I recently finished The Language Lover’s Puzzle Book by Alex Bellos, a fascinating book that combines languages and puzzles, celebrating the diversity of the world’s languages through conundrums and brainteasers involving wordplay, logical deduction, and decipherment skills. It’s divided into ten chapters of ten questions each, with every chapter being based on a different theme such as language and technology, ancient codes, words for family and relatives, different alphabets, invented languages, etc.
Each chapter starts with some multiple-choice questions as a warm-up, then you are given just enough information to elucidate the puzzles (if you can’t solve them or want some help, explanations and answers are at the back of the book). While some are tougher than others, surprisingly I found that getting to grips with things such as Egyptian hieroglyphics and braille was easier than I would have expected. I also found interesting the background and context that Bellos provides in between puzzles. In fact, here are a few tidbits that I learned while
reading working my way through the book (if you’re thinking of buying it, don’t worry, none of this information gives the solutions!):
- In the late Middle Ages, Europe had three competing number notations: Roman numerals, “Arabic” numerals, and a secret system used by Cistercian monks. Arabic numerals came out on top because they included a symbol for zero, making arithmetic easier, however the description of these numerals as Arabic is misleading as the notation originated in India, around the 5th century AD
- Cistercian monks, who for a thousand years until 1975 were prohibited from verbal communication, developed and used their own sign language. Their word for England consists of three signs: drink+tea+land!
Signs from above
- Cuneiform was first used in ancient Babylonia, and gradually developed from a pictographic style 5000 years ago (think ancient emojis) to what is called “late Assyrian” circa 650 BC. The earliest major work in world literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh was written in cuneiform, and there are so many surviving tablets and fragments in cuneiform (about a million in total) that many are still awaiting their first read by Assyriologists
- While writing was invented independently in Sumer, China, Central America, (and maybe other places too), the alphabet was invented only once, by the Phoenicians, and all the other alphabets of the world are descended from it. The Phoenicians were merchant traders whose major export was a reddish-purple dye from the secretion of a sea snail, and their name comes from the Greek word for ‘purple’. Extracting this dye involved tens of thousands of snails and substantial labour, meaning only the rich could afford it, which is why purple became associated with royalty
Painting The Discovery of Purple by Hercules’s Dog by Theodoor van Thulden, c. 1636
- The Phoenician alphabet only contained consonants (22 of them), so the Ancient Greek alphabet is often considered the first ‘true’ alphabet, as both consonants and vowels were treated equally. Adapted by the Romans, the Latin alphabet (which we still use today) has become the most-used alphabet in the world.
- Celtic languages, which became extinct in mainland Europe by the 6th century AD but survived in the outskirts of the British Isles, have seen their spellings change to reflect pronunciation. (If the same were to happen in e.g. US English, Americans would write “goddit?” and “whaddever”!)
- The symbol for Bluetooth is a merger of two runes symbolising the initials of 10th century Danish King Harald Bluetooth. The name “Bluetooth” was proposed in 1997 by an Intel mobile computing engineer who was then reading a historical novel about Bluetooth, and whose success in connecting ancient Norse peoples was seen as an appropriate metaphor for connecting electronic devices
- Both Jacob Grimm and J.R.R. Tolkien started their careers as historical linguists rather than authors. In fact, Tolkien said the point of his fictional universes was to enhance his fictional languages, rather than vice versa
- In the 1830s a Frenchman invented a language called Solresol made up entirely of do, re, mi, fa, sol, la and si, which are the French words for the seven musical notes of the tonal scale
The seven conventional notes, colors, syllables, numerals, and glyphs used to convey solresol phonemes.
- The mother of telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell was deaf, and so his father devised a phonetic alphabet to help deaf people pronounce spoken language more accurately (although it never caught on)
- In the early 19th century a Cherokee silversmith called Sequoyah invented his own writing system, despite not being able to read. He saw European settlers communicate via the written page, and referred to their correspondence as “talking leaves”. His system had a unifying effect on the Cherokee tribe, and led to them becoming literate faster than their white neighbours. Sequoyah became world-famous, and an Austrian botanist paid him tribute by naming a genus of giant redwood trees after him: sequoias
Me in a sequoia forest in Northern California
- You’ve probably heard of the WWII Navajo code-talkers, but did you know that the Native American language Choctaw was used to encrypt messages during the First World War? (The reason Navajo was used is apparently because other Native American communities had been overrun with German linguistics students over the previous two decades)
- As there are no family surnames in Iceland, all lists of personal names (e.g. phone directory, author references in bibliographies, the national registry) are ordered alphabetically by first name
- About half of the world’s people have an Indo-European language as their native tongue; two-thirds of the 2.3 billion who speak English speak it as a second language
- The longest written work in world literature is the Sureq Galigo, an epic poem transcribed in Lontara, a hard-to-decipher Indonesian script originally written on palm leaves. Lontara takes its name from the type of tree that provides the leaves used
Sureq Galigo manuscript
- While there are 160 Aboriginal languages in Australia, only the 13 languages that are currently spoken by children have a chance of surviving to the end of this century. Aboriginal rules of social organisation are so complex that mathematicians, as well as linguists and anthropologists, study them
- Did you know that the world’s largest language family, in terms of the number of languages it contains, is Niger-Congo? It is made up of about 1,500 languages spoken across sub-Saharan Africa
- Portugal uses a labelling system code called ColorADD to help colour-blind people with everyday tasks. Developed by a Portuguese graphic designer, it uses six basic shapes in black and white to describe up to fifty colours
ColorADD code signs and colour combinations
- The inventor of the green and white “running man” exit sign, Japanese graphic designer Yukio Ota, is most proud of another invention, the Lovers’ Communication System or LoCoS, a pictorial language
The “running man” exit sign designed by Yukio Ota in 1979
- “Abkhaz” is the only word in English that begins in an ‘a’ and ends in a ‘z’ that is not a place name. However it is the name of a language that has 60 consonants and just two vowels: one of the highest consonant to vowels ratios in the world, if not the highest
- The Caucasus mountain range alone is home to about fifty native languages from seven different language families, and two alphabets that are used nowhere else in the world; Armenian and Georgian
- The candlefish (a type of fish common off the Pacific Northwest coast) gets its English name because, when dried, the fish is so oily it can be burned like a candle
- In most of the world’s languages, the terms for intercardinals (southeast, northeast, northwest, southwest) are combinations of the words for the cardinal points. However for a handful of languages such as Maltese, Estonian and Finnish, there is no etymological connection to the cardinals. As part of the Semitic language family, Maltese is the only Arabic language written in the Latin alphabet (and the only Arabic language that is an official language of the European Union)
Maltese compass rose
If you’d like to try your hand at some of the puzzles, a few are in this Guardian article.
Baldur, the Norse god of peace and light and spring. Deciphering Europe’s oldest runic alphabet is not as difficult as you might think. (Photograph: Ivy Close Images/Alamy)
By the way, if the writer’s surname seems familiar, it’s because I’ve previously blogged about two of his language and numbers books here, and also because he’s the son of well-known translator and academic David Bellos (whose language book Is that a Fish in Your Ear? I blogged about here).
Elsewhere on the blog: