Chapter 3 Endnotes

31  invention that MIT undergraduates: For the MIT survey, see

32  Orthography mavens are like birders: As always on the Internet, the challenge is to differentiate the few quality sites (such as the highly recommended from the much larger assemblage of sites that propagate misinformation.

32  In some cultures: The go-to site for jibberish Chinese tattoos is Hanzismatter ( It is a cross-cultural phenomenon, however:

33  The Babylonians believed: Schmandt-Besserat (1992).

33  Others interpret the evidence: On the abrupt versus gradual appearance of writing, see Daniels (1996) and Powell (2009) for differing views.

33  domestication of cattle in Sumeria: Walker (1990); Daniels & Bright (1996).

34  whose name is known: Michalowski (2003).

34  Every element of this account: Walker (1990).

34  Enmebaragesi is the name: Scholars deduced that Enmebaragesi was a king responsible for a variety of administrative innovations, but then a fragment from an Old Babylonian story that appeared in 1982 suggested that E. was actually female, a queen. Michalowski (2003) argues that E., male or female, was a fictional composite.

34  “Passion is inversely proportional”: Benford’s law of controversy, due to novelist Gregory Benford. I learned about it here: Mark Liberman, “The Long Tail of Religious Studies?,” Language Log, August 5, 2010.

35  writer Janet Malcolm: Malcolm quoted in Zoë Heller, “Cool, yet Warm,” New York Review of Books, June 20, 2013.

36  oldest known cave paintings: The famous French cave paintings are about 30,000 years old, but others may be older. John Noble Wilford, “Cave Paintings in Indonesia May Be Among Oldest Known,” New York Times, October 8, 2014.

36  modern forms of writing: The full figure is discussed by DeFrancis (1989), 84–85.

37  Increase in abstraction: The explanation is not very different from how the quality of one’s own writing is affected by the precision of the writing instrument, the medium being written on, the amount to be written, how rapidly it has to be produced, and who has to be able to read it. Pictographs were hard to standardize and draw; writing with the wedge-shaped stylus was an improvement in those respects but worse for drawing realistic images.

37  Writing systems that fully: A detailed timeline is here: Geoffrey Nunberg, “Timeline of the History of Information,” University of California Berkeley School of Information,

38  “unnatural act”: Gough & Hillinger (1980). Gough is one of the great figures in modern reading science, an iconoclast who turned out to be right about important things.

38  “theory of mind”: Frith & Frith (2005). A funny contemporary theory of the functions of cave paintings.

42  theory could be disconfirmed: On undeciphered codes and precursors to cuneiform, see several chapters in Daniels & Bright (1996).

42  an elegant theory: Schmandt-Besserat (1986).

42  Thousands of small objects: For pictures of the tokens, with more about the theory, see “The Evolution of Writing,” Denise Schmandt-Besseret,

42  world but suppositories: Schmandt-Besserat (1978).

46  Mark Liberman: “What Is Writing?,” University of Pennsylvania Department of Linguistics.

47  The pictographic information: Walker (1990); on the “cursive” hieroglyphic, see “Ancient Egyptian Scripts,” Omniglot,

48  Some characters can act: Note that in Figure 3.4, the horse radical (on the left in foal) is narrower than the horse phonetic (on the right in mother). This convention reflects the greater importance of the phonetic in recognizing the character.
Most words consist of two characters, representing two syllables. Monosyllabic words such as mā (mother) are atypical. The word almost always occurs in the disyllabic form 妈妈. The “mà curse” illustrates the four tones in Mandarin, which change the meanings of the ma syllables (curse courtesy of Tianlin Wang):


48  In another expression: In the modern era a number of characters containing the woman radical (女) can be perceived as sexist, such as
奷       crafty, villainous, false
妄        absurd, foolish, reckless, false
妖        strange, weird, supernatural
From Joe, “Sexist Chinese Characters Discriminate Against Women,” chinaSMACK, January 28, 2010,

48  A second system: For examples of how the scripts are intermixed, see “Japanese Writing System,” Wikipedia, The “List of Gairaigo and Wasei-Eigo Terms,” Wikipedia,, is entertaining.

49  kanji’s meaning depends on: For a furigana example, see “Japanese Hiragana,”

49  A word is fully identified: For the full sets of k-t-b words in Hebrew and Arabic, see “K-T-B,” Wikipedia.

49  Alphabets seem to have taken: In fact the relationships between form and meaning are not wholly arbitrary, extending well beyond familiar examples of “sound symbolism,” such as the glisten-gleam-glint and snort-snot-snivel clusters. Data crunching on large word lists has revealed many other nonarbitrary correspondences between sound and meaning. For example, names for males and females in English tend to have different phonological properties, and knowledge of these properties affects the interpretation of brand names; Cassidy, Kelly, & Sharoni (1999). See Dingemanse et al. (2015) for an overview.

51  Languages with more complex: DeFrancis (1989).

51  major elements of Japanese phonology: Taylor & Taylor (2014) is a masterful account of Japanese, Chinese, and Korean writing.

52  “The depicting of objects”: Rousseau (1754), from Barton (1995).

52  “The invention of the Greek alphabet”: From Olson (1996), an erudite analysis of Western scholars’ traditional belief in the superiority of the type of writing system they happen to use, the alphabet.

52  High praise: Quoted by Barton (1995).

53  borrowing the Phoenician system: The alphabets for Semitic languages were consonantal, but a few consonants also functioned as vowels in some contexts, similar to the use of y in English (as a consonant in yet but a vowel in lady).

53  the world would be: For the credo of the Quixotes at “Uniskript,” see “What Is UniScript?

54  around 15,000 syllables: For one such count, see Chris Barker, “How Many Syllables Does English Have?,”

54  spoken languages have ended up: For some years I have been smartly issuing the epigram that “languages get the writing systems they deserve” (e.g., Seidenberg 2011). From a letter in the New Yorker, June 20, 2016, I learned that M. A. K. Halliday, a well-known linguist who worked on a broad range of interesting topics, made essentially the same observation. It’s found in Halliday (1983, 28), where he wrote, “In the course of [writing’s] long evolution, a language usually got the sort of writing system it deserved.” The idea has probably occurred to others as well.

54  Chinese speakers who keyboard: Victor Mair, “Character Amnesia,” Language Log, July 22, 2010.

54  Skeptics focus: The standard objection is that pinyin would be hard to read because it eliminates important visual cues that characters provide. Spoken Chinese languages have a large number of homophones, which speakers often disambiguate by gesturing the character. The problem is illustrated in an exaggerated way by “The lion-eating poet in the stone den,” a story consisting of the syllable “shi” spoken with different tones. This is the first line written in pinyin:
   shi2 shi4 shi1 shi4 shi1 shi4 shi4 shi1. shi4 shi2 shi2 shi1. shi4 shi2 shi2 shi4 shi4
The whole poem can be seen and heard here: “The poet Shih Shih, so fond of eating lions.”
Richard Sproat, a scholar in Sinitic languages, writing systems, and computational linguistics, argues that pinyin or another suitable alphabet would be workable. See Sproat (2000). As in other cases like speed reading, what is tolerable in short bursts may be intolerable over longer stretches. Victor Mair favors a mixed system in which characters are annotated with pinyin, much like kanji can be annotated with furigana in Japanese.