Piers Kelly “The Preconditions of Grammatogeny: A Contextual Comparison of Script Invention in Africa and the Asia-Pacific”
The Preconditions of Grammatogeny: A Contextual Comparison of Script Invention in Africa and the Asia-Pacific
Over the course of the twentieth century, Africa has been a site of prolific scribal creativity with the invention of multiple new scripts, especially in West Africa. Scholars such as Dalby (1967), Tuchsherer (2007), Unseth (2011) have itemised thirteen instances of local script development between the 1890s and the 1960s and described historical circumstances of their emergence to the extent afforded by the archival and oral-historical record. Missing from these discussions is a much-needed analysis of script invention—or ‘grammatogeny’ (Daniels 1992)—as a global twentieth-century phenomenon. After all, in the same period at least ten scripts were created in the Asia-Pacific region, though much less is known of them and a few remain formally undocumented. My presentation will direct attention to new Asia-Pacific scripts, examining their political, literary and ethnohistorical contexts. By contrasting these with the better known examples of Africa, I draw attention to the commonalities and particularities of each site, and propose a set of minimal conditions for script creation. Such a comparative framework will lay the groundwork for addressing more humanistic questions: Why is the phenomenon of grammatogeny seemingly localized in specific time periods and geographic locations? What purposes are served by script invention? What kinds of manuscript traditions or scribal practices are associated with these scripts and how are they to be analysed? To what extent can script invention be regarded as a process of appropriation as opposed to a local act of symbolic sovereignty?
My proposed presentation for the Summer Academy will explore the phenomenon of script invention as it unfolded in Southeast Asia and the Pacific over the twentieth century. Rather than investigating these new scripts and their corpora as isolated literary traditions I will take a comparative approach, using the better-documented cases from Africa as a frame of reference. In so doing I will propose a set of linguistic, historical, semiotic and sociocultural parameters for assessing script inventions and suggest a number of practical generalisations of relevance to philological research.
Piers Kelly is a linguistic anthropologist based at the Australian National University. His research concerns folk literature, rural utopianism and grassroots literacy practices. His work has centred on the manuscripts of the Eskaya community, a crypto-indigenous movement of the southern Philippines that recuperated a utopian language and script in the 1920s.