Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Common Features in Written Languages and the Anthon Transcript

Michael Price's news story, "Why Written Languages Look Alike the World Over" in Science magazine's online edition (Sciencemag.org) might be of interest to some readers here. He discusses a recent publication on the nature of scripts used in written language. The study, published in  Cognitive Science, finds that scripts contain a vary high degree of vertical and horizontal lines (e.g., our T and L) relative to oblique lines (as in our X or W). Symmetrical characters, with either vertical or horizontal symmetry, also occur more frequently than one would expect from chance, and vertical symmetry (as in B or C) is more common than horizontal symmetry (as in W or A). Examination of how scripts evolve suggests that these features are present from the earliest stages of writing.

The study discussed is by Oliver Morin, "Spontaneous Emergence of Legibility in Writing Systems: The Case of Orientation Anisotropy," Cognitive Science, 10 October 2017, DOI: 10.1111/cogs.12550. Abstract:
Cultural forms are constrained by cognitive biases, and writing is thought to have evolved to fit basic visual preferences, but little is known about the history and mechanisms of that evolution. Cognitive constraints have been documented for the topology of script features, but not for their orientation. Orientation anisotropy in human vision, as revealed by the oblique effect, suggests that cardinal (vertical and horizontal) orientations, being easier to process, should be overrepresented in letters. As this study of 116 scripts shows, the orientation of strokes inside written characters massively favors cardinal directions, and it is organized in such a way as to make letter recognition easier: Cardinal and oblique strokes tend not to mix, and mirror symmetry is anisotropic, favoring vertical over horizontal symmetry. Phylogenetic analyses and recently invented scripts show that cultural evolution over the last three millennia cannot be the sole cause of these effects.
With this in mind, it is interesting to once again look at the Charles Anthon transcript to see examples of the characters that Joseph Smith copied from some portion of the gold plates for Martin Harris to show to some highly educated folks to help Martin cope with his doubts.

When Martin showed them to the scholar, Charles Anthon, Anthon allegedly responded favorably. According to Harris, Anthon "said they were Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyriac, and Arabic" and that they were "true characters." Whatever Anthon said, Harris came away convinced that Joseph was not a fraud. To say that the characters were Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyriac, and Arabic, if accurately quoted and sincerely meant, would seem to mean that Harris saw similarities to these other scripts, and indeed, it's not hard to see many similarities. In light of Morin's publication, part of the similarities include a very high degree of vertical and horizontal strokes, a low degree of oblique lines (curved lines were excluded in the study), and a high degree of symmetrical characters, all typical of many real scripts. However, in the small sample from the Anthon Transcript, the symmetry is primarily horizontal, though there are some characters with vertical symmetry.

After examining the Anthon characters, it is easy for a naive viewer like me to see apparent similarities to numbering systems in Demotic (like a long curved line for 100 and then vertical strokes above it for multiples of 100) and also Mayan (the bar and dot system). Probably coincidental, but I can sort of see why someone could say that there are features like those of ancient Old World scripts, for they have some common general features similar to what Morin observed.

Had Harris brought Anthon some of the fraudulent Kinderhook Plates, I wonder what his response would be?

These characters to me just look a lot different than the various scripts I've seen from the Old World. To me they appear to have a high emphasis on oblique lines, contrary to Morin's observation. I'm not saying his findings represent an accurate test for distinguishing a lone forger's contrived script from a real civilization's practical script that developed according to common cognitive aspects of our brains, but it may be a topic for further research. Just a fun tidbit to consider that may help explain why someone might feel the Book of Mormon characters resemble other ancient scripts they've seen. 

FYI, Tolkien's fun work in developing the Tengwar script for Middle-earth seems to do well in its abundance of cardinal strokes, but then it seems to draw heavily on Tibetan and related scripts and is rooted in his deep scholastic knowledge rather than being fabricated out of whole cloth.

A hat tip to Jennifer Mangelson for alerting me to this Science story.

For some background on the fraudulent Kinderhook Plates and their relation or lack thereof to the Book of Mormon, see my related LDSFAQ page on Book of Mormon problems.


Particle Man said...

That the "Caractors" document is the Anthon transcript is dubious. As for translating this document, Jerry Grover seems to have made the most progress thus far:


Jeff Lindsay said...

Thanks. Grover has some interesting observations that merit discussion, but to me there seem to be some pretty big leaps on the way to a translation, so I'm skeptical, but appreciate much that he has done in his studies on various topics.

Jerry Grover said...

That's interesting, do you care to elucidate what those "pretty big leaps" are?

Jerry Grover said...

I only ask because I am currently updating the book and translation, and will be responding to comments raised since the book was written.

Jerry Grover said...

BTW, the study that is cited here excluded logographic languages (like Egyptian and Mesoamerican script) so would not be expected to be applicable to the Caractors Document.