17th-Century Buddhist Texts for the Illiterate: How “Buddhist Emoji” Made the Sūtra Legible for Those Who Couldn’t Read

Even with 21st-century teaching aids, the written Japanese language isn’t the sort of thing one picks up in a few weeks’ study. A few hundred years ago it would’ve been much more difficult still, especially for those engaged in learning the sūtras or scriptures of Buddhism. “The stakes of correct recitation were high in the pre- and early modern era,” writes The Public Domain Review’s Hunter Dukes, “with strict rules for pronunciation existing since the 1100s, and sūtra recitation (dokyō) becoming an art form in the following century.” Imported from India and rewritten in classical Chinese with few clues as to how its words should actually be spoken, the Buddhist canon of east Asia set a mighty challenge even before the perfectly literate.

As for the illiterate — of whom, in complete contrast to modern-day Japan, there were many — what chance did they stand? Salvation, or at any rate a chance at salvation, arrived in the 17th century in the form of texts written just for them. “Japanese printers began creating a type of book for the illiterate, allowing them to recite sūtras  and other devotional prayers, without knowledge of any written language,” writes Dukes. “The texts work by a rebus principle (known as hanjimono), where each drawn image, when named aloud, sounds out a Chinese syllable.” Geared toward an agricultural “readership,” this system drew its imagery from what they knew: farming tools, domestic animals, and even figures of myth.


The sections here come from a 20th-century example of this type of publication, variously Mekura-kyō or Monmō-kyō, held by the British Library. It contains a rendition of the text of the Heart Sūtra, the most widely known piece of scripture in the canon of Mahāyāna Buddhism, and as the Kyoto National Musem’s Eikei Akao puts it, “probably the best-known, most well-loved sutra in Japan.” (You may also remember the 37-minute version performed by beatboxing Buddhist monk Yogetsu Akasaka, which we previously featured here on Open Culture.) Not long ago, the United States Library of Congress posted this Heart Sūtra for the illiterate to its Facebook page. The occasion? World Emoji Day.

“Because these pictures represent sounds, rather than objects or ideas, they don’t really act as pictograms the way emoji do,” admits the writer of the Library of Congress’ post. “But in their icon-like appearance, succinct and functional, they do bear a resemblance to our use of emoji today.” It was then reblogged on Language Log, one of whose commenters offered some explanation of the system as seen in the pictures: “The Sanskrit phrase ‘Prajñāpāramitā’ is rendered ‘Hannyaharamita’ in Japanese. ‘Hannya’ here is written with a drawing of the hannya demon mask from Noh. ‘Harami’ appears to be a picture of a body (mi) in an abdomen (hara), and then ‘ta’ is a picture of a ricefield (tanbo, the “ta” of many Japanese names, like Tanaka and Toyota).” Hands have been wringing about the potential of internet communication to deliver us into a “post-literate” society; perhaps these curious chapters in the history of the Japanese language show us where to go from there.

via The Public Domain Review

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The Oldest Book Printed with Movable Type is Not The Gutenberg Bible: Jikji, a Collection of Korean Buddhist Teachings, Predated It By 78 Years and It’s Now Digitized Online

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A Beatboxing Buddhist Monk Creates Music for Meditation

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Discover Khipu, the Ancient Incan Record & Writing System Made Entirely of Knots

Khipus, the portable information archives created by the Inca, may stir up memories of 1970s macrame with their long strands of intricately knotted, earth-toned fibers, but their function more closely resembled that of a densely plotted computerized spreadsheet.

As Cecilia Pardo-Grau, lead curator of the British Museum’s current exhibition Peru: a journey in time explains in the above Curators Corner episode, khipus were used to keep track of everything from inventories and census to historical narratives, using a system that assigned meaning to the type and position of knot, spaces between knots, cord length, fiber color, etc.


Much of the information preserved within khipus has yet to be deciphered by modern scholars, though the Open Khipu Repository — computational anthropologist Jon Clindaniel‘s open-source database — makes it possible to compare the patterns of hundreds of khipus residing in museum and university collections.

Even in the Incan Empire, few were equipped to make sense of a khipu. This task fell to quipucamayocs, high born administrative officials trained since childhood in the creation and interpretation of these organic spreadsheets.

Fleet messengers known as chaskis transported khipus on foot between administrative centers, creating an information superhighway that predates the Internet by some five centuries. Khipus’ sturdy organic cotton or native camelid fibers were well suited to withstanding both the rigors of time and the road.

A 500-year-old composite khipu that found its way to British Museum organics conservator Nicole Rode prior to the exhibition was intact, but severely tangled, with a brittleness that betrayed its age. Below, she describes falling under the khipu’s spell, during the painstaking process of restoring it to a condition whereby researchers could attempt to glean some of its secrets.

Visit Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino’s website to learn more about khipu in a series of fascinating short articles that accompanied their groundbreaking 2003 exhibit QUIPU: counting with knots in the Inka Empire.

via Aeon.

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Stephen Fry on the Power of Words in Nazi Germany: How Dehumanizing Language Laid the Foundation for Genocide

In a recent series of Tweets and a follow-up interview with MEL magazine, legendary alt-rock producer and musician Steve Albini took responsibility for what he saw as his part in creating “edgelord” culture — the jokey, meme-worthy use of racist, misogynist and homophobic slurs that became so normalized it invaded the halls of Congress. “It was genuinely shocking when I realized that there were people in the music underground who weren’t playing when they were using language like that,” he says. “I wish that I knew how serious a threat fascism was in this country…. There was a joke made about the Illinois Nazis in The Blues Brothers. That’s how we all perceived them — as this insignificant, unimportant little joke. I wish that I knew then that authoritarianism in general and fascism specifically were going to become commonplace as an ideology.”

Perhaps, as Stephen Fry explains in the video clip above from his BBC documentary series Planet Word, we might better understand how casual dehumanization leads to fascism and genocide if we see how language has worked in history. The Holocaust, the most prominent but by no means only example of mass murder, could never have happened without the willing participation of what Daniel Goldhagen called “ordinary Germans” in his book Hitler’s Willing Executioners. Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men, about the Final Solution in Poland, makes the point Fry makes above. Cultural factors played their part, but there was nothing innately Teutonic (or “Aryan”) about genocide. “We can all be grown up enough to know that it was humanity doing something to other parts of humanity,” says Fry. We’ve seen examples in our lifetimes in Rwanda, Myanmar, and maybe wherever we live — ordinary humans talked into doing terrible things to other people.

But no matter how often we encounter genocidal movements, it seems like “a massively difficult thing to get your head around,” says Fry: “how ordinary people (and Germans are ordinary people just like us)” could be made to commit atrocities. In the U.S., we have our own version of this — the history of lynching and its attendant industry of postcards and even more grisly memorabilia, like the trophies serial killers collect. “In each one of these genocidal moments… each example was preceded by language being used again and again and again to dehumanize the person that had to be killed in the eyes of their enemies,” says Fry. He briefly elaborates on the varieties of dehumanizing anti-Semitic slurs that became common in the 1930s, referring to Jewish people, for example, as vermin, apes, untermenschen, viruses, “anything but a human being.”

“If you start to characterize [someone this way], week after week after week after week,” says Fry, citing the constant radio broadcasts against the Tutsis in the Rwandan genocide, “you start to think of someone who is slightly sullen and disagreeable and you don’t like very much anyway, and you’re constantly getting the idea that they’re not actually human. Then it seems it becomes possible to do things to them we would call completely unhuman, and inhuman, and lacking humanity.” While it’s absolutely true, he says, that language “guarantees our freedom” through the “free exchange of ideas,” it can really only do that when language users respect others’ rights. When, however, we begin to see “special terms of insult for special kinds of people, then we can see very clearly, and history demonstrates it time and time again, that’s when ordinary people are able to kill.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Hear the Brazilian Metal Band Singing in–and Trying to Save–Their Native Language of Tupi-Guarani

The indigenous languages spoken in Brazil number around 170, a testament to the survival of tribal communities nearly wiped out by colonialism and commerce. Yet 40 of those languages have fewer than 100 speakers, and many more are declining rapidly. For linguists, “it’s a fight against time,” Luisi Destri writes at Pesquisa. Researchers estimate most, if not all, of these languages could disappear within 50 to 100 years, and some believe 30 percent might fade in the next 15 years.

“Knowledge is passed down from generation to generation,” says Luciano Storto, professor of linguistics at the University of São Paulo, “mainly through narratives told by the oldest and most experienced to the community’s youngest members.” What happens when those younger generations are uprooted and leave home. When their elders die without passing on their knowledge? (What happens to language in general as the linguistic gene pool shrinks?) These questions weighed on Zhândio Aquino in 2004 when he founded Brazilian metal band Arandu Arakuaa.


Aquino has a degree in pedagogy and his band has been invited to play in schools and lecture at universities. But they do not use indigenous instrumentation and sing in an indigenous Tupi-Guarani language as a purely academic exercise. Raised in the northern state of Tocantins and descended from a Guarani-speaking tribe, the guitarist and singer says, “I [had] very close contact with indigenous culture because of my grandmother and classmates. When I [began] playing in bands, it just felt natural to put my background on it.”

When he moved to Brasilia in 2004, Aquino searched for like-minded musicians and formed what may be the country’s first folk metal band. While folk metal as a category is hardly new (metal has always incorporated elements of folk music, from its earliest incarnations in Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin to the bleakest of Scandinavian black metal bands), most folk metal has been European (and Pagan or Viking or Pirate), and some of it has allied, sadly, with the same fascist movements that threaten indigenous existence.

While Arandu Arakuaa — the name translates to “cosmos knowledge” — may be one of the first folk metal bands in Brazil, it isn’t the only one. Along with bands like Aclla, Armahda, and Tamuya Thrash Tribe, the band is part of a movement called the Levante do Metal Nativo, or Native Metal Uprising, a collection of musicians using native instruments, themes, and languages — or all three in the case of Arandu Arakuaa, who incorporate maracas and the guitar-like viola caipira.

How do acoustic indigenous folk and the electric crunch and growl of metal come together? Hear for yourself in the videos here. Aquino knows Arandu Arakuaa doesn’t win everyone over at first. “People are not indifferent to our music,” he says. “They will love it or hate it. Most people think it’s strange at first and then we have to prove that we are good.”

While intelligible lyrics are hardly necessary in metal, the language barrier may turn some listeners away. But subtitled videos help. Arandu Arakuaa might seem to have a different focus than most metal bands, but in songs like “Red People,” we hear the rage and the resistance to war and depredation that bands like Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, and Metallica — all influences on the Brazilian band –have channeled in their music:

Some of us ran away, we hide in the forest
We still fight
The red people still resisting, while there is land, while there is forest
Everything became different
Our spirits are called demons
Each day less trees, less animals, less histories, less songs…

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

They Might Be Giants’ John Linnell Releases an EP of Songs in Latin

Those who know Latin know Wheelock’s Latin as the time-honored resource for learning the language of the Caesars. They also know how many years of intensive study and practice goes into translating the textbook’s hefty classical passages. Reading Latin is one thing — writing in the language is quite another: something very few people do for any reason, other than a perverse kind of enjoyment that is most definitely a niche affair.

What about songwriting in Latin? Professor Wheelock doesn’t offer any specific instructions for composing pop music in the dead language, though classics teacher and former British Labour Party MP Eddie O’Hara once translated Beatles songs (see “O Teneum Manum” and “Dei Duri Nox” here). For a more casual approach, one could turn to a resource more in line with contemporary teaching methods — Duolingo, where you can “learn a language for free. Forever.”


For some reason, John Linnell, one of the two Johns in 90s alt-rock band They Might Be Giants, decided on the Duolingo approach while hunkered down at home during the pandemic, and — because he’s a songwriter, and a right good one, at that — he decided to compose some catchy pop songs in Latin. Catchy, he could do (I’m still singing the chorus of “Birdhouse in Your Soul” thirty-two years later.) But the Latin, not so much.

After taking a short course, Linnell writes, “I figured I could write a few songs… I was soon disabused of the notion. I can barely string two words together in Latin, and to borrow from Mark Twain, I would rather decline two drinks than one Latin noun.” A career Latinist and childhood friend Linnell calls “Schoolmaster Smith” came to his aid, translating his English lyrics into Latin for him. “All credit for any success in this project is due to him,” he avers, “and any mistakes and failures are entirely mine.”

Trapped at home with his son Henry, who played guitar on the 4-track EP, Linnell recorded and released Roman Songs (along with a t-shirt!). Why? “All I can tell you,” he shrugs, “is that I’m deeply jealous of people who are fluent in a second language and can apply that skill to their creative work in a way that doesn’t seem like cultural appropriation of the most offensive and embarrassing kind.”

No ancient Romans around to accuse Linnell of stealing their culture, but they’d be hard pressed to recognize if they were. “HAEC QVOQVE EST RES” (“This is Also the Case”) and “TECVM CIRCVMAMBVLARE NOLO” (“I Don’t Want to Walk Around with You”) sound like classic They Might Be Giants tunes. (The other John, Mr. Flansburgh, “strongly encouraged this project and art directed the package,” Linnell writes.)

In fact, they sound so much like They Might Be Giants songs, I almost wish they were in English, but as a lover of Latin I have to admit, it’s fun to learn these phrases and melodies and walk around singing them like a Roman pop star. Linnell may be a little in the dark about his motivations, but I say, good on him: if there’s any way to make Latin live again, this may be it. Now we just need someone talented and really bored to step up and deliver classical raps to keep momentum going…. Pick up Linnell’s Roman Songs EP here.

via Boing Boing

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Who Decides What Words Get Into the Dictionary?

DICTIONARY, n. A malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic. — Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

Once upon a time, we were made to believe that words could never acquire sticks and stones’ capacity to wound.

Talk about a maxim no longer worth the paper it was printed on!

Language is organic. Definitions, usage, and our response to particular words evolve over time.

Lexicographer Ilan Stavans’ TED-Ed lesson, Who Decides What’s in the Dictionary?, rolls the clock back to 1604, when schoolmaster Robert Cawdrey assembled the first English language dictionary “for the benefit of Ladies, Gentlewomen, and other unskilled folk.”


Other English dictionaries soon followed, expanding on the 2,543 words Cawdrey had seen fit to include. His fellow authors shared Cawdrey’s prescriptive goal of educating the rabble, to keep them from butchering the high-minded tongue the self-appointed guardian considered it his duty to protect.

Wordsmith Samuel Johnson, the primary author of 1775’s massive A Dictionary of the English Language, described his mission as one in which “the pronunciation of our language may be fixed, and its attainment facilitated; by which its purity may be preserved, its use ascertained, and its duration lengthened.”

Lest we think Johnson overly impressed with the importance of his lofty mission, he submitted the following gently self-mocking definition of Lexicographer:

A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.

150 years later, Ambrose Bierce offered an opposing view in his delightfully wicked dictionary:

LEXICOGRAPHER, n. A pestilent fellow who, under the pretense of recording some particular stage in the development of a language, does what he can to arrest its growth, stiffen its flexibility and mechanize its methods.

Stavans points to brothers George and Charles Merriam’s acquisition of the rights to Noah Webster’s An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828) as a moment when our concept of what a dictionary should be began to shift.

Webster, working by himself, set out to collect and document English as it was used on these shores.

The Merriams engaged a group of language experts to curate subsequent editions, striking a blow for the idiom by including slang and regional variants.

A good start, though they excluded anything they found unfit for the general consumption at the time, including expressions born in the Black community.

Their editorializing was of a piece with prevailing views — see “wife.”

But humans, like language, evolve.

These days, lexicographers monitor the Internet for new words to be considered for upcoming editions, including profanity and racial slurs.

If a word’s use is judged to be widespread, sustained and meaningful, in it goes… even though some might find it objectionable, or even, yes, hurtful.

Stavans wraps his lesson up by drawing our attention to Merriam-Webster’s tradition of anointing one entry to Word of the Year, drawn from statistical analysis of the words people look up in extremely high numbers.

“They” got the nod in 2019, a testament to how deeply non-binary gender expression has permeated the collective consciousness and national conversation.

The runner up?

Impeach.

Care to guess which word 2020 placed in the dictionary’s path?

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Story of Elizebeth Friedman, the Pioneering Cryptologist Who Thwarted the Nazis & Got Burned by J. Edgar Hoover

Elizebeth S. Friedman: Suburban Mom or Ninja Nazi Hunter?

Both, though in her lifetime, the press was far more inclined to fixate on her ladylike aspect and homemaking duties than her career as a self-taught cryptoanalyst, with headlines such as “Pretty Woman Who Protects United States” and “Solved By Woman.”

The novelty of her gender led to a brief stint as America’s most recognizable codebreaker, more famous even than her fellow cryptologist, husband William Friedman, who was instrumental in the founding of the National Security Agency during the Cold War.

Renowned though she was, the highly classified nature of her work exposed her to a security threat in the person of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.

Hoover credited the FBI, and by extension, himself, for deciphering some 50 Nazi radio circuits’ codes, at least two of them protected with Enigma machines.

He also rushed to raid South American sources in his zeal to make an impression and advance his career, scuppering Friedman’s mission by causing Berlin to put a stop to all transmissions to that area.

Too bad no one asked him to demonstrate the methods he’d used to crack these impossible nuts.

The German agents used the same codes and radio techniques as the Consolidated Exporters Corporation, a mob-backed rum-running operation whose codes and ciphers Elizebeth had translated as chief cryptologist for the U.S. Treasury Department during Prohibition.

As an expert witness in the criminal trial of international rumrunner Bert Morrison and his associates, she modestly asserted that it was “really quite simple to decode their messages if you know what to look for,” but the sample decryption she provided the jury made it plain that her work required tremendous skill. The Mob Museum’s Jeff Burbank sets the scene:

She read a sample message, referring to a brand of whiskey: “Out of Old Colonel in Pints.” She showed how the three “o” and “l” letters in “Colonel” had identical cipher code letters. From the cipher’s letters for “Colonel” she could figure out the letter the racketeers chose for “e,” the most frequently occurring letter in English, based on other brand names of liquor they mentioned in other messages. The “o” and “l” letters in “alcohol,” she said, had the same cipher letters as “Colonel.” 

Cinchy, right?

Elizebeth’s biographer, Jason Fagone, notes that in discovering the identity, codename and ciphers used by German spy network Operation Bolívar‘s leader, Johannes Siegfried Becker, she succeeded where “every other law enforcement agency and intelligence agency failed. She did what the FBI could not do.”

Sexism and Hoover were not the only enemies.

William Friedman’s criticism of the NSA for classifying documents he thought should be a matter of public record led to a rift resulting in the confiscation of dozens of papers from the couple’s home that documented their work.

This, together with the 50-year “TOP SECRET ULTRA” classification of her WWII records, ensured that Elizebeth’s life would end beneath “a vast dome of silence.”

Recognition is mounting, however.

Nearly 20 years after her 1980 death, she was inducted into the National Security Agency’s Cryptologic Hall of Honor as “a pioneer in code breaking.”

A National Security Agency building now bears both Friedmans’ names.

The U.S. Coast Guard will soon be adding a Legend Class Cutter named the USCGC Friedman to their fleet.

In addition to Fagone’s biography, a picture book, Code Breaker, Spy Hunter: How Elizebeth Friedman Changed the Course of Two World Wars, was published earlier this year.

As far as we know, there are no picture books dedicated to the pioneering work of J. Edgar Hoover….

Elizebeth Friedman, via Wikimedia Commons

Watch The Codebreaker, PBS’s American Experience biography of Elizebeth Friedman here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her June 7 for a Necromancers of the Public Domain: The Periodical Cicada, a free virtual variety honoring the 17-Year Cicadas of Brood X. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

A Short Animation Explores the Nature of Creativity & Invention, with Characters That Look Like Andrei Tarkovsky & Sergei Eisenstein

A gentleman goes to the movies, only to find a marquee full of retreads, reboots, sequels, and prequels. He demands to know why no one makes original films anymore, a reasonable question people often ask. But it seems he has run directly into a graduate student in critical theory behind the glass. The ticket-seller rattles off a theory of unoriginality that is difficult to refute but also, it turns out, only a word-for-word recitation of the Wikipedia page on “Plagiarism.”

This is one of the ironies in “Allergy to Originality” every English teacher will appreciate. In the short, animated New York Times Op-Doc by Drew Christie, an official Sundance selection in 2014, “two men discuss whether anything is truly original — especially in movies and books,” notes the Times. The question leads us to consider what we might mean by originality when every work is built from pieces of others. “In creating this Op-Doc animation,” Christie writes, “I copied well-known images and photographs, retraced innumerable drawings, then photocopied them as a way to underscore the un-originality of the entire process.”


From William Burroughs’ cut-ups to Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author,” moderns have only been re-discovering what ancients accepted with a shrug — no one can take credit for a story, not even the author. Barthes argued that “literature is precisely the invention of this voice, to which we cannot assign a specific origin: literature is that neuter, that composite, that oblique into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes.”

In Christie’s short, the smartass theater employee continues quoting sources, now from the “Originality” Wikipedia, now from Mark Twain, who had many things to say about originality. Twain once wrote to Helen Keller, for example, outraged that she had been accused of plagiarism. He came to her defense with an earnest conviction: “The kernel, the soul—let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterance — is plagiarism.”

Postmodern sophistry from Mark Twain? Maybe. We haven’t had much opportunity to verbally spar in public like this lately, unmasked and in search of entertainment in a public square. If you find yourself exasperated with the streaming choices on offer, if the books you’re reading all start to feel too familiar, consider the infinite number of creative possibilities inherent in the art of quotation — and remember that we’re always repeating, replaying, and remixing what came before, whether or not we cite our sources.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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