What makes this stamp unique?: a contest

To the best of my knowledge, this Egyptian postage stamp, along with the two other denominations in the same 1937 series (5 mills and 15 mills), are unique in a very specific way.  My puzzle to you is: what makes these stamps so special?


Place your guess by commenting below (one guess per person).  If you are the respondent with the correct answer, your ‘prize’ is that you may ask me any question relating to the themes of this blog and I will write a separate post on that subject.    Happy hunting!

Edit: Well, that didn’t take long.  In just over 20 minutes, Dan Milton successfully determined the answer.  In case you still want to figure it out on your own, I won’t post the answer here in the main post, but you can find it in the comments if you’re stumped.  I will follow up with some analysis later.

Writing systems blogs: filling a gap

You may have noticed that I have (very slightly) changed the subheading for Glossographia from the former ‘Anthropology, linguistics, and prehistory’ to the new ‘Anthropology, linguistics, archaeology, and writing systems’.  I don’t actually post on prehistoric archaeology very much at all, but I do post on the archaeology of literate societies reasonably often.   And, in particular, I post on issues in epigraphy, writing systems, and literacy very often, so I thought it fitting to promote that subject to its current place of prominence.

Unfortunately, in my experience, there just aren’t that many blogs that focus on issues relating to writing systems and literacy.     Sure, each regional archaeological tradition in the ancient world has its blogs that occasionally discuss textual evidence, inscriptions, paleography, and so on – some of them, like Rollston Epigraphy, do so regularly, others sporadically.   Even then, I don’t know of any academic blogs that focus on cuneiform or on Egyptian hieroglyphs (though I’d love to be shown to be wrong).   And of course, Language Log and other general linguistics blogs do occasionally touch on written language.    But in terms of actual academic blogs that are dedicated in part or in whole to writing systems (their typology, their history, their linguistic features) or literacy (the social and cognitive context and use of writing), there isn’t that much out there.    Maya Decipherment is the most prominent, surely because of the importance of David Stuart in the field.   There’s BabelStone, where Andrew West has, very quietly, been blogging for eight years on Ogham, on Central / Inner Asian scripts, and on issues relating to typography and Unicode.  The wonderful Shady Characters focuses specifically on punctuation – check it out – it deserves a massive readership.  The Omniglot site covers writing systems in some detail, and the corresponding blog does sometimes cover issues in writing systems.   Years ago we used to have Abecedaria, which had general information on writing systems with a focus on the ancient Near East and Levant, but it’s long defunct.   Michael Everson  used to blog about the letter þorn at þorn.info, but that’s been quiet for a year or more.    And … well, that’s about all I know of or read regularly.  Do you know of any others?

So, the change in the header does not reflect an actual change in what I’ll be posting, but is simply a recognition that there really is a need for a blog with a focus on general issues on writing systems and literacy, and that since 2008, this has been one of a relatively small number of places that actually does that.

Is the Voynich Manuscript structured like written language?

This week has seen a bumper crop of news stories about a new piece of research in PLOS ONE by Marcelo Montemurro and Damian Zanette, who are both physicists who specialize in complex systems.     The paper in question is not about physics, however, but argues that the mysterious Voynich Manuscript has properties that suggest that it has language-like structure, based on an information-theoretic analysis of the structure of its words.    If correct, while this is certainly not a ‘decipherment’, this result would be counter-evidence to certain versions of the theory that the VM is a medieval hoax that is undecipherable because it is pseudo-writing, meant to have the appearance of language but having no decipherable content in any natural language.

Now, I am not a specialist in information theory, and I’m not truly a specialist on the Voynich Manuscript (although I have played one on TV), but I am a linguist and I do research on writing systems and allied representation systems like written numerals.      And several things bother me about this paper.  The first is that, as Gordon Rugg (the most significant modern proponent of a ‘hoax’ theory) has pointed out in a comment on the new paper, no one is seriously claiming that the VM is pure ‘noise’ – it clearly is structured, and simply because the VM has some structure, even one that resembles language in some ways, does not entail that it is likely to have a genuine linguistic structure, much less a decipherable one.  Rugg’s own (plausible) theory involves the use of a medieval ciphering system to rapidly produce language-like but meaningless text as part of a hoax, and Montemurro and Zanette have not evaluated this theory at all, as far as I can see, other than to dismiss it.

Furthermore, the only systems to which the VM is compared are two written languages in alphabetic scripts (English and Latin), one written language with a non-alphabetic script (Chinese), one computer language (Fortran), and one natural sequence (yeast DNA).  But there are a wide variety of nonlinguistic, quasilinguistic, and paralinguistic phenomena aside from these, and they haven’t compared the VM to any of them.   Montemurro and Zanette show conclusively that the VM has much more ‘information’ (structure) than the yeast DNA, which we would anticipate, but does not do a good job of accounting for the different types of encoded information, and structured non-information, which might be comparable to the VM.  What is the information structure of known codes and ciphers (both broken ones and undeciphered ones)?   What is the information structure of semasiographic systems like the glyphic system at Teotihuacan?   What is the information structure of the linguistic productions of psychiatric patients who suffer from graphomania?  What is the information structure of pseudo-writing like the Codex Seraphinianus which we know (since it’s a modern piece of conceptual art) carries no message?      None of these comparisons would be conclusive but all of them would be informative.   Right now the range of systems to which Montemurro and Zanette have compared the Voynich is simply too limited to be useful.

Montemurro and Zanette are also seemingly unaware of parallel efforts to use the information structure of undeciphered scripts to evaluate their language-like nature.  Two of the most significant such efforts are the effort to show that Iron Age Pictish graphic symbols from Scotland constituted a phonetic script (Lee, Jonathan and Ziman 2010) and efforts to show that the Indus script of Harappan-period India and Pakistan either does (Rao et al 2009) or does not (Farmer, Sproat and Witzel 2004) resemble linguistically-based writing systems.  These theories have attracted a reasonable degree of attention from linguists, and Richard Sproat, in particular, has done a lot of work trying to address the non-linguists’ methodological and conceptual approaches, some of which has been covered in extraordinary detail at the Language Log.    There’s a much longer discussion to be had there, but suffice it to say that most linguists are skeptical of studies undertaken without any linguistic expertise and assistance.   Again, without taking a position on any of these controversies, it strikes me as irresponsible literature-searching that the Montemurro and Zanette study is so fundamentally unaware of similar efforts in major publications such as Science and the Proceedings of the Royal Society.    If you’re going to use physics to study written language, even if you’re going to ignore every single linguist who’s written on these subjects, maybe you should at least be aware of high-impact articles written in the last ten years by physicists using very similar methods to your own.

For the record, I think that any information-based effort that does not involve linguists at a serious level is likely to make invalid assumptions and thus be highly prone to producing nice-looking gibberish.  For example, the Montemurro/Zanette theory seems to grant that the VM probably does not encode information alphabetically like English, and then suggests instead that it recalls “scripts where -as in the cases of Chinese and hierographical Ancient Egyptian- the graphical form of words directly derives from their meaning.” (Montemurro and Zanette 2013: 4).   Let’s assume we are prepared to set aside their use of the term hierographical, which is a bizarre nineteenth-century anachronism that was vaguely popular for a time prior to the decipherment of the Rosetta Stone, but which has never, in any European language, been a preferred term.   More significantly, it is a gross, entirely improper characterization of Chinese and Egyptian to argue that the “form of words directly derives from their meaning”.     Both scripts have massive phonographic components with some representation of morphemes, words, and semantic categories with signs, as every expert on writing systems has known for thirty years or more – certainly the work of John deFrancis shows this eminently clearly.    Even lumping the Egyptian hieroglyphic and Chinese scripts together in a single category ignores the massive differences between them.   So in essence, Montemurro and Zanette seem to be suggesting that the VM has properties similar to no writing system ever known to have been used on earth, because they do not seem to know what sorts of writing systems they are comparing things to.

In short, I’m afraid what we have here is another case of non-specialists applying the methods of one field inappropriately to some actually complex linguistics problems to evaluate a text whose decipherers (a group riddled with charlatans and cranks) have offered us everything except an actual decipherment.

Maya Decipherment blog / research tool

Last week, a nice article came out about Mayan epigraphy and specifically about David Stuart’s Maya Decipherment blog.    Don’t be fooled by the title – this isn’t about Zooniverse-style crowdsourced science (which has its own merits and challenges), but about the way that the blog is being used for early discussion and review of new ideas by very prominent scholars (which Stuart clearly is) – not supplanting peer review but in parallel to it.  I particularly like the article’s emphasis on the ongoing and collaborative nature of Maya epigraphy (while acknowledging that it can be an incredibly contentious field at times).    I would, however, like to propose a moratorium on the journalistic use of the word ‘mysteries’ in reference to archaeological findings.

Good graffiti?

There’s a neat article in Slate this week on the defacement of a panel on the Luxor Temple by a teenaged tourist from China.    What interests me most is that instead of the typical ‘woe is me, vandalism’ narrative, the article (without defending the most recent episode) presents the broader social history of tourism-related graffiti and vandalism in Egypt.  Not only is it not unusual (or new), but for decades there was apparently a virtual trade in graffiti tourism in Egypt among wealthy Europeans.   And, of course, when we analyze ancient graffiti on ancient monuments (though alas, never ROMANES EUNT DOMUS), we learn far more about the everyday lives of individuals than would otherwise be possible: about travel practices, literacy rates, informal linguistic registers, naming practices, and so on.   Because Greek and Roman soldiers and traders, two thousand years ago, hastily placed inscriptions on Egyptian monuments, we now have access to thousands of voices that would otherwise be lost.    If the present activity of a tourist at Luxor is so much worse, why is it worse?   Because it’s newer?  Because it’s prohibited now?

Because Allen Walker Read, in his travels through the western U.S. in the early 20th century, thought to record often-crude bathroom graffiti, we now have Classic American Graffiti: Lexical Evidence from Folk Epigraphy in Western North America (even though, at the time of its first printing in 1935, he had to have it privately published in Paris due to its lewd content), and know far more about twentieth-century American English profanity and its folklore than would otherwise be possible.  On the wall of a bathroom stall near my office at Wayne State University is a carefully-curated unit circle, no doubt put there as a mid-test aid for some hapless mathematics student – almost painfully re-inscribed, it seems, every time I return.  We can see the same sort of thing in Quinn Dombrowski’s collection Crescat Graffiti, Vita Excolatur: Confessions of the University of Chicago.   For my own part, I can attest that you learn at least as much about what francophones and anglophones in Montreal think about language policy by studying the graffiti on stop signs than you do from the text on the signs themselves.

Thinking about the production and consumption of these informal texts starts us on an interesting line of thinking about what sorts of textual productions we value, which we ignore, and which we stigmatize as befouling spaces that should remain pure.  There’s no easy answer.  In any case, the superficial scratches made at Luxor have already been repaired with no long-term damage. I’m hardly saying that we should tolerate all forms of vandalism (on public monuments or otherwise), or that there is nothing problematic with writing on ancient temples.   But it’s worth pondering on what principles we decide what types of writing are authorized, and how they become authorized.

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