Language and the Invention of Writing

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January 28, 2019 10:39 a.m.
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In late December I recommended one of my favorite recent books off my reading list – recent in this case meaning when I read them, not necessarily when they were published. That was Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Oster. (You can see my review and recommendation here.) I’ve been casting about since and in the last week I’ve finally found a book on a related topic that has captured my interest: The Writing Revolution: Cuneiform to the Internet by Amalia E. Gnanadesikan. But what really prompted me to write this post was this poster I saw on Jason Kottke’s site.

(You can purchase the poster here from a place called usefulcharts.com.)

As you can see, the poster traces the evolution of our modern Latin alphabet back to what is known as Proto-Sinaitic. All of this is prologue to my current fascination with the history of writing.

Language is not an invention. As best we can tell it is an evolved feature of the human brain. There have been almost countless languages humans have spoken. But they all follow certain rules that grow out of the wiring of the human brain and human cognition. Critically, it is something that is hardwired into us. Writing is an altogether different and artificial thing.

Since we live in a highly literate culture, it can be a bit hard not to think of writing as just a different version of language – there’s the sound version and the written version. But again, there’s nothing natural about it or inevitable. Indeed, the invention of various scripts that can encode virtually all the potential meaning of human speech and as well as it sounds is one of the most fascinating stories of human history.

Here we get back to the chart above and indirectly the Gnanadesikan book, which currently has me engrossed. There have been a number of independent originations of writing in human history. There is the origination of cuneiform in what is now southern Iraq, the origination of Chinese characters in northern China, the origination of hieroglyphics in the Nile Valley (which may or may not have been loosely related to the idea of cuneiform or exposure to it) and the originations in the pre-Columbian Americas like the Mayan glyph system, which has only been deciphered in the last few decades. In many cases, it is hard to be certain which originations are entirely from scratch versus at least some influence from the idea of another writing system if not directly an adaptation of it. (For instance, is Linear B – from Crete and mainland Greece – an idea people in the Aegean got from hearing about or seeing cuneiform or hieroglyphics?) But our modern world is dominated by only two lines of descent: the character system which is used in China and with some modifications much of East Asia and the ancestor of the alphabet we use as readers and writers of English.

Here again we come back to the chart. Historians of writing believe that our current alphabet originated as a sort of quick-and-dirty adaptation of Egyptian hieroglyphics into a simpler and more flexible way of writing. You take a small number of hieroglyphic characters representing specific things, decide to use them not for their meaning but for their sound and then use this as a way to encode the sound of words in almost any language. In this particular case it was to encode a Semitic language related to and ancestral to Hebrew and Phoenician. It was likely devised by soldiers of traders operating either in Egypt or between Egypt and what’s now Israel and Jordan.

This basic A B C D formulation is the foundation of the writing systems for not only all languages that use the Latin alphabet but also those which use the Greek, Cyrillic and Arabic alphabets along with numerous others. What is particularly fascinating is that most historians of writing believe that this invention – the alphabet, designed by and for sub-literate Semites living on the borderlands of Egypt about 4,000 years ago – is likely the origin point of all modern alphabets. In some cases, it’s a direct lineal descent as in Canaanite to Greek to Latin to our modern alphabet. But the creators of the alphabets that now dominate South Asia (originating 2500 to 3000 years ago) also seem to have borrowed at least the idea of the alphabet from these Semitic innovators, though others believe they are an indigenous creation.

The deep history of these letters we are now communicating through is like the DNA – or perhaps rather the record of the DNA – of human cognition and thought, processed through language and encoded into writing.

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