The Secret History of Writing: musings

The BBC’s three-parter, The Secret History of Writing with Lydia Wilson, is running through and it is a corker. It has been a delight to see a history programme on Auntie which plays it straight and not for some political aim (though we will see with later episodes whether the actual historians have managed to keep the politicos’ dirty hands off their work).

The history of writing is not actually secret: the development of the alphabets of the world has been written about since at least Tacitus, who traced the Roman alphabet back to the Phœnicians and Egyptians when discussing the three new letters introduced by Claudius (which did not survive). It is perhaps little known outside the right academic circles, and for such a dramatic development of humanity that is surprising. As the programme said, for almost the whole of humanity, there was no concept of writing, let alone of alphabetical script – it is only about 5,000-odd years ago that it was invented and, in time, exploded across the face of the earth.

The programme shows the obscure carvings in the rock by a turquoise mine in Sinai which are the earliest alphabetical signs. Egypt’s obscure hieroglyphics were fit only for priests and had to be carved by skilled craftsmen: though inspired by the shapes of the hieroglyphs, these new letters were made to serve the cause of ordinary men of other tongues (initially a tongue very close to Biblical Hebrew). That was the remarkable break-out: writing could now belong to everyone.

From Sinai to the Holy Land and to Phoenicia and thence to the world: ordinary folk could make their words heard beyond earshot and even beyond the span of their lives.

I have never been quite convinced that an ‘A’ looks like an ox, or a ‘B’ a house nor a ‘C’ a camel and so forth, but that is part of the liberation of writing, that it is seen for its own sound alone, not from an origin.

The first programme looked at Chinese writing too; the second original writing system. It was treated respectfully as it should be, but really Chinese is still stuck barely further than the pictograms. It is a much later development too: when the script was regularised under the first Chin Emperor the Greeks had been writing laws, plays, histories and ribald jokes in their own alphabet for centuries, and brought it to China’s western borders. Long before them those lands had already for centuries been writing in scripts derived from Aramaic. China went its own way: it is in truth an island.

It is fascinating to see the sudden spread of writing as an art across the world, showing itself to be indispensable to civilisation or those who aspire to civilisation, such that nations which acquire the art could never imagine being without it. It is a thing of the settled nation, as without that there can be:

no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society

However, I am more interested in cultures without writing. It is because we cannot imagine being without it, that they should interest us all the more as a lesson in humanity. As the programme observed, many millennia of human society passed with no forms of writing at all. Mankind was no lesser a being for this – it was just not needed until towns and markets appeared.

Here is a point though: even in the four thousand years or so since writing became available to all, the vast majority of people even in lands with writing got by without it. Up to the Reformation, most people could not read nor write even in wealthy England. Change was driven by the Reformation: the Bible was published in English and Welsh and all people were encouraged to read it; funded schools spread across Scotland; but even at opening of the Industrial Revolution, Scottish Gaelic remained an unwritten language. There is no reason it should not have been written – its Irish cousin had been written for a thousand years since – but the Highlands remained a pre-literate society, in the wealthiest, most civilised nation on Earth. They do not seem to have been greatly harmed by the circumstance.

The revolution brought by those first Phœnician trading ships was a very slow one indeed. It permitted Greek and then Roman civilisation and seeded the world with the means to develop beyond imagining, but many tribes and nations bumbled along without writing all the same.

Even today, most languages of the world are spoken with no written form. In highly literate societies like ours there are still those who, for whatever reason, cannot read and write: the Beeb had a story not so long since about a man who held down a teaching job without being able to read (and you may wonder what that says about the New Mexico educational system, but he got by; he is an author now).

Modern society is impossible without writing, but life is not. It is not an indispensable condition of being human. Therefore if we cannot imagine life before writing existed, that may be a lack of imagination, because that condition has been with us well into the modern age.

Update

The series, in its short span, became all the more fascinating in its detailed look at the development and change of writing across the world and across cultures, and this international view is vital to understanding the subject. It has certainly lived up to the promise of the opening episode. It tells a story with more dynamic to it than the subject matter may seem to have on its own: as I observed after the first episode, the art of writing was necessitated by the first civilisations, and then it became a necessity for civilisation.

The programmes showed that is more complicated than this though: detail will make and mar the whole course of civilisations. Even the writing medium and the form of lettering are not mere choices but drivers of change, to prosperity or to poverty. The medium, of paper or cloth or parchment, will determine the form of letters as the medium presses back against the pen, which was beautifully demonstrated, but it goes far further than this. We all understand the world-changing effect of printing, but the disappearance and reappearance of paper is barely a footnote in books: here we were shown that papyrus paper disappeared when the Roman Empire tottered, leaving the Middle Ages barely literate until the secret of papermaking was wrenched from the unwilling Chinese: there is direct correspondence between the sophistication or otherwise of world civilisations and the medium of writing. These minutiae are not minutiae at all.

I have observed that most cultures have been illiterate cultures, so the writing is not necessary to life, as long as an elite can read and write. The revolutionary effect of being able to read and write is not lost on any reformer. Script reforms have been the stuff of autocrats; the Turkish script reform is the best known, and the resultant script is so perfectly adapted for the Turkish language it could not have been done by committee or compromise, but by single inspiration. (It makes the versions of Cyrillic spread across the Russosphere look maladroit, as they are.) It has always seemed inconceivable that so large a nation as the Turks could replace their whole writing system at a stroke – but that is to see it with modern eyes: when 95% of the population are illiterate, it is not so many that you have to persuade to change, and adopting a standard that so well reflects the language, with its vowel harmony system and limitless agglutination, makes it far easier. The also illiteracy itself can be reduced.

And yet, and this point reappeared, many times, if civilisation and culture are bound up so intimately with the written word then changing to a new system is to be a destroyer; a rebuilder too, but a destroyer first.

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Author: LittleHobb

Solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short

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