Some encoded their speech in characters corresponding to sounds, others represent their words in pictures to this day. Jan Pelczar talks to neurolinguist Tomasz Bąk about the mysterious world of letters and symbols.
I couldn’t have had a better tour guide to explore the world of alphabets than University of Edinburgh neurolinguist Tomasz Bąk. Like “Przekrój”, he was born and raised in Kraków. On our video call, his name is displayed as ‘Thomas Bak’ – without the Polish characters known in the industry as diacritics. In response to my “Przekrój” interview proposal, he had mentioned that he was working on a chapter of a thesis about learning Chinese writing for adults, but he’d be glad to take a break for our conversation.
Jan Pelczar: What was it that made you, a doctor of medical sciences, start working with language and alphabets?
Tomasz Bąk: I was fascinated with them when I was young. Before I moved to Germany, I spent 17 years in Kraków. My mother was Silesian, and my father was fluent in German. My grandfather had also studied in Vienna, during the time of ‘deceased Austria’, as it was called in Galicia.
So you had the conditions as a child to become bilingual?
I certainly could have been. But at that time in Poland there was a belief that bilingualism could be dangerous for a child, that their languages would get confused. We now know that belief was based on superstitions, not scientific knowledge. Ironically, years later, I discovered that, at the time I was born in Kraków, researchers in Montreal were conducting the first systematic study of multilingualism and its benefits in children. But news like that didn’t penetrate the Iron Curtain. I profited from the situation in a different way. When my parents wanted to exclude me from the conversation, they always spoke in German. That piqued my curiosity. I began to see language as a kind of secret code that’s worth learning. Besides, since I was a child, I’d dreamed of travelling far and wide. And languages and script turned out to be part of the journey.
I guess they weren’t available behind the Iron Curtain either?
Certainly not as accessible as today, but still present. We learned Cyrillic at school. We didn’t like Russian language classes for political reasons, but I found the foreign script interesting. I had a Russian atlas which I used to learn the names of different countries written in Cyrillic. I watched the popular-science TV programme Six Continents Club, which had the charming subtitle Café du Globe. Thanks to this programme and the travellers who guested on it, I was able to hear stories about various expeditions. In one episode, someone who’d been to Ethiopia showed manuscripts in the Amharic script. Different letters began to fascinate me.
Other than Cyrillic, have you mastered any other foreign alphabets?
I went to university in Germany. As a student, I participated in an international exchange programme – two months in Japan, two months in Turkey. In Japan, I learned another script. The Turks, although they write in the Latin script, used the Arabic system until the beginning of the 20th century, so I learned those letters in order to read old documents. To this day, I remember visiting the Adam Mickiewicz Museum in Istanbul on Sweet Almond Street – Tatlı Badem Sokağı. There, I saw the notes Mickiewicz took while learning Turkish. Changing the script in Turkey was a political decision made by the rulers. Similar situations have occurred in many countries, such as Romania, where switching from Cyrillic to Latin in the 19th century was a sign that they wanted to participate in Western culture.
Now, more countries are withdrawing from the Cyrillic alphabet because it was imposed on them by Sovietization. In 2025, Mongolia is intending to restore their traditional writing system, in which characters are written from top to bottom. Kazakhstan is planning to introduce the Latin alphabet, and Uzbekistan is already doing the same.
Initially, Uzbek was written with one of the Arabic alphabets. As in most Muslim countries, the script was adopted along with Islam. But all alphabets have a problem with Uzbek: namely, how to pronounce the ó sound. It’s neither u nor o, which is used for another sound, similar to the a in ‘wall’. Depending on the context, ó can sound like the German o or ö. This is an example of one of the three possibilities of notation when a national language is adapted to the Latin alphabet: diacritics, like the Polish ś or ź. You can also combine two characters, as Polish does with rz or sz, although in this case it would be oe. But there’s another method, which is used extensively in English: don’t follow the pronunciation. In other words, write it one way, pronounce it another. Like the word ‘nation’, derived from the Latin natio, but along the way the t became a sh sound.
Similar-sounding languages are sometimes written in different scripts.
In the former Yugoslavia, Serbs wrote in Cyrillic, while Croats used the Glagolitic and Latin scripts. In India, Urdu and Hindi are practically the same language, a bit like Serbo-Croatian, but Hindi uses Devanagari, like Sanskrit does, while Urdu uses the Persian-Arabic alphabet.
Is knowledge of Sanskrit actually useful for researchers or is it just a fashion?
I’ve done a lot of research in India, so I started to study it a bit. Sanskrit uses the Devanagari script, which has a completely different system from the other alphabets, and knowledge of it can be useful. In a way, it’s similar to Latin or Old Hebrew. It has characters for all consonants, with vowels added at the top, bottom or side. It’s a much more regular script than ours. If you know it, then you know how to write all the words. There are none of the problems you have in Polish with different characters sounding the same, such as h and ch.
How did you manage to combine language learning with medical sciences in India?
I was researching the effects of multilingualism on brain function, dementia and cognitive ageing. From early on in my studies, I wanted to combine my medical education with my passion for languages. That’s why I wrote my PhD thesis on speech disorders in brain diseases, known as aphasia. Since then, most of my research has been related to language. In India, I was working for the University of Edinburgh. Prior to that, I was working in Cambridge looking at the language of people suffering from diseases of the motor system, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and various types of Parkinson’s. I’m constantly practising multilingualism because I’m raising an eight-year-old daughter whose mother is Spanish. I use four languages almost every day and lecture in three others: Portuguese, French and Italian.
And then there’s Chinese, which you’re trying to make easier for others to learn.
Our discoveries should be useful for foreigners wanting to discover the secrets of Chinese. We looked at people with no previous contact with the Chinese language who studied writing and speaking for four weeks. After the course, they said that writing was much easier than they’d thought, but pronunciation was just as difficult as they’d imagined. According to neurological research, adults should learn foreign languages differently from children. I want to emphasize that you can learn new languages at any age. The oldest person to take part in our studies was 85 years old!
My daughter is just learning to read and write. She asks a question for every letter. For example, why ‘big B’ has two tummies and why ‘small a’ is a circle with a walking stick.
Our alphabet, Latin, is phonetic. Alphabets of that type are abstract and symbolic. You have to learn the letters like a cipher that codes meanings.
How was this cipher created?
It’s likely there are four regions where writing arose independently: Babylon, Egypt, China and Central America. There’s also an independent script belonging to the ancient inhabitants of Mohenjo-Daro in the Indus Valley, but it hasn’t been decrypted to this day. All four went through identical phases. At first, the picture represented what it meant. You painted a sun and it meant ‘sun’. You painted a cow and it meant ‘cow’. You painted a sheep and it meant ‘sheep’. Later, people tried to express abstract thoughts. In Chinese, there’s a character for the sun and a character for the moon, both abstract. If you put the moon and the sun together, you get a word that means ‘brightness’: ming. So the dynasty famous for its vases was the brightest dynasty.
Enlightenment in the formation of alphabets and scripts came with the idea to assign specific sounds to particular characters. Let’s take the Chinese word for ‘ocean’. It’s pronounced jang, and written 洋. On the left is the character for ‘water’, on the right the character for ‘sheep’. But ‘sheep’ is also jang, so this is a word that sounds like ‘sheep’ but means ‘water’: ‘ocean’. Other scripts went further. For example, in Ancient Egyptian, a picture of a mountain meant not only ‘mountain’, but also the first sound of the word ‘mountain’ in that language. A picture of water referred to both water and the letter w. By analogy, ‘sun’ is s and ‘moon’ is m.
The Semitic Phoenician script developed according to similar principles, and was later adapted into the Greek script, which gave birth to ours. The Greeks added vowels, because only consonants and long vowels were written in the Semitic languages. However, early written records contain a mixture of pictures, symbolic characters and sounds. The only language that still uses a similar mixture is Chinese. In a way, this is a relic of that writing system that also existed in Ancient Egypt, Babylon and Ancient Mexico. It functions like the old cuneiform system, or the early stages of hieroglyphs.
Does that mean that other picture-based scripts are governed by more modern rules?
Yes. In this respect, the Japanese language is particularly interesting because it has two practically independent systems. First, there are the Chinese characters: kanji. They code the meaning. Then there are two syllabic scripts that are combined to form kana. There are characters that correspond to different sounds: a, i, u, e, o, ka, ki, ku, ke, ko, sa, si, su, se, so, etc. Usually, words are written with Chinese characters, and grammatical endings are added using kana. If we translate that concept into English, for example, we might say ‘I write’, but if we then want to say ‘I wrote’, ‘I’m going to write’ or ‘I will have written’, that would be indicated by the endings.
That must be an interesting field of study for a neurolinguist.
It’s invaluable. Due to the fact that the Japanese use both systems, they make the best subjects for investigating how various brain diseases can affect different scripts in different ways. In semantic dementia, people have problems with kanji, and in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, people can write kanji, but have problems with kana.
Here in Poland, you also sometimes see Hangul – the Korean alphabet.
That’s a fascinating script: a kind of bridge between picture writing and a character-encoding system. It has the soul of an alphabet and the form of characters. It was invented in the first half of the 15th century by the Korean ruler Sejong the Great, created from scratch and in a very systematic way. The consonants look like the positions of the mouth and tongue during pronunciation. N is like a tongue touching the roof of the mouth, k like the tip of the tongue, and m like a mouth, because we pronounce that letter with the whole mouth. In this respect, the alphabet is regular, but its creator also cared about aesthetics, so the characters look a bit like Chinese. You write them in squares. The result? A combination of the beauty of East Asia and the practicality of the West.
So which script is best?
Depending on who was going to offer me more to promote language learning, I could argue that Latin or Chinese was the best in the world. Our alphabet is easier to adapt to the digital age, but picture writing allows people who don’t understand each other’s speech to communicate. I remember queuing for a train ticket in Taiwan. In front of me was a Japanese man who didn’t know Chinese, but he simply wrote four characters and that was enough to get his message across. If we had this system in Europe, we’d also understand each other at the writing level, from Lisbon to Moscow. Only the pronunciation would be different.
Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.
A cognitive neurologist, a neurolinguist, and an academic at the University of Edinburgh. His research centres on speech disorders, specifically the impact of multilingualism on cognitive functions and brain diseases. He has worked in many places including Bern, Berlin and Cambridge. He speaks seven languages.
Translated from the Polish by Kate Webster
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