Tag Archives: linguistics

Ancient Scripts and language

In a packed lecture room in the Taylor Institution Library, John Coleman, Professor of Phonetics at Oxford, gave a fascinating seminar on the connection between Ancient Scripts and language. He focused on the following questions; “What might writing systems reveal about how people think (or thought) about their languages? How are differences between writing systems relate to differences between languages?”

He pointed out that script is relatively young, as the earliest examples of writing date back only 6000 years (to 4000 BC), whereas 200,000 years ago homo sapiens already had speech. The importance of writing language down was illustrated by the request to the University from a non-literate speaker of Nipode Uitoto, an oral South American language, to invent a writing system for his language. The request reached Oxford via a linguistics student when he did fieldwork in the area. In the recorded message the speaker said “…We truly want to know about our language so that we can teach our word to our children. […] if it is truly possible to write down our language, I want to know how this can be done.”

In the Middle East, script developed from ideographs (characters representing concepts) to syllabic script (characters representing sounds). The oldest texts were either written on stone or on clay tablets, some of which have survived. In Oxford, we don’t have far to go to see examples: the Ashmolean Museum holds clay tablets as well as engraved stones. The stone monument pictured below is engraved with Hieroglyphic Luwian, where some symbols represent a whole word but most represent syllables.

Stone monument from Carchemish (modern Jarablus, Syria) written in Hieroglyphic Luwian.

Stone monument, Ashmolean Museum.

Syllabic scripts were regarded as systems of sounds that could be listed in syllabaries; lists of symbols that represent syllables with a consonant and a vowel in one symbol or element. There are examples of such syllabaries in various languages, including the Native American language Cherokee, Japanese, Amharic (Ethiopic) and the Linear B writing system used to write Mycenean Greek. Since the symbols consist of just one element representing sounds like ‘da’ or ‘ja’, these symbols show no understanding of the distinction between consonants and vowels.

Mycenaean Greek (Linear B)

Bilingual texts can help us to decipher scripts and translate unknown languages. For example, the extract below from an Old Babylonian grammar with Sumerian translation gives us an insight into both languages. We can see in the chart below that Sumerian has more inflections than Babylonian.  Members of the Babylonian elite were keen to learn the Sumerian language as it was seen as more prestigious.

Extract from Old Babylonian Grammatical Text I (c.1600 BC)

Ancient Chinese writing, which is entirely separate from the Middle Eastern tradition, also shows some awareness of sound structure. The majority of Chinese characters are picto-phonetic, so every character has a meaning in itself, but can also be used for its phonetic value as a sound.  Even in the case of pictograms that do not have an internal structure, there are some examples indicating that scholars analysed the syllable in two parts as in the rhyme tables below.

Ancient Chinese (700 AD)

In conclusion, the earliest writing is based on both meaning and sounds, so even the oldest symbols could already represent sounds. “Sounds” usually means syllables or parts of syllables. Moving to writing based on sounds makes literacy easier to acquire and makes it possible to read and write almost anything, including intangible meanings and foreign names. Almost as soon as scribal education started, we have documents about language: sign-lists, lists of vocabulary, lists of translations, grammatical paradigms … in other words, what we once called Grammar and now call Linguistics.

Many thanks to Prof. Coleman for the content of this blog. You can listen to the full lecture and see the slides here.


Johanneke Sytsema, Linguistics Librarian


Further reading

Senner, W. M. ed. 1991. The Origins of Writing. University of Nebraska Press.

Naveh, Joseph. 1982. Early history of the alphabet : an introduction to West Semitic epigraphy and palaeography. Jerusalem : Magnes Press, Hebrew University ; Leiden : E.J. Brill.

Powell, Barry B. 2012. Writing : theory and history of the technology of civilization. Chichester : Wiley-Blackwell.

Robinson, Andrew. 2009. Writing and script : a very short introduction Oxford : Oxford University Press

Jean, Georges. 1992. Writing : the story of alphabets and scripts. London : Thames & Hudson.

Harris, Roy. 1986. The origin of writing.  La Salle, Ill : Open Court.

Daniels, Peter T. and William Bright, eds. 1996. The World’s Writing Systems. OUP.

Coulmas, Florian. 1989. The Writing Systems of the World. Blackwell.

Sampson, Geoffrey.1985. Writing Systems, a Linguistic Introduction. London: Hutchinson.

Cohen, Marcel. 1958. La grande invention de l’écriture et son evolution. Paris : Impr. Nationale.

Baines, John. J.Bennet and S.D.Houston. 2008. The disappearance of writing systems : perspectives on literacy and communication. London : Equinox.

Asher, R. E. and E. J. A. Henderson, eds. 1981. Towards a History of Phonetics. Edinburgh University Press.

Jacobsen, T. ‘Very Ancient Linguistics’, in: Hymes, D.ed., Studies in the History of Linguistics: Traditions and Paradigms. Indiana University Press. pp.41-62.

Veldhuis, Niek. 2014. History of the Cuneiform Lexical Tradition. Münster : Ugarit-Verlag.

Glassner, Jean-Jacques. 2003. The Invention of Cuneiform. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Melchert, H. Craig, ed. 2003. The Luwians. Brill.

Han, Jiantang. 2012. Chinese characters. Cambridge University Press

Tsien, Tsuen-hsuin. 2013. Written on bamboo and silk : the beginnings of Chinese books and inscriptions. Chicago ; London : University of Chicago Press.

Drucker, Johanna. 1995. The alphabetic labyrinth : the letters in history and imagination. London : Thames & Hudson.

Endangered Languages and language documentation

The Taylorian is known for its collections on Modern European Languages, be it East- or West-European. Apart from the main collections including German, French, Russian, Polish to  mention a few, the Taylorian also houses less well known collections on minority languages, such as Welsh and Breton within the Celtic section or Occitan and Yiddish. To familiarise a wider audience with these ‘hidden treasures’ of the Taylorian, the seminar series ‘Introducing Endangered Languages’ was organised in Michaelmas Term 2015. The seminars were kindly given by Oxford specialists.

Prof. Mary Dalrymple gave an introduction to language endangerment in the first seminar and paid special attention to a critically endangered language Dusner in West Papua with only three speakers left. Some of the questions she discussed were :

How many Languages are there? What constitutes a language?

The total number of languages in the world can only be estimated at around 7000. It is difficult to be certain, and it depends on what counts as a language. E.g. is Chinese one language or are Mandarin, Cantonese and other dialects regarded as separate languages?  And is Arabic one language or does Egyptian Arabic count as a separate language? Assuming Chinese is one language, than it is the most spoken language in the world with more than a billion speakers. Second comes Spanish, followed by English.  Here is a list of most spoken languages from the Ethnologue.



When is a language endangered?

Interestingly, 94% of the world population speaks only 6% of the world languages, so most people speak a main stream language as their first language. This also means that 6% of the world population speaks 94% of the world languages, so each of these languages have relatively small numbers of speakers. Numbers of speakers may vary: 10.000, 1000, 100 or even just 10 first language speakers. Over 300 languages have no first language speakers at all, all speakers are bilingual and use the minority language only in certain ‘domains’ e.g. home and family, whereas the major language may be used at school, work etc. Many of these languages without first language speakers are at risk to be ‘overtaken’ by the mainstream language.

ethnologue 2

Most users of the Taylorian will have heard of European minority languages, such as Breton or Frisian, although languages like Friulian or Istro-Romanian are less well known. Most countries in Europe can be proud of having one or a few minority languages spoken within their borders. In terms of ‘language density’ however Europe is fairly ‘poor’, other regions in the world may have many more languages within one country. One of the most densely ‘languaged’ regions is South-East Asia. It is assumed that there are at least 1000 minority languages in Papua New Guinea alone, many of which have not even been documented. In the language-rich province of West-Papua in Indonesia there is a language on the brink of dying out: Dusner, an Austronesian language, only spoken by three people over 60. Fortunately, Prof. Dalrymple was just in time to meet them in April 2011. Flying out in a hurry to West-Papua after Dr Mofu had discovered Dusner, she then travelled to the idyllic village of Dusner that can only be reached by boat.


Atlas of the world's languages in danger Moseley, Christopher & Nicolas, Alexandre. Paris: Unesco, 2010. Taylor Library Linguistics Collection P40.5.L33 ATL 2010.

Atlas of the world’s languages in danger Moseley, Christopher & Nicolas, Alexandre. Paris: Unesco, 2010. Taylor Library Linguistics Collection P40.5.L33 ATL 2010.

Together with Dr Mofu who holds a D.Phil. from Oxford, she interviewed these last speakers  to record their language. The Dusner speakers are featured below (from the project website http://dusner.clp.ox.ac.uk/). For those interested in the sound of Dusner, the website holds audio recordings of the interviews.

These interviews were the basis of a language documentation project which resulted in the publication of the first grammar of Dusner  (by Mary Dalrymple & Suriel Mofu).


Small languages like Dusner are really valuable from a linguistic point of view, since they often maintain the more complex linguistic constructions, whereas major languages will have been simplified to make them easier to acquire by adults. English is an example of a language that simplified over time. For example In Anglosaxon there were different verbal endings as in helpe, hilpst, hilpƥ, helpaƥ, helpe, helpen (present tense of helpan ‘to help’) whereas in Modern English there are only two forms in the present: help, helps.



A remarkable feature of Dusner is the number system: it is a base five system, this means that there are separate words for one, two, three, four and five but six is expressed as ‘five one’ and seven as ‘five two’. Ten is a new word, eleven is ‘ten one’ and sixteen is expressed as ‘ten five one’.

Dusner numbers

The grammar is the only one book on Dusner ever published and this is held in the Bodleian. The Taylorian holds a good collection on endangered languages more in general, the list of recommended resources can be found below.

I’m grateful to Prof. Dalrymple for letting me use her slides and for giving me permission to use the table of  Dusner numbers and the two tables on numbers of speakers, both based on information from Ethnologue.

Johanneke Sytsema, Linguistics Librarian

Further Reading


Dalrymple, Mary and Suriel Mofu  (2012) Dusner. Muenchen : Lincom Europa
Closed Stack  M12.F01716

 Florey, Margaret J (2010) Endangered languages of Austronesia. Oxford : Oxford University Press.
Closed Stack  M09.E12948

Language Endangerment
De Dominicis, Amedeo (2006). Undescribed and endangered languages : the preservation of linguistic diversity. Newcastle-upon-Tyne : Cambridge Scholars.
Closed Stack. Also online through SOLO.

Crystal, David (2014). Language Death. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.
Taylor Institution Library Linguistics Collection P40.5.L33 CRY 2014

Harris, K.D. (2007) When Languages Die. The extinction of the World’s Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge. Oxford: OUP.
Taylor Institution Library Teaching Collection P.40.5.L33 HAR 2007

Evans, Nicholas (2010). Dying words : endangered languages and what they have to tell us. Chichester, U.K. ; Malden, MA : Wiley-Blackwell.
Taylor Institution Library Linguistics Collection P40.5.E53 EVA 2009.

Fishman, Joshua A. (1991). Reversing language shift : theoretical and empirical foundations of assistance to threatened languages. Clevedon : Multilingual Matters.
Taylor Institution Library Linguistics Collection ALN.8000.A.45

Fishman, Joshua A (2001). Can threatened languages be saved? : reversing language shift, revisited : a 21st century perspective. Clevedon : Multilingual Matters.
Bodleian Library Lower Gladstone Link Open Shelves (UBHU) M01.F01417.

Gordon, Raymond G. (2005). Ethnologue : languages of the world. Dallas, SIL International.
Closed Stack M05.D01883.

Miyaoka, Osahito, Osamu Sakiyama and Michael E. Krauss (2007) The vanishing languages of the Pacific rim. Oxford : Oxford University.
Taylor Institution Library Linguistics Collection P381.P3 VAN 2007

Nettle, Daniel & Suzanne Romaine (2000) Vanishing Voices: the extinction of the world’s languages.Oxford: OUP.
Taylor Institution Library Teaching Collection P40.5.L33 NET 2000

Thomason, Sarah Grey & Verónica María (2015)Endangered languages : an introduction
Taylor Institution Library Teaching Collection  P40.5.E53 THO 2015

Tsunoda, Tasaku (2006). Language endangerment and language revitalization : an introduction. Berlin : Mouton de Gruyter.
Taylor Institution Library Teaching Collection P40.5 L28 TSU 2004


Wurm, S. A.& Theo Baumann (1996). Atlas of the world’s languages in danger of disappearing. Paris : Unesco ; Canberra : Pacific Linguistics.
Bodleian Library Weston RBMSS Open Shelves G1.B1.53 Maps.

Moseley, Christopher & R.E. Asher (1994). Atlas of the world’s languages. London : Routledge.
Taylor Institution Library (Graduate Studies Room) L.ATL.B.AA.4
(See also the online interactive version http://www.unesco.org/languages-atlas/index.php)

Moseley, Christopher & Alexandre Nicolas (2010) Atlas of the world’s languages in danger. 3rd ed. Paris : United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)
Taylor Institution Library Linguistics Collection P40.5.L33 ATL 2010

Moseley, Christopher (2012). The UNESCO atlas of the world’s languages in danger : context and process. Cambridge : World Oral Literature Project.
Closed Stack

Personal accounts
Everett, Daniel Leonard (2009). Don’t sleep, there are snakes : life and language in the Amazonian jungle. London : Profile.
Closed Stack M09.G01855

Abley, Mark (2005).Spoken here : travels among threatened languages. London : Arrow Books.
Taylor Institution Library Teaching Collection P40.5.L33 ABL 2005

Drysdale, Helena.(2002). Mother tongues : travels through tribal Europe. London : Picador.
Closed Stack M02.G02997

Web Resources

Foundation for Endangered Languages http://www.ogmios.org/bibliography/index.php

Ethnologue http://www.ethnologue.com/

The Endangered Languages Project. A project to support language preservation and documentation around the world by the Alliance for Linguistic Diversity.The catalogue contains information on 3228 languages. Includes interactive map. http://www.endangeredlanguages.com

SIL (Summer Institute of Linguistics) http://www.sil.org/about/endangered-languages (includes interactive map and list of publications)

Breton at the Taylorian

Following on from her popular lecture in the ‘Introducing Endangered Languages’ seminar organised by the Taylor Institution Library in Michaelmas 2015, Dr Holly Kennard gives an overview of the library’s Breton collection from the perspective of a linguistics researcher.


Breton is a Celtic language, part of the Brythonic branch of languages, closely related to Welsh and Cornish. It is spoken by about 200 000 people in western Brittany, in northwest France. It has a long history of folktales and traditional music, much of which has been passed down orally through the generations.

There are no longer any monolingual speakers, and Breton is considered to be an endangered language, with most of its speakers now quite elderly. However, language activists have been campaigning for the future of Breton, and this has seen a resurgence of interest in the language, with the establishment of Breton-medium education, broadcasting, as well as an increase in material published in Breton.

Breton linguistics

I have had an interest in Breton for a number of years, beginning first as an undergraduate studying French and Linguistics, and continuing through to my DPhil, where I focused on Breton morphosyntax in contrasting groups of older and younger speakers. Breton presents an opportunity to study an endangered minority language as well as language revival, which I find fascinating, but I am also interested in aspects of its grammar – for my thesis I examined word order patterns and initial consonant mutation, and I am about to embark upon a project looking at grammatical gender and metrical stress.


The particular strengths of the collection at the Taylor are its breadth – it has a wide range of both books and periodicals – and its combination of classic texts (like early descriptions and dictionaries) and very up-to-date publications. I often use the ‘classic’ linguistics texts such as Kenneth Jackson’s Historical Phonology of Breton and Roparz Hémon’s Historical Morphology and Syntax of Breton.



Although written from a historical standpoint, these seminal works provide detailed and valuable descriptions of Breton, as well as explaining a range of regional variation. The collection houses a number of dictionaries from different periods, and with different foci: early dictionaries such as Grand dictionnaire franҫais-breton, as well as more modern editions such as the Elementary Breton-English & English-Breton dictionary, which is likely to be more accessible to a beginner. There is a large monolingual Breton dictionary, Geriadur brezhoneg gant skouerioù ha troiennoù, and then there are the more specialist works such as Per Denez’s dictionary of the Breton of Douarnenez, a dictionary of Old Breton, and even a dictionary of Breton place-names, Albert Deshayes, Dictionnaire des noms de lieux bretons and family names, Albert Deshayes, Dictionnaire des noms de famille bretons.

Geriadur brezhoneg gant skouerioù ha troiennoù ( An Here, 1995)

Geriadur brezhoneg gant skouerioù ha troiennoù (An Here, 1995)

I find the selection of Breton grammars particularly useful. The classic is Kervella’s Yezhadur bras ar brezhoneg, but as it is written in Breton, it is perhaps less accessible to a general audience. My default choice for a reference grammar is Favereau’s Grammaire du breton contemporain, as well as Press’s book, A grammar of modern Breton, which is written in English.


Atlas 2

Of course, the collection goes far beyond reference works such as the above. From my perspective as a linguistics researcher, the descriptions of dialects are very valuable – often, researchers have published detailed doctoral research into an individual dialect, which is really interesting. Le breton de Léchiagat, by André Sinou is one such example. Of course there are also the Linguistic atlases, which deal specifically with regional variation – compiled over the twentieth century, they also allow a glimpse of language change in progress, and are a valuable reference point for linguistics researchers. This is particularly important for an endangered language like Breton, since documentation of regional forms while they are still being spoken is vital.


The collection also contains Middle and Early Modern Breton texts, as well as dictionaries of Old and Middle Breton, and etymological works, allowing researchers to document longer-term language change, and study how Breton differs from its closest neighbours, Cornish and Welsh.

Léon Fleuriot, A Dictionary of old Breton : historical and comparative = Dictionnaire du vieux Breton (Toronto, 1985), pp. 242-43

Léon Fleuriot, A Dictionary of old Breton : historical and comparative = Dictionnaire du vieux Breton (Toronto, 1985), pp. 242-43

The Catholicon is a particularly famous work – first published in 1464, it was not only the first Breton dictionary, but also the first French dictionary, and gives words in Breton, French and Latin.

Le Catholicon de Jehan Lagadeuc : dictionnaire breton, français et latin (Lorient : E. Corfmat, [1868?]

Le Catholicon de Jehan Lagadeuc : dictionnaire breton, français et latin (Lorient : E. Corfmat, [1868?])

In my own work, I am obviously interested in the above, along with other linguistics works. I also frequently refer to the Breton journals that the library holds; in addition to the Journal of Celtic Linguistics, which is a more general journal, I use La Bretagne linguistique and Klask, which is the Celtic journal produced in Rennes. However, there is also a wide range of Breton-language literature available in the Taylor. LiteratureIn addition to books written entirely in Breton, there are also bilingual (French-Breton) texts, and a range of translations, which are helpful for language learners.

Danevelloù divyezhek, An Here-Al Liamm, 2002

Danevelloù divyezhek, (An Here-Al Liamm, 2002)


Not only is this interesting as a mark of how much publishing in Breton (at one time very rare!) has increased, it also constitutes in itself a valuable corpus. I hope to draw on this as I begin my next project, when I will be looking at the Breton of younger speakers/writers.




Dr Holly Kennard,  Faculty of Linguistics, Philology and Phonetics, University of Oxford

Breton –  Book Display for Endangered Languages Seminar 4th November 2015

All shelfmarks relate to the Taylor Institution Library

Language history and bilingualism

Abalain, Hervé. 1995. Histoire de la langue bretonne (Paris: Editions Jean-Paul Gisserot) C.6501.112

Broudic, Fañch. 1995. La Pratique du Breton de l’Ancien Régime à nos jours (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes) C.9400.91

Gwennig, Youenn et al. 2002. Danevelloù Divyezhek / Nouvelles Bilingues (An Here – Al Liamm) C.6640.63

Linguistic Atlases

Le Dû, Jean. 2001. Nouvel atlas linguistique de la Basse-Bretagne (Brest: CRBC, Université de Bretagne Occidentale) X.OUT.C.27

Le Roux, Pierre. 1924-1963. Atlas linguistique de la Basse-Bretagne (Paris: Champion) L.ATL.A.FR.7

Dictionaries and Grammars

Croix, Alain and Jean-Yves Veillard. 2013. Dictionnaire du patrimoine breton 3rd edition. (Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes) DC611B847 DIC 2013

Favereau, Frañses. 1993. Dictionnaire du breton contemporain (Morlaix: Skol Vreizh) REF.M.21.BRE.2 (BT)

Favereau, Francis. 1997. Grammaire du breton contemporain (Morlaix: Skol Vreizh) C.6501.111

Press, J. Ian. 1986. A Grammar of Modern Breton (Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter) C.6501.90

Hemon, Roparz. 1975. A historical morphology and syntax of Breton (Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies) C.6501.41

Humphrey Lloyd Humphreys. 1995. Phonologie et morphosyntaxe du parler breton de Bothoa en Saint-Nicolas-du-Pélem (Côtes-d’Armor) (Brest: Ar Skol Vrezoneg) C.6501.105

Jackson, Kenneth Hurlstone. 1967. A historical phonology of Breton (Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies) C.6501.24


Favereau, Frañses and Hervé Le Bihan. 2006. Littératures de Bretagne: mélanges offerts à Yann-Ber Piriou (Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes) PB2858.L48 LIT 2006

La Villemarqué, Théodore Hersart, Vicomte de and Kemener, Yann-Fañch. 1999. Barzaz Breiz: Chants populaires de la Bretagne (Paris: Editions du Layeur) C.9400.107

Madeg, Mikael. 2011. Nan heb e dad (Brest: Emgleo Breizh) PB2905.M28 N36 MAD 2011

Gibson, Jacqueline and Gwyn Griffiths. 2006. The turn of the ermine: an anthology of Breton literature (London: Francis Boutle) PB2873 TUR 2006