The shape of alphabets and ideas

May 29, 2020

Today, my ears rested upon a piece of music. A song by Boucle Infinie entitled 雨, which, according to my nearest translation software, apparently means rain. As my ears bathed in the soundscape, my eyes were affixed at that symbol, and all the other Japanese titles in the artist's library, none of which I could understand.

What felt intriguing, is that I knew that character was Chinese and Japanese. I knew that it was kanji. That is due to some simple pattern I learned a while back. Put most common scripts side by side and you can start to know which letter belongs to which alphabet:

Alphabet Some glyphs
Latin kjsdhASID
Greek αβπΝτξΞΠΘ
Arabic ضخصوذن
Kanji (Japanese) 長中子内自後全
Hiragana (Japanese) ぎしくどさこら
Hangul (Korean) 공맏밥콩리
Devanagari (Hindi) धछढमङह

It is not hard to spot certain patterns. Koreans use a lot of circles and squares. Hiragana tends to have curvy sections, unlike Kanji. Arabic is very cursive. The olden Hindi and Sanskrit scripts have a huge horizontal line at the top...

Yet, while looking at 雨, I realized I only had a surface level understanding of it. I had no idea what it portrays. I could spot the aspects which made the letter different from anything I would type on this blog, without comprehension of anything about its meaning. None of what I could pick up was useful. The letters I and J are only useful to me insofar as we know how to distinguish them. The knowledge that both are written with a vertical segment is purely superficial. This information is useful in terms of being able write, but irrelevant in most other scenarios. Even when reading, we focus more on how e, o, a, c, q, p, b and d are different from each other, not that they are all more or less round shapes.

I think this perfectly illustrates our relationship with foreign ideas. The ones we argue against all the time. We often stop after our first few interactions with an idea we don't like and reject it at surface value. We dismiss its shape without having met its volume. We fight the straw man instead of the complex fully formed concept. Even knowing this, I feel I fall pray to this problem more often than I would like to admit.

If this analogy is indeed applicable, I dare say our first impression of a foreign idea, even of the surface level, is probably wrong. Looking at Arabic, if my first instinct is to notice that letters are cursive, then I'm comparing their shape with the roundness of e, o, a, c, q, p, b and d without even noticing that the roundness of these letters is not important, even to me. The straw man of an idea we first notice is different to some aspect of our own creed and thus strange. Unfortunately, we may be unable to immediately tell if the baseline we use for comparison is indeed relevant, or just a comfortable place we have never ventured away from. We may be unable to know if an argument is even warranted.

I don't expect I'd start learning Japanese anytime soon to better understand its script, but I will keep digging and learning about ideas which feel unfamiliar before rejecting them.