Friday, October 15, 2010

Language, Writing style and ‘boustrophedon’

Close on the heels of my post on the newly found Indian language “Koro” – something more on language and writing. Primarily man requires language for communicating his needs, thoughts and feelings to others. In more than one way, human beings have the unique capacity of acquiring and utilizing complex systems of communication. The spurt of mobile phones is a classic example – suddenly many are in a mental state where they cannot exist without talking on a mobile.

People talking their walk, talking whilst driving, that peculiar way of head curved pressing the phone on the shoulder whilst driving, talking whilst crossing busy streets & even railway tracks, looking restlessly to their mobiles upon halting at a signal – the urge to see one’s mobile is endless. Suddenly a whole generation seems to have become oblivious to the fact that no mobile service was available in India two decades ago.

There are thousands of languages spoken by humans besides the sign languages and written languages. There also codes and artificially constructed communication systems, which are also known as languages. Language is a derivative from latin lingua. The science of human language is perceived to be fundamentally different and much complex from those of other species. Then comes the more complex grammar and syntax. In our school days, most of us struggled to learn, copy and write abstract symbols called alphabets. How the words form into sentence was always difficult to fathom. The study of actual sound produced such as a simple vowel or consonant is phonetics. Though English has 26 alphabets, there are approximately 44 speech sounds. The language Maya is perhaps the simplest as it has only about 30 phonetic sounds. Alphabets are sets of letters that represent consonants and vowels. In some languages each letter or combination of letters represents one sound, while in others, such as English, letters might represent a variety of sounds, or the same sounds can be written in different ways.

Then comes the most important “WRITING” – the method of representing the language in visual or tactile form. Writing systems uses set of symbols to represent the sounds of speech. Remember in our school days, those guys with so called neat handwriting always got the appreciation while the rest got caning due to the skillset of others. This was the art of writing with instruments (pen and pencil). Somehow most teachers had the common misconception of ‘he who writes neatly is far intelligent and obedient than the rest of the class’. Class readers were selected due to their good handwriting….

Writing system is usage of permanent marks to represent an utterance in such a way that it can be recovered exactly without the intervention of the speaker. There is raised notation system of Braille for the visually impaired. Writing systems have as its purpose communication, consist of graphic marks – they are both functional and symbolic. Speech is usually transient, unless recorded and speakers can correct themselves and change their utterances but writing is permanent. We have colleagues in office who would love to have everything recorded !

Written language has to adhere to grammar and has punctuations, capitals, lay outs and formation. Of course modern day youth tend to write the way they speak – the SMS, some mails and twitter……

Most of the scripts are written from Left to Right. There are some notably the Arabic, Persian and Hebrew scripts which are written in a form known as RTL (right to left). Quite peculiar is the case of Azeri which can be written in any of the Latin, Cyrilic or Arabic scripts. When written in Latin or Cyrillic, Azeri is written Left to Right ; when written in Arabic script, it is Right to Left. But have you heard of ‘boustrophedon’ \boo-struh-FEE-dahn\ (noun) – which is the writing of alternate lines in opposite directions (as from left to right and from right to left).

The cup of Nestor is one of the oldest artifacts bearing ancient Greek inscriptions. This cup bears three lines of scratched inscription each written from right to left following the phoenician practice. The Greek alphabet in initial days was written in a different manner, where the direction changed with every line. This technique was known as “Boustrophedon” - ‘ox-turning – a reference to ploughing’. It certainly would have been very complex as the orientation of the letters were dependent on the direction of writing; some like looking in a mirror.

Many years we have the de-facto direction of writing – Left to Right. The earlier method would certainly pose the greatest difficulty to the traditional printing methods of type setting. It is stated that before the writing forms were standardised, the style of boustrophedon literally would mean turning like oxen in plowing. If you have observed the ploughing in field, the start from one end, go to the other, continue from there coming to the starting side – thus continues their routine. The word "boustrophedon" itself is formed from the Greek word for the ox or cow, "bous," and the verb "strephein," which means "to turn."

There is so much behind language, writing and grammar which perhaps explains why most of us were never good during our school days and continuing to struggle

Regards – Sampathkumar S

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