Posted March 8, 2011): Given as part of Senior University Georgetown's February-March 2011 program.
(This is the first part of the first lecture---an introductory overview. See also the second part as the Very Early History of Writing, which will then segue into the 2nd lecture The Early History of Writing 3. Mid-History of Writing 4. Further Developments (Typography, Calligraphy, etc.) 5: Invented Writing Systems 6 Codes and Playing with Alphabets 6a Summary and Further Considerations
Note also, written several years earlier, an overall introduction to Scriptology elsewhere on my website, along with further comments,
and also on its own web-page, a rather full bibliography of books related to Scriptology.
What is writing? First, the word has two meanings: Often there are books about writing, but they are referring to the skill of composition, writing
well, writing so that people can read and understand what is written. We're not going to be talking about that. (If you google "writing" that is mostly what you get; instead, google "writing systems"!) We're talking about the marks on the paper (or parchment or whatever), the alphabets, hieroglyphics, signs themselves: Where did they come from? The were an invention! A technology! We'll be talking about how this technology was invented and where it came from.
Arabic Cyrillic (Russian)
Chinese Hebrew cursive
First point is that the way we write in English is only the way we write: Most people around the word use a different alphabet---and beyond that, not even an alphabet, exactly---and we'll be explaining that. There are over 2,500 languages in the world now---there was twice that number two hundred years ago, but languages are going extinct as tribal boundaries and identities are fading. And there are several hundred writing systems, only a few will be highlighted here. More can be found on Wikipedia and throug web-browsers like Google. To the right above are some examples of how Coca Cola has become international product and has logos in many languages:
ScriptologyThere is no other name for the inter-disciplinary field that includes linguistics; art; accounting; calligraphy; typography; the history of the evolution of specific alphabets in different countries; decipherment of ancient and previously-unknown scripts; codes and ciphers; shorthands; the teaching of reading and learning to write; and so forth. (See my other webpage about scriptology for a more comprehensive list.). A definition? Scriptology refers to the lore and inter-disciplinary study of the nature and implications and assocations to the way people represent language or ideas in two-dimensional space. (I may need to amplify or shift that definition in time.)
I've been interested in doodling and cartooning since childhood, as you may discover if you browse my website, and part of that was an enjoyment
of comics and code rings and codes and playing with symbols. I discovered that language could be represented by different ways of writing, in Hebrew, Yiddish, in cursive or print, and picked up the idea by seeing examples in encycopedias. Marks on paper! Wow! So for me, as it was for a number of modern artists---and comic book artists---writing and drawing were not separated into compartements. Biff! Bam! Pow!
I had glanced against this "field" intermittently in my readings and at college, but then professional studies largely distracted me until the beginning of the 1970s. I visited a state park with a lot of Sequoyah redwood trees and in the little park museum they had a picture of where that name came from: Sequoyah was the name of a Cherokee Indian (pictured to the left) who invented a writing system for his people. (I'll tell this story more completely in lecture 5) This intrigued me mightily and I was off into a whole minor avocational interest. A decade later I discovered Mayan at a workshop about that culture at the University of Texas, and here was a mixture of what to me seemed like cartooning and also writing and that combined two of my hobbies! Wow, new energy! And so it has gone.
Some Introductory CommentsThis webpage and those for the other lectures, and hyperlinks, and the internet, all are recent additions to the realms of scriptology. It started with monuments and lessons and expanded into literature and myth. The idea of writing letters as personal communication began even when people needed to hire special scribes to do the writing. It's expanded into telegraph and braille, sign languages and codes, maps and diagrams and mathematics. One of the functions of writing is that it gives you an opportunity to re-view it and from that, to think about it a bit. It's not just a matter of memorizing what the old story-teller told you. You can review at your own pace, too, if you can't keep up with the flow of spoken language. And I can add pictures, too.
Pictographs and LogographsThese were the first forms---not exactly writing. Some scholars want to reserve that term for the marks that communicate language, rather than just function as signs or symbols. Pictographs are sort of in-between They are a bit abstract, but they look sort of like what they are supposed to represent:
8. Pictographs and Logographs examples: Once you start making signs and symbols and find ways to disseminate them, language is only a part of what you can communicate: maps, music, traffic directions, etc. Here are some modern pictographs---travel icons. Some are more abstract and are in fact logographs---there's no way unless you know the meaning that you'd know what it means, like P for parking, or that kind of cross for red cross for medical emergency. A logograph is a sign that's not representative of a sound made in spoken language, but some more abstract quality: ¢ £ ¥ € ® ¾ $ & * @ . Other logographs including signs for math, astronomy and astrology, religious symbols, etc.
If you include punctuation marks, logographs enter the writing proper category. And emoticons and other abbreviations in text messaging, 4 = for, 2 = to, u = you, are sort of logo-phono-graphic. (In the next lecture we'll talk about how these blur also in the emergence of writing, in the principles associated with the rebus and the acrophonic association.)
Ancillary Technologies: Paper, Pens, Inks, etc.There’s a joke about the guy who invented the wheel: Defintely credit should be given. Pity we don't know his name. But you know, the guy who invented the other three wheels, the way of keeping this system stable, now he was a genius! The point here is that sometimes what gives a system its power are the ancillary technologies and further applications. The various surfaces and ways of marking on the surface---each one had its own history: The history of the ball-point pen, when it was invented, that the first ones produced cost a lot of money---there's a story there. Ditto with various surfaces, bamboo or quai-paper processing, the invention of paper, the creation of special blends to make inks appropriate for various kinds of surface. Considerations might include such things as inks that won't take too long to dry, or that will sink and diffuse into the surface so that it gets all blurry.
A Unique Invention.
Writing so that language could be stored and reduplicated is a major invention. It only happened one time before around 5,000 years ago, and that was when DNA became the basis for the emergence of life---the DNA being what was stored and reduplicated---also known as the mystery of sex. But then it was just telling stories. Wow! But people had to sort of memorize at least the plot pretty well, and perhaps many of the better turns of phrases---which made for the vocation of the bard. Homer was one of those---and he didn't write down his own stories. We don't know who collected them and put them onto paper, using the early Greek alphabet around 700 BCE.
So most folks relied on the elders to become story tellers, and they told the history of their people, and legends, and fables, with gestures and facial expressions: "The lion roared like this: Rooooaaaaarrrrr!" On the left is a story-teller regaling his pals with something dramatic. That was drama back then, in the olden days before television. Language has been around for at least fifty thousand years, probably twice or three times that.
They key point is that writing filtered very gradually out of its points of origins; it took thousands of years, and for many people---in Sub-Saharan Africa, North and South America, Australia and the Pacific Islands, and in many parts of Asia away from the urban centers, nobody knew how to read or write. They didn't even know that reading and writing as possible---it was inconceivable. At least you could see birds fly and wonder what it might be like. Gradually, the idea of writing expanded, mainly with the explorations and colonizations of the Europeans in the last five hundred years---and even in the last century there have been many peoples introduced to the idea of writing and reading who had never before imagined that representing something as elusive as spoken language, along with gestures and expressions and voice tone, could be represented, however imperfectly, in a form that could be reviewed. The phrase, "there it is in black and white" would be meaningless!
A major point of this series of talks is to heighten your sensitivity to the idea that we live in two artificial media and are almost as unaware of them as fish are of the water in which they swim, and that it is "wet." (The first artificial media is the atmosphere of the planet earth, stuffed full of the products of life, the biosphere---i.e., 20% oxygen. This isn't true on planets without a biosphere. Oxygen is an artificial substance that tends to oxidize or chemically combine with other elements over time---so it's poison to life forms not adapted to it, and indeed who use it and even find oxygen indispensible for living!) Writing has become almost like oxygen to modern people, a medium of social communication that allows people to feel a part of others whose face they don't recognize.
The Function of WritingWriting partakes of the human tendency to externalize, to put that which is vague and unclear outside where it can be heard by others, and feedback given; where it can be seen and re-viewed. Where differences can be discerned. As long as it’s in the mind it’s more like a dream, elusive and multi-dimensional, impossible to pin down. Children need to talk, draw, express themselves. Writers have been known to say, “I don’t know what I think until I write it down.” In its essence, though, and before writing, even with other cultures, what was to become writing first was art and a bit of accounting. Using it as a medium of spoken language came only later!
Writing is an invention and we don't know who did it. Not Zog. That was 194,332 years earlier. I know his name because we still tell the tale in my family of my ancestors in the olden days. Shamush-nebush, the guy who only invented the one wheel, people like that. Anyway, writing arose independently twice in history; once in what is now southeastern Iraq around 5200 years ago, and once in middle america around 2300 years ago. It's probable that some folks in China saw writing used by travelers and traders, but the system itself took on an independent character around 3500 years ago, and other cultures also figured out their own ways of writing in Crete, what is not Turkey, and so forth. A thousand years later the idea spread into Europe elsewhere.
Yes there was proto-writing, but this mixture of art and symbol on cave walls and rocks were mnemonics. That word refers to aids to memory, knots, picture writing, and the like. They don't communicate another level of specificity that comes with signs that specify language itself---that's writing proper. In this pictograph on the right, that scratching above the horse, what does that mean? Fence?
But pre-literate cultures persisted until fairly recently. On the left are pictographs on a bison hide, each one of which marks a year in the early 19th century for a Plains Amerindian tribe. On the right, a bit closer, some of the symbols mark variously a bronchitis epidemic, an eclipse, or some other mnemonic of that year.
Many Types of Writing (A Preview)To Give you another orientation, I’ll give you a taste. In high school in the mid-1950s I had no idea that there were so many ways of communicating language.
Near the top, the dominant writing system of not only Russia, but many languages dominated by the former Soviet Union is a derivative of Greek and adapted by the Eastern Orthodox missionary, Saint Cyril.
The name of the dominant script of north India comes from the word deva, which means something akin to goddess, and the nagiri script. It is also the way the ancient Sanskrit liturgical language is represented. (Sanskrit is to the Hindu religion what Hebrew is to Judaism, Latin is to Roman Catholicism, or Arabic is to Islam; it is generally not the language spoken in everyday life.)
As for the next level, Hebrew, read from right to left. In the sacred texts and in Israel today the script is often used without vowel sounds, but for the schoolroom or in prayer books for those who are less than masterful, vowel sounds are also inserted as dots or small lines above or below the letters.
The Japanese have four writing systems that play off of each other. Kanji, with the more Chinese-looking complex characters; hiragana, a more phonetic form; katakana, for foreign words—almost the way foreign words are written in Roman script in italics---, and finally, Romanji, the integration of Roman letterforms, which is becoming more pervasive in a culture with a lot of text-messages.
The purely Korean script as shown on the right is more widely used in North Korea, because even many hundreds of year later, there is a fair amount of retention of more familiar Chinese-type characters.
Arabic has several styles, this being one of the more common. Arabic scripts have been subject to calligraphic elaboration more than most and for a longer time---calligraphy being the art of making the writing beautiful, ornamental, exotic. That Islam forbids the representation of Allah or Muhammad led them to channel their devotion into geometric design and calligraphy.
Different Writing Systems To Represent SpeechAnother interesting thing about writing systems is that to some significant degree—but rarely perfectly---a system of writing can be used to express many different languages. So, for example, consider the beginning line from Lincoln's Gettysburg Address: :
The first line is recorded as vibrations, wave forms. Okay for mechanical devices, but impractical for a writing system. However, quite accurate, relatively.
The next line is in the writing system developed near the end of the 19th century and revised several times by the internatonal phonetic association. Phonetics involves the science of discerning and identifying the actual sounds made in languages, even though there are often no equivalents in the English or other dominant languages. It's designed to differentiate dialects within a language, pacing, word separation, and even tones. The phonetic letter j is the sound of y as in years; what we call the letter j really has two alternatives, the phonetic dj as in djudj (judge) or the soft j as in the French word for day, jour--written otherwise in English as zh or in phonetic with a cursive kind of z. The ae combination is the hard a as in cat rather than the soft a as in father, and the sort of upside down and backward c is the schwa, a casual uh sound; and so forth. Phonetics is a whole full-semester or year-long class with a lab for practice.
There's the English, and below it the same sentence written in Cyrillic, as noted above. Below that is the way the same words in English would be transcribed in cursive Hindi.
Korean can't capture some of the English phonemes exactly---which is part of the point here. Yet it is in some ways almost phonetic because the signs are in part associated with the shapes of the mouth to make that sign and then assembled.
Below that on the right is the Hieroglyphic language of ancient Egypt---probably the longest-lasting writing system, from 2800 BCE to about 300 CE.
Go down a bit on the right and again, like Hebrew, read from right to left, and you'll see the phonemes of the "Four score" line. Thus people can sometimes take over foreign words and express them somewhat in English.
There is some disconnect, though, because of certain phonemes. There's a "glottal stop" before "score" so that the pronunciation is for / score rather than flowing fourscore. That little catch is phonemically translated with a backward question mark. It happens before and, and also before ago.
Katakana script reveals that the r in Japanese blends into a kind of a or y. The letter L is impossible to say easily to a native speaker of Japanese and tends to come out as an almost R.
China is a big country and just as the USA has people speaking other non-English languages, so too China has minorities, though they aren't immigrants. One of these minorities are the Yi people who have not an alphabet but a syllabary---different signs for ba and bo or fa and fu. Here is their writing system:
Below that is the Cuneiform script using the values assigned to the signs by both Sumerian and Akkadian languages---these are the oldest---around 2300 BCE. Like Cyrillic, or the Roman alphabet we use, or other writing systems, one system with variations might be used to express multiple languages. There are dots and subtle forms in, say, Persian, that differ from Arabic. Cuneiform, then, was used to express words first in Sumerian and then later in the more semitic type language of Akkadian and Babylonian. Persian, later, has different language structures, and so forth.
Finally, Chinese syllables, followed by a Pin-yin equivalent for the characters. The last four systems are really syllabaries, Egyptian and Arabic are more consonantal, and the top ones are phonemic. Thus, writing is, as John DeFrancis says in his book (from which this diagram was taken), "Visible Speech."
Where Has Writing BeenJust to keep you oriented, on the left is a map that suggests some of the locations. Writing spread from the middle east out to Asia, and though China was early in beginning, the writing system came more into the form we know it only in the last 2000 years, as did Korean and Japanese, who began first by incorporating Chinese and then adding their own adaptations later.
The Functions of Writing:Writing might also be thought of as a sort of another language or para-language, or something that both modifies language and is modified by it as both evolve—what’s called co-evolution, like some flowers evolved along with some insects so that one provides food for the other who is uniquely designed to propagate its pollen.
Consider the various functions of writing::
- Broadcasting: writing spreads information over space, beyond the reach of the voice.
- Preserving: writing holds information over time, for future reference. (Videos and television makes it possible to first preserve it and then spread it through space at another time. Also allows for editing.
- Self expression: Writing opens the door to those who may be more effectively self-expressive in ways that are not dramatic or through voice. People who can't speak well can write, tell stories, write poetry. All sorts of other types of art can be expressed through mixing it with writing, including pictorial art. Thus a wide range of topics, genres and purposes are developed.
- Entertainment: Writing need not be serious, it can be playful. You can even play with words, and the way they're spoken. Dialects were used by ancient Greek playwrights to communicate characters, hicks, pompous scholars.
- Law takes on a different tone when grounded in written law. On one hand, it makes for more justice in taking away the tendency for judges to be bribed. At other times, though, as one character in Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist observed, "The law is an ass." Judges could use native wisdom coupled with flexibiity cope with the individual needs of a situation. So there's pros and cons to writing down laws.
- Standards are useful in many ways, especially as science or engineering transcends national borders, and writing is a necessary element in precision, in pinning down how long is a meter or how long is a minute.
- Persuasion: Called "rhetoric" in the Classical world, and considered part of a good education, the art of persuasion, spin-doctoring, word-craft, clear articulation so the audience can hear well and understand (a quality not as prominent as it was in the olden days), the art of not just commercial advertising, but the soul of politics. It's also necessary for public health.
- Reflection and Analysis: To be a good citizen, ideally, one participates in thinking about things rather than just buying into the rhetoric of whoever gets the most coverage on television. Democracy and civil participation depends on this to balance the power of the wealthy to control politics, religion, and propaganda in general.
- Social Connection: Even scientific exchanges in the Renaissance, the "republic of letters," had an undertone of greeting, acknowledging, supporting, asking after the other person's health, commiserating, and generally offering social "strokes" that make for community, however widespread. Nowadays, the lure of the drive to be a part of what's up generates immense traffic on twitter, text-messaging, cell-phone connections, email, etc.
-- Check-Lists: As systems become more complex, it becomes incumbent on professionals to avail themselves of systematic reminder-devices. Atul Gawande's The Checklist Manifesto is illuminating in this regard.
- Supplementing other notational systems and diagrams: maps, blueprints, mathematics, music, shorthand, codes, sign language, translations, etc.
But there’s a downside, expressed by Plato in his dialogue, Phaedrus: “Letters,” said Thoth (the god of writing), “will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit.”
Thamus (the ruler in this dialogue who was wary about the new technology) replied: “O most ingenious Thoth, this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learner’s souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”
This reminds me of what they said---I did too---about the transistor-driven hand-held calculators of the early 1970s and what it would do to less-number-sense-sensitive clerks. However, as I approach elderhood and what I jokingly calle "Sometimer's Disease" (a parody of "All- Tzeimers"), it's good to have web-searching devices like Google to supplement my Senior Moments.
Directionality.We should not assume that all languages are constructed the way English is, or most of the Roman alphabet-driven writing systems are, shown in the upper left corner of the box: to the right. Left to right and top to bottom, as in (b) to the right. In (a), Hebrew, Arabic, and Aramaic (which was the Hebrew-like language spoken in Jesus' time from several centuries before to a several centuries after his lifetime in the Middle East---and in which language it is thought He spoke), the writing system proceeds from right to left.
In the early Greek and Roman period, before around 400 BCE, the new alphabet was still at times presented in a style known as "boustrophedon"---which means ox-ploughing---first one way, and then, not to waste energy, back the other way---as in (c).
Moving to the beginning, Ancient Egyptian was still fairly fluid. The only people who could read were professional scribes, and so it was a professional art to notice which direction---it could be (a), (b), (d) or (e)!
Traditional Chinese was written as (f), Up and down, and columns from right to left; and for (g) sometimes seen in Japan, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, right-to-left again (as in Hebrew), but the letters remain left-to right. (i) is an odd system of Easter Island called Rongo-Rongo. The mongolians use (h), but have recently been incorporating not only the roman alphabet but English as a language because it’s the computer lingua franca.. But originally, just before Marco Polo, the Mongolian Genghis Khan ruled the largest empire territory-wise in the world up to that point, and his descendents continued the empire, extending it to the dynasty of the fabled Kublai Khan in China in the early 15th century, and dominating what is now Russia and eastern Europe. .
Another problem with writing is that there are scores of sounds for which there are no equivalents in the Roman alphabet. Then again, the Roman alphabet had to make up some letters that modified the Greek alphabet, and the Greeks in turn modified the Phonetic alphabet---adding the vowels! So the problem is what sign shall you make for a given sound? In the Roman alphabet, in Europe, they pronounce certain combinations of vowels and consonants differently in certain countries, and also add little signs, like the umlaut---the two dots over letters that suggest that you round the vowel in your mouth. An umlaut over u, for example, makes it sound like more of an e with the front of your mouth and yu at the back. There are all sorts of such little hooks and accents and variations for each language.
The science of phonetics emerged in the later 19th century, as I mentioned above. Let's start with a few funny things: You know the "Ye olde tea shoppe" style of making the wording of a sign seem quaintly, charmingly antique? Well, they never said "Ye." They said dthe, the way they do today. But the sign or letter for dth, also known as hard d, looks a tiny bit like a Y on top. Actually, it's a ð , a sort of a backward 6 with a cross over it, a kind of dth. Minimize the circle below and exaggerate the top and it looks like a y. Printing started to make this change and then collaped both kinds of th sound into a two-letter symbol. The other th was a soft th as in with, in contrast with the hard dth as in "the"; The soft th sound had its own grapheme, its own symbol: it was called "thorn," a " þ " or a sort of a p in the middle of the bar instead of at the top. Again, printing found that confusing.
About 150 years ago linguists began to create an international "phonetic" alphabet for capturing the actual sounds. This is useful for picking up differences in dialect as well as subtle differences in language. The letters are modified but mainly roman/latin or have a somewhat similar "look" about them. It has been revised many times, more recently in the 1990s.
Part of scriptology, then, is phonetic, noticing differences in sounds and signs. Here are some little points about phonetics. Some consonants do the same thing with the mouth but differ regarding when the voice is added---during or after. The former are "voiced." A b is the same as a p except that with the former the speaker makes the sound as the lips do their thing. Try it. Same thing with d and t. Make the sounds with your mouth. At the labio-dental consonants are made by touching the top teeth to the bottom lip, making the "f" sound---and voiced, that's the "v" sound.
To the right are sounds that are made with the back of the throat. The kh sound is associated with the German achtung or the Scots loch (as in Loch Lomond). It's really the sound that goes with khanukah, though many Americans can't do that sound and so Hanukah. Learning some of these sounds would make for an interesting "lab" course in which you spoke the words or sentences and listened to the played-back recordings, had others model what the sound is like, watch their mouth, practice, etc.
Vowels are similarly varied, and in the middle left there is a category called "clicks" in which some peoples in Southwest Africa weave in popping and other sounds as part of their language---and there are several of these---the sound folks make when clicking for their horse to start in a horse-drawn carriage, the sound of a cork popping, the sound of sympathetic "tsk"-ing, also called less accurately, tut-tut.
This often does not jibe with the sounds of the letters. English has a fair number of awkward spellings for sounds, and many vowels can be spelled in many ways. In general, there's a spectrum of how well the alphabetical signs jibe with the sounds being made, from close approximation, as in Finnish, to a more indirect spelling. You'd think French has less correspondence than English, but English has so many irregular ways to spell things, and French is more internally consistent, relatively. Spanish is also better this way than English. Korean is mixed, but as I'll talk about in lecture 4, if only Hangul is used, it's more phonetically consistent than English! Because much of Korean was written also with Chinese-like signs in the past, and Japanese, too, even if adapted to their own languages, the writing systems take on some of the logographic features of Chinese. The topic of spelling reform is another aspect of scriptology, but it could fill another lecture.
CursiveAlso known as hand-writing, as differentiated from printing, it, too, has a range. Some writing is closer to printing, and some is more written in a line. As you can see, nowadays a single person may have more than one "hand" or style. I learned cursive before I learned printing, but nowadays many kids learn a kind of printing first and then cursive, and sometimes there's no cursive training at all. The art of "penmanship" is sort of calligraphy, writing well, though calligraphy also carries with it the art of making the letters thicker in some parts, thinner in others, so it looks pretty. I want to emphasize that this lecture series covers so much ground that it must suffice to simply open your minds to the categories and remind you of some of the issues involved, hoping that if you're interested, you'll go on to study this sub-topic on your own.
Typographical StylesWe become so accustomed to our own alphabet that fluent English-reading people may easily recognize on the left the letter "a" written in different syles. In that same sense, to its right is the ideograph "Hei" (meaning "Black") in a variety of styles that those fluent in reading Chinese can pick up readily! We'll talk more about typography in the fourth lecture.
FontsAnother term to learn is "font," which refers to different typographical styles. In the olden days we used whatever fonts we had. Real book printers or newspapers had more fonts and mainly they used this kind of writing---related to the type-face used by the New York Times newspaper. But typewriters used courier, which looked like this. (remember?).
Here are several fonts for you to look at:
This one is called Verdana. This one is called Comic Sans MS This one is called Bernhard Fashion This one is called Allegro BT This one is called Arial. This one is called bank gothic and so forth. Go to your computer program under format, then font, and look at all of them! In addition to the scores on your word-processing and other programs, there are hundreds more available on the internet, and nowadays, you can also get fonts to write in other writing systems, in Hindi and Arabic, Hebrew and Tibetan, etc.
The History of WritingIn the associate website I shift gears and get into, first, the ancient history of writing, then the mid-history, where I note the branching of writing systems into different areas, to fit with the spread of languages. Go on then to the webpage that deals with the ancient history of writing.