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There are now 12 comments... what are your thoughts?
  1. SeanR says

    Well, I’m thinking Chinese is tonal, and China is and has historically been one of the prime examples of centralized state authority, so I’m going to go with, No, it wasn’t a factor in the consolidation of power to the state.

    Also, isn’t the tonal shift in sarcasm an example of tone changing meaning?

  2. Pitch is used in non-tonal languages to indicate such things as whether you’re asking a question, distinguishing one thing from another, expressing emotion, uncertainly, certainty, the fact that you’re not finished with what you’re saying, and much more. Nevertheless, you could speak English in a monotone, and people could understand you just fine. Your pitch doesn’t change the meaning of the words themselves. If you say “dog” in a high tone or a low tone, it’s still the word “dog.”

    That’s not true of tonal languages. In Mandarin, if you say “ma” without inflection it means “scold,” but if you say it with a rising pitch (“ma?”) it means “rough.” Say it with the pitch dropping down then back up higher than you started, and it means “horse.” Start high and drop down, that’s “mother.” And say it with just a high tone, and it means “yes or no?” turning a statement into a question. In Hmong, depending on how you say “pa,” it could mean “female,” “to throw,” “to see,” “thorn,” “pancreas,” “ball,” or “your father’s mother.” The same goes for other languages of southeast Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, indigenous languages in the Americas, and more.

    As for China’s state formation, it followed a VERY different path to statehood than anywhere else on the planet, and did so much later than the city-states of the Fertile Crescent and eastern Mediterranean. I’m still debating whether to touch on the Chinese exception in this section, because it doesn’t really affect what the American colonists were thinking (and yes, everything I’ve covered so far is relevant to that, and will come together like a surprising revelation when we get to the end). But it does provide some good examples of things I want to cover about territorial states (what we’d call countries), so maybe it does make sense to discuss its path, if only briefly.

    Finally, we’re talking about PRISTINE state formation here—that is, forming a state in a universe where nothing like it had ever before existed. Once states exist, state formation spreads by very different paths of conquest and imitation, regardless of genetic makeup or culture. The question here is then whether this genetic mutation had anything to do with the initial invention of state-level society (and the bronze age, and phonetic writing). And the answer is neither “probably yes” or “probably no,” because we just don’t know enough yet. It’s a fascinating question, though, right?

  3. I should add that the mutation I’m talking about is the set of genes associated with ASPM (abnormal spindle microcephaly associated) haplogroup D. They have something to do with brain size and structure, and rapidly took over as dominant throughout the populations of Europe, Egypt, the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent.

    Just as with mutations of the cognitive revolution, it happened far too rapidly to be associated with genetic drift. This was another “selective sweep”—strong positive selection, because it was highly advantageous to our collective type of survival.

    But again, we only know that it coincides with the rise of state-level society, phonetic written language, etc. Whether there’s any actual causal relationship is still unknown. But it’s cool evidence that we’re still evolving, if nothing else!

  4. SeanR says

    My guess, and it’s only a guess, is that the form the written language took influenced the spoken language, which then influenced the gene expressions that were best suited for high-status roles, such as clerk. The kid who “just got” writing, and was thus tapped to apprentice as a recordkeeper, was more likely to have more of his kids survive infancy.

    Is there a similar break between pictographic languages and alphabetic languages?

    • Interesting guess, but there’s not a lot of evidence that written forms influence spoken language. It’s more likely the other way around. Also it’s not just scribes who got this mutation—it spread throughout the populations. It also became dominant just before all these innovations, not during or after. Still an intriguing guess! Spoken language does, after all, affect how we think: Our conscious mind uses the syntax and vocabulary of our speech to assemble thoughts, as you’ll recall, so that we can communicate them to others and to our episodic narrative memory.

      There was a break, but not between pictographic and alphabetic. If you take cuneiform, for example, it started out as pictures representing the words themselves, just like every other early writing system. But by 2900 BC, the pictures were starting to resemble syllables, sounds, rather than entire words. The writing system had evolved from a picture-writing system to a phonetic system. Egyptian writing did the same thing.

      The letters of an alphabet, however, don’t represent syllables but individual sounds, spelling out not just the word but also how to pronounce it. The first ones were tried out by Cannanites in the Sinai about a thousand years later, but this kind of writing didn’t really take off until the iron age, when the Phoenicians spread it around the Mediterranean, where it gave rise to the alphabets of Greek, Aramaic, then Hebrew, Latin, Arabic etc., each people adjusting their alphabet to suit their spoken language. Alphabetic writing spread first through trade, it seems. Alphabets need fewer symbols than syllabic systems, and far FAR fewer than picture- and word-based systems. So they’re easier to learn. Plus, they tell you how to pronounce the word, more or less. So they’re great for people who routinely travel and deal with multiple languages and dialects. (Later, they’d be spread by empires as well, to standardize administration of far-flung peoples.) So the break isn’t as sharp as the move from word-pictures to phoneme-symbols. It’s more of a refinement of phonetic writing that was adopted more gradually.

  5. B.J. says

    It seems to me that clan-tribe society, chiefdoms and Alexanderism (for lack of a better word), along with specifically religious authority (division of “church and state” in Egypt actually goes back to the First Intermediate Period if not earlier), exist alongside and within states at least up till the Renaissance, and in many parts of the world today.

    And I’m curious whether you see Egypt’s state formation as closer to the Mesopotamian or Chinese model. Fingers crossed for your explanation!

    • I was a bit glib on purpose there, saying they’re alternatives rather than a progression. As we’ll see on the next page and beyond, statehood was (and still is in many places) a veneer layered on top of pre-existing tribal etc. institutions. My purpose was to prepare the reader for the fact that states are not inevitable, and aren’t even a great idea in many cases.

      As for Egypt… wait and see!

  6. Peter says

    Or, per Neal Stephenson, it was the namshub of Enki.

      • Ever read “The Great Simoleon Caper”? It and “The Diamond Age” seem to be part of the same timeline. In fact, in :”Diamond Age”, I have a theory that YT was the woman in the wheelchair, advising the girls to be kind to their overbearing teacher. She mumbles something about “Chiseled Spam” seemingly out of the blue while in Nell’s hearing.

        • I didn’t even know about The Great Simoleon Caper, and I thought I’d read everything he ever wrote! Thank you very much for pointing me towards something new of his! [I found this link to the original, if anyone else cares to join me on the adventure.]

          And that’s one thing I really enjoy about his books, how characters and concepts and even subtle throwaway lines will appear and link together narratives that might otherwise have stood entirely separate.

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