Friday, August 24, 2012

A term in astronomy: meteorite for a surviving space rock hitting Earth

Meteorites originate from celestial objects such as asteroids or comets that break apart while entering Earth's atmosphere. A penetrating meteorite chemically reacts with atmospheric gases and appears as a fireball—also known as meteor, shooting star or falling star, which typically ends up as dust. Sometimes, however, parts of visible size survive and hit the Earth's surface, where they may be found as space rocks [1] by curious earthlings.

Peter Jenniskens is such a curious human— a meteor astronomer with experience in hunting meteorites in Sudan [2].  He hunts for meteors and meteor showers by surveillance (triangulation of meteor tracks) and by searching the grounds. Interested scientists are invited to participate in the meteor-shower surveillance program [3].

Further naming topics related to astronomical objects:

References and more to explore
[1] Geoffrey Notkin: Have you found a space rock? [].
[2] Filed Notes (as told to Marissa Fessenden): Meteor Hunt. Scientific American September 2012, Volume 307, Number 3, page 23. DOI: 10.1038/scientificamerican0912-23.
[3] NASA Ames Research Center: Cameras for Allsky Meteor Surveillance (CAMS) [].

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Mayan proper names

A proper name is a designation of a unique item. From the decipherment of various hieroglyphic inscriptions and texts, found at Mayan places like Palenque, formerly Otulum, it is now known that the Maya had proper names not just for people, sites and landmarks, but also for tools and moveable items. In addition to dynastic rulers and scribes, for example, they named pyramids, temples, altars (sculpted stone blocks), stelae, an incense burner as well as jewelry and ceramics [1]:

The ancient Maya liked to name things, and they liked to tell the world who owned these things.

The existence of  Mayan proper names is illustrated, for example, by names for Maya Rulers of Copán [2,3], place names introduced by ut-i [1], and the owner's name carved into a Late Classic vase depicting scenes of assembling gods and acts of creation (page 221 in [1]) .

Keywords: archaeology, epigraphy,  name-tagging, toponyms, patron's name, nomenclature.

References and more to explore
[1] Michael D. Coe: Breaking the Maya Code. Thames & Hudson, New York, Revised Edition 1999; pages 221, 245 and 253-255.
[2] Günther Eichhorn: Maya Rulers of Copán. Travel pictures from Honduras [].
[3] Altar Q [].

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Otulum, a former name of the Mayan city of Palenque

Otulum is a former place name of the Mayan city of Palenque, a Maya site in the lower foothills of the Sierra de Chiapas—southeast of Villahermosa, today's capital of the state of Tabasco in Mexico [1,2]. The place got its name from the river Otulum running through this site with its Classic Maya architecture, whose stelae, temples and other buildings are richly filled with hieroglyphic inscriptions and texts [3].

Keywords: geography, history, archaeology, toponyms.

References and more to explore
[1] Michael D. Coe: Breaking the Maya Code. Thames & Hudson, New York, Revised Edition 1999; pages 193 and 202.
[2] American Philosophical Society > Native American Collections, Case II, Section Tabular View of the Compared Atlantic Alphabets and Glyphs of Africa & America, by Constantine  Samuel Rafinesque, 1832  [].
[3] David Stuart: The Inscriptions from Temple XIX at Palenque. The Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute, San Francisco, 2005 [].

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Polyphony versus homophony

The noun polyphony derives from the Greek words polys (many) and phone (voice, sound) and means “variety of sounds” [1]. With the Greek word homos for “same,” the noun homophony means “sameness of sounds” or “monotony of sounds.”

In linguistics, polyphony is a special form of polyvalence, which refers to the assignment of multiple values (meanings) to a written sign. The term polyphony stands for the multiplicity of sounds associated with a hieroglyph, symbol or character (and sequences thereof) belonging to the writing system of a spoken language [2]. For example, the letter combination ow is polyphonic: note its different pronunciation in the words towel, tow and tomorrow.

Homophony is the converse of polyphony. Michael Coe provides a striking example of homophony found in Mayan writing—originally presented by the epigrapher Stephen Houston [2]: Three significantly different looking glyphs, which are the signs for “four,” “snakes” and “sky,” have the same sound can (Yucatec language) or chan (Cholan language). Any of these three homophonic signs may occur as logograph in a phrase whenever this sound is required. This example further demonstrates the phoneticism of the Mayan writing system: although the hieroglyphs may have ideographic or semasiographic roots, they often “evolved” to represent specific sound values.

Keywords: linguistics, language, pronunciation, sign substitution, symbol substitution, glyph interchangeability, Maya homophony, spelling.

References and more to explore
[1] Online Etymology Dictionary: polyphony (n.), polyphonic (adj.) [].
[2] Michael D. Coe: Breaking the Maya Code. Thames & Hudson, New York, Revised Edition 1999; page 235 and Glossary.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Glottography and semasiography

Glottography is the recording of language-based utterances. To be more precise: the recording of the vocal cords during respiration and phonationthe production of vocal sounds and especially speech [1]. In the context of physics and anatomy, the term recording here refers to the measurement and study of such audible expressions. Linguistically, it refers to the fixation of uttered sounds in the form of symbols or characters, defining a writing system.

In principle, a writing system can be derived from glottographic and non-glottographic origins of symbols or characters [2]. In the latter case, no relation between symbols and sounds is evident. Such a writing system is called semasiographic, formerly ideographic [3]. In semasiography, symbols are constructed by humans who agree upon their meaning. The international road sign system and the ancient quipu of Inca Peru—connected, color-coded cords with tied knots—are examples [4].

The distinction between glottographic and semasiographic writing systems has clearly been made by the British linguist Geoffrey Sampson [3-5]. Michael Coe argues that writing systems are primarily glottographic, but that some degree of semasiography plays a part in all known writing [4]. In his fascinating story of the understanding and decipherment of Maya inscriptions and texts, he emphasizes phoneticism—the glottographic concept—to successfully break hieroglyphic codes based on a once spoken language.   

Keywords: linguistics, typology of writing systems.

References and more to explore
[1] The Free Dictionary: glottography [].
[2] Malcolm D. Hyman: Of Glyphs and Glottography. DRAFT 2006-04-01, to appear in Language & Communication [].
[3] Geoffrey Sampson: Writing Systems [].
[4] Michael D. Coe: Breaking the Maya Code. Thames & Hudson, New York, Revised Edition 1999; page 18 and others.
[5] Writing Systems by Geoffrey Sampson [].

Friday, August 17, 2012

The word “hieroglyph” means sacred carving

The Greek word hieroglyph originally meant sacred carving or holy carving [1-3]. This noun is now synonymous with logograph: a single written (carved, painted or otherwise displayed) symbol. A hieroglyphic depiction may represent a person, an animal, a plant, a tool or some other object. Often untied from meaning, a hieroglyph stands for a sound or sequence of sounds belonging to the spoken language of a civilization that uses hieroglyphs in their language-based writing system. Hieroglyphs can stand by themselves, but typically compose inscriptions and scripts.

The terms hieroglyph and hieroglyphic go back to the fourth century A.D., when Horapollon, also referred to as Horapollo and Horus Apollus, associated them with Egyptian writing [3,4]. The Hieroglyphics (Hieroglyphica of Horapollo) influenced hieroglyphic decipherment.

Renaissance humanists such as the Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) enthusiastically read the Hieroglyphics [3]. Although Kirchner made the assumption that hieroglyphs were phonetic symbols, he was not very successful in their identification and came to interpret hieroglyphs as symbols used by ancient people largely for ideographic writing. This doctrine of hieroglyphic wisdom delayed the decipherment of scripts such as those of the Maya writing system. Michael Coe [3] writes that “the fallacy that hieroglyphic scripts largely consisted of symbols that communicate ideas directly, without the intervention of language, was held as an article of faith by generations of distinguished Maya scholars, including Seler, Schellhas, and Thompson, as well as the multitude of their lesser followers.”

The understanding that hieroglyphs may simply stand for sounds was critical in deciphering Maya inscriptions and texts. Some hieroglyphs represent a phonetic value only. Often, they incorporate both semantic and phonetic elements. Therefore, one typically speaks of semanto-phonetic writing systems: currently used ones (Chinese, Japanese) and no longer used ones (AkkadianChữ-nôm, Egyptian, Jurchen, Khitan, Linear B, Luwian, Mayan, Sumerian, Tangut) [5].

Keywords: linguistics, writing, documenting, anthropology, history, decipherment, code breaking.

References and more to explore
[1] Encyclopedia Britannica: hieroglyph [].
[2] International World History Project: Ancient Egypt, Hieroglyphics [].
[3] Michael D. Coe: Breaking the Maya Code. Thames & Hudson, New York, Revised Edition 1999; page 16, 260, and 288 (Glossary).
[4] The Hieroglyphica of Horapollo. Translated from the Egyptian Tongue and put into Greek by Philip. Now rendered into English [].
[5] Semanto-phonetic writing systems [].