Tuesday, September 16, 2008


So, I finally broke down and bought an Urdu/Hindi/English dictionary, even though the idea of my learning any kind of Arabic script is utterly ridiculous. One nice side effect: the Devanagari looks much easier next to it, because I'm used to it. I mentioned that the Arabic letters were just so squiggly, I couldn't wrap my mind around. My honey looked at a Hindi word next to an Urdu one and said, "Ah, because that isn't squiggly at all."

"But the Urdu is squigglier," I said.

Apparently, I can rate the difficulty of a language on a spectrum of squiggliness.

Seriously, though (or semi- so), there are a few things this makes me think about languages. First of all, it's obvious that the Roman alphabet (as well as the rune alphabet) was designed to be carved into things, stone or wood. And some alphabets were made to be written with brushes. Were there flukes of materials-access that led the written languages to evolve in the different ways?

It would be easy to speculate that a more rigid alphabet leads to more rigid thinking. When you carve something out, it's like: that's it! That's the way it is! Because it wouldn't be easy to amend. See how easy it is to come up with theories? Kinda scary).

But I don't believe that language is destiny, because we can always choose to expand our thinking.

My other thought is how, growing up with a language like English, it seems almost self-evident that the language and the alphabet are interconnected. Then we learn that the same alphabet can be used for different languages, and different languages can have different alphabets. But still, the idea that a spoken language can be expressed in completely different alphabets (either of which would be the normal, natural one to its native users) really highlights the arbitrary nature of it all.

Of course, the fact that we can communicate at all is kind of mind-blowing. When going from one language to another, people are at least aware of the difficulty in communicating. When we all speak the same language, people often assume an understanding that may not actually be there, for many reasons. Now that one's a real theory, but not to any particular end...

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