Earlier this year, news got around that an American linguistic contest happened to feature Singapore’s very own MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) stations. To many Singaporeans, the MRT is just another means of transportation, so what exactly was so interesting about our quite ordinary train stations that caused it to gain so much attention? To answer that question, let’s take a look at what the contest was all about.
It turns out the American contest was one of many national rounds held prior to the International Linguistics Olympiad (IOL), an annual contest where the brightest high school linguists all around the world compete by working in languages one has never heard before. One may have heard of the prestigious International Mathematics or Physics Olympiad and never of the IOL, but do not be fooled because it is just as challenging.
Imagine you are Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams) in the sci-fi film Arrival. There are 5 unknown languages out there, and you are given only 6 hours (no break and Internet!) to decode all of them on paper. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. After you unravel the respective languages, you are tasked with translating English sentences into these languages, making calculations and filling in family trees—all of which are to be done using your newly acquired knowledge. Excuse me, but these young linguistic Olympians are way tougher than Amy Adams’ character.
Singapore has her own fair share of Olympians, and recently won her first Silver medal in 2015. I was very fortunate to have coached the team then and subsequently went on to join the UK team as a coach and a problem creator. As a problem creator, I create new linguistic puzzles every year, drawing inspirations from all around me. As the Olympiad aims to expose contestants to the diversity of living languages, conlangs (constructed languages) such as Na’vi and Dothraki (from the shows Avatar and Game of Thrones respectively) are usually avoided in favour of languages at the brink of extinction for example.
Once I have settled down on the language of interest, I will proceed to study the language and focus on a particular “skill” that I wanted to test. Such skills may include matching translations, comparing orthography between two related languages, or perhaps even deciphering a script. So, how did I get young linguists all around the globe to figure out the Tamil equivalent of “Yew Tee”, a train station in Singapore’s northwest?
In how many ways can you write Coca Cola?
Coca-Cola, one of the most widely recognised terms in the world, shown written in various script as a form of brand consistency worldwide. (Adapted from Jetline)
How does one prepare for a contest that can test you on any language in the world? The Singaporean in me tells me that I need a structured curriculum if I ever want my team to have an edge over the multilingual teenagers other teams are going to send. Introducing writing systems and scripts to 17-year-olds is not an easy task; our education system did not prepare them for anything this interesting. My first piece of advice when one approaches a script puzzle is that one needs to identify the writing direction, and the type of writing systems. While most scripts stem from a pictographic and/or ideographic writing system like the Ancient and Middle Egyptian Hieroglyphs or the Oracle Bone Script, there are 4 broad groups in which linguists classify writing systems today, based on how each unit of its script is represented.
I started off with Alphabets because we all know that it can be broken down into the first two letters of the Greek alphabet alpha and beta, right? A true alphabet writing system like Latin, Cyrillic, and Greek assigns a consonant or vowel sound value to a character and when stringed up, we get words. Next, we have the Abjads such as Arabic and Hebrew. We have all heard about the difficulty in learning Arabic as a foreign language because the script seems to lack full symbols for vowels (they can be represented as diacritics or used word-initially), something speakers of Indo-European languages are not too comfortable with right from the beginning. More commonly known as a consonantal writing system, each character correspond to a consonantal sound.
Then we have logographic (Chinese) and syllabic (Japanese Kana) ones that have earned themselves a bad reputation because how do we expect one to memorise so many different symbols, each with a different sound? We have very interesting ones such as Hangeul which deserves an entire article dedicated to explaining the genius of its creator King Sejong and his group of scholars. The most relevant one, however, is Abugida.
Abugida (or alphasyllabary) is the name given to a group of writing systems where the basic sign denotes a consonant with an inherent vowel. In Hindi’s Devanagari script, for example, we have a basic sign representing pa. One can make consistent modification to this basic sign by adding strokes to it in order to create pi, pu, pe, po and more! In surviving Indic scripts (all descendants of the Bhrami script), these modifications could be above, below, left, right, around, surround, or even within the basic sign!
An example of Hindi’s Devanagari script. (Source: Omniglot)
It is important for non-linguists to differentiate between Syllabaries and Abugidas. A syllabary such as the Japanese kana or Cherokee script, is typically one that consists a Consonant-Vowel (CV) mora or syllable or simply a Vowel (V). This makes it really confusing for beginner students because both Syllabaries and Abugidas have a CV unit. To differentiate the two, ask yourself: between ka and ko, do the two signs look similar? If they are not, you are most likely dealing with syllables. Take note of the modification between ka and ko. Check again with another CV unit such as ma and mo: is the modification constant? If they are, congratulations, you found yourself an Abugida!
Linguistic Olympiads love Abugidas
This is not always true, but we can see why this is the case. Candidates attempting the contest are assumed to have no prior knowledge of any of the relatively obscure languages in the paper. With only logical reasoning skills as their only weapon, these warriors are expected to analyse limited data, figure out the rules, then synthesise new data. With Abugidas, candidates can figure out the set of consistent modifications to several basic signs. This knowledge is important, because they can subsequently predict new signs given the rules they have just learnt! A famous example all beginner linguistic puzzle enthusiasts are familiar with is that of Japanese Braille or the Japanese Tenji system. Note that Japanese Braille is not an Abugida; it demonstrates the synthesis skill mentioned above.
While working on creating a new puzzle, I was inspired by a similar puzzle in 2010 titled “Lost in Yerevan” which is a train station puzzle in Armenian (Alphabetic). Then, I looked to our trusty SMRT in Singapore and for once, I was not let down. The original North-South Line stations happen to have employed mostly transliteration (converting texts from one writing system to another, normally in a one-to-one system) rather than translation (representing meaning of a source text in a target language) into the Tamil script, which happened to be an Abugida. The only exception was “City Hall”, which one could deduce by elimination. Without much delay, I started testing out the validity of the puzzle, checking if it is possible to match the stations’ English and Tamil names without having any prior knowledge of the Tamil script. It worked out well and the rest is history.
As a problem creator, I have created many other puzzles with varying difficulties. They include a Vigesimal numeral system (Base 20) magic square puzzle in the Yup’ik language from the Eskimo-Aleut language family, and a Bulgarian translation puzzle testing students on the affixation of definite articles. Setting language puzzles have taught me a lot about how systematic languages actually are, despite all the exceptions you learn in school and in life. Following the news in April, I sometimes receive private messages from fellow Singaporeans on Facebook telling me how they can now read the Tamil names of MRT stations; that is impressive because I doubt I can do that myself.