Thursday June 1, 2006

Two from No-Sword

No-Sword is a blog about Japan and Japanese culture which you should definitely be reading if those things are your cup of tea.  More than a month ago, I made a note to myself to write about two posts there, and I'm finally getting around to them today.  Better late than never!

The first post concerns the Japanese number words for values larger than 1020.  Unlike the corresponding large-number words in English (quadrillion, quintillion, etc.) the Japanese terms don't follow a regular scheme, but are instead based on  quotations from the Buddhist sutras.  This post is worth reading for its subject matter alone, but make sure you stick around for the pun in the last paragraph.  Brilliant.

The second post mentions that Google Book Search has scanned in Standard Alphabet for Reducing Unwritten Languages and Foreign Graphic Systems to a Uniform Orthography in European Letters by C. R. Lepsius.  It was written in 1863 and proposes a system reminscient of the IPA.  Matt of No-Sword calls it "alternate history for phonetic nerds" and says Lepsius's system eventually lost out to the IPA.  I'm not familiar with the historical roots of the IPA so I can't confirm or deny any competition or influence, but check out Lepsius's system of vowels and system of consonants and decide for yourself.

This second post also mentions in passing the hentaigana characters, which I'd never heard of.  They were alternate versions of the Japanese kana characters used until the kana were standardized around the turn of the 20th century.  Wikipedia has an interesting article about the hentaigana where you can see some of them as embedded images—they have to be shown this way because they're not in Unicode.

The number and variety of oddball writing systems tucked away in the corners of history always amazes and delights me.  Thanks to Matt for clueing me in to two more!

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Thanks for the link! I have to admit I don't actually know whether there was active competition between the IPA and Lepsius' version. I was just dramatizing based on the roughly similar time period and goals, and the fact that Lepsius wasn't an isolated crank.

Posted by: Matt at Jun 2, 2006 8:16:50 AM