I want to take the chance to reflect somewhat on how Roger Levine’s A Living Man From Africa (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011) intersects with other things I’ve done and am interested in. First, I want to elaborate a bit on the similarities and differences of Levine’s project from my work on John Wesley Gilbert. Second, I want to discuss my work with Women’s Refugee Care in light of Jan Tzatzoe’s life as an intermediary and interpreter. Finally, I want to think a bit more about Levine’s method — particularly his relationship to “theory” — and consider what I can learn from A Living Man From Africa. Continue reading
I begin by giving a short introduction to baybayin, followed by a brief history; both these sections mostly summarize previously published material. I then consider variation in baybayin before ending with contemporary concerns of identity and ideology, considering especially how baybayin is implicated in Filipino nationalism. Please feel free to browse to any of these sections — I hope my writing is useful to you!
Baybayin is a writing system native to the Philippines, attested from before Spanish colonization through to at least the eighteenth century.1 The word baybay means “to spell” in Tagalog, which was the language most frequently written with the baybayin script. Apart from Tagalog, baybayin (with some necessary changes) was used to write Ilocano (Iloko), Kapampangan, Pangasinan, Bisaya, and Bikol. The identification of baybayin with languages other than Tagalog is a contested subject, as I describe below. Continue reading
I want this post to be shorter than usual, since I’m mostly just interested in presenting two images I find fascinating. They are both related to the Turkish Language Reform. In 1929, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk decreed that Turkish would from then on be written in the Latin alphabet (as opposed to the Ottoman Arabic script used previously).1
This first image is of an Ottoman calendar published in Thessaloniki in 1911. It demonstrates a remarkable diversity of scripts and languages. These include Arabic and Turkish (in the Arabic script) using the Islamic calendar; Bulgarian (in Cyrillic); Greek (with the Julian calendar); French (with the Gregorian); Armenian; and Ladino (in the Hebrew script), with the Jewish calendar. Some discussion is available here. Isn’t this just incredible!
This second photo is of Atatürk supposedly teaching the Latin alphabet. The photo is clearly propagandistic, but still a fascinating historical document.
Update: a more recent, more detailed, and better-informed version of this project is available here.
In this post I focus on Baybayin, a writing system native to the Philippines. Baybayin is a Brahmic script used to write Tagalog through to the period of Spanish colonization.1 There are few academic studies of Baybayin.2 What we know about this script mostly comes from Spanish missionaries who learned, documented, and translated Baybayin texts in the 16th century. The earliest known book published in Tagalog is the Doctrina Cristiana from 1593, which includes both Latin and Baybayin transcriptions as well as a translation into Spanish. At this time, literacy in the Philippines was fairly widespread, though it seems literature remained primarily oral. The Boxer Codex of 1590 reported that native inhabitants “have neither books nor histories nor do they write anything of length but only letters and reminders to one another.”3 This claim may have been used to cover up mass destruction by Spanish priests of Baybayin writings. In 1921, Otley Beyer, an American scholar of the Philippines, wrote: Continue reading
I said, “Omeros,” and O was the conch-shell’s invocation, mer was both mother and sea in our Antillean patois, os, a grey bone, and the white surf as it crashes and spreads its sibilant collar on a lace shore. Omeros was the crunch of dry leaves, and the washes that echoed from a cave-mouth when the tide has ebbed.
(Omeros bk. 1 ch. 2 sec. 3)
Derek Walcott’s masterful Omeros is a palimpsest. As an epic poem, it is deeply indebted to Homer; as a portrait of St Lucia, it is bound to the daily rhythm of island life. It is this tension between rootedness in the Caribbean and participation in the “global republic” of English (to borrow from Paula Burnett) that Walcott explores in his imagination of a postcolonial world. Reading Omeros means inhabiting the contradictions inherent in the postcolonial condition. Walcott’s poetic work is an extraordinarily successful exploration of modern life, all accomplished in poignant and achingly beautiful lyric verse.
The poem is structured as an odyssey, shifting from the present-day Caribbean to modern-day Europe and seventeenth-century Africa before returning to Walcott’s home island. The narrative is divided into seven books that provide a structure for the 64 chapters, each of which comprises a handful of sections. Yet the plot, such as it is, can be roughly split in three. In the first part, Achille and Hector (two fishermen) are competing for the affections of Helen against the backdrop of modernizing St Lucia. The second part of Omeros shifts to a broader view of the world by considering Philoctete and Ma Kilman. Their connections with Africa are visceral, spiritual, and deeply allegorical; in the case of Philoctete’s wound, the legacy of slavery quite literally bleeds into the present. The narrator dwells both on the horrors of the Middle Passage and the contradictions of the contemporary metropole before returning to the St Lucian town of Gros-Ilet in the concluding section. To end, the narrator turns away from history to instead depict the tourists who flood St Lucia’s beaches today: “barefoot Americans strolling into the banks— / there was a plague of them now, worse than the insects / who, at least, were natives” (1.10.3). In this third and final section, Hector dies driving these same tourists from the airport to a hotel, while Achille remains afloat as a fisherman. Continue reading
I wanted to write about a fascinating object called the Nestorian Stele, a block of stone inscribed with Chinese and Syriac in 781 CE. The stele is entitled Memorial of the Propagation in China of the Luminous Religion from Daqin (大秦景教流行中國碑; pinyin: Dàqín Jǐngjiào liúxíng Zhōngguó bēi; the stele is commonly known simply as jingjiaobei). It describes the establishment of a Nestorian Christian church in China in the late antiquity, known as Beth Sinaye in Syriac and jingjiao in Chinese. The monument was erected in 781 by the Tang Dynasty Emperor Taizong to commemorate 150 years of Christianity in China, which had arrived with Syriac missionaries in 635 (for a concise yet thorough description see Lawton 2008). In 845 CE, the monument was buried during a period of religious suppression and was only rediscovered in 1625. From then on, there has been a steady but small stream of Western interest in the object; in 2008, a book by Michael Keevak was published entitled The Story of a Stele: China’s Nestorian Monument and its Reception in the West, 1625–1916. Continue reading