where the writers are
Breasts, Vaginas, and Tools: Musings on the Roots of the Alphabet, by Jennifer Ball
A bevy of Bs?

If you want to describe something to someone, but neither of you speak the same language, drawing a picture is the simplest way to get your point across. A picture is worth a thousand words because it can disseminate information without using the conventions of spoken or written language. Visual communication does not require human-human interaction. Anyone can draw a picture. Anyone else can look at it. If the sender and receiver share enough traits: transmission accomplished. Homo sapiens share traits because we evolved from natural selection, which is neither moral or arbitrary, but it is consistent. Humans have been genetically similar for thousands of years. Consequently, we want the same basic things. These base requirements are reflected in the shapes and sounds of our letters. Our alphabet is a hierarchy of early man’s needs.

Writing is roughly five thousand years old—250 human generations. Tokens, markings, figurines, and cave paintings are much older. Written documentation progresses slowly when you’re a nomadic hunter-gatherer. Survival takes precedence over scholarly pastimes. Writing flourished once people had enough to eat. No surprise that hunger is featured in the sounds of our letters. The phoneme of “M”—mmm—starts the word “mother” in almost every language, and this mmm is probably due to the mewing a baby makes when wanting to suckle. Mmm is the sound of hunger; it is the sound of pulling the lips into the mouth. Think “Mmm good,” in those old Campbell’s soup commercials. In our alphabet, this m sound signifies individuals who can generate multiples and feed them—what we call “mama.” “M” depicts replication in both its upper- and lowercase shapes (M, m) and looks a lot like the Egyptian hieroglyph for birth. “M” demonstrates mimicry in its design, as well as emulating stylized breasts pointing toward heaven. A mother’s breasts were heavenly because they were key to survival.

You can see this breast-character relationship better in our capital “B” which, you notice, is second in the hierarchy of our alphabet. Now some—linguists for example—will get worked up and say there is no pictorial component to our alphabet; our letters are above impersonation. Denial is a dominant human trait. Rather than deny, let’s examine other languages for their most breast-like characters. The Chinese character for “milk” as well as “breast, lady, suckle” (#2 below) is composed of two characters: the one on the left means “woman,” the one on the right (highlighted in blue) means “to be” and looks a lot like our capital “B.” “To be” is to exist: we are human beings. Chinese speakers tell me that this “B” doppelganger is a picture of a woman’s breasts, common knowledge in their country. This character of “woman” plus “to be” is pronounced “nai.” A concubine is “er nai” or “second breast.” (Source:  The Independent, Aug. 26, 2009)

“Nai” is pronounced like the beginning of our word “night,” and we’ll get to the significance of that later, though there will be the precocious among you who might guess at the relationship.)

How is it that these two—B and 乃—are almost identical, yet most Chinese can acknowledge the resemblance to women’s breasts and most English speakers cannot? This resemblance between the two symbols is especially strong if we see our “B” as handwritten: BBBB 乃(in the typefaces Marker Felt, Papyrus, Zapfino, Brush Script, and AdobeSongSTD respectively). The last “B” is really Chinese—Could you tell?

The Chinese “B” shape might start with an “N” sound, but it means “breast” just like our “B” signifies “breast,” a relationship that becomes clearer after one has analyzed enough words that have “B” in them. No coincidence that “baby” and “babble” start with “B.” Where you find babies, you find milk. Where you find milk, you find mothers. All of these concepts involve full breasts. Large breasts are so desirable in our society that women pay money to have perfectly nice ones cut open just to stick something in them in order to make them larger. This is because eons of hungry primates sought out milk, and larger breasts appear to hold more volume than smaller ones. Our cultural attraction to large breasts is really a capacity issue.

On the surface, when you compare “nai” and “milk” and “breast” and “mother,” the sounds and the words themselves seem unrelated. It’s when one pans back—as they do in the movies, or in map view on the Internet when you’ve found the street and now you want a perspective of the city—that one can see these words do have a relationship. With the alphabet, you must move from the continent view to the scanning electron micrograph view on a regular basis. Big picture-small picture over and over. One’s ability to change focus and also to rotate a character as need be helps when decoding the alphabet.


Cutline for "Bs" graphic: A bevy of Bs? On the left is our Times Roman capital “B.” Next is the character for “milk” in Chinese. Third is the Egyptian hieroglyph for “milk,” rotated 90° clockwise. Fourth is Thai for “mother,” an individual known to have milk. The breast imagery has been highlighted in blue.

26 February 2010 9:38 AM © Jennifer Ball, June 2009

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