April 13th, 2008


Poll analysis

Well, thanks to everyone who ticked boxes in yesterday's poll. I found the results interesting.

First off, if you can read this, you probably also have Greek, Cyrillic, and Hebrew characters installed. Probably also Arabic, but I somehow screwed up the poll between Arabic and Armenian. I ought to have also tested for more exotic Cyrillic characters: the Macedonian/Serbian њ, the Altai ҥ, the Kazakh/Kyrgyz ң, the Siberian ӈ and the Sami ӊ. Next time.

Next in order are a clutch of South Asian scripts. I was surprised that both Thai and Tamil were a nose ahead of Devanāgarī, which is surely used by a lot more people than either of the former two. After Devanāgarī, Gurmukhī and Gujarātī are level pegging (as is, from a slightly different part of the world, the much less widely used Georgian), followed by Kannada and then Telugu (which is level with two scripts related to Arabic - Syriac and Thaana), and then Malayalam.

After that the four big East Asian scripts - the Japanese Hiragana and Katakana, and phonetic and standard Chinese - if you have one of these you probably have all four.

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For the funny n's, it's not very surprising that everyone can see ñ, ń, ɲ, ɳ and ŋ. I am slightly surprised that not quite everyone could see the perfectly respectable Czech/Slovak letter ň and the Latvian ņ, and that equally many can see the pretty bogus ṅ, ṇ and ṉ (OK this last is used by two actual languages but one is spoken by only 4000 people and the other apparently by only 20). Likewise, just behind, the perfectly genuine Lakota ƞ is level pegging with the bogus ṋ. Almost 90% of you can see ǹ as well, even though I haven't found a language that uses it.

It is a shame that the glorious n̈ (as in Spın̈al Tap) has not been more popular among typesetters. But I'm surprised that as many as a third of you could see ᶇ, n with a hook, and that a quarter of you could see ᵰ, n with a niddle tilde. It shows that people who work on fonts find it easier to grapple with the more bizarre and less used Latin-based letters than with real scripts used by millions of people.

April Books 12) A History of Africa

12) A History of Africa, by J.D. Fage

Since I changed jobs at the start of last year I've been working with two African groups, the Polisario Front of Western Sahara and the government of Somaliland. Part of my motivation for getting this job was that I wanted to do more on Africa; I feel that if you're working in international relations and not working on Africa you need to ask yourself why not. But I confess my overall knowledge was not very extensive, and while I've deepened my understanding of the Western Sahara and Somaliland situations in particular, I wanted some more general information. artw had picked up this book years ago somewhere, and so I worked through it over the last week.

I found it a pretty fascinating guide to the interlocking ebb and flow of kingdoms and empires across the continent up to the colonial period. The particular strength is in West Africa south of the Sahara, which I have been long fascinated by despite knowing very little about it, but he's good on the rest as well. Two things I was particularly interested to read about: i) The first massive external colonialist intervention, based on greed and collapsing in mismanagement and ignominious withdrawal, seems to have been the Moroccan destruction of the Songhai empire based on the Niger river in 1591, which resulted in the impoverishment of the whole of West Africa. ii) The rape of southern central Africa ("Bantuland", as Fage calls it) by slave traders at the start of the nineteenth century, and its subsequent easy penetration by European colonialists, was mainly due to the exploratory, trading and colonising efforts of Sayyid Said, the Sultan of Oman, who got so engaged with his successful African trade that he moved the seat of his Arabian sultanate to Zanzibar.

However, it's probably not the best place to start for today's reader; published in 1978, it therefore misses the crucial transitions in Zimbabwe and South Africa, and covers less than the first half (in many cases not even the first third) of most countries' post-independence history. The unresolved Rhodesia and apartheid questions I think also make it more difficult for the author to assess the colonial and post-colonial eras in the round, and of course the Portuguese and Spanish had only just disengaged. Also, rather surprisingly, the Cold War is not mentioned at all. I've been doing a bit of digging and am interested to see John Reader's Africa: A Biography of the continent coming up in recommendations; has anyone out there read it?