Wednesday, November 11, 2009


Before getting into the meat of the post, I feel I have to take a moment to clarify the difference between ‘writing’ and ‘alphabet’ as I understand it from the Civ IV tech list. In my post on writing I was clear about it referring to the symbolism that was developed to represent concepts – both physical and abstract. In this post, I persuade the gentle reader to remember that an alphabet is a series symbols meant to represent sounds that are a part of language, and that the combination of these sounds produce words.

The confusion arises with the verb ‘to write’ ... as I will be using that verb throughout this post to describe the use of the alphabet. I don’t wish to confuse the reader and make him believe that I am referring to the technology writing. It is only that it is easier to say that the world being influenced by the development of the alphabet was carried forward by ‘writing,’ rather than my having to say ‘alphabetizing’ ... nyet?

There are a variety of alphabets in existence – systems which represent phonemes (as this alphabet I’m using now does), logos (as Chinese does) and syllables (as those incorporated into Chinese and Japanese). I’m not big linguistical man, and am hopelessly mired in the English language. I am vaguely familiar with the Cyrillic alphabet, and less familiar with the traditional Greek system, and I have no knowledge whatsoever of a single logo from China, except that I know the popular symbol used to denote ‘red dragon’ actually means ‘center tile’ in mah jong.

I am usually concerned with alphabets, generally, only so far as I know the one I use very well, as I use it a lot. That, for me, is as far as it goes.

As I understand it, the technological innovation represented by the alphabet derives from the realization that a sound, rather than an object, could be represented by a symbol. The process by which this was realized did not happen overnight – it took, by most accounts, more than two thousand years. Alphabets were proceeded by proto-alphabets, that combined various symbols, syllables and phonemes into increasingly sophisticated language representations, what we call the Sumerian writing system. This would later be improved by the Phoenicians, into an alphabet that represented many of the sounds we would recognize with symbols that most people would not.

According to Jared Diamond, of Guns, Germs and Steel, the difficulties in creating a unique alphabet were superseded by the ease with which Sumerian and Phoenician alphabets could be adapted (a process called ‘blueprinting’) to other existing languages. For this reason, every phoneme-using language in the old world corresponds to the same alphabet I’m using now, whatever symbols might be used for ‘a’, ‘b’, ‘c’ and so on. The principle exception is Mayan, which could not be influenced by Sumerian at any time prior to the 16th century.

Every would-be creator of a language for D&D, fantasy or science fiction indulges in blueprinting – from Elvish to Klingon. Those created languages still use a fabricated alphabet that still represents consonants and vowels – it merely changes the symbols and compresses certain combinations of sounds together in order to create an ‘alien’ aspect. There are plenty of languages which use our alphabet that do the same thing. The combination of letters commonly used in Polish names, written as ‘szcz’, represents the sound ‘sh-ch’, pronounced after a certain fashion. Accents in French, Norwegian, Swedish and Turkish produce moderate changes to the length and emphasis of vowels or consonents, but the principle of the alphabet remains unchanged. You can add a ‘letter’ to the list, but you will still use the existing list for virtually every sound you intend to make in your conceived ‘orcish’ language.

Whatever sound you think to invent, some human on the planet has already invented it and defined a symbol for it. It might be fun to make languages, but you are covering old ground.

I remember that as a player I never found much playability in foreign languages. I certainly don’t as a DM. If I have something that is not written in common, and I do have from time to time, it is enough for me and my players to simply say, “It’s in a language you don’t recognize.” When one player says, can I read it, it serves the plot well enough to say yes, no, or you can understand such and such a word. Of all the things I conceive working on, reproducing language isn’t one of them.

But to each their own. There’s a certain pleasure in speaking and writing languages which cannot be readily understood by outsiders. It produces a kind of superiority – a social class-structure between those who know Klingon and the noobies at the convention who haven’t committed the time to learn it. We Klingon speakers can thus create jokes and laugh at such pathetic, unworthy wannabes who think they have the right to breathe the same air as ourselves.

Which brings me to the next point.

The written word has long been used for the purpose of defining a greater class from a lesser. The Catholic Church jealously guarded the Latin Bible for centuries, disallowing any but the truly worthy to be instructed in Latin, upon pain of death. That is, if you understood Latin, and you chose to use it to undermine the Churches authority by telling people what was actually in the Bible, we killed you for it.

Clearly, you weren’t worthy.

The Torah has been guarded even more jealously, going so far as to disallow any but truly holy men from even seeing the scrolls upon which the words were written, much less being privileged to read the words. This is a practice which precedes Judaism, reaching back to the time when language was first adapted to matters more important than mere bookkeeping.

Early written language has been shown to be largely representations of transactions between persons. For business, symbols are enough – it is still enough for accounting to identify the object, how many are needed or possessed, and how much is paid for it. The reason to develop an alphabetic system beyond this derives from the need to convey abstract messages important enough that the reader comprehends exactly what the writer intends.

Messages of such importance fall under two categories: management and religion.

By management, obviously, I mean chiefs and kings, who need to convey policy. Policies such as laws, orders, proof of ownership, proof of importance and so on. As the commander of my king’s troops, I need to have some proof of my legitimacy as commander; that the orders I carry out are in fact the king’s orders; and that if I execute someone, the law by which they are executed is clearly understood by everyone before the fact.

The alphabet allows for the creation of such written policies – as specific as they can possibly be. And because language is never as specific as we would wish, the alphabet creates the need for lawyers.

In small societies, such written words are never necessary. But there is a limit to how many people a human being can be expected to recognize and remember details about ... and as it turns out, that number is between about 150 and 400. After that, however good your memory is, as a local leader you’re going to look at someone in your war party and ask, “Who the hell is that?”

As the number of people in a culture increases, you become more and more dependent on someone close to you, whom you trust, answering you, “Don’t worry about him, Big Kahuna. That’s Grunk; he’s good people.”

With the increases in population going on in areas like China, Egypt and Mesopotamia, there came a point where thousands of people began to congregate in cities – testing the limit on how many advisors you could rely on to recognize all the people you were seeing. Human societies found themselves facing a situation they never had before ... that that guy there, that stranger, isn’t known by me or by anyone I know, but he isn’t a threat because he seems to serve some purpose in being here.

When you have more than 150 people keeping track of 150 people each, you have problems.

The alphabet was produced primarily as a management tool – a method by which messages could be conveyed not merely to one other person, but to hundreds of other persons. Who could then respond positively or negatively, allowing kingdoms to operate in spite of the existence of strangers. The alphabet was the response to the demand for bureaucracy, which in turn demanded a more sophisticated alphabet. We are still in the same loop – while we’ve largely fixed the alphabetic method, we have never stopped restructuring the written word as it becomes necessary.

This bureaucracy had two unforeseen, civilization building impacts: the first, that commands and information could be conveyed over an unlimited distance; and second, that they could be conveyed over an unlimited time.

I say ‘unlimited’ because there are no absolute limits on how far a message could be carried (there still aren’t), however long that takes, and because we don’t know for certain how long a message can last. True, most messages have been lost, but we can never be certain we won’t dig up copies in the desert someday, can we?

The alphabet allowed empire building on a grand scale, for the first time. The Phoenicians carried their message to hundreds of locations throughout the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, promoting both their language and their policies, preempting existing cultures which were afterwards modified along the Phoenician model. Mythologies, religious ideals and laws became commonplace in east-west patterns from Spain to China. Where once there might have arisen thousands of unique cultures along the Star Trek Prime Directive pattern, that ideal was blown asunder. As the King in Tyre, I send a few cartloads of messages to my representative in Scythia and that stuff gets done – or else someone I trust writes back to me. It doesn’t matter that I’ve never seen Scythia – I have accounts about the region read to me all the time. What’s more, I may never have met the King of Scythia, but I’m told by people who dwell there that he’s a real sweet guy.

And now I, the King of Tyre’s son, am King ... and how did my father want things done? Why, its written everywhere. And no matter how many tablets I try to destroy, it always seems there is one more, affecting people in my kingdom and how they view me. So I am forever haunted by my dead father. No longer are we limited to memory. History exists, and what happened before matters. What happened before tells us what to do now.

So some thoughts for D&D:

Various religious groups will possess written words which are more than merely ‘lost books’ for the players to find. There ought to exist cults who manifestly obey these lost books, either augmenting or tearing down the existing structure all around. Even seeing the words written there is impossible for all but the truly blessed – if the unblessed look at them, they will melt like Nazi made of wax.

Multiple cultures will interact according to their language relationships more than they will according to their race or their class. The nearly black Afro-Asiatics of the Sahel in Africa related perfectly well to their Turkic brethren because they read the same books and believed in the same religion ... the Sahel-dwelling blacks did not relate to other blacks who were Bantu or West African, who did not read. Moreover, those peoples, along with the Indonesians, were all Islam not because they just liked the religion, but because there were written materials to convey the message. The same is true for the spread of most every religion, allowing for local modifications to the texts. In comparing black Ethiopian Coptics to white English Catholics, the tale of Prester John describes more similarities than differences.

Inordinately stupid races, with low intelligence, cannot possibly have alphabets of their own. There would be a fair argument to suggest that, once suffused with written words pronounced according to foreign principles, languages such as goblin or troglodyte (intelligence 5-7) would lose their uniqueness completely in favor of hobgoblin or orcish. Goblin could not rationally be more than a dialect. Moreover, in order to make themselves understood, orcish would be steadily broken until it became a mere dialect of the language spoken by ogre mages. And so on. Question whether or not most of these independent languages would really differ in more than in local flavor.

Finally, in terms of the social relationships in the world you’re devising, don’t create individual cultures according to their geographic setting, but according to the distance such cultures are from each other in terms of time of travel. Celtic Scotland is vastly different from the heartland of Austria in terms of its geography, but both regions shared a cultural heritage for thousands of years, simply because the sea enabled ease of travel throughout the length of the British Isles and up the rivers of France and Germany into the interior of Europe.

Two seafaring nations a thousand miles apart may share agreeable perspectives, such as Zanzibar on the East Coast of Africa being organized similar to the Rajah states of Cochin India. The problems of Zanzibar are similar to the problems of Cochin India, and they have learned from one another, encouraging the spread of ‘approved’ writings. Physical distance does not guarantee cultural diversity.


  1. I've read that the reason so many business texts are recovered from Mesopotamian digs is because when the cities were invaded, the contracts were usually stored in the best locations - those words were law. As cities burned, the tablets would harden and therefore survive. It would be interesting to note what may have survived had their literature survived, if there was such a thing. We do have fragments of poems, religious texts and the like, but not so much as the business records.

  2. In fact we have piles and piles of business records, literally tons, and that is all there is prior to 1500 b.c. It is only that this material doesn't make it to the books. I have it from archeologists that once upon a time, vast heaps of business records used to be thrown out because it was of no interest up until perhaps 40 years ago.

  3. So sad. If you want to read something really sad (you may have already) read about Schliemann's excavation of Troy.

    Spoiler Alert! He used a steam shovel.

  4. I like this post, actually. My brother would have a lot to say. But I believe old school Archaeologists threw out the Business Texts because they thought that they weren't interesting.

    Now they are finding them to be important as Archaeologists now tend to look at a society as a whole. I wonder even if the "votive objects" that were really dolls are being seriously looked at?


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