Thursday, April 27, 2006

A, B, C, D, ...

Letters in All Writing Systems Traced Back to Nature

The shapes of letters in all languages are derived from common forms in nature, according to a new hypothesis.

The idea, in some ways seemingly obvious and innately human, arose however from a study of how robots see the world.

Robots employ object recognition technology to navigate a room by recognizing contours. A corner is seen as a "Y," for example, and a wall is recognized by the L-shape it makes where it meets the floor.

"It struck me that these junctions are typically named with letters, such as 'L,' 'T,' 'Y,' 'K,' and 'X,' and that it may not be a coincidence that the shapes of these letters look like the things they really are in nature," said Mark Changizi, a theoretical neurobiologist at the California Institute of Technology.

Changizi and his colleagues think letters and symbols in Chinese, Latin, Persian, and all 97 of the other writing systems that have been used through the ages have shapes that humans are good at seeing.

It's hardly surprising that Chinese characters can be, so to speak, traced back to nature. They're pictograms. Of course, needless to say Chinese characters have through the centuries evolved toward ever more stylized and simplified forms of the originals.

Back to the English alphabet, I really feel antsy about Changizi's claim that "it may not be a coincidence that the shapes of these letters look like the things they really are in nature." With regards to that i'm wondering what he has to say about such letters as B, C, D, G, O, P, Q, R, S, U. On the one hand, it's almost a truism to say that any alphabet will have some correspondence with things we see in nature (straight lines, curves, circles, ...) On the other hand, unless there's a strict operational definition, there's enough leeway to force fit alphabets, characters, and what have you to confirm the hypothesis. Given that the news item is for popular consumption and doesn't have the rigor of a journal article, I'm giving Changizi the benefit of the doubt.

(I'd also be interested to see the precursors of the modern alphabet and how many of them have the distinct corners/junctions Changizi talks about. Moreover, it may be instructive to know what the connection is between the written letter and its pronunciation. For instance, Which came first? I put my money on the oral tradition.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Liz here from I Speak of Dreams Hmmn. Does seem odd, and counterintuitive. Sounds like a job for Language Log.

Maybe he is confounded by these posters which are found all over grammar school classrooms.