Sunday, May 14, 2006

Evolution and the history of alphabets: "A star shines on the hour of our meeting"

The world's alphabets look pretty radically different at first glance, but if you squint there seem to be similarities. Of course, there are obvious regularities between different rune systems designed to be stamped into hard materials, from cuneiform to various forms of runes. Here are runes from Scotland, Turkey, and ancient Phoenicia, respectively:                   


But even with script alphabets, a new paper claims that there are underlying regularities with deep significance: the alphabets replicate the patterns in natural scenery. Our brains are evolutionarily programmed to respond to these particular topological configurations:

The paper, "The Structure of Letters and Symbols throughout Human History," is by Changizi et al., and is found in this month's American Naturalist.

[I read "somewhere" (how do you bluebook that cite?) that frogs's brains, for example, besides being very tasty, have been monitored by bored scientists as various patterns are shown to the little froggy spectators. Different simple line-structures excite very particular locations in the brain. It's as if frogs respond more to the edge-structure of the external world than allowing the literal morphe, or metaphysical form, to migrate into their little froggy brains. (Take that, Aristotle!) Similarly, collared lizards do not respond to thin vertical lines: it's not evolutionarily useful, since they basically hang around in waving grass all day long.]

The authors consider over 100 writing systems old and recent, and work to eliminate the possibility that the shape of alphabets is motivated more by the desire to minimize pen-strokes. For example, they study modern commercial brand symbols, which are printed, not hand-drawn, and thus have no simplicity requirements, and find that the symbols strongly resemble the topological configurations that humans are likely to have found in primitive environments.

A brief, somewhat poorly executed report on the paper was written up by a reporter at the Telegraph. If alphabets have evolved in response to our evolution, this makes me wonder: do created alphabets also satisfy these isomorphisms? They might: maybe they're created to be beautiful, and beauty reflects natural topology. Or maybe they're not subject to evolutionary pressures, and so they may fail to conform. Either way, I think the most beautiful writing system is pretty clearly Tolkien's tengwar elven script. I used to be obsessed with these flowing curves, writing notes to myself during high school. Ah, my extreme youth...

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