Artists Books
Penny Nii, What Did You Mean? v2
Penny Nii, What Did You Mean? v2
Penny Nii, What Did You Mean? v2
Penny Nii, What Did You Mean? v2

This book has the same contents as What Did You Mean? Version 1. Like Twelve, I wanted the book to open into a cylinder with the mini-books fanning out.

About Writings

Knowledge is transmitted most accurately and efficiently through writing. All the marks and symbols in this book are pieces from different writing systems. The meanings are lost, because either the language or culture have ceased to exit, or the writing evolved into other forms, or a few people, if any, are left who can read and understand them.

Three peoples in three different regions independently invented writing. The oldest writing is Sumerian cuneiform invented shortly before 3000 BCE in Mesopotamia. Chinese appeared around 1300 BCE and Mayan around 600 BCE. There is some controversy about Egyptian – did the people invent the idea of writing or did they create their own writing system after being exposed to cuneiform? Regardless, Egyptian can be traced back to about 3000 BCE.

Writing is simply a sequence of marks or symbols. There are three basic strategies in creating a writing system. First, a mark can represent a single sound, a syllable or a word. Today most of the world uses alphabet where a unique mark, called a letter, represents a basic sound of a language. Combinations of letters are used to express all the sounds, or phonemes, of that language.

Second, a symbol can represent a syllable of a spoken language. A symbol, or a combination of symbols, usually two, is called a syllabary. Today the Japanese kana are examples of syllabary. In ancient times Linear B of the Mycenaean Greece used a syllabic system.

Finally, a symbol can represent a word, called a logogram. Chinese is a prime example of logograms in use today, but Sumerian cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphs and Mayan glyphs are also logograms. It’s interesting to note that Egyptian hieroglyph eventually evolved into the Western alphabet.

The Mini-Books

Book 1: Title page

The image with conifers on the cover page tells a sad love story of a Yukaghir girl written by her friends around 1892. The Yukaghir tribe lives in northeastern Siberia.

Inside left: A poem written in Japanese.

Inside right: The syllable ‘mu’ in Nakatomi script. The particulars of this writing system are not known, but it was developed by a person of the Nakatomi clan, a powerful family in early Japan.

Back: Rock paintings from California.

Book 2: Middle East

Front: Babylonian cuneiform.

Inside left to right:

  1. Ten examples of stages in the development of Mesopotamian cuneiform script (bird, fish, donkey, ox, sun, grain, orchard, plough, boomerang and foot).
  2. Text of an incantation on a bowl from Babylonia attributed to 8thcentury AD.
  3. Islamic calligraphy in the Nestorian script from Persia, ca. 15thcentury. Nestorian script is a branch of Aramaic writing. Aramaic is the ancestor of Hebrew, Arabic and Persian writing systems.

Back: Old Persian (an unidentified branch of Aramaic).

Book 3: Chinese Sub-continent

Front: Taoist talisman composed of cloud- and animal-shaped characters used in seals.

Inside left to right and bottom:

  1. Divination inscribed on a tortoise shell on the occasion of a hunt at Kwei by King Wu-ting of Shang dynasty.
  2. Six out of a set of 1000 versions of Chinese logogram ‘happiness.’
  3. Taoist talisman of the twelve animals of the Asian zodiac. (In the brown/red pairs, each is of the same animal but in different form.) Each Talisman is composed of two logograms. Taoism was formed in the middle of Eastern Han dynasty (25 – 220 AD), but the specifics of the zodiac talismans are unknown
  4. A portion of The Gospel of St. Johnin Manchu script. Ahkai Fulingga, who came to the Manchu throne in 1616, is considered the creator of the Manchu script. Manchu is read from top to bottom, left to right.
  5. A portion of a book in Na-khi script thought to be used by medicine men. Dates unknown. The Na-khi is an ethnic group living in the foothills of Himalaya in southwestern China.

Back: Pictogram from Shang dynasty (approximately 1450 BCE to 1000 BCE).

Book 4: South America

Front: Mayan rabbit god, from a vase from 8thcentury AD.

Inside left to right and bottom:

  1. Mayan month glyphs. Each month consists of 20 days except one (right bottom) called Uayeb that contains 5 unnamed days.
  2. A portion of a complex Mayan calendar.
  3. An inscription on a sarcophagus of Pacal found in Palenque. The eight glyphs tell of the birth and death of the Mayan ruler. Pacal was born on 26 March 603 AD and died on 31 August 683 AD. The right-most glyph is a name of a ruler ‘Hand Shield’ – ‘Pacal’ means shield.

Back: Pictographic Aztec codex. “A suitor named One House brings presents to Nine Wind and Ten Eagle, the parents of princess Six Monkey, living at a place called Cloud-Belching-Mountain. Six Monkey turns her back on the wooer.”

Book 5: Egypt

Front: Cartouches of Autocrator (probably a reference to Emperor Augustus) and Caesar. A hieroglyph is a combination of phonograms (representing sounds) or a logogram.

Inside left to right and bottom:

  1. Corresponding symbols in hieroglyph and hieratic. Hieratic is a cursive form of hieroglyph used for letter, documents and manuscripts written on papyrus. The hieroglyphs were too cumbersome for practical purposes and were used primarily in carvings on stone monuments. Many manuscripts use both hieroglyph and hieratic.
  2. A portion of papyrus eber (papyrus of herbal knowledge), from the 18thdynasty (1570 – 1310 BCE).
  1. Cartouches of Alexander, Queen Berenice and Ptolemy.

Back: Cartouche of Ramsses.

Book 6: Europe

Front: A stone tablet inscribed in Linear A.

Inside left to right:

  1. Pictish Ogham. Ogham was used exclusively by Celts of the British Isle, predominantly in Ireland. Its origin is unknown but Ogham is an alphabetic system influenced by early Greek. The Pictish Oghams shown here were found in Aberdeen and on Isle of Man (the right portion). Ogham was read right to left from bottom to top then across to read top to bottom.
  2. Symbols of Linear B drawn by Michael Ventris before he deciphered them in 1952. Linear B, found in Knossos in the palace of King Minos (of the Minotaur fame) and other parts of Crete and mainland Greece, is an archaic form of Greek.
  3. Linear A inscription written in ink on a pottery. Linear A has not been decoded but its use is placed at around 1600 to 1700 BCE in Crete.
  4. Phaistos Disc found in Crete dated to be no later than 1700 BCE. It is baked clay inscribed on both sides with a punch or stamp and is considered the earliest ‘typewritten’ document. The meaning has not been deciphered.

Back: A fragment of a letter dated 14 July 1735.

Book 7: Japan

Front: A Japanese coin.

Inside left to right:

  1. From a record of old coins with accompanying poems published in late 19thCentury.
  2. An old Buddhist saying written in three lines in hiragana, a syllabary. The second line is a drawing made up of hiragana whose meaning is left to the readers to decipher.
  3. The picture by Hokusai accompanied a drawing of oiran, a lady of the pleasure quarters. This picture was used to teach students how to get the spirit of the subject into drawings. The oiranis drawn with kana and kanji (syllabaries and logograms), and the picture contains the word: ‘evening,’ ‘person,’ ‘make,’ ‘thousand,’ and a few syllabic characters. It is accompanied by a poem; to paraphrase, “Every evening oiranmakes herself look into the hearts of thousand people.”
  4. (background) A portion of an explanation of, and commentary on, the 64 I Ching hexagrams – written in 1826. I Ching is an ancient Chinese divination system.

Back: A portion from and annual horoscope of 1831.

Book 8: Bibliography

Karen Brookfield. Writing. A Dorling Kindersley Book, London, England, 1993.

Jared Diamond. Guns, Germs, and Steel. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, New York, 1999.

David Diringer. The Alphabet: A Key to the History of Mankind, Third Edition. Funk and Wagnalls, New York, New York, 1968. Two volume edition.

Georges Jean (Translated by Sophie Hawkes). Signs, Symbols and Ciphers: Decoding the Message. Thames and Hudson, London, England, 1989.

Yukimasa Matsuda. Zerro. Ushiwakamuru Publishing, Tokyo, Japan, 2003. (in Japanese)

Andrew Robinson. The Story of Writing. Thames and Hudson, New York, New York, 1995.

Kohei Sugiura. Cosmology of the Written Word. Shaken Co. Ltd., Tokyo, Japan 1998, (in Japanese

Collection of Auspicious Characters. New World Publishing, Beijing, China, 2002. (in Chinese)

Penny Nii, San Francisco 2005/6

8.25″h x 9.75″w

A collection of archaic writings and writing systems.

Eight mini-books stitched onto a modified double-hinged star structure.

Paper and fabric. Images and text manipulated in Photoshop and printed on inkjet printer. Images on fabric manipulated on copier machine.

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Penny Nii, What Did You Mean? Version 1