Semiotics and the Breakthrough to History

13 March 2010


One of my sisters, recently returned from the Maldives, sent me a banknote from the Maldives, knowing that I enjoy such things. It is a very attractive design, with bright, unexpected colors and a layout sufficiently familiar to immediately recognize as a banknote, but also representing sufficient variations on the theme to be distinctive.

Currency is one expression among others of the identity of a nation-state — not a sufficient condition of statehood, and indeed not even a necessary condition of statehood. Call it an option of statehood, but usually an option exercised at the earliest possible opportunity. When former Yugoslavia broke apart the newly independent parts, fighting for their survival, wasted no time in creating their own currency. Croatia has particularly beautiful banknotes. Some of the Eurozone states were reluctant to give up their currency for the Euro because of the symbolic sacrifice in sovereignty involved.

Language is another key constituent of national identity, and when I looked at the banknote from the Maldives I noticed in addition to the Hindu-Arabic numerals and the English language “Ten Refiyaa” and “Maldives Money Authority” that there was an intriguing and utterly unfamiliar script on the note. I did a Google search on the Maldivian language and — Surprise! — there is a Wikipedia article on Maldivian and its unique script. (Actually, there were two articles, one on the Maldivian language, Dhivehi, and one on its written forms).

Lest I should suppose that the written form of Maldivian was a scholarly curiosity not in general use, my sister also sent me photographs of signs in both English and Dhivehi written in its distinctive script. It would appear that the spoken and written forms of Dhivehi in the Maldives are in general use.

In recent years there has been much talk about the loss of many of the world’s minor languages. Many languages in daily use up until recently, exposed to the pressures of routine international travel and commerce, are fast disappearing; languages, like species, are becoming extinct at a faster rate than previously. This loss is affecting both the spoken word and the written word, but there is an important difference between the two.

Detail from Maldivian banknote showing the Taana script for the Dhivehi language.

The world has a great many spoken languages. Many of those languages that are becoming extinct are tongues that have never been given a written form. In order to preserve them, after a fashion, some system of written signs must be contrived to capture them. Today, of course, we can tape record and videotape languages before the last speaker of a tongue dies, and thereby preserve an authentic record, although it is now a dead language in a nearly permanent sense of the term “dead language.”

The language and the script of the Maldivians, no less than their way of life, has been shaped by their environment.

When scholars do seek to formulate a written form of a heretofore unwritten language, they usually turn to a convenient set of symbols. This has happened before in history. When peoples have learned through idea diffusion of the possibility of written language, and desire to realize this possibility for their native tongue, they often borrow whatever system of signs they have also acquired through idea diffusion and put it to use, however different the origin of the script is from the origin of the language. We find this with the written forms of many Native American languages, which largely employ Roman letters.

The primary form of transit in the Maldives is seaplane.

Unique scripts are far more rare than spoken languages. Each unique script represents the breakthrough of a people to the idea of history, that is to say, a breakthrough to the idea of history as understood in classical humanism as the preservation of written records. Such a breakthrough to history represents the attainment of a particular level of self-consciousness of a people, and that level is historical consciousness. It represents the transition (or, at least, one point of transition) from natural history to something that can no longer be called natural history, whatever else we may call it.

Maldivian atolls from the air: this unique landscape has demanded a unique way of life, which entails a unique language and a unique script.

A unique script that emerges from the same context as the spoken language, as distinct from scripts borrowed through idea diffusion, is a product of the unique conditions of the landscape and how that landscape is reflected in the life of the people. Each such instance of a people with a unique way of life coming to consciousness of their historicity and of a means of establishing and preserving their historicity ought to be of the greatest interest to the student of human nature and human thought. We have something to learn from each and every transition from nature to history. This is essentially a linguistic formulation of the thesis of which I attempted an exposition in Life and Landscape.

When I began writing the above I didn’t know what exactly I was going to say, and I didn’t expect an exposition of deconstructivism to emerge, but it seems that I have reproduced an implicit critique of phonologism (or, if you prefer, logocentrism) by questioning the superiority of the spoken to the written word, and, in fact, producing a rationale for the uniqueness of the “dead letter” of written language over the “living spirit” of spoken language. As I did not expect this, it is something I will have to think about. The idea strikes me as having some merit, although this kind of spontaneous formulation is highly imperfect. The careful reader, then, must read me sympathetically or dismiss the whole entire.

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9 Responses to “Semiotics and the Breakthrough to History”

  1. MrMv said

    Good article, just like to point out that the Maldives does have a unique culture and is trying to save its heritage. The primary form of transportation here is Dhoni, a wooden mechanized boat.
    Hope you’ll visit here and see the islands and places of capital city (Male’) as well.

    ps: If u look at the Xp language bar, you’ll see that a Dhivehi font is available, though the font type is horrible

  2. andy said

    Sisters eh? sometimes a good thing to have…sometimes mine’s a ignorant selfish pain in the ass…I also carry that gene too…I think it’s quite common…I think everybody has it.. so that can lead to conflict…

    Anywho, I see the potential of implementing a single global currency take power and security away from some elements of global power schematic and increase power and security for others, quashing certain industries and favouring others, thereby permanently changing said power schematic and theoretically set the optimal conditions for humanity a century from now…

  3. andy said

    Theoretically, one could dearm and disfund terrorists, shut down the arms industry, take control of the oil industry, shut down criminal gangs, prevent speculation from destabilizing food security, increase money supply, begin a rapid transition to a low carbon economy, things like that…

  4. andy said

    “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity!”

  5. Andy said

    People do evil things to each other for the sake of money, intentionally and unintentionally. I try not to think about it too much because it’s all too depressing and there’s nothing I can do about it anyway, but i do have a few thoughts and I’ll get back to you later. What the hell do i know about it anyway? I only think about things in the simplest terms. And what do you do with your thoughts on these things? Help some rich asshole get a leg up on another rich asshole? What good does that do for the average person who makes up the majority? IDK, not much I think…

    “The results are often heartbreaking.”…
    “And the Republicans in the House — well, they’re just nihilistic. I don’t know where the moral center of the universe is anymore.”

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