affricates (voiced, ejective and aspirated voiceless), whereas the Cyrillic script distinguishes only two levels of phonation (voiced and unaspirated voiceless) in case of stops and one (aspirated voiceless) in case of affricates. The Latin alphabet does not represent affricates at all. … [T]he Cyrillic script until the 20th century has chiefly been confined to a limited range of a few Slavic languages sharing similar phonetic traits. … [D]issimilar sets of symbols often with illogical combinations were introduced into the alphabets of particular North Caucasian languages during the adaptation of the Russian script.
For instance, the series of Ubykh postalveolar affricates and fricatives numbers 22 distinct phonemes, for which there is only one (!) correspondence in the Cyrillic script – the letter ч (tɕ). Obviously, this one sign alone is quite insufficient to express the overall phonemic diversity of this extensive series by means of Cyrillic graphics. Set aside the letter х, there is no other direct or indirect graphical correspondence for uvular, pharyngeal, epiglottal and glottal stops, affricates, fricatives and sonorants, which in Caucasian languages abound.
As one can see, the quantity of phonemes of these languages by far exceeds the graphical capabilities of all alphabetic systems that have previously been proposed for them or are currently in use. Such a vast phoneme inventory significantly hinders the possibilities of adaptation of any actual script and constitutes the prime reason for the current project.
[Twenty-four[ out of 69 characters of Adyghe alphabet are double, and 11 – triple, making in sum 35 compounds, which is more than half of the total listing with 69:35 ratio. The similar statistics of the other Caucasian Cyrillic alphabets is as follows: Abaza (74:40), Kabardian (55:25), Abkhaz (64:24), Akhvakh (56:30), Aghul (69:32), Avar (53:37), Lak (59:25), Tabasaran (59:25), Tsez (40:14), Chechen (45:16) etc. The Chechen alphabet alone having merely 45 characters in the presence of 44 authentic vowels and diphthongs in the language itself, clearly convinces one in the fact that even at the cost of universal violation of the alphabetic principle and inappropriate complication of orthography, the given alphabets are unable to express the phonemic structure of the Caucasian languages even in the least satisfactory manner.
All above-mentioned complications essentially limited the means of graphical expression of these languages and led to a point, where, set aside rare dialectal phonemes, a series of sounds of literary languages were omitted in a number of alphabets. In many cases, these very same circumstances also defined the selection of dialects upon which the literary versions of some Caucasian languages were subsequently based: neither the extent of geographical distribution, nor the greater number of speakers was the decision criterion, but the minimal consonant inventory.
In summary, we may conclude that presently for the languages of both North Caucasian families there are practically no alphabets with a satisfactory level of phonematicity. Moreover, in Cyrillic script we deal with a quite inconsistent system of symbols, the potential of which in respect of grapheme morphology and structural correspondences is extremely low and insufficient not only for a simple, practical and phonemically complete rendition of the North Caucasian languages, but also for their aesthetic graphical representation.
The latter is of paramount importance for psychology of writing and determines the representativeness and competitiveness of an authentic language under the dominance of another – an official language with an identical writing system.
Besides the imperfection of the writing system or even its absence, the official status and the cultural dominance of Russian has a no less considerable impact on the marginalization of the spheres of usage of the native Caucasian languages, promoting their gradual extinction. A large number of languages, among which were examples unique by their grammatical and phonetic properties, either completely died out or are on the brink of extinction being reduced to a few hundred or thousand of speakers, such as Archi, Akhvakh, Khinalug, Khwarshi, Tsez, Hinukh, Hunzib, Bezhta, Ghodoberi, Kryts, Budukh, Udi and many others.
Granting these languages a new impetus and means for development may be a possible break through the mentioned difficulties. To achieve this goal we suggest a scientifically valid development of completely new and well-adapted Caucasian alphabets that are adjusted by the morphology of symbols and the logic of their modification. At the same time, they must correspond to the complex intrinsic phonetic features of these languages, render them with full phonemic representativeness and alphabetical unambiguity, and at the same time be free from any irrelevant political or cultural context and enforcing influence.
The best illustrations to the aforesaid are the 1600-year time-tested alphabets of once dominant languages of the South Caucasus and the Armenian Highlands – Armenian, Georgian and the extinct and only recently deciphered Caucasian Albanian. Among the writing systems of the world, these three alphabets are distinguished by their highest level of grapheme-to-phoneme correspondence and are listed among the phonetically most perfect. Caucasian Albanian, inter alia, was the only language of the South Caucasus possessing phonetic features similar to the North Caucasian languages and an ancient alphabet adapted to it.
Throughout the centuries, the viability of the Armenian and Georgian alphabets, alongside with the power of tradition and some peculiarities of the identity of these two nations, was supported by the fundamental fact: they reflect the phonetics of these languages with the highest level of perfection. These alphabets were never superseded by the Greek, Aramaic, Arabic, Russian or Latin scripts, as they weren't adopted or modified, but from the beginning developed on the basis of a meticulous scientific analysis of the phonetics of Armenian and Georgian (as well as Caucasian Albanian).
Hence, we set forth the idea to introduce completely original, easily legible, and most importantly – phonetically perfect and grammatologically thorough writing systems for the North Caucasian linguistic area, based on the character forms and graphical principles of construction of the alphabets of geographically adjacent and historically akin South Caucasus.
To achieve maximum efficiency, two similar, but mutually independent generalized sets of characters for [the] language families are introduced, wherefrom the specific alphabets for the particular languages are subsequently deduced.
Additionally, for the Ossetic language alike, which is an integral part of the Caucasian heritage, an independent alphabet sharing the features of both the newly developed North Caucasian and the ancient Transcaucasian alphabets has been created.
Thus, we attempt to give a new and historically sound unity and continuity to the millennial writing culture of the Caucasian region, a new impulse to the development of greater speech communities, as well as viability for preservation and future revival to smalle
This weekend I saw Dr. Andrew Weil speak about mental health at the Book Fair in Tucson, Arizona. Dr. Weil is a well known author and doctor who advocates integrated health care, using both traditional and modern medical techniques.
Among the many elements of maintaining mental health, he mentioned gratitude. We should be grateful, he said, for the good things that happen to and around us. He went one step further — we should, he said, keep a “gratitude journal,” writing down the things we are grateful for.
This brought to mind one of the most interesting aspects of literacy; writing things down gives them power. We generally tend to believe what we read more than what we hear. “Give it to me in writing.” (Perhaps in pre-literate societies, of which some still exist, hearing is as powerful as the written word. That would be interesting to know, and I have not personally seen research on that issue.)
Students can test the power of the written word in with the exercise below.
Exercise: Take 5-10 minutes for students to summarize what has happened in their lives over the previous week.
Then ask the students to keep a journal for a week, writing down each evening the things which impressed them that day. At the end of the week, ask them to bring the journals to class, and ask them, again, to summarize their week, using the journals for reference.
A class discussion should reveal some of the benefits and disadvantages of the written word, revealing an important lesson about literacy. I don’t know what your students will say, but some possibilities might be: the journal helps them to remember, the journal limits their imagination, the journal reveals a personal philosophy or pattern of behavior, and so on…
We spend most of our time promoting literacy, but rarely think about its downsides.
One is that our memories are weakened. When I lived in Greece in the 1960′s, a waiter could take orders from a dozen people without a pad to write on. At that time, Greece was more of an oral society, especially in the villages. Ancient storytellers, griots, and historians memorized sagas and tales which might take over a day to relate. Could anyone you know do that? (Beowulf not written down until it had been told and retold for centuries.)
My cousin is one dissertation short of a Ph.D. in Philosophy, yet when I was walking with him the other day he told me he was functionally illiterate. ”Haven’t you every heard that?” he asked — we have known each other for 60 years so I might very well have, but had not. Illiteracy, functional or because of a lack of education, is usually hidden. “How did you learn if you couldn’t read books?” I asked him. ”By talking to people. That’s how I got through college and three years of graduate school, not to mention the rest of my life.” I told him about The Gutenberg Project, which could provide him with audio versions of great literature, but he seemed satisfied with his methods, and I don’t think he will investigate that. His life has been very rich without much reading.
Today, computers and cellphones do much of our remembering for us, weakening our memories still further.
Exercise: Ask your students to take out a paper and pencil. Recite 10 randomly chosen numbers between 1 and 10, being sure that they do not fall into a comfortable pattern, such as being multiples of each other. Wait a long breath between announcing each number. Then ask your students to write down the ten numbers. They should be able to capture most of them.
Ask them what their cellphone numbers are; their parents’ phone number; one other phone number of their choosing. They must be able to write them down instantly.
How good are their memories? Has literacy robbed them of some of their mental capacity?