Would a universal language be symbolic?

There have been a few proposals for symbolic universal language, most of them taking their inspiration from Chinese ideographic systems.

  • Pasigraphy was at the start of the universal language movement: they were akin to universal thesauruses in symbolic form. Rather naive in retrospect.
  • Blissymbols was probably the most thorough recent effort, and it has found some unexpected usage since for teaching communication to language-disabled children.
  • iConji seems to be some sort of mix of Emoji and dingbats.
  • And of course there’s Emoji themselves, which are increasingly being used in communication, though of either a more rebus-like or a less syntactic nature.

There are pros and cons to symbols as a universal language. Some symbols are arguably more iconic or indexical as signs than words, and less arbitrary, so they should be easier to learn. In theory. In practice, the minute you move away from concrete nouns, the signs symbolic languages use look pretty arbitrary; and even if they are conceived of as indexical, the metaphors may not be all that obvious. I’m not convinced the gains in iconicity would really be worth it.

Why does the Australian traditional music include the Jew’s harp?

The Jew’s harp is very widely used; in fact, according to History of the Jew’s Harp, the two continents where it was not indigenous were Africa and Australia. There is a long history of the Jew’s harp being used in the British Isles (The Jews-Harp in Britain and Ireland (SOAS Musicology Series): Michael Wright: 9781472414137: Amazon.com: Books); and inasmuch as Australian folk music is based on Anglo–Celtic music, that’s enough to explain its presence there.

Why does Quora’s usability keep getting worse?

A question first posed 5 years ago.

A Quora UX philosophy that does not prioritise usability. What else can be said? UX is autonomous and reports directly to the CEO; it’s not like the usability conundrums of Quora are accidental, or can be blamed on the mice. Whatever is happening, it’s on purpose.

Mills Baker’s answer to Why should designers work at Quora? is as clear a statement of what the Quora UX philosophy as I’ve ever seen, and… I’m still having a lot of trouble understanding how it motivates what we’ve been seeing here, and how it works against usability.

What’s the most unforgettable food that you have eaten in a foreign country?

I’ve had the opportunity to travel a bit in my time; and because Australians are food snobs, I’ve used the opportunity to sample what the locals eat.

I’ll put down two memorable meals.

The first was in Amsterdam. On my last day there, I opened up my Lonely Planet guide book, flicked past the hoity-toity restaurant recommendations and Argentinian steakhouses and the Indonesian Fusion, went down to the Hotel Amsterdam De Roode Leeuw, and ordered myself some Stamppot.



Listen closely.

Do you hear a faint popping sound?

That’s the sound of a whole bunch of Dutch minds being blown.

The meal was memorable, because my Dutch waiter at the Red Lion Hotel had the selfsame reaction. He just could not even about the fact that an obvious tourist was chowing down with some Dutch comfort food. The kind of Dutch comfort food, he told me, you go skating across frozen lakes with.

Oh, what did it taste like? Stodgy. Filling. Reassuring. The kind of Dutch comfort food you go skating across frozen lakes with.

(This was my account at the time: Fine Dining In Amsterdam)

The second memorable meal was in Kadıköy, a hip suburb of Istanbul, where my wife’s cousin lives. We tried to pay her a visit one evening while we were in Istanbul for our honeymoon.

Getting the brand new Marmaray metro under the Bosphorus, from Sultanahmet to Üsküdar, was a seven-minute breeze, even if the subway was congested. The next three hours, not so much: waiting half an hour to get a cab, discovering that no cab drivers in Turkey speak English, being stuck in traffic for an hour, being dumped at the start of Kadıköy ’cause “just walk down a bit, you can’t miss it”, missing it, finding that none of the hip young things lounging around Kadıköy cafés speak English either, realising we had the wrong number for Tamar’s cousin, finding an Internet café so we could Facebook a red alert to Telma, having a generous lounger walk us for another half hour in the dark to the address (without any English)…

Oh, distance of Üsküdar to Kadıköy? 11 km.

It was way past 9 by the time we got to Telma’s. Telma, her husband, her newborn, all had grand plans on entertaining us, and sadly, we’d plain gotten there too late. They had to settle for the local kebab joint: KASSAB.

I asseverate to you, by all that is pure and righteous on this good Earth.

That was the best meat I have had the privilege of eating in all my days in this Vale of Tears.

(The Wagyu steak I had on the weekend comes close, but the Wagyu steak just had divine texture, like an oyster that kept on looping. This meat had spice and punch and character.)

Kaleidoscope yet good honest flavours—familiar from Greece, but with a bunch of twists I hadn’t expected; knock-out firewater; newly met family; casual friendly owners; neighbourly chow-down. It doesn’t get better. It truly doesn’t.

What would happen if comments feature in Quora was removed and all existing comments simply vanished into thin air?

So what would happen if hypothetically an announcement came out that started like this?


Rory Devin

Here at Quora, our mission is to share and grow the world’s knowledge. Today, we’re excited to announce a new enhancement to your reading experience.

Seven years ago we introduced Comments (Quora feature) in beta, to explore new ways for readers to provide feedback to writers. We learned a lot from this beta, and are excited by the content and ways that comments were used.

At Quora, we’ve been excited to rethink the comment experience for a few reasons. Comments are a great resource, but they can become a vector for debate and abuse. If you’ve been on other websites, comments sections can sometimes become a pretty toxic place. It’s important for us to avoid that outcome as the community continues to grow rapidly, and we’re excited to be taking proactive measures to make sure Quora stays a safe and civil place.

In fact, I’ve discussed this question with others, and I’m still looking forward to their answers as to how this would change the content of answers themselves. I’ll limit myself to the obvious social consequences of such a move.

  • There would likely be an exodus of the more socialising subgroups of Quora users. (The Cats and many Dolphins, in my taxonomy: Quora Compass by Nick Nicholas on The Insurgency.) Teen Quoran numbers in particular would nosedive. Writing answers about being locked in a room with a bunch of unanswerable questions just wouldn’t have the same appeal.
    • It is not a value judgement to say that that subgroup of users is not the strategic focus of the company.
  • A small number of Quora users (all Dogs in my taxonomy) would feel vindicated by the decision, would defend it to the hilt, and would be abominably smug about it.
  • A number of users (Bees, some Dolphins, fewer Dogs) would be troubled by the decision, would point out why it is a bad idea, and would protest it. Those protests would take place both on Quora, and on the Facebook groups. A response from Quora itself would be extremely unlikely on any forum.
  • There would be less for moderation to do, whether they are robots, hypothetical contractors, or employees. Nowhere near 0, but certainly less.
  • The passive users, who are Quora’s major source of eyeballs, would be undiminished. They don’t come to Quora for the comments.
  • Some expert users would be troubled enough to leave. I think many people would be surprised how low that number would be.
    • I hereby undertake that I would be one of those users.
    • Any such exodus would not impact Quora’s bottom line, even if they all did delete their content and posted it elsewhere (which is the only way Quora’s bottom line could be impacted.) As I myself believe Quora’s approach to user management has demonstrated, writers are fungible.
  • Most expert users would stay, and adjust. As I said, the question of how the content would adjust is a fascinating one, that I’d like others to address.

What is the last letter in the Coptic alphabet?

On seeing this question, I thought, “Huh? Why is this not a question for Wikipedia?”

And then I looked at Wikipedia—English and German and French; and I realised that it’s not as trivial a question as you might think.

The last three letters of the Coptic alphabet listed on Wikipedia (all three languages) are Ϭ, Ϯ, Ⳁ.

The French and English article on Wikipedia starts with this image:

In this image, that last Ⳁ is missing.

The third last letter, tshēma Ϭ, is a straightforward letter, derived from Demotic Egyptian. It is transliterated as <q> or <tsh>, and pronounced as [kʲ] or [tʃ].

The second last letter, ti Ϯ, is also from Demotic. It is pronounced as [ti] in Sahidic, and [de] in Boharic.

Now, this will immediately throw most people. Coptic grammars calmly say that several letters are equivalents of two other letters: ⲑ is /th/, ⲝ is /ks/, and so forth. But /ti/ is different. If Coptic is an alphabet, then its letters are meant to be either consonants or vowels, but not both. [ti] is not something you find in an alphabet, it is something you find in a syllabary.

The Demotic script that the letter originates, though, was not an alphabet: it was an abjad (consonant-only) script, which meant that single letters often could end up standing for syllables. That ended up happening with ti. And all accounts of Coptic list ti as a normal letter. So a letter it is, even if it is not the kind of letter you expect in an alphabet.

The final letter, Ⳁ, does not have a name or a pronunciation. It is a numeral, with the value 900.

Coptic, like Greek, Hebrew, and (early) Cyrillic, used a different letter of the alphabet for each of 1–9, 10–90, and 100–900. That requires 27 letters. In the case of Greek, which had 24 letters, the numerals for 6, 90 and 900 were represented by archaic letters, that were not considered part of the alphabet normally: ϛ Ϟ Ϡ. Coptic had no shortage of letters, but it still was reluctant to assign numeric values to Demotic letters, as opposed to letters that came from Greek; so it added ⲋ for 6, reused the ϥ for 90 as the letter fai /f/, and came up with Ⳁ for 900.

Does Ⳁ actually count as a letter? The precedent of Greek says no. Alphabet copte — Wikipédia refers to it as a “abbreviating ligature”, which would say no. Coptic numerals only are in common use in the later Boiharic dialect; the earlier Sahidic dialect did not use them, so that is a vote against as well. And the two Sahidic grammars I’ve had a look at, Johanna Brankaer’s and Bentley Layton’s, do not give Ⳁ as a letter. Layton doesn’t even mention Ⳁ until his discussion of numerals.

Wikipedia and Unicode list Ⳁ as a letter of the Coptic alphabet, because they have to list it somewhere; but in the normal Coptic understanding of “alphabet”, Ⳁ isn’t part of it. The atypical ti Ϯ is it.

Was Homer being transcribed when written vowels were invented for the Greek alphabet?

Nestor’s Cup is one of the earliest inscriptions in Greek, and it’s got a metrical inscription that may allude to the Iliad:

So it’s feasible that Homer started being transcribed as soon as vowels were introduced—which pretty much was as soon as the alphabet was adopted in Greek. (We have no evidence of Greek using Phoenecian letters without vowels, and vowels were as much as anything a misconstrual of how Phoenician worked.)

The Iliad seems to have been written at roughly the time the alphabet was introduced, and writing is mentioned in passing in the Iliad: The “Fatal Letter” in the Iliad: Introduction of Written Language to the Greeks (Circa 750 BCE). But it’s likelier that Homer really was first written down when the Greeks said that Homer was first written down, two centuries later in Athens; oral transmission would have kept it around till then, and from what little we know, there was a lot of textual variation about, outside of the version that was written down.

If you already have an undergrad degree (not in linguistics), what is the best way to pursue a linguistics degree/graduate degree?

The way I did it, which may not work everywhere, is:

  • Take as many breadth subjects in linguistics as you can, while doing your degree in another faculty.
  • Demonstrate through charm and wit and intellect that you would be an asset to the linguistics department.
  • If at all possible, do a cross disciplinary postgraduate degree that somehow bridges the gap between the two faculties. In my case, it was a masters in cognitive science.
    • Of course, back in my day, interdisciplinary degrees were fashionable; not sure they are still.
    • Failing that, see if you can work out an accelerated or diploma course to bridge the gap.
    • The more brilliant you show yourself to be, and the more slack your University administration is, the less hoops you will have to jump through to bridge the gap.
      • Again: university administrations are not as slack as they used to be .
  • All this presupposes that money is no object. If you’re in the States, my best advice would be to get a membership to a university library… 😐

How would active Quorans feel if, out of the blue, Quora banished you permanently for no fault of yours? Would you ever come back with a new identity?

Interesting set of answers to date, which surface a bunch of different attitudes:

  • The Old Planter: “I’d get on the phone and ask what the hell are you doing to me.” It would not even occur to the peasantry to get on the phone. The peasantry are not convinced that moderators are human beings that breathe the same air they do. It helps, I presume, to have met Quora staff face to face.
  • The Loyalist: “Quora does not do bad things for no reason, and I trust I will be vindicated.” There’s a bunch of users who don’t have that level of trust. It helps, I presume, to have met Quora staff face to face.
  • The Wronged: “That’s all too likely, given what I’ve experienced here. I’d accept it, and I wouldn’t be that surprised.”
  • The Take-It-Or-Leave-It: “Meh, a distraction that’s had its time, there’s a world beyond. More fools they.”
  • The Content-Proud: “For God’s sake, at least let me back on so I can archive my writings.” (Good news: they do.)

Two consistent themes emerge though:

  • I would not come back under a new identity. In fact, I would not come back at all. (As an exception, Dan, I see, would ask for reinstatement after 6 months or a year. I wonder if anyone’s ever been unbanned after that long. And I wonder if anyone who has not met Quora staff face to face would expect as much.)
  • Quora will have violated an implicit contract with me, and would have lost my good will. (Assuming they had it.) Which is a large part of the reason why I wouldn’t come back.

I’ll note that there are people I know who have been banished, fairly or no, and who have come back under false identities. So the first theme is not universally held. I’d say that the second is universally held though: in the instances I know of in regard to returnees, they certainly don’t sing Quora’s praises behind its back.

(And no, I am not going to report them. As I’ve said already: Quora is entitled to demand my compliance to their regulations, but not to demand my enforcement of them on others.)

For my part?