Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Letters, Words, and Phrases

I've been listening to the History of English Podcast on my commute.

One thing he talks about is how important the adoption of an alphabet was in the development and spread of the languages that led to English.  The advantage of an alphabet - as opposed to pictographs, syllabary, and logographics - is that it makes it a lot easier to teach to people because you only have to memorize relatively small amount of letters to make up any word (or really, sound combination) in the language, versus needing to learn a huge number of symbols.  It makes literacy easier to communicate and teach to larger populations.

Not to mention type.

To write any word in the English language, I only need 26 letters and a bit of punctuation at times.  Heck, if we simplified our spelling (and I'm learning in listening to this podcast why we have all of these funky spellings), we'd need even fewer.  For example, we don't really need the letter "C" in Modern English, as the function it serves in English today is covered by the letters "S" and "K".

So, the entire English language - with its estimated vocabulary of over 1 million words - is built using only 26 symbols.  Heck, Greek, with its incredibly large vocabulary, does the exact same thing with only 24 symbols!

It makes the language so easy, very small children learn this stuff early on and master it relatively quickly.

Additionally, new words can be added to the language without the need for new symbols.  Heck, we have new words - either borrowed from other languages, new compound words or completely made up words - coming into English all the time.

This got me thinking about the martial arts.

Surprise, surprise.
Of course, in the Filipino Martial Arts, we have the "Abecedario" ("alphabet" in Spanish) concept.  The exact definition changes from art to art, but in general, the term refers to the basics of the art - the building blocks for the higher concepts.  It can include everything from the way we hold a weapon or our fundamental angles of attack, to a set of specific skill building drills, to basic blocking concepts.

But I have been thinking in a broader, and maybe more basic, way about the "alphabet" of my art.

We have been thinking about breaking down stuff we do into its very most basic levels and concepts.  Then, you build them back up in various ways to form new techniques.  Much like you use an alphabet to write words and phrases.

The cool thing about the idea, if it works, is that you can use the very basic building blocks - the alphabet - to form new ideas and concepts that may not currently exist in what you do.

Let's take blocking against an incoming high angled forehand strike to the head.  What Modern Arnis, and many other systems, would call a #1 strike.

BAM!

There are many ways I can deal with this incoming strike, including:
  • Supported block (my hand on my stick)
  • Block+Check (my hand on his hand)
  • Deflection or cutting block to the inside (step in as I counter-attack the stick)
  • Post block (unsupported block)
  • Crossada or gunting block
  • Palis-Palis, or passing it and going with the force
Each of these blocking types can also be done against a backhand strike (what we would call a #2 strike) on the same angle - and on the other angles too.  And you can use similar motions with an empty hand (versus the arm, of course) as well as with a stick.

Each of these blocking types may have different ways to do them depending on the context - much like we pronounce different letters different ways in context with other letters around them.

These ideas are part of the alphabet of what I do. 

We've been playing with the Block+Check/Supported Block concept and the fundamental ways you can place the "checking" hand versus a #1 and a #2 strike.  Versus a #1 strike, I can...
  • Supported block (my hand on my stick) - hand can immediately capture the stick on either "side" of my stick (near his hand or at the end of his stick)
  • Block+Check (my hand on his hand)
  • Block+Check stick capture (my hand on his hand capturing his hand AND his stick)
  • Block+Check on the wrist
  • Block+Check stick capture where I invert my checking hand palm up so I can "flip over" his stick ("Open the Door").
These are not the only ways I can deal with this strike, but they do cover about 95% of the techniques I've been taught over the years that use Block+Check and Supported Block as the initial response.  

To take this whole idea of "martial arts as language" further... all Filipino Martial Arts have a similar alphabet but may put them together in different ways.  Like in language, the same alphabet may be pronounced with different accents, or used across different dialects.  The same "base" alphabet may be the same across many languages - such as the similarity between English and Spanish, where Spanish has an extra letter English doesn't have.  Just as the same techniques or concepts may be the same in different martial arts but each has its own unique way of thinking about it or putting it together.

Some may be as different from one another as the Cyrllic alphabet (with its 33 characters) and the English alphabet.  Or, we end up with such a huge difference in how things are done - take the English alphabet and written Japanese, with its three character types - that there's very little commonality at all.

So I'm curious - what's YOUR alphabet in your art?  Do you think about what you do in this way?  Or is your art more like using syllabary and logograhics - like writing Chinese or Japanese?  Let us know in the comments!