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ideas of an eLven being in Canada

Thursday, February 10, 2005

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


Trying my restless hand in the Chinese and Japanese writing systems...

On the left bond paper, I wrote "I love you" in the Chinese writing system Zhōngwén; we read or translate it as "Wo aì ni" in Pīnyīn (the romanized Chinese).

On the middle bond paper is "You good"; or better yet, "You're good"; again written in Zhōngwén; in Pīnyīn, it translates to "Ni hăo."

On the last bond paper is "How are you?", this time written in the Japanese syllabary Katakana; in Rōmaji (the romanized Japanese), "How are you?" translates to "O-genki desu ka?"

Basing on how each character is rendered, I found writing in these East Asian writing systems laborious; and what perhaps contributed to the difficulty was the fact that I am a beginner and was using a twig stylus instead of a paintbrush, which is the preferred writing instrument for Chinese and other East Asian calligraphy. Posted by Hello

Anyways, I'm hereby concluding the highlights of...

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

[Part 1, Chapters 1 through 4]

CHAPTER FIVE: The East Asian Regenesis
1. Korea's Hankul (or Hangul) writing is probably history's most efficient method for reproducing human speech. In contrast, Japan's two writing systems that make use of three scripts written together following arbitrary rules perhaps embody the most complicated form of writing ever devised. Chinese writing, on another hand, has sometimes been called the "Latin of the East."
2. A morpheme is a linguistic unit that conveys a meaning and that is not decomposable into further meaningful forms. For example, English writing contains the morphemes write and -ing.
3. Each Chinese character has to be learned individually as one individually learns words in a language.
4. Qin Shi Huang-di, first emperor of a unified China, recognized writing's usefulness in uniting disparate peoples and exploited it as a tool for political power.
5. When writing Chinese characters, the writer must follow the prescribed number of strokes for each, in a given order and with a specified starting point for each stroke.
6. A Chinese person understands calligraphy to be writing, not its refinement or commercial exploitation.
7. Many people consider China's traditional writing system too difficult for many to learn in an adequate amount of time. Linguists estimate that Chinese and Japanese pupils need an additional three years or more of schooling to achieve the same level of reading competence as their Western counterparts.
8. The standard form of romanization for Mandarin is called Pīnyīn (pīnyīn = "spell-sound"). Schoolchildren seem to be learning it much more quickly than the Simplified Script [Chinese].
9. Old Korean's syntax placed the verb at the end of statements, with "postpositions" after the word being governed.
10. Written language, so East Asian writing teaches us, is not subordinate to spoken language.
11. Chinese writing has had a more lasting effect on the cultural identity of East Asia than any other cultural trait.

CHAPTER SIX: The Americas
1. The recent decipherment of the Mayan script by many scholars from several nations has allowed a better understanding of the other American traditions.
2. Spanish colonialists destroyed Mayan literature in the 1500s. Even the burning of the library of Alexandria did not obliterate a civilization's heritage as completely as this.
3. Complete writing appeared last in the Americas, in the first millennium BC.

CHAPTER SEVEN: The Parchment Keyboard
1. St. Augustine wondered at witnessing his teacher St. Ambrose reading silently to himself, because well into the first few centuries AD in Western Europe, people still read aloud. Literary texts were almost exclusively intoned as in a chant, or at least murmured for meditation and better memorization. Silent reading was practically unknown.
2. The appearance of the codex, or 'book,' (Germanic bōkō) – the work presented on pages written on both sides rather than on one side of a continuous scroll – was undoubtedly the most important revolution in the book in the Common Era.
3. In English, the use of uppercase and lowercase letters means that each pupil learning to read and write has to learn not 26 letters, but 42, plus prescribed cursive forms, as well as a large number of significant abbreviations, ideograms, and other marks: &, 8, +, %. Some of the letters hardly change at all from uppercase to lowercase (C/c, O/o, S/s); others have a variety of forms (G/g/g). All current Latin-derived alphabets share this characteristic.
4. The perfection of typography signalled the start of the modern period; all subsequent scientific, political, ecclesiastical, sociological, economic, and philosophical advances would not have been possible without the use and the influence of the printing press.
5. The first author to submit a novel in typescript—not in handwriting—was the American Mark Twain (1835–1910).
6. Printing in London helped to establish a unified English. Forms of vocabulary, grammar, and syntax were fossilized in early London printing—often as a result of a conscious decision by the city's first printers—that have survived to the present day.
7. Rotokas in the Solomon Islands uses only 11 letters; it has the smallest alphabet in the world. At the other end of the scale, Khmer of Kampuchea (or Cambodia) has 74 letters, the largest alphabet.
8. A political statement invariably underlies the selection of a national script.
9. Today, the Latin alphabet is Earth's most important writing system. It is also regarded as the world's oldest, consistently used writing system that still maintains its original signs and sounds.

CHAPTER EIGHT: Scripting the Future
1. "Writing is the painting of the voice," penned the French philosopher Voltaire in the mid-1700s, reflecting his era's anthropocentric valuation of writing's innate purpose and scope.
2. Throughout history only three main writing traditions have obtained: Afro-Asiatic (Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and the Levant and its derivatives), East Asian, and American. All may share one Sumerian source.
3. Three main writing systems have prevailed, too, with many transitional variants and combinations:
logography, 'word-writing,' whereby the graphemes or writing signs represent words;
syllabography, 'syllable-writing,' whereby the graphemes convey in-di-vi-du-al syllables;
– alphabet, whereby signs called "letters" stand for individual consonants (consonantal alphabets, like Arabic and Hebrew) or individual consonants and vowels (complete alphabets, like Greek and Latin).
4. The three writing systems are each maximized by a particular language, society, and era. They are not quality grades, nor are they steps in a model of "writing evolution" (which does not exist). They are simply different forms that accommodate different linguistic and social needs as they arise.
5. Economy and simplicity are not the driving forces behind a writing sytem's development. Much more significant in writing's history are precision, greater phonetic salience, resistance to change, unambiguity, veneration, and many more, often superficial, factors.
6. In societies in which literacy is widespread, writing's impact is profound. It preserves spoken language; it levels, standardizes, prescribes, enriches, and generates many other language-oriented processes with far-reaching social implications.
7. Most languages display a wide gap between written and spoken style(s). The mark of an educated person is often how closely s/he speaks the written language [or vice versa: how closely s/he writes the spoken language].
8. All writing systems and their scripts, no matter how revered or innovative, are imperfect and conventional, being an approximation—not a reproduction—of speech.
9. Ambiguity, the doubt or uncertainty in meaning arising from indistinctness or obscurity, occurs often with syllabic and alphabetic systems. In English, for example, the single letter a, depending on dialect, can represent as many as six phonemes (smallest significant sounds). English, in particular, fails to reproduce its suprasegmentals—that is, pitch (Yes!/Yes?), stress (désert/desért), juncture (Van Dyke / vanned Ike), and tone (eee!/duhhh)—because it uses a deficient alphabet. Writers of English try to correct the problem with punctuation, space between words, capital letters, and other devices.
10. Ideally, an alphabetic script should perhaps represent all phonemic utterances. But only the linguist's special symbols can reproduce fairly exact pronunciations, and these are too ponderous for popular use.
11. English spelling is a hybrid—the product of Anglo-Saxon, French and classical traditions, with many outside influences.
12. Reading and writing are separately processed cerebral activities. Writing is spelling, and many who read excellently spell poorly. This is because these processes involve different learning strategies in the human brain.
13. Writing is an active linguistic activity that demands both the visual and the phonetic component, appealing directly to phonological essentials. Reading is a passive visual activity, linking graphic art directly to meaning, most often bypassing speech altogether.
14. Efficiency and simplicity do not determine a script's future—the prestige and power of those using it do.
15. Languages evolve naturally, writing systems and scripts do not. These are purposely borrowed, changed, and abandoned primarily for social and psychological reasons that have little to do with speech or orthography.
16. Those with intelligence and understanding will always appreciate that, as the linguist Flourian Coulmas has written, "The skills of reading and writing provide access to knowledge and knowledge is power."
17. The very act of writing about one's feelings, recent studies have revealed, can rid one of depression, boost the immune system, and lower blood pressure.
18. However imperfect, writing has become an indispensable expression of our social species as we begin to venture beyond all known limits.
19. Whatever form it may take in the future, writing will remain central to human experience, empowering and memorializing. As an Egyptian scribe brushed in ink some four thousand years ago:

"A man has perished and his body has become earth. All his relatives have crumbled to dust. It is writing that makes him remembered."



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