The Return of eLf ideas

ideas of an eLven being in Canada

Monday, January 31, 2005

'A History of Writing' by Steven Roger Fischer (Part 1 of 2)

Photo taken on January 23, 2005; in the living room, which also serves as my nest

Reading A History of Writing in its entirety took me about three weeks—at least an hour or two almost every other night before sleeping. Stuck in the house practically every day, I have lots of time to read ponderously and write rigorously. I can afford the leisure of lingering on a particular page and diving deep into the details, taking down notes as if making a reviewer for an examination. I also tried to write a few of the exampled scripts for some of the writing systems featured in the book, like the Japanese Hiragana, the Chinese Zhōngwén, and the Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs. A difficult feat indeed it was; but having the leisure of time, I enjoyed creating with my homemade stylus such ornate scripts, which I'd be posting along with the second part of this article.

Oh, the prospect of studying again here in Canada, as soon as I become eligible, really excites me. But until then, I have to content myself with serious self-studying. My willingness to learn is at its usual potency.

The book enlightened me about the "evolution" of alphabets and syllabaries and other writing systems and scripts. This controversial claim also intrigued me: that all writing systems are perhaps derivatives of a single original idea that emerged about 6 000 years ago in Mesopotamia (an ancient region of southwest Asia between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates in modern-day Iraq).

Without further ado, here are the highlights of...

A History of Writing
Steven Roger Fischer
(2003, Reaktion Books Ltd.)

1. What now distinguishes modern Homo sapiens sapiens is a global society based most importantly on writing.
2. Only minute vestiges of one of the most ancient [writing systems]—Egyptian hieroglyphs—live on, unrecognized, in the Latin alphabet in which English, among hundreds of other languages, is conveyed today. (Our m, for example, ultimately derives from the Egyptians' consonantal n-sign, depicting waves.)
3. The Latin alphabet has become the world's most important writing system.
4. Writing is much more than [the French philosopher] Voltaire's "painting of the voice." It has become human knowledge's ultimate tool (science), society's cultural medium (literature), the means of democratic expression and popular information (the press), and an art form in itself (calligraphy).

CHAPTER ONE: From Notches to Tablets
1. Communication of human thought in general, can be achieved in many different ways, speech being only one of them. And writing, among other uses, is only one form of conveying human speech.
2. Human beings have a fundamental need to store information in order to communicate, whether to themselves or to others, at a distance in time or space.
3. One unspecific definition of writing is "the graphic counterpart of speech, the fixing of spoken language in a permanent or semipermanent form."
4. Complete writing must have as its purpose communication, must consist of artificial graphic marks on a durable or electronic surface, must use marks that relate conventionally to articulate speech (the systematic arrangement of significant vocal sounds) or electronic programming in such a way that communication is achieved.
5. Writing systems do not change on their own accord in a natural process; they are deliberately elaborated or changed by human agents.
6. Before complete writing, humankind made use of a wealth of graphic signs and mnemonics (memory tools) of various kinds in order to store information.
7. One of the ancient world's commonest mnemonics was the knot record, which dates back to the Early Neolithic (the last period of the Stone Age).
8. However, knotted strings do not comprise writing. They are memory prompts. Though the knots' purpose is communication, they are not artificial graphic marks conveyed on a durable surface, and their use has no conventional relation to artificial speech.
9. Tally sticks belong to the oldest forms of record-keeping. The earliest known knotched artefacts themselves might have been such tallies: marks on bones to represent different people, a passage of time, or hunting success.
10. Complete writing was doubtless born out of the need to record the things of everyday life.
11. Goods were perhaps tallied for many thousands of years in the Middle East using small clay tokens, 'counters.' Why clay? It is an abundant material in the Middle East, easy to work with, easy to erase, and just as easy to preserve: simply let it dry in the sun or bake it. Most importantly, clay can easily be impressed with graphic marks representing stored information.
12. Various people of various times could have exploited the few geometric shapes that are relatively easy to make in clay and used them as counters for whatever purpose they, as individuals, chose.
13. Most scholars still prefer to believe that writing originated independently in many regions of the world as an expression of a society's having attained an "advanced" level of civilization.
14. However, others believe that all other writing systems and scripts are perhaps derivatives of one original idea—a systemic phoneticism—that emerged between 6 000 and 5 700 years ago in Mesopotamia.

CHAPTER TWO: Talking Art
1. The Greek Clement of Alexandria, writing some eighteen hundred years ago, was the one who first called the Egyptians' writing hierogluphiká, 'sacred carvings.' Few writing systems in the world have been as beautiful or as captivating. None has had such far-reaching effects on humankind.
2. Ancient Egyptians believed that "writing" was the gift of Thoth, the ibis-headed scribe of the gods and patron of scholars.
3. One reads hieroglyphs either from right to left or from left to right. Signs always "face" the start position of each line: if one should read from right to left, then the bird's beak for example, is facing right. Right-to-left reading was the "default" reading direction. Most writing in northern Africa and the Middle East has maintained a right-to-left reading direction ever since.
4. Egyptian hieroglyphs constitute perhaps the world's most beautiful writing sytem. Most writing systems or scripts are functional, not beautiful. The calligraphy of Arabic and East Asian (Chinese and Japanese) writing, indeed, displays a graceful form seldom attained by other scripts; however, Egyptian hieroglyphs are both decoration and script at the same time.
5. An important social reflex of writing's elaboration along the Nile was the development of an extremely influential scribal class. Scribes were more highly regarded in Egypt than in Mesopotamia, where they were mere clerks; Egyptian scribes could attain great wealth, prestige, and position. The most highly regarded were priestly scribes. As Egyptian bureaucrat Dua-Khety sailed south along the Nile around four thousand years ago, he told his son, whom he was escorting to a school for scribes:

"It is to writings that you must set your mind...I do not see an office comparable with the scribe's... I shall make you love books more than you love your mother, and I shall place their excellence before you."

6. Each scribe owned his own writing kit: a slate pallette with two shallow cups for holding red and black ink cakes, and, on a connecting thong, a thin wooden brush case and small water jug.
7. The most ubiquitous writing material was 'papyrus' a kind of paper fashioned by pounding strips of the plant Cyperus papyrus into sheets. Egypt's writing had a great material advantage over Mesopotamia's bulky, awkward clay tablets.
8. Though the idea of complete writing may have arisen in Sumer, the way we write and even some of our signs, which we call "letters," are the ultimate descendants of ancient Egyptian founders.
9. Cuneiform writing ended around two thousand years ago; Egypt's consonantal hieroglyphs, though unrecognizable, are still being written. The contrast also obtains with writing materials: for millennia, wedges impressed with a reed stylus on soft clay competed with ink brushed on papyrus; the ink won, and remains the basis of printing today.
10. Writing systems and scripts actually perish far less frequently than the languages they transmit. Latin has long been extinct as a living language, yet its script, a descendant of Egyptian, is today's most common one.
11. Throughout history, the ultimate fate of writing systems has been determined more by economics, politics, religion, and cultural prestige than by the immediate requirements of language and writing.

CHAPTER THREE: Speaking Systems
1. Initially, writing had been an instrument of power in the hands of small groups of priests, soothsayers, and scribes serving deified monarchs. With the diffusion of writing, however, writing could no longer remain the monopoly of the rich and powerful. It now served everyone.
2. The hundreds of past and present scripts of the Indian subcontinent and their numerous Asian and Pacific derivatives—the world's richest treasury of scripts—cannot be sufficiently described, indeed even listed, in a brief history of writing. Nonetheless, over 50 percent of India's population remains illiterate, and hundreds of minority languages there still have no script. Oral transmission has commonly been preferred in this region. The Brahmins, India's priestly class, long viewed writing as inferior to speech.
3. Indian folklore credits the elephant-headed deity Ganesha with the invention of writing.
4. The Indians were antiquity's finest linguists; the West did not begin to approach the level of linguistic sophistication until the early 1800s, in some cases the early 1900s.
5. The efficiency of a writing system or script seldom determines its longevity and influence, but rather the economic power and prestige of those using it. A powerful society's writing system will mark history, while a weak society's will perish.
6. No writing system is intrinsically "better" than another, even those of rich and powerful peoples. As in the natural sciences, the success or survival of a system does not entail superiority but adaptability.

CHAPTER FOUR: From Alpha to Omega
1. A phoneme is a speech-sound considered in respect of its functional relations in a linguistic system, like b and p in English bin and pin. This brilliant way of writing—one, and only one, sign for each consonantal phoneme—spread to Sinai and Canaan and revolutionized writing in terms of flexibility and economy. One no longer needed to learn hundreds of signs; usually, fewer than 30 "letters" (signs in an alphabet) were needed to convey the consonantal phonemes of any given language. In this way, writing became available to everyone.
2. The Greeks learned the art of writing from the Phoenicians at least as early as the ninth century BC; and it is not improbable that they had acquired it even one or two centuries earlier.
3. A seamless writing tradition has always empowered the Greeks, who never did lose writing completely and who, having acquired writing c. 2000 BC from the Levant, have been writing ever since. No other Indo-European people has possessed writing for so long.
4. The Greeks were the first in history to represent vocalic phonemes, systematically and consistently. Nonetheless, they just did what many had done millennia earlier in similar circumstances: borrow someone else's system and then adapt it to the immediate needs of the local language.
5. The earliest Greek inscriptions are written in Semitic fashion from right to left, or in boustrophedon, 'as an ox plows,' in which the lines are inscribed alternately from right to left and from left to right. By the sixth century BC, however, most scribes preferred to write from left to right on each successive line. This method eventually replaced all others.
6. Greek inspired several scripts on the Italian peninsula, the most important being the Etruscan, which in turn inspired the Latin script – the world's most successful.
7. In the third century BC, Rome; Rome's first headmaster of a private school, Spurius Carvilius Ruga, observed that the Roman alphabet needed a /g/, so he took the Etruscan C and gave it a hook – G – to supplement their alphabet with this sound.
8.The Latin alphabet became the vehicle of one of the world's major religions, Christianity, just as the Arabic alphabet became the vehicle for Islam from Spain to Indonesia at the same time. The Latin alphabet, first because of Christianity, later because of colonization and then globalization, has spread "further and to more languages than any other script before or after."
9. The runes are the Germanic peoples' only indigenous script in that, unlike Gothic, they don't copy any known alphabet.
10. In the Northern Saga of the Scandinavians [Edda], the invention of writing is attributed to the god Odin.
11. Unlike most of the world's scripts, the runes never became literary nor utilitarian. As the name implies – Old Norse rún meant "secret or hidden lore" – the runes remained socially restricted to a limited domain of usage: mostly memorial stones, but also rings, weapons, and other treasured objects. Because of such restricted use, the runes never contributed to the creation of a literate Germanic society.
12. Society, as we know it, cannot exist without writing, granted. However,

"Writing is an effect of society, not a cause."

[To be concluded in Part 2, forthcoming...]


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