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Column: Languages adapted creatively through time

Pictographs carved on stone or scratched into clay cave walls were the oldest form of communication and record-keeping. We protect those relics and treasure them as both art examples and early attempts at communication using an easily understood picture language.

It would be hard to imagine prehis- toric people meeting and each trying to talk to the other when each communicated differently. Dialects of known languages stop clear understandings. Spoken English from London sounds vastly different from natives of Liverpool, or from English-speaking Ireland, Wales or Scotland.

Goodness knows, trying to understand my own kinfolk living in the Deep South means I have to retune my ears to acclimate to the slow, drawn-out vowels and dropped endings on multisyllabic words. My head hurts trying to understand them, and yet I sounded just as soft-spoken as they for half my life. It was my drawings that helped me communicate when as a child I arrived from north of the Mason-Dixon line.

Languages are not often seen as art media but certainly are. From the earliest drawings and paintings of animals and humans … deep in the hunt … to showing the importance of fertility in survival, simple shapes — symbols — represented ideas.

In the University of Jamestown’s art history class last semester, students had to learn about languages as art. They wrote their own names in Oghum, Hieroglyphics, Runes and Cuneiform. They learned how Linear B represented a people and time, and how some languages, like that of the Etruscans, still are not translated but are seen as works of art in their representations.

Arabic, Latin Alphabet, Chinese, Japanese and Korean characters all began as pictographs, or simplified drawings.

When we look at the Peruvian quipus, we see “words” as sentences represented by knots tied and strung on cords fashioned like a necklace. Not exactly what we think of as a “written” language, but during 1450 through 1532 the Incas made the knotted “fringe-like” necklaces as a means of recording events, like chapters in a book. They could be “read” by the blind and were at first thought to be decoration when discovered by later explorers. Archeologists and etymologists have found the fibers faded over time, and determined not only did the knot size and order carry meanings, but also the colors had meaning.

I don’t know how many cultures used strung sea shells or seeds as words, but many early cultures did, including Native Americans. It always reminds me of the way Boy Scouts show a trail marked by using bundles of bent grass or piles of rocks. Every culture constructed some type of language that originally began as found items and simple art work. The existing artifacts are an important step in understanding the evolution of our sophisticated means of communication.

With computers taking over our lives and new symbols replacing such words as: “power,” “pause” or “on,” it makes me wonder how people will interpret the origins of those “words” in 100 years.

If anyone has an item for this column, please send to Sharon Cox, PO Box 1559, Jamestown, ND 58402-1559.