21 Obscure References in Classic Songs—Explained!

We've all heard these classic pop and rock hits a thousand times. But even if you know all the words, do you know what they were about?

1. "You’re So Vain," Carly Simon

“You had one eye in the mirror as you watched yourself gavotte.”

The gavotte is a French folk dance that was popular in the late 16th century. It was somewhat majestic and pose-y, long before vogueing came into … well, vogue. Simon has stated in interviews that she pictured the character in her song making a dramatic entrance, one hand raised and the other on his hip, much like those elegant pantaloon-wearing Baroque folks did back in the day.

2. "The Joker," The Steve Miller Band

“Some people call me Maurice, ‘cause I speak of the pompatus of love.”

“Pompatus” is, indeed, a made-up word, but Mr. Miller didn’t exactly coin it. He has admitted in the past to have been influenced by a 1954 doo-wop hit by the Medallions called “The Letter.” Written by Vernon Green, the song contains the line “Oh my darling, let me whisper sweet words of pizmotality and discuss the puppetutes of love.” According to Green, he’d made up the word “puppetutes” to describe his fantasy paper-doll, or puppet-like, girl. In a “’scuse me while I kiss this guy” moment, Miller transposed “puppetutes” into “pompatus.”

3, 4, and 5. "Down Under," Men at Work

“Traveling in a fried-out Kombi” ... “He just smiled and gave me a vegemite sandwich” ... “Where beer does flow and men chunder”

This tune is full of Australian slang, which is what made much of it indecipherable to those of us above the Equator. A “Kombi” is what is officially called a Volkswagen Type 2 in Oz, but the nickname comes from its German moniker: Kombinationskraftwagen. Americans know it better as a VW Microbus.

Vegemite is an Aussie favorite—a spreadable paste made from brewer’s yeast, vegetables, wheat, and some assorted spices. They slather it on toast, hide it inside pastries, and layer it between slices of bread to make a delectable sandwich.

Chunder is what a lot of folks do after consuming too much beer, or other alcohol, or spoiled food, or during a bout of the flu. In other words, el barfo.

6. "Surfin’ USA," The Beach Boys

“You'd see 'em wearin' their baggies, Huarache sandals, too”

“Baggies” were the boxer-style bathing suits preferred by surfer dudes over the traditional Speedo-type form-fitting model. The extra fabric helped to prevent surfboard wax from painfully ripping out upper-leg hair when the surfer rose from a sitting to a standing position. Huarache is a type of woven leather sandal, one that’s actually closer to a shoe than a sandal. One that, I cringe to report, my Dad used to wear with socks (“Support plus absorption equals comfort.”)

7. "Jailhouse Rock," Elvis Presley

“The whole rhythm section was the Purple Gang”

Thanks to its proximity to Windsor, Ontario, Canada, Detroit was an important stop on the Underground Booze Railroad during Prohibition. Liquor, legal in Canada, was smuggled across the Ambassador Bridge or even driven in Model Ts across the frozen Detroit River during the winter, where it then generally ended up in the hands of the notorious Purple Gang. What Al Capone and his gang were to Chicago, Sammie Cohen, the Bernstein brothers, and the rest of the Purples were to Detroit. The Purple Gang started out as a pipeline for Canadian whiskey to Capone, but eventually a turf war ensued.

8. "Hotel California," The Eagles

“Warm smell of colitas rising up through the air”

According to the Eagles’ then-manager, “colitas” was explained to Don Henley and Glenn Frey as literally meaning “little buds” by their Mexican-American road manager, and further as Spanish slang for “marijuana.”

9 and 10. "Bohemian Rhapsody," Queen

“Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the fandango?” ... “Bismillah! No!”

Scaramouche is a traditional clown character featured in Italian commedia dell'arte. He is a stock character in Punch and Judy shows and often gets his head knocked off of his shoulders by Punch. The fandango is a lively couples dance usually accompanied by guitars, hand claps and castanets.

"Bismillah" is an Arabic word that means "in the name of God." It is used at the head of almost every chapter in the Holy Quran.

11. "I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)," The Proclaimers

“And if I haver, yeah I know I'm gonna be, I'm gonna be the man who's havering to you.”

Thanks to the thick Scottish accents of Charlie and Craig Reid, “haver” actually sounds like “heaver,” which makes one think of chundering (see above). However, in Scotland and northern England, to haver is simply to talk nonsense or babble.

12. "We're an American Band," Grand Funk Railroad

“Sweet, sweet Connie, doin' her act, She had the whole show and that's a natural fact.”
“Up all night with Freddie King; I got to tell you, poker's his thing.”

Drummer Don Brewer wrote this tune during Grand Funk’s 1972 tour. “Sweet” Connie Hamzy is one of rock ‘n roll’s most notorious groupies, and by her account she’s enjoyed the company of The Who, Neil Diamond, the Allman Brothers, the Eagles, and Led Zeppelin (to name just a few) when they passed through her hometown of Little Rock, Arkansas. Hamzy stated in a 1992 Penthouse article that she’d also gotten up close and personal with Bill Clinton when he was the Governor of The Natural State.

Blues singer Freddie King was Grand Funk’s opening act on that tour, and his regular post-show ritual included a few high-stakes hands of poker.

13. "Sweet Home Alabama," Lynyrd Skynyrd

“I hope Neil Young will remember a Southern man don't need him around anyhow”… “Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers”

Canadian singer/songwriter Neil Young’s song “Southern Man” (from his 1970 album After the Gold Rush) was highly critical of the American South, making reference to things like cross burnings and cracking bullwhips. Skynyrd didn’t cotton to some bacon-loving francophone disrespecting Dixie and took him to task in their 1974 hit. The Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Sheffield, Alabama, was founded in 1969 by a group of backing musicians who called themselves the Swampers. The quartet had defected from the nearby FAME Studios to set up their own studio and they eventually became the first rhythm section to own their own studio, production and publication companies.

14. “Brass in Pocket,” The Pretenders

“Got brass in pocket, got bottle, I’m gonna use it”
“Been driving, Detroit leaning”… “Got a new skank, so reet”

Even though lead singer Chrissie Hynde grew up in Akron, Ohio, she picked up some local slang when she moved to London in 1973 to form a new band. “Brass in pocket” is British slang for money (it originally referred to the color of the gold coins), and “bottle” means courage. The “Detroit lean” refers to the Motown habit of driving with one hand on the steering wheel while slouching slightly to the right. “Skanking” is a dance step in which the body moves from side to side, and “reet” means cool, or righteous.

15. "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me," Billy Joel

“Maybe I should buy some old tab collars?” … “How about a pair of pink sidewinders and a bright orange pair of pants? You could really be a Beau Brummel, baby”

Joel’s tribute to substance over style hit number one in the summer of 1980. The lyrics mention all sorts of trends, both in fashion and music, beginning with a classic tab-collared shirt. This style of men’s dress shirt has two small fabric tabs in the middle of the collar points that are meant to connect to push the tie knot up and out. Sidewinders are a style of slip-on shoe: Some were sneakers, and others were more dressy leather loafers, but the pink variety more likely referred to the canvas-topped version. George “Beau” Brummell was the arbiter of men’s fashion in Regency England. He is credited with making trousers (as opposed to knee breeches and stockings) standard wear, along with a crisp, ironed shirt, tailored suitcoat and knotted necktie.

16. “Killer Queen,” Queen

“She keeps a Moët et Chandon in her pretty cabinet”

Freddie Mercury has said that this 1974 hit was about a “high-class call girl,” so it makes sense that she would keep a bottle of very expensive champagne in her liquor cabinet. The Moët et Chandon winery was established in 1743 and currently holds a Royal Warrant to supply their bubbly to Queen Elizabeth II.

17. "Down on the Corner," Creedence Clearwater Revival

“Blinky thumps the gut bass and solos for a while. Poorboy twangs the rhythm out on his kalamazoo.”

The gut bass as a musical instrument was simply an overturned metal washtub used as a resonator for a broomstick with one or more strings attached to it to make the sound of a bass violin. The Gibson Guitar Corporation was founded in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 1902, and for many years the city’s imprint was stamped on all of their guitars and mandolins.

18. “Sweet Emotion,” Aerosmith

“Tellin' other things, but your girlfriend lied; Can't catch me cause the rabbit done died.”

Until home pregnancy tests became commonplace, a woman had to make an appointment with a doctor to determine whether or not she was with child. The standard method was the so-called “rabbit test,” which involved the doctor injecting the patient’s urine into the ovaries of a female rabbit and then waiting 48 hours or more for the telltale changes which signaled the presence of the hCG hormone. Of course, the phrase “the rabbit died” itself was a misnomer because, regardless of the outcome, the bunny was already deceased prior to its ovaries being removed for testing purposes. But the phrase was commonly used, and it worked lyrically in this case to indicate that just because Girlfriend was in a family way, Boyfriend could not automatically assume that Steven Tyler was the father.

19. "Wrapped Around Your Finger," The Police

“You consider me the young apprentice caught between the Scylla and Charybdis.”

“Caught between the Scylla and Charybdis” is a fancy-schmancy way of saying “between a rock and a hard place” if you’re a student of Greek mythology. According to Homer’s Odyssey, Scylla and Charybdis were two sea monsters who lived within an arrow shot’s distance on opposite sides of a strait that was an important means of passage for sailors of that era.

20. "Jack and Diane," John Cougar Mellencamp

“Let's run off behind a shady tree, dribble off those Bobbie Brooks let me do what I please.”

The “let me do what I please,” added to the stealth of doing so behind a tree, makes it fairly obvious that the singer has less than noble intentions. If any further evidence was needed for his motives, let the record show that Bobbie Brooks was and is the name of a clothing line that was founded in 1939. Their most popular and enduring item, though, is a selection of blue jeans that are now sold exclusively at Dollar General stores.

21. "Werewolves of London," Warren Zevon

“I saw Lon Chaney, Jr. walking with the Queen doing the werewolves of London. I saw a werewolf drinking a piña colada at Trader Vic's…”

Lon Chaney, born Leonidas Frank Chaney, was a silent film actor who was known for playing “grotesque” characters such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera. Thanks to his ability to transform his visage so drastically with makeup, he was known as “The Man of 1000 Faces.” His son carried on the family tradition, playing monsters in many Mummy, Frankenstein, Werewolf and Dracula movies in the 1930s and '40s. Trader Vic’s is a restaurant chain that at one time (during the Tiki craze of the 1950s) had 25 Polynesian-themed upscale eateries worldwide. Founder Victor Bergeron was one of two people who claimed to be the creator of the Mai Tai cocktail.

10 Fascinating Facts About the Thesaurus for National Thesaurus Day

iStock.com/LeitnerR
iStock.com/LeitnerR

Writers often turn to a thesaurus to diversify their vocabulary and add nuance to their prose. But looking up synonyms and antonyms in a thesaurus can help anyone—writer or not—find the most vivid, incisive words to communicate thoughts and ideas. Since January 18 is Thesaurus Day, we’re celebrating with these 10 fascinating facts about your thesaurus.

1. Its name comes from the Greek word for treasure.

Greek lettering.
iStock

Most logophiles consider the thesaurus to be a treasure trove of diction, but the word thesaurus really does mean "treasure." It derives from the Greek word thésauros, which means a storehouse of precious items, or a treasure.

2. You can call them thesauruses or thesauri.

Row of old books lined up.
iStock

How do you refer to more than one octopus? People say everything from octopuses to octopi to octopodes. Similarly, many people have trouble figuring out the correct plural form of the word thesaurus. Though thesauri is technically correct—it attaches a Latin suffix to the Latin word thēsaurus—both thesauri and thesauruses are commonly used and accepted today.

3. Early thesauruses were really dictionaries.

Close-up of the term 'ideal' in a thesaurus.
iStock

Ask a French scholar in the 16th century to see his thesaurus, and he'd gladly give you a copy of his dictionary. In the early 1530s, a French printer named Robert Estienne published Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, a comprehensive Latin dictionary listing words that appeared in Latin texts throughout an enormous span of history. And in 1572, Estienne's son Henri published Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, a dictionary of Greek words. Although the Estiennes's books were called thesauruses, they were really dictionaries comprised of alphabetical listings of words with their definitions.

4. A Greek historian wrote the first book of synonyms.

Stacks of books surrounding an open book and a pair of glasses.
iStock

Philo of Byblos, a Greek historian and grammarian, wrote On Synonyms, a dictionary of synonyms that scholars consider to be the first ancient thesaurus. Dating to the late 1st century or early 2nd century CE, the book lists Greek words that are similar in meaning to each another. Sadly, we don’t know much more about On Synonyms because copies of the work haven’t survived over the centuries.

5. An early Sanskrit thesaurus was written in the form of a poem.

Sanskrit lettering.
iStock

In the 4th century CE, an Indian poet and grammarian named Amara Sinha wrote The Amarakosha, a thesaurus of Sanskrit words. Rather than compile a boring list of similar words, Amara Sinha turned his thesaurus into a long poem. Divided into three sections—words relating to the divine, the earth, and everyday life—The Amarakosha contains verses so readers could memorize words easily. This thesaurus is the oldest book of its kind that still exists.

6. A British doctor wrote the first modern thesaurus.

Portrait of Peter Mark Roget.
Thomas Pettigrew, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Peter Mark Roget is the British doctor credited with authoring the first modern thesaurus. In 1805, he began compiling a list of words, arranged by their meaning and grouped according to theme. After retiring from his work as a physician in 1852, Roget published his Thesaurus of English words and phrases; so classified and arranged as to facilitate the expression of ideas and assist in literary composition. Today, Roget’s Thesaurus is still commercially successful and widely used. In fact, we celebrate Thesaurus Day on January 18 because Roget was born on this day in 1779.

7. The thesaurus has a surprising link to a mathematical tool.

Image of a vintage log log slide rule.
Joe Haupt, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The division between "words people" and "numbers people" is deep-seated. Many mathematicians may try to steer clear of thesauruses, and bibliophiles may avoid calculators, but the thesaurus is actually linked to a mathematical tool. Around 1815, Roget invented the log-log slide rule, a ruler-like device that allows users to easily calculate the roots and exponents of numbers. So while the inventor of the thesaurus was compiling words for his tome, he was also hard at work on the log-log slide rule. A true jack-of-all-trades.

8. The Oxford English Dictionary has its own historical thesaurus.

Synonyms for
iStock

In 1965, a professor of English Language at Glasgow University suggested that scholars should create a historical thesaurus based on entries in the Oxford English Dictionary. The project was a massive undertaking, as people from multiple countries worked for 44 years to compile and classify words. Published in 2009, the Historical Thesaurus to the Oxford English Dictionary contains 800,000 words organized by theme and date. The thesaurus covers words and synonyms from Old English to the present day and lets readers discover when certain words were coined and how long they were commonly used.

9. One artist turned his love of words into a series of thesaurus paintings.

Mel Bochner,
Mel Bochner, "Crazy," 2004. Francesca Castelli, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In 2014, the Jewish Museum in New York showed a survey of conceptual artist Mel Bochner’s art. Bochner had incorporated words and synonyms in his paintings for years—which were collectively referred to as the thesaurus paintings—featuring word paintings and lists of synonyms on canvas. The brightly colored paintings feature different groups of English and Yiddish synonyms. According to Bochner, Vietnam and Iraq war veterans cried after seeing his thesaurus painting Die, which features words and phrases such as expire, perish, succumb, drop dead, croak, go belly up, pull the plug, and kick the bucket.

10. There's an urban thesaurus for all your slang synonym needs

Copy of an Urban Dictionary book.
Effie Yang, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Urban Dictionary helps people decipher the latest slang terms, but where should you go when you need a thesaurus of slang? Urban Thesaurus, of course. The site, which is not affiliated with Urban Dictionary, indexes millions of slang terms culled from slang dictionaries, then calculates usage correlations between the terms. Typing in the word money, for example, gives you an eclectic list of synonyms including scrilla, cheddar, mulah, coin, and bling.

This story originally ran in 2017.

10 Endangered Alphabets You Should See Before It's Too Late

The Glagolitic script carved into wood
The Glagolitic script carved into wood
Courtesy of Tim Brookes

The Arabic and Simplified Chinese scripts aren't in danger of going anywhere anytime soon, but the same can't be said for Balinese, Mali, Pahawh (or Pahauh) Hmong, and the other 100-some alphabets that Vermont-based writer Tim Brookes has cataloged in his online Atlas of Endangered Alphabets, which is set for a soft launch on January 17. The featured alphabets—which Brookes has loosely defined to include writing systems of all sorts—are vanishing for varied reasons, including government policies, war, persecution, cultural assimilation, and globalization.

“The world is becoming much more dependent on global communications and those global communications take place in a relatively small number of writing systems—really something between 15 and 20,” Brookes tells Mental Floss. “And because that’s the case, all the others are to some degree being eroded.”

The atlas will include a bit of background information about each alphabet as well as links to any organizations attempting to revive them. By creating a hub for these alphabets, Brookes hopes to connect people who want to preserve their language and culture, while also showing the world how beautiful and intricate some of these scripts—including the 10 below—can be.

1. Cherokee

Although the Manataka American Indian Council says an ancient Cherokee writing system may have existed at one point but was lost to history, Cherokee was more or less a spoken language up until the early 19th century. Around 1809, a Cherokee man named Sequoyah started working on an 86-character writing system known as a syllabary, in which the symbols represent syllables. Most remarkably, Sequoyah himself had never learned how to read. At the time, many Native Americans deeply distrusted writing systems, and Sequoyah was put on trial for witchcraft after tribal leaders caught wind of his new creation. However, once they realized that written Cherokee could be used to preserve their language and culture, they asked Sequoyah to start teaching the syllabary. “The Cherokee achieved 90 percent literacy more rapidly than any other people in history that we know of,” Brookes says. “[Sequoyah’s syllabary] is one of the greatest intellectual achievements of all time.”

After a period of decline in the years following the Indian Removal Act of 1830, Cherokee language education saw somewhat of a revival in the late 20th century. The predominance of English and the Latin alphabet has made these efforts an uphill battle, though. Brookes says it’s difficult to find people who can teach the script, and even among Cherokee translators, few are confident in their grasp of the writing system.

2. Inuktitut

A stop sign containing the Inuktitut script
A stop sign in Nunavut, Canada
Sébastien Lapointe, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Nine different writing systems are used among Canada’s 59,500 Inuit. Many of these are based on the Latin alphabet, but the one shown above uses syllabics that were first introduced by European missionaries in the 19th century. Since it’s difficult and costly to represent each of these writing systems in official documents, many Inuit officials write and hold meetings in English, all but ensuring the demise of their mother tongue. However, Canada’s national Inuit organization, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, is now in the process of developing one common script for all Inuit. “Our current writing systems were introduced through the process of colonization,” the organization writes on its website. “The unified Inuktut [the collective name for Inuit languages] writing system will be the first writing system created by Inuit for Inuit in Canada.” It remains to be seen what that script will look like.

3. Glagolitic

A tablet containing the Glagolitic script
The Baška tablet, which was made around the year 1100
Neoneo13, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

It’s widely believed that Glagolitic, the oldest known Slavic script, was invented by missionaries Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius around 860 CE in an effort to translate the Gospels and convert the Slavs to Christianity. The name Glagolitic stems from the Old Church Slavonic word glagolati, meaning to speak. Some of the symbols were lifted from Greek, Armenian, and Georgian, while others were entirely new inventions. Nowadays, academics are typically the only ones who can decipher the script, but some cultural institutions have made efforts to preserve its legacy. In 2018, the National and University Library in Zagreb launched an online portal containing digitized versions of Glagolitic texts. In addition to being a source of Croatian heritage and pride, the alphabet has also become an object of tourist fascination. Visitors can view monuments containing Glagolitic symbols along the Baška Glagolitic Path on the Croatian island of Krk. And in Zagreb, the capital city, it’s not hard to find gift shops selling merchandise adorned with Glagolitic writing. However helpful this may be to the tourism sector, it's no guarantee that more Croatians will want to start learning the script.

4. Mandombe

The Mandombe script
Moyogo, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

This African script is unusual for several reasons. For one, the Mandombe alphabet reportedly came to David Wabeladio Payi—a member of the Kimbanguist church in the Democratic Republic of Congo—in a series of dreams and spiritual encounters in the late ‘70s. One day, he was looking at his wall when he noticed that the mortar between the bricks seemed to form two numbers: five and two. He believed these were divine clues, so he set out to create a series of symbols based off those shapes. Eventually, he assigned the symbols phonographic meaning and turned it into an alphabet that could be used by speakers of the Kikongo and Lingala languages. Perhaps most remarkably, the pronunciation changes depending on how the symbols are rotated. “It’s one of about three writing systems in the world where that’s true,” Brookes says. Unlike most of the other alphabets on this list, Mandombe is growing in popularity rather than declining. However, because it’s primarily being taught in Kimbanguist schools and used only for religious texts, it will be a challenge to convince the rest of the population to start using it. Elsewhere in the country, the Latin alphabet is used (French is the official language). “What it’s up against is, in essence, exactly the same forces that a declining script is up against,” Brookes says. For this reason, many new alphabets can be considered endangered.

5. Ditema tsa Dinoko

In a similar vein, Ditema tsa Dinoko is also a minority script, and it's too new to tell if it will stick around. A team of South African linguists, designers, and software programmers invented this intricate, triangular-shaped alphabet in just the last decade in hopes of forging a single script that could be used by speakers of indigenous languages in South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique. Because the symbols were inspired by artworks and beadwork designs that are typical of the region, the alphabet is also a celebration of culture. “One of the really interesting features of African alphabets is how deeply embedded they are in what we would call graphic design,” Brookes says. “Instead of imitating the shapes or structures or layout of other writing systems, such as our alphabet, they often start from a completely different point of view and draw on designs that are found in war paintings, weaving textiles, pottery, and all of those other available graphic elements.” The colors used in the alphabet aren't necessary to understand the script, but they hark back to the alphabet's artistic origins while also functioning as a kind of font. For instance, different writers may use different colors to give their text "a certain feel or emotional resonance," Brookes says.

6. Mandaic

The Mandaic script
Courtesy of Tim Brookes

This ancient, mystic script dates back to the 2nd century CE and is still being used by some Mandaeans in Iraq and Iran. According to mythology, the language itself predates humanity, and the script was historically used to create religious texts. Charles Häberl, now an associate professor of Middle Eastern languages and literatures at Rutgers University, wrote in a 2006 paper that Mandaic is “unlike any other script found in the modern Middle East." And unlike most scripts, it has changed very little over the centuries. Despite its enduring quality, many of the speakers in Iraq have fled to other countries since the U.S. invasion in 2003. As these speakers assimilate into new cultures, it becomes more challenging to maintain their linguistic traditions.

7. Lanna

The Lanna script
Courtesy of Tim Brookes

According to Brookes, the Lanna script was primarily used during the time of the Lanna Kingdom in present-day Thailand from the 13th century to the 16th century. It’s still used in some regions of northern Thailand, but faces stiff competition from the predominant Thai script. The word Lanna translates to "land of a million rice fields." The script is one of Brookes’s personal favorites as far aesthetics are concerned. “It is so extraordinarily fluid and beautiful,” he says. “They developed this script to indicate not only consonants, but then the consonants have vowel markings and other consonant markings and tonal markings both above and below the main letters, and so you have this amazingly joyous and elaborate writing system, and it’s like a pond of goldfish. Everything is just curving around and swimming in all these different directions.”

8. Dongba

The Dongba script
Courtesy of Aubrey Wang

Members of the Naxi ethnic minority in China’s Yunnan province have been using this colorful pictographic script for well over 1000 years. The pictures stand for tangible objects like mud, mountains, and high alpine meadows, as well as intangible concepts such as humanity and religion [PDF]. Historically, it was mainly used by priests to help them remember their ceremonial rites, and the word Dongba means "wise man." However, the script has undergone something of a revival in recent years, having been promoted by people working in the arts and tourism industries. It’s also taught in some elementary schools, and it remains one of the few pictographic scripts that’s still in use today. At the same time, Brookes says he's seen little evidence of efforts "to create a circumstance where the script is actually used in a functional, everyday fashion." With the predominant Chinese script looming large throughout much of the country, Dongba's days may be numbered.

9. Tibetan

A student writes the Tibetan script
China Photos/Getty Images

Some of the world’s alphabets and languages are endangered for political reasons. Tibetan is perhaps the best-known example of that. The Chinese government has cracked down on language instruction in recent years, with the aim of promoting Mandarin, the predominant language—although some have argued this policy comes at the expense of minority languages. In Tibet, many schools now conduct the bulk of their lessons in Mandarin, and Tibetan might be taught in a separate language course. Chinese officials put a Tibetan activist on trial in January 2018 for “inciting separatism”—partly because he criticized the government’s policies on Tibetan language education. He was sentenced to five years in prison. In general, “the story behind endangered alphabets is almost never a pleasant or cheerful one, so that’s the human rights side of it,” Brookes says.

10. Mongolian

The Mongolian script

Anand.orkhon, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Some have likened the appearance of the traditional Mongolian script to a kind of vertical Arabic. The script traveled to Mongolia by way of a Turkic ethnic group called the Uighurs in the 1100s. Beginning with Genghis Khan, Mongol leaders used the script to record historic events during their reign. Later, when Mongolia became a Soviet satellite state, the country started using the Cyrillic alphabet in the 1940s, and the traditional script was largely cast aside. The traditional alphabet is still used in inner Mongolia and is returning to Mongolia, and the renaissance of Mongolian calligraphy has bolstered its usage to some degree. Nonetheless, it, too, remains endangered.

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