Jun 22, 2022
Have you ever pondered the letter P, or maybe reflected on the letter R? As in, thought about their structures, their shapes, and how they came to be. I, to be honest, had not. I have never given these letters—or any other letters—much thought. But that’s what we’re up to today. In this episode, we’re looking across the world’s hundred plus scripts and asking some basic questions: How are they alike? How do they differ? And why do they have the shapes that they do?
My guests are Dr. Yoolim Kim and Dr. Olivier Morin. Yoolim is a Psycholinguist at the Korea Institute at Harvard University, and Olivier is director of the Minds and Traditions research group (aka ‘The Mint’) at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany. Olivier and Yoolim, along with other colleagues, have recently launched a new online game called Glyph. You can play right now. It asks players to help describe, break down, and classify the characters of dozens of writing systems around the world.
Here, we talk about Glyph and what Yoolim and Olivier hope to learn from it. We do a bit of ‘Writing Systems 101’ and shine a spotlight on two scripts with fascinating origin stories: Hangul, the Korean script which was devised in the 15th century and Vai, a script invented in Liberia in the 19th century. We also talk about how universal cognitive factors shape writing systems and about whether the writing system you use shapes how you think. Finally, we discuss the earliest writing systems and what they were used for; the myth that the alphabet is the most advanced type of writing system; and the understudied—but not uncommon!—phenomenon of “biscriptalism.”
If you enjoy this episode, be sure to check out Glyph. It sounds super fun and engrossing—and I’ll definitely be playing it myself!
On to my conversation with Dr. Yoolim Kim and Dr. Olivier Morin. Enjoy!
A transcript of this episode is available here.
Notes and links
2:30 – You can sign up to play Glyph and watch a video about the game here.
6:30 – The International Phonetic Alphabet or IPA.
10:00 – In addition to writing, Dr. Morin’s group at the MPI has also studied coin designs and other aspects of visual culture.
16:30 – A paper by Dr. Morin and colleagues about writing as one of many kinds of “graphic codes.”
18:40 – An explanation of the international laundry symbols.
24:50 – An article laying out five major types of writing system, distinguished by the linguistic unit they encode.
33:00 – A pioneering early paper by Mark Changizi and colleagues about the origins of letter shapes.
34:00 – A research paper by Dr. Morin about how cognitive biases for cardinal shapes and vertical symmetry shape letter forms.
37:30 – A cuneiform tablet, which shows how the script has a distinctive three-dimensional “wedge-shaped” quality.
41:30 – A research paper by Dr. Morin and colleagues on how the Vai script seems to have gotten simpler over its short history. A general audience treatment of the same study by co-author Piers Kelly.
42:00 – A research paper by Dr. Helena Miton and Dr. Morin about what determines the complexity of written letters.
45:00 – The Ogham script, which may have needed to grow more complex over time rather than simplify.
48:30 – Our earlier essay on footprints, which discusses the idea that bird tracks inspired the Chinese writing system.
50:00 – A paper in which Dr. Morin and colleagues discuss the role of early writing in “recitation practices”.
52:00 – The idea that literacy profoundly affects cognition was famously articulated by Jack Goody in The Domestication of the Savage Mind. A paper by Stanislas Dehaene and a colleague about the “Visual Word Form Area” and how it becomes rapidly specialized for reading.
55:00 – Korean readers are often “biscriptal” in that they are familiar with both Hangul and Hanja.
57:30 – A paper by Dr. Kim and colleagues on whether Hanja shapes the mental lexicon of Korean speakers.
59:00 – A research paper examining some of the effects of biscriptalism.
1:03 – A paper by Isabelle Dautriche and colleagues about how word forms are clustered in the lexicon.
Dr. Kim recommends:
In the Land of Invented Languages, by Arika Okrent
Highly Irregular, by Arika Okrent
Frindle, by Andrew Clements
Dr. Morin recommends:
The Greatest Invention, by Silvia Ferrara
Stories of Your Life, by Ted Chiang
Codes of the Underworld, by Diego Gambetta
Many Minds is a project of the Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute (DISI) (https://disi.org), which is made possible by a generous grant from the Templeton World Charity Foundation to UCLA. It is hosted and produced by Kensy Cooperrider, with help from assistant producer Cecilia Padilla. Creative support is provided by DISI Directors Erica Cartmill and Jacob Foster. Our artwork is by Ben Oldroyd (https://www.mayhilldesigns.co.uk/). Our transcripts are created by Sarah Dopierala (https://sarahdopierala.wordpress.com/).
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