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Hansell discusses writing ‘universals’ in Linguistics dept. talk

<tch out languages of the world, here comes the Carleton Linguistics Department.

On April 15, Mark Hansell, Carleton College’s Professor of Chinese and Director of East Asian Studies, presented “Writing as Tool Use: Are There ‘Practical Universals’ of Writing?” as part of this spring’s Carleton Linguistics Colloquium Series. The seats in Goodsell were filled with more than twenty eager audience members.

Professor Hansell’s talk centered around a comparison between written and spoken language. While the field of linguistics explores the universals of human language, he said, spoken, rather than written, communication is often the focus.
Illustrating how writing is acquired in English, Hansell said, “they give you the basic design of the tool, and once they hook you in, they tell you the exceptions to the rule, and you learn the adaptations to make the writing system work.” Given Hansell’s example of the English phoneme /k/, which is spelled four different ways in “cat,” “kill,” “brick,” and “chemistry,” the tool of writing, which is affected by borrowing from other languages and change over time, appears to be an impressive feat of acquisition.

Hansell illuminated the commonalities in the way that the tool of writing is adapted across the world and across time, seeking unity in data with surface-level disparities. Drawing parallels to the evolution of other tools—from frisbees to musical instruments—Hansell emphasized the need to look at writing as a tool that adapts over time.

Tools mediate between two interfaces, Hansell noted, like how an axe, developed to fulfill its purpose, mediates between the human and the tree. In much the same way, the tool of writing connects two cognitive systems: “one is the visual, one is the linguistic.”

Similar to how tools are refined to suit our needs, writing adapts to accommodate spoken language. However, as writing systems are adapted to spoken languages, “sometimes scripts get applied . . . [they] don’t fit the linguistic structure, but we use them anyway.” Because a language uses writing to convey the spoken word, the writing system “needs to be able to write every word.”

As an expert in writing systems and Asian languages, Hansell concluded with an analysis of Japanese kanji versus the writing system of other languages, including English and Italian, saying these languages share striking similarities in the adaptations of writing. Japanese kanji, originally borrowed from the Chinese writing system, has single characters that bear both a Kun pronunciation corresponding to the spoken Japanese and an On pronunciation approximating the Chinese pronunciation.

Hansell’s talk appealed to a variety of interests, particularly to linguists at Carleton. “As someone planning to travel to Japan with the Linguistics department next year, I really enjoyed hearing Professor Hansell talk about the Japanese writing system and how it related to writing systems in general,” said Linguistics major Andrew Peters ‘13.

The second Colloquium speaker this term is Dr. Hooi Ling Soh from the University of Minnesota, who will speak on Friday, May 6, at 4 pm.

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