Learning how to write in Japanese: the contribution of scatology


Unko (=poop) Kanji Doriru (=drill), the book’s cover (NB: the title is in all three Japanese writing systems)

Learning how to write is by no means an easy task in any script. It appears however that writing systems with a respectable number of signs are more challenging to memorize. One such instance is Japanese: it has three different writing systems (kanji: over 2,000 signs borrowed from Chinese; hiragana: 46 syllabic signs for the writing of Japanese words; katakana: another 46 syllabic signs for the writing of foreign words).


A publishing house put out on the market just last March a series of books to help school children with their daunting task. Bunkyosha named the series “Unko Kanji Drill.” The concept of the book is thus explained: ‘Unko is the Japanese word for poop. It comes out of your butt and it stinks. If there’s one thing that all kids can agree on, it’s that poop is funny. So by incorporating potty humor into learning, the creators set out to make kanji learning fun and hilarious, instead of boring and tedious.’

The series are introduced by the main character, ‘Unko Sensei’ (‘Master Poo’), who bears an uncanny resemblance to a pile of poo. The Sensei introduces in each page the kanji, then lists three examples, where the kanji is combined, in some magical manner, with poo! The books are said to contain 3,018 poo-involving sentences that function as examples. This is what a page looks like:


the kanji 取 (take) (from the site Spoon & Tamago)

And the example sentences for 取 work like this:

  1. The man took poop in his hand to face his difficulties
  2. A foreign news outlet came to interview me about my poop (note: the kanji for interview is 取材, literally ‘gather material’)
  3. I had to dictate the word poop 100 times (note: the kanji for dictate is 書き取り, literally ‘write take’)

The response from parents and pupils has been enthusiastic, and the series seems to sell like crazy, recently reaching 1.83 million copies.

Motivation to study combined with fun is a good thing, thinks a mother who also happens to be a teacher. Because, let’s face it: which 6-year old in his/her right mind would pass on the opportunity to muck about, and have full parental approval while they are at it?

Handwriting vs. typing in Chinese


A computer screen with Chinese characters (screen shot taken from the below mentioned BBC video)

A BBC reporter traveled all the way to China, to see, among other things, how electronic devices are affecting Chinese writing. A short video tells the story.

It seems that ‘devices in China feature a system that allows users to type words using the Roman alphabet and then select the corresponding characters.’ Chinese writing comprises over 50,000 characters, but some 1,000 are the ones mostly and commonly used, so it was obvious that some sort of mediating writing system had to come between this complex writing system and the smart phone user.

Cameron Andersen traveled to Anyang, a city in China’s northern Henan province, and visited the National Museum of Chinese Writing. There, he met with Richard Sears, an American who appears to have dedicated his life to the recognition of the provenance of the Chinese signs, i.e. their etymology (although this term is borrowed from linguistics and has a very specific meaning in that context).  It would be unfair to criticize a person’s life work in the narrow space of a blog post, but Sears promotes a theory about the beginning of Chinese writing that is popular with numerous researchers of various writing systems: that the characters can be shown to resemble some object or other, and that their original inspiration came from the copying of said object.


National Museum of Chinese Writing, explanatory panel (screen shot taken from the above BBC video)

This particular theory has also been suggested as an explanatory tale for the genesis of other scripts, for instance for the (Phoenician) alphabet (which was adopted to create the Greek alphabet; which, in its turn, became the prototype for the Roman alphabet, making it the ancestor of numerous alphabets used until this day, such as the one I am writing in/you are reading in right now). It is thought, for instance, that the sign ‘A’ acquired its phonetic value through a rebus principle, whereby at the beginning it stood for the initial of the word ‘alef’, meaning ‘bovine’; the supporters of this theory would like to see ‘A’ as a development from the schematic rendering of a bovine head. With a simple internet search I found a couple of graphics on how this theory works:


The difficulty lies in the fact that we usually have very little evidence for the beginning of writing, and no theory can be suggested to be valid or common for all writing systems. An additional difficulty with this sort of theories is that the recognition of a presumed visual prototype behind any sign involves highly subjective judgements, which can be easily contested by even more subjective objections and alternate judgements. Yet, this theory is appealing, it has become wildly popular and is even taught at schools (Ι remember being taught about it at primary school in Greece).

But, back to the main topic of the BBC story: will Chinese handwriting become obsolete any time soon because of the electronic age? A Chinese teacher interviewed by Andersen doubts it, and she offers the information that as a countermeasure the government has allotted ’10 min of every class just to handwriting.’ There are also school calligraphy clubs and spelling contests, which the reporter claims ‘are increasingly popular.’

spelling bee

A spelling contest in Chinese TV (screen shot taken from the above BBC video)

And to the reporter’s question, whether Chinese characters and script could ever disappear, the teacher confidently gave a response that surely resonates with script users of multiple nationalities:


(screen shot taken from the above BBC video)

The Voynich manuscript, once again


Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Every now and then some piece of news makes the rounds about the Voynich manuscript, a peculiar hand-written book, kept nowadays at Yale. This time it’s a beautifully made video on the codex.

The manuscript is named after a Polish collector and manuscript dealer that acquired it in 1912, but it had a lot of owners before him and after him, before it ended up in Yale. The peculiarity about it is that it is written in an otherwise unknown writing system, in an equally unknown language. Because of its uniqueness, one of the hypotheses regarding it is that it is a fake; yet, carbon-dating showed that the leather (parchment) on which it was written dates to the early 15th cent. Because it remains undeciphered and poorly understood, it has attracted the attention of scholars and public alike; many prospective decipherers have tried their luck with it, but like many instances of unique pieces of writing, the validity of their proposals remains to be proven.

Last year, Yale University Press produced the first proper facsimile of the manuscript, and reviews of it appeared in the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. It is interesting how the theories surrounding the manuscript range from the occult to the conspiratorial. And I have a feeling that this manuscript will not cease to feed into fantasies and prospective decipherments any time soon.

Detail of a page from the Voynich manuscript showing, as Eamon Duffy writes, ‘decidedly unerotic drawings of groups of plump naked women, bathing in pools and conduits of blue or green water, which some students of the manuscript have suggested might be

Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Memos as records: scripta manent

write downA memo (abbreviation of the word memorandum, ‘that which must be remembered’ in Latin), according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is ‘a usually brief written message from one person or department in an organization, company, etc., to another’.

This past week, however, a different kind of memo made headlines in the US: the recently fired FBI director, J. Comey, is thought to have documented in writing and with detail discussions he had with the American president, D. Trump, regarding a federal investigation Comey was conducting into a former national security adviser. His account of the discussions is also dubbed a memo and is reportedly a common practice among law-enforcement employees: the conversations that are not recorded (and not all of them are) are subsequently drafted into a text, since some of the particulars of discussions and their exact wording is of crucial significance on how events unfold or are interpreted.

This information came from an article in the New York Times, which calls the practice ‘product of a culture of note-keeping’. The article adds: ‘Mr. Comey’s memos were not the standard forms that F.B.I. agents use to summarize the facts of interviews they conduct, called FD-302s, or 302s in bureau parlance. They were a more informal way to document not just the facts of an interaction but also personal impressions and analysis to help put those facts into context.’

The Comey memo seems therefore to be an unclassified, unofficial document, which probably means it has no official register number and does not constitute public record. And how did we, the public, then, found out about its existence? Apparently, Mr. Comey himself divulged this piece of information: ‘Mr. Comey shared the existence of the memo with senior F.B.I. officials and close associates. The New York Times has not viewed a copy of the memo, which is unclassified, but one of Mr. Comey’s associates read parts of it to a Times reporter.’ We have no information on how this memo was drafted, but a memo by an earlier FBI director featuring in the news in 2007 was reported as ‘typewritten’.

It is probable that the advertised existence of the memo prompted the US Department of Justice to appoint a special counsel to investigate independently the Trump campaign for possible collusion with Russian officials, since the appointment came one day after the memo was made known.

tapesIt seems also that we will be seeing a clash between traditional note-keeping and modern recordings, since the US president implied in a rather puzzling tweet last week that he had ‘tapes’ of his conversations with Mr. Comey. The special counsel has the authority to get hold of all this information (memos, tapes etc.), so we will probably find out shortly what was actually discussed. It is clear, however, that if this tweet was meant to serve as a warning against Mr. Comey revealing information, it failed, since he chose to publicize his memo nonetheless.

The message of the week is something in the order of ‘Write it, people, or it didn’t happen!’

PS. Here’s an excerpt of what the New Yorker thinks it’s in Mr. Comey’s memos: ‘Trump tried to give me a vase of flowers with a planted microphone—fifth time this month. He might have gotten away with it if the arrangement hadn’t just been a single microphone sticking out of a vase.’

A pair of bilingual signs and their troubles in Mannheim

C_8geWTVwAAKQgSThe ‘Deutsche Welle’ reports a story which appeared originally in ‘Die Welt‘:

“A McDonald’s in the German city of Mannheim caused a stir on social media on Wednesday after customers discovered a pair of signs in both Turkish and German. The two signs, the franchise owner said, were meant to be inclusive for all his customers.

The only problem was that the sign in Turkish directed customers to a location in a seedier part of the city, while the sign in German pointed customers in the direction of a wealthier district.”

The owner of the franchise apologized, said he did not mean to discriminate and “added that he had asked a Turkish firm to make up the signs.”

What I found interesting was the comments section in the original story, as it was reported in “Die Welt”. Most of the commentators thought that the reaction was unjustified, since people who reside in Germany, should, in their opinion, learn German and be able to read and communicate fluently in the language of the country; the sign in Turkish was, therefore, for these commentators, superfluous to begin with. Many commented that this was just another opportunity for Turks in Germany to complain and pretend they are victims of discrimination, whereas they themselves (the German commentators) felt discriminated against when a sign was put up in a foreign language in their own country; some also pointed out that they felt discriminated against on behalf of the many foreign nationalities who were not as lucky as the Turks to be represented among the sign languages. Many complained for the characterization of parts of the town as ‘good’ vs. ‘shady’. But virtually nobody saw a problem in the signs.

I think what the comments failed to notice was that the signs, if followed by a German-speaking and Turkish-speaking potential clientele respectively, appear to actively encourage some sort of segregation by pointing to different stores for each customer group. In today’s Germany such an effort seems however a bit absurd, not to mention that from a commercial point of view it would be a terrible business initiative. Assuming therefore that the owner acted in good faith, my interpretation is that both signs are addressing primarily a bilingual audience, the Turkish-German one, who would be in a position to read and understand both of them. If these bilingual people constitute the primary clientele for McDonald’s, then the owner simply tried to flatter his customers.

I would be the first to cry wolf, but I had a look at the Twitter account that did cry wolf. The account, created in March 2017, is entitled “Türkische Diaspora in Deutschland. Organisiert und entschlossen gegen die antitürkischen Bewegungen” (“Turkish Diaspora in Germany. Organized and decisive against anti-Turkish movements”). They sound a bit conspiratorial and they tweet an awful lot in favour of the current Turkish government and against PKK. In their tweet on this affair they dubbed it immediately as segregation (‘Rassentrennung’). Under the circumstances, it seems rather ironic that a patron who went the extra mile for his Turkish-speaking and -reading clients was denounced by a Twitter account that supposedly monitors anti-Turkish moves.

A message from ancient Egypt for Mother’s Day

Nile MagazineThis is a post from the FB page of the Nile magazine:

“His mother, whom he loves”.

Happy Mother’s Day!

Let’s meet someone who loved his mother:

Ihy was a high priest in the service of the first king of Egypt’s 12th Dynasty—King Amenemhat I, ca 1960 B.C.

In his Saqqara tomb chapel, Ihy depicted his mother, Sat-Shendjet, along with the words, “His mother, whom he loves”.

“Sat-Shendjet” translates as ‘Daughter of the Acacia Tree’, which refers to the acacia tree sacred to the lesser-known primal goddess Iusaaset, the consort of Atum

Part of the Book of the Dead of Ani, a 19th Dynasty Theban temple scribe, reads:
” I have made offerings of incense. I betook myself to the Acacia Tree of the [divine] Children.

Sat-Shendjet’s own mother may have given her a name which she hoped would give Sat-Shendjet protection as a “divine child”. Mums are good like that.

Photo: Jeffrey Ross Burzacott”

The ‘grecs du roi’, an early Greek typeface hitting the streets

91_002The Association of European Printing Museums (AEPM) is holding its annual conference between 11 and 14 May 2017 in Chania, Greece. One of the speakers, Georgios Matthiopoulos from the Technological Educational Institute of Athens, will present a paper entitled “The Grecs du roi meet early Cretan literature in a Street Art performance throughout Crete: a school project”.

An article in a local newspaper from Chania drew my attention to the conference; that and the fact that I had a number of unknown concepts in the title of the paper! So, it seems that Matthiopoulos put together a project for school children, in which he wanted to combine an early Greek typeface (‘grecs du roi’), with early Cretan literature (the period of blossom: 16th-17th cent AD) and graffiti, the modern street art form.

The typeface ‘grecs du roi’ was designed by Claude Garamont himself, the famous Parisian punch-cutter who gave his name to a series of typefaces still used in our digital world (Garamond fonts). Garamont apparently designed by order of the French king in 1541 punches of Greek letters to be used in the printing of books in Greek. He followed models and instructions of the royal calligrapher Angelo Vergezio, who came originally from Crete. His effort was to imitate hand-writing of the time, which however contained a lot of ligatures and alternate ways of spelling words, as the cursive version of any script would. It seems that the result was an elegant, much admired although complicated font, which came to be known as ‘grecs du roi’.


A 1550 edition of the New Testament printed by use of ‘grecs du roi’ (source: typolexikon.de)

Recent research suggested the possibility that Garamont was not in fact the inventor of the typeface, instead they had been developed already by his master, Antoine Augereau, who allegedly had a strong knowledge of Greek and a solid education; it seems that this education caused Augereau his life, because he was burnt together with his books as a heretic by the Inquisition in 1534.

Regardless of who invented what, the ‘grecs du roi’ is a beautiful typeface and very recognizable as evidence of Renaissance early typography. I assume this is what inspired Matthiopoulos to plan a project that brought together this specific typeface, early Cretan literature (the poem of Erotokritos, a famous 17th cent Cretan poem) and school children. The children were called in to paint stenciled graffiti on the streets of Chania, the Cretan city where the conference will take place shortly. The graffiti are verses from Erotokritos.



The Roman wooden tablets from the Bloomberg site in London

“Between 2010 and 2014, archeologists digging in London’s financial district, on the site of a new British headquarters for Bloomberg, made an astonishing discovery—a collection of more than four hundred wooden tablets, preserved in the muck of an underground river. The tablets, postcard-sized sheets of fir, spruce, and larch, dated mainly from a couple of decades after the Roman conquest of Britain, in A.D. 43, straddling the period, in the reign of Nero, when Boudica’s rebellion very nearly got rid of the occupation altogether.”


Researchers believe this tablet is the earliest ever reference to London predating Tacitus’ mention of London in his Annals which were produced about 50 years later.
Dated AD 65/70-80, it reads “Londinio Mogontio” which translates to “‘In London, to Mogontius” (photo: BBC)

A volume on the tablets was recently (2016) published by Roger Tomlin, a Latin epigraphist. Epigraphers usually study texts carved in stone, where the writing follows certain conventions and is aimed to be legible, since it will be seen by many people. It is unusual to find texts of more private nature, and the Bloomberg tablets are just that: “They are, perhaps, reminiscent of the kind of communications that we, in the twenty-first century, might send by e-mail—functional, expedient, lacking in literary merit. There are notes of indebtedness, memos to merchants, and a reckoning of an account for beer.”

But besides the mundane content of these texts, their writing also escapes the norm of what official Roman inscriptions have gotten us used to: “While the lettering on Roman masonry is, for the most part, wonderfully regular, striding along in neat capitals, the tablets are written in cursive, which is wildly various in style and quality. Occasionally the writing is tidy and clear, but most often it is rushed, sloppy, fragmentary, and damaged, and can, to the uninitiated, even to one who knows Latin well, resemble not so much actual writing as a series of bewilderingly arbitrary strokes and curlicues.”

And a brief comment on how the tablets were used: “The wooden tablets were designed to be reusable; they were originally covered with a layer of wax, into which lettering was scratched with a stylus. But the wax has long since disappeared, and what is left are marks that the scribe inadvertently made by scratching right through it, onto the wood behind. To complicate matters, the tablets sometimes bear two or more layers of scratches, jostling and confusing each other. Thus Tomlin examines not traces but traces of traces. ”

The above excerpts all come from an interview Roger Tomlin gave recently for The New Yorker. Here (BBC) and here (The Guardian) you can see some more photos of tablets, of the site where they were found and the condition in which they were in during the excavation. This short video also shows the tablets and how they were treated and studied. The archaeological site was known from the 1950’s, when it had been partially excavated, and is known to have been in the heart of Roman London, but new excavations from 2010 onward were required before a new building for the news agency Bloomberg would be constructed. The ancient neighborhood also testified to a temple dedicated to the god Mithras, known as the London Mithraeum, which was excavated in 1954, dismantled and relocated, still visible today in the vicinity (Queen Vistoria Street).


Over 700 artefacts from the Bloomberg excavation will be displayed in a public exhibition space that will sit within the new Bloomberg building, including the earliest-dated writing tablet from Britain. This tablet, as The Guardian notes, is “the earliest legal document and the earliest carrying a date from Roman Britain, was written on 8 January AD57, when Tibullus wrote promising to repay Gratus – both men described as freed slaves – 105 denarii, half a year’s pay for a Roman legionary, for goods delivered.”

The London Mithraeum exhibition is planned to open in autumn 2017.

The manuscripts of Timbuktu

2800Responsable is a French noun whose meaning is easy to guess at in English. There were few better words to describe the librarian then than as a responsable for a giant slice of neglected history, the manuscripts of Timbuktu, a collection of handwritten documents so large no one knew quite how many there were, though he himself would put them in the hundreds of thousands. The manuscripts contained some of the most valuable written sources for the so-called golden age of Timbuktu, in the 15th and 16th centuries, and the great Songhay empire of which it was a part. They had been held up as proof of the continent’s vibrant written history. Few had done more to unearth the manuscripts than Haidara [Abdel Kader Haidara, the librarian of Timbuktu]. In the months to come, no one would be given more credit for their salvation.

In person, the librarian was an imposing man with a handshake of astonishing softness, a drive-by of a greeting that left a hint of remembered contact, no more. He was well versed in the history and content of the documents, but appeared not so much a scholar as a businessman who controlled his affairs in a variety of languages via his mobile phones, or in person from behind a desk the size of a small boat. He was not the only proprietor of manuscripts in the city, but as the owner of the largest private collection and founder of Savama, an organisation devoted to safeguarding the city’s written heritage, he claimed to represent the bulk of Timbuktu’s manuscript-owning families.”

“By the end of 2012, however, Savama informed the German embassy in Bamako that between 80,000 and 120,000 manuscripts had been successfully evacuated from Timbuktu.”

The nail-biting story of how thousands of manuscripts were transported to safety in Mali in 2012 and 2013, thus saving them from a near certain auto-da-fé.

There seems to exist also a study project, the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project (supported by the University of Cape Town and the Gerda Henkel Stiftung), which has been “has been very much concerned with the diverse content of the manuscripts, the circulation of scholars and ideas, the economy of the manuscript book, and other aspects of the “work of scholarship” in Timbuktu.” But, besides examining manuscripts from Timbuktu, the project has expanded in order ” to encompass writing cultures from other parts of the African continent.” And in the project’s participants own words: “New discoveries of collections have been identified in Mozambique and Madagascar, in both Arabic and so-called Ajami (Makua in Arabic script, Malagasy in Arabic script). Existing collections in Zanzibar (in Arabic and Swahili) have been supplemented with new work on private libraries. A recent publication of a collection of legal materials from coastal Somalia has directed attention to materials there. In Ethiopia there is a long-standing tradition of Coptic Christian writing in Amharic and research on Amharic book arts is necessary; there are also texts written in both Arabic and Amharic in Addis Ababa archives. The list of examples goes on and covers many parts of the continent.

There are multiple questions that are emerging with the “rediscovery” of various manuscript collections on the continent. The two main areas that the project aims to focus on are “the history of books” in Africa, and the state of the archives in which these manuscript books reside. The former places the African world of books firmly within an international discussion in the growing field of “the history of books”, where it has no presence at the moment. The latter, a more practical issue, approaches the way in which archives are constituted and appropriated: the politics of the archive.”