Sunday, February 15, 2015

Representationalism of Lots of Information in Pictographic Systems

There was a recent thread on the Mormon Dialogue and Discussion Board that had to do with the Anthon Transcript/Manuscript (which purportedly contains characters from the Book of Mormon golden plates).  (

In the thread in question, various things were discussed, about principles and facts about various writing systems, and the possibilities of what kind of writing system the characters in the Anthon Manuscript belong to.  In my opinion, a certain fact is very telling for the Jaredite writing system.  I find it an interesting observation that there were only 24 gold plates in the Jaredite plates made by Ether and found by the people of Limhi, that gave the full history from the creation of the world down to the end of the Jaredite civilization.  Furthermore we have been told that the book to be translated later, written by the Brother of Jared, will have lots of contents, but is it not true that it was on these same set of 24 gold plates?

And now I, Moroni, proceed to give an account of those ancient inhabitants who were destroyed by the hand of the Lord upon the face of this north country.
And I take mine account from the twenty and four plates which were found by the people of Limhi, which is called the Book of Ether.
And as I suppose that the first part of this record, which speaks concerning the creation of the world, and also of Adam, and an account from that time even to the great tower, and whatsoever things transpired among the children of men until that time, is had among the Jews—
Therefore I do not write those things which transpired from the days of Adam until that time; but they are had upon the plates; and whoso findeth them, the same will have power that he may get the full account. (Ether 1:1-4, emphasis added)
And again:

And the Lord spake unto Ether, and said unto him: Go forth. And he went forth, and beheld that the words of the Lord had all been fulfilled; and he finished his record; (and the hundredth part I have not written) and he hid them in a manner that the people of Limhi did find them. (Ether 15:33)
Only 24 plates (double sided pages?) containing characters?  That is a lot of compressed information, it may seem, or is it?  Perhaps compression is the wrong word.  I don't mean to say that a lot of information is compressed IN the characters, but that a lot of information is represented BY the characters.  Lots of people think that somehow, through encoding schemes, a lot of information can be compressed in just a few characters.  That is not the case usually.  Rather, certain key points or themes can be represented by pictures.  A pictograph is basically a way to represent data or information with pictures that relate to the data.

So, there is a difference between compression of information in some mechanical way, and the representation of something where key things are represented, that are actually representative of much more information.  So, with that difference, there are gaps left, where information from the outside must be injected in somehow.  In other words, there is EXTERNAL DEPENDENCY ON INFORMATION OUTSIDE THE CHARACTERS, what computer programmers call DEPENDENCY INJECTION.  And if that information is not had the characters aren't of use.  That seems to be the case with Joseph Smith, where the information for pictographic writing may have been supplied through revelatory means, which in the case of the Book of Abraham, was recorded in an EXTERNAL KEY CALLED THE KIRTLAND EGYPTIAN PAPERS/ALPHABET AND GRAMMAR.  This was a reconstitution of an ancient document that is not now extant, an ancient document that had the function of an external key to repurposed Sensen characters, but that also had the text of the Book of Abraham on it  So, there is some indication that the Jaredite system may have been like this as well.  Perhaps Ether left behind something similar, because he knew that someone with interpreters would have to read the language.  But perhaps "reformed" Egyptian was similar, where Mormon simply wrote pictographically with Egyptian characters, because he knew that a mechanical extraction of the information wasn't of much use, because it would have to be done by someone with a seerstone or interpreters.  What if some ancient writing systems are like this by intent, where a record is left behind intentionally ONLY for use with a SEER STONE, or by someone that is educated already in the intent of the document?

Is this what Jacob meant in the Book of Moron where he wrote:

For he said that the history of his people should be engraven upon his other plates, and that I should preserve these plates and hand them down unto my seed, from generation to generation.  And if there were preaching which was sacred, or revelation which was great, or prophesying, that I should engraven the heads of them upon these plates, and touch upon them as much as it were possible, for Christ’s sake, and for the sake of our people. (Jacob 1:3-4)
Does this mean that the "heads of them" are characters representational of themes or chunks of information where rather than recording the whole thing mechanically, they are recorded representationally?

The observation made by someone that identifies himself as "Hillel2," who claims to have a background in linguistics, seems very important here where he says:
Of course, in considering the AM [Anthon Manuscript] as a genuine document of some sorts, could the script actually be entirely "pictorgraphic?" The Aztec speakers of Nahuatl, for example, did not have a developed writing system like that of the Maya. Basically, they drew pictures of events and had a handful of symbols that contextualized them (in the past, sequential, e.g. "it came to pass" sorts of symbols.) If the symbols are basically just pictures (albeit of a highly highly abstract nature) they would just suggest an event known to the readers yet read differently by every reader (as different people would verbalize differently a picture of a man walking down a staircase holding a briefcase). Now there is no need for an underlying language like Hebrew. Though the Nephites may have spoken some kind of Hebrew, the underlying system is essentially just memory. Non-Hebrew speaking Nephites would have understood the pictures in the same way because they knew the back ground of events. Outsiders who did not, would just see a bunch of highly abstract pictures and not know what they were referring to.  A system of understood, highly abstract pictograms could be a very economical way to get a lot of information onto a small surface but we have to know the events ahead of time to get to the meaning. Ordinary mortals can't extract the meaning from the pictures without knowledge of the events (too abstract) unless one posits the use of "seership" which Joseph Smith is believed to have had by those who have faith in what he said. The other thing is that, at this point, we have actually moved backwards in the development of writing (from logo-graphic-phonetic to pictographic) which, though possible under the restraints of Mormon's environment, would be very very unusual. (, emphasis added.)
What if the Nephites did not invent a pictographic usage system for the Egyptian written language?  What if the system of pictographic usage in what was called "Reformed Egyptian" goes all the way back to the Egyptians themselves prior to the time that Lehi's group left Jerusalem, and they learned it from the Egyptians?  What if some Egyptian documents going all the way back were pictographic?  What if the Egyptians themselves preserved a tradition of pictographic compression from even earlier writing systems like that used by the Jaredites that may have had something in common with Sumerian?

Now, as this person suggests in the quote above ("Hillel2"), to understand abstract pictographic characters, you have to have context.  One way this can happen is that this context can be given by having a "handful of characters that contextualized them" as he says, in the case of the Aztecs in their writing.  These are the equivalent of what are known in Egyptian as "determinative" characters.  This means that characters exist in the set of characters that give context for the rest of the characters.  In regular mechanical Egyptian, or the system everyone is usually familiar with, determinative characters help us understand context.  Many Egyptian words contain a character at the end called a determinative that gives context for the rest of the characters when without it, it would be too abstract.  Now, in the case of the Sensen Papyrus for the way Joseph Smith interpreted it, the "key" for the Sensen Papyrus text characters (known as the Kirtland Egyptian Papers or KEP, or Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar), was given to us by our first Seer of our dispensation, Joseph Smith.  This accomplishes what Hillel2 was speaking of above, where context and intent was not known to abstract characters.  Ancient Egyptians, by tradition, knowing the pictographic intent of the characters, as he says, because they knew the story, could decode the pictographs.  This is where this external dependency was fulfilled by the explanations provided by the Seer.

The problem of assuming the regular textual determinatives in the Sensen Document have anything to do with contextualization in a pictographic Book of Abraham context is obvious:  Joseph Smith interpreted some of the regular textual determinatives as pictographic characters just like the other "alphabetic" (uni-literal, bi-litiral and tri-literal) characters that he used as pictographs.  And therefore, the regular determinatives become abstract pictographs as well in this context.  Therefore, if there are contextualization characters of some other sort for this pictographic context, they are something else.  At this point, my assumption is that it had to be something external to the document itself, either tradition, or seership to produce a key like the KEP.  The importance of context-giving information in a key or otherwise is noted here in this quote:

Although a few pictographic or ideographic scripts exist today, there is no single way to read them, because there is no one-to-one correspondence between symbol and language. Hieroglyphs were commonly thought to be ideographic before they were translated, and to this day Chinese is often erroneously said to be ideographic. In some cases of ideographic scripts, only the author of a text can read it with any certainty, and it may be said that they are interpreted rather than read. Such scripts often work best as mnemonic aids for oral texts, or as outlines that will be fleshed out in speech. (
And this, which discusses the Chinese Dongba language is interesting:

Dongba is both pictographic and ideographic. There are about a thousand glyphs, but this number is fluid as new glyphs are coined. Priests drew detailed pictures to record information, and illustrations were simplified and conventionalized to represent not only materialistic objects but also abstract ideas. Glyphs are often compounded to convey the idea of a particular word. Generally, as a mnemonic, only keywords are written; a single pictograph can be used to recite different phrases or an entire sentence. (
As I said before in other posts, when I was theorizing previously on the idea of secondary intent in the Sensen Papyrus, I had suggested that it was not so much a mnemonic, as it was an outline and section markers for themes in the story of Abraham, and that it was employed that way in a derivative composition.