Reading about Polyglots and Continuing with Sumerian

The other day, I took the opportunity to read Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners”". It was an interesting read, not least because one of the featured “characters” is Alexander Argulles, a one-time regular on the how-to-learn-any-language forum. (One other bit from an anonymous survey was plainly from the poster known as Iverson.) Argulles is an interesting case because he has made it his life’s passion to learn enough of enough languages to survey the world’s great literature. If you haven’t, this is well worth the read for getting a sense of how polyglottism works, why people bother and where the lines get blurred between fluency and functionality and between achievement and bluster. By the end, you should have a healthy skepticism for anybody who boasts of speaking 50 languages fluently, but combined with a healthy respect for those folks who back away from such claims yet somehow seem to get things done in 15 or 20 languages, or even 5 or 6.

One of the nice things about the Babel book is it provides good explanations of Argulles two big techniques, shadowing and scriptorium, and why they seem to work. This has sent me back to copying out Sumerian texts as I go along, using a simplified and regularized version of the symbols. It’s amazing how much it helps: Slowing yourself down enough to capture the characters halfway accurately and staying at it till you are writing consistently turns symbols that you skim and recognize into symbols that you know. (I have found the same thing with respect to copying out passages in Sanskrit.) If you are serious about learning to read a new script, you really should learn to write in it too, so that you get a feel for how the letters go together and what distinguishes one from another. If you’re really serious, you should look for scriptorium on the how-to-learn-any-language.com forum and follow the directions.

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About G Barto

I've been learning languages more than 20 years and teaching them for at least 15. Here I share the joys and frustrations of teaching yourself new languages.
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5 Responses to Reading about Polyglots and Continuing with Sumerian

  1. jabnaki says:

    So you did make easy versions of Sumerian letters?

    • G Barto says:

      The characters I use are generally as complex as the old Sumerian characters (but simpler than the Neo-Assyrian standards), but because they are patterned after brick-stamp characters, you avoid the hassle of drawing the myriad wedge markings that give the cuneiform its name. You can see an example here. It’s almost identical to one of the exercises in Hayes.

  2. jabnaki says:

    It is very decorative. You could practice for making calligraphy in it.

  3. jabnaki says:

    Somebody would like to do a Sumerian revival. You can have a look by using the following link.
    http://aveneca.com/cbb/viewtopic.php?f=8&t=2450

    • G Barto says:

      Interesting page. I like that they’re hitting the difficulty of silent final consonants early. One of the most irritating parts of working with Sumerian is the proliferation of transliterations resultant from bickering over whether a word had two pronunciations or whether it’s just that the final consonant dropped in some environments. For actual, ancient Sumerian, attempting to figure out where final consonants go away could give us some real insight into morpheme boundaries and a whole lot more, but not if you assume, eg, that kalag means strength when the word is alone, but if you mark the possessive with ga(k), the g drops at the transcription stage as opposed to eliding reduplicated gs to a single g at the transliteration stage.

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