The Dictionary Code—Bryan Allen SpecGram Vol CLIX, No 4 Contents Draw Me a Linguist—Aster E. O’Gnosis and Margo Llicso

Mediated Modern Pinnacle Sherpa:
An emerging logographic writing system

Keith W. Slater
Iowa Linguists’ Workshop

In Slater (2006) and Slater (2010), I reported that Pinnacle Sherpa has split into two languages. Modern Pinnacle Sherpa (MPS) has massively innovated new, media-driven evidential categories, and as a result it is no longer spoken by older people, who gave it up after being laughed at when they could not master the new evidential distinctions. MPS is spoken, and written, only by the youngest generations, for whom it remains a living language. The oldest speakers, meanwhile, now use Classical Pinnacle Sherpa (CPS) among themselves as a secret language, and they are progressively undoing its historical changes, such that it is becoming older and indeed, approaching the status of a proto-language.

It turns out I was wrong. Partly.

Modern Pinnacle Sherpa is not used in all domains. Instead, it has become only a written language, and its written form has taken on a very interesting character, with respect to its modes of transmission and its graphemic properties.

Younger members of the Pinnacle Sherpa community spend a lot of time on the trails as trekking and mountaineering guides, separated from one another by great distances, with only intermittent mobile phone access for communication. Furthermore, when they are within range of mobile phone signals, these tend to be subject to terrain-induced fadeouts, such that voice contact cannot be sustained for long enough periods to fulfill the rigorous morphological demands of the MPS evidential system.

In this situation, it behooves the MPS user to resort to SMS services, and many have discovered that this method of communication is extremely efficient. So much so that it has become the preferred means of interaction among MPS users. In fact, MPS users now normally resort to texting one another, even when they are face to face. The language is rarely, if ever, spoken.

This might seem a bit unlikely, but a reminder of the prominent features of SMS may reduce the linguist’s initial feeling of incredulity. Essentially, the key factor is emoticons and other forms of rampant abbreviation and leetspeak, which enable MPS users to quickly and efficiently communicate both lexical and (more pressingly) evidential semantic categories.

So far so good, and in truth there might be nothing of great theoretical interest about a community whose primary modality for language use is technologically mediated. The same may be true of countless social networks of teenagers, the world over. Nonetheless, in view of the pervasiveness, which indeed approaches exclusivity, of this modality in the contemporary use of Modern Pinnacle Sherpa, we might be justified in referring to the language as “Mediated Modern Pinnacle Sherpa.” Thus, I will hereafter use the abbreviation MMPS.

But there is a further development in MMPS which is worthy of extensive study, and I have given it just that, investing literally hundreds of hours in Skype conversations, SMS contacts, e-mail, and other forms of mediated interaction, as has been my successful custom in conducting Pinnacle Sherpa fieldwork.

The fascinating development in MMPS is that, due to the pervasiveness of emoticons, and the need to employ legions of newly-derived icons of similar character to represent the massively complex evidential system, MMPS started a couple of years ago on a path of changing its entire graphemic representation system into a logographic one. This change, once necessity had driven it to comprehensively represent the hundreds of evidential category particles, developed such momentum that thereafter, in a very short time, it has become pervasive throughout the entire writing system. At present, fully 85% of the lexical and grammatical resources of MMPS are represented with logographs; fragmentary remnants deriving from Latin or Devanāgarī persist only in a few rare circumstancestoo rare, in fact, to warrant individual mention in so brief an article as this.

The implications of this development are far-reaching. To my knowledge, no new logographic writing system has come into general use by any human language community in the last few centuries. Indeed, most analysts believe that no new logographic systems will ever emerge, since the near-universal access to literacy ushered in by the twin inventions of the printing press and the microprocessor has virtually guaranteed that only highly accessible and rapidly learnable writing systems can receive widespread acceptance, apart from those already possessing a high degree of approval for historical reasons.

Ironically, though, it is precisely the popularization of technologythe fruit of the microprocessorwhich enables this new logographic system to emerge: SMS technology, critically depending on keyboard shortcuts and (that oft-cursed human propensity) laziness, clearly makes it more likely, rather than less likely, that new human writing systems will gravitate towards logographicity, in preference over the inefficiency and health risks (e.g., carpal tunnel syndrome) which inhere in alphabetic systems.

In this most modern of orthographic trends, then, it appears that Mediated Modern Pinnacle Sherpa is in the vanguard, leading the way towards the logographic future of all human writing.

The Dictionary CodeBryan Allen
Draw Me a LinguistAster E. O’Gnosis and Margo Llicso
SpecGram Vol CLIX, No 4 Contents