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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Second wave of bad rainbows threatened

A second wave of children’s badly drawn rainbows is threatening to sweep over the United Kingdom this Autumn. With GPs refusing to see anyone who seems even slightly ill, frantic mothers with sick children are resorting to ever-more desperate measures, and the fear is that this will include children’s art on posters on in the front-room window in the hope of attracting sympathy, as well as more rational approaches such as voodoo or sending off for things sold on Russian websites. To meet the need is a growing number of black-market doctors offering services on the quiet outside the NHS, fearful though they are of being struck off for treating ill patients.

Seven months on from the lockdown, GP surgeries remain barred and patients are told to go off and recover or die at home. One patient with a technicolour yawn rainbow in her parlour window told me “My sister had a swelling and was told through a crack in the door that it was probably wind, so we were very surprised when it burst and she died in prolonged agony from peritonitis, but she did recognise that it was all necessary to protect people from a nasty cough. Our Aunt said the same when she found her rash was actually cancer: a doctor could have spotted it at once, but he would have been endangering himself if he had stopped social distancing on the golf course, so she was doing her bit for us all. All those in the NHS are, after all, angels, like the ones we read about in Sunday School, in 2 Samuel 24.” She later added “Hang on, you’re not from the BBC like you said; who are you? Hey, come back…”

Teachers welcoming bairns back to school this month have found a new conspiracy theory doing the rounds in classes: parents have reportedly been telling their children that there used to be an organisation called the ‘National Health Service’ which provided doctors who would see sick people. Children are not as silly as we think and know it is just a fairy-tale.

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Nicola’s Muzzle – 2

Since I last wrote of Nicola Sturgeon’s Bill to ban speech, more immediate events have seized the attention, but on this bandwagon runs. In that time yet more voices have risen against it. Yet Nicola controls in a presidential manner all the levers of state, and weak MSPs ready to do her will. The threat is very real. I chose to leave writing this until I was out of Scotland and outside her reach.


The ‘Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill’ is kept relatively short. It has been promoted as a measure against ‘hate speech’, but goes far beyond even the measures Tony Blair left us with.

I previously wrote about the opening, which has been little commented upon, forcing sheriffs to act outside common sense and conscience. The meat of commentary is on Part 2: ‘Offences relating to stirring up hatred’. Now, for a such a Bill to be promoted by a political party built entirely on stirring hatred up against their fellow countrymen, this is chutzpah indeed. The provisions are beyond humour.

It will be a crime to behave in a threatening, abusive or even merely insulting manner, or to communicate insulting material to another, if with the intent to stir up hatred against a defined racial or national group or even if with no intent if it is likely that ‘hatred’ will be ‘stirred up’. It does not say that SNP branch meetings are exempt, but I would not want to be the constable to tries to arrest the unbridled tongues that do just this at every one.

The clause would ban the Daily Mail and half a dozen other papers from distribution in Scotland, as soon as someone alleges that one of their leading articles has stirred prejudice against foreigners. Stirring hatred against journalists or political opponents is not covered.

Secondly, it will be a crime to behave in a threatening or abusive manner, or to communicate abusive material to stir up hatred, or be likely to, against a number of listed identity groups. It does not here say ‘insult’ here, but that will be added later, the moment an advocacy group in receipt of taxpayers’ money claims it is a hole in the legislation. In any case, ‘abusive’ may mean exactly the same.

The groups covered include the usual suspects, including ‘sexual orientation’ and ‘transgender identity’.

It would be a defence (at least in the initial draft – this may come out) for a person charged to show that their behaviour was ‘in the particular circumstances, reasonable’: that is undefined and I pity the advocate who tries to argue it, in professional terms and also because of the hate mobs who would besiege his chambers afterwards. ‘Reasonable’ by whose standards, or to achieve what? This may be interpreted, in the spirit of the Act, that no behaviour may be adjudged a reasonable infringement of the presumptions the Act contains, leaving no defence.

The major trap hidden in the formulaic words is in the key line ‘as a result, it is likely that hatred will be stirred up against such a group’. Consider it for a moment: it does not say how much hatred is t be engendered by the actions in question: it might be one mad, tinfoil-hatted nut on Facebook who reads words and feels hatred growing in his heart, and that has stirred hatred. Had the words said ‘in a significant portion of the population’ it would be bad but not as bad as this: had it said promoting violence against members of a group that would even seem acceptable, but stirring any hatred at all, that is unavoidable in social commentary.

It is worse than the apparent aim of the wording: it can catch anyone with views someone else does not want to hear. Hatred has to be directed at a group – but the Bill does not say that the speaker had to have that group as a target: he might be a Christian preacher with nothing but love in his heart but by saying something that an angry Woke mob does not want to hear, he has stirred the hatred of the mob against him and against Christians, and so he is guilty, and looking at 12 months in Barlinnie.

So much more could be said, and will be.

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Law: an abused word

No man has ever been arrested for attempting to break the First Law of Thermodynamics, nor spent time in clink for breaking Murphy’s Law. The idea of lawbreaking and consequent condemnation has burst out with little understanding from commentators, or even from lawyers regrettably. The absolute virtue of the Rule of Law become the worst virtue-signalling when commentators speak of laws which are no laws at all.

Law is the basis of a settled, peaceful, free society in the English-speaking world. It is taken for granted because it has always been this way – it is still a novelty in Europe. Therefore the idea of the Government “breaking the law” brings with it the heartiest condemnation, but it comes from a deliberate misunderstanding.

Covenants, without the Sword, are but Words, and of no strength to secure a man at all. Therefore notwithstanding the Lawes of Nature, (which every one hath then kept, when he has the will to keep them, when he can do it safely,) if there be no Power erected, or not great enough for our security; every man will and may lawfully rely on his own strength and art, for caution against all other men.

Law is a word used in many senses, and Hobbes, who used the phrase “Lawes of Nature” frequently, explicitly denied that these ‘laws’ were any more than as we might use the same phrase today, or such phrases as “the laws of physics”. The essence of law in the sense of the laws of the realm are where he says:

Law in generall, is not Counsell, but Command; nor a Command of any man to any man; but only of him, whose Command is addressed to one formerly obliged to obey him. And as for Civill Law, it addeth only the name of the person Commanding, which is Persona Civitatis, the Person of the Common-wealth.

In short, law properly so-called is the command of the sovereign or sovereign body, which in the case of Britain is the Queen in Parliament.

The Legislator in all Common-wealths, is only the Soveraign…. For the Legislator, is he that maketh the Law … the Soveraign is the sole Legislator. For the same reason, none can abrogate a Law made, but the Soveraign; because a Law is not abrogated, but by another Law, that forbiddeth it to be put in execution

The concept of “international law” is a different concept. As was observed in an earlier article on this site, international law is not law. It cannot be, because it is not made and abrogated by the sovereign. It is a covenant without the sword, which is but words of no strength to secure a man at all.

The courts of the realm have a certain indulgence towards the concept of “international law” in the sense that it is a general set of understandings between states and one might assume that Parliament when legislating does not intend to contradict an important treaty, so Acts of Parliament are interpreted, as far as the language will bear it, in a way that is consistent with any earlier treaty. The courts have also however stamped down on attempts to import treaties as if they were equal to domestic law: if a treaty could rewrite the rights and obligations of the subject, this would allow the Crown to bypass Parliament.

There is also to issue about what this “lawbreaking” would be were it actual law and actually broken (which in this case, I am given to understand, would not be so). In domestic law there are two separate concepts, of criminal law and or civil law (which is not the same as Hobbes’s Civill Lawes, the latter referring to actual law as opposed to the “Lawes of Nature“). Civil law is about debt, trespass, enforcing contracts and trusts, negligence leading to injury and such civil wrongs as this. It is important for the order of society but it does not carry the shame of lawbreaking. It is not what the ordinary man thinks of: if an backstreet yob yells “Run: it’s the Law!”, he does not mean he has spotted the approach of a member of the Chancery Bar.

If departing from a treaty were a breach of “law”, it would be akin to breaching a contract, not coshing a night-watchman. The shock is therefore feigned, and foolish, and in some cases dishonest with the intent to deceive the public.

The Withdrawal Agreement, the proximate cause of the recent pearl-clutching, is part of the law of the realm and so must be followed – but it is only part of the law because an Act of Parliament has made it so, and another may unmake it: the rules of the Agreement may be abrogated, but by another Law, that forbiddeth it to be put in execution. The Treaty of Rome itself, when the United Kingdom was a member of the European Communities then of the European Union, had the force of law only because an Act of Parliament made it so. This is basic stuff. Sovereignty, as Hobbes repeatedly reminds us, is indivisible.

The law that is actual law must be upheld, but it is for Parliament to consider it and at any time may send a Bill to the Queen to change the law, for that is a sovereign act of law-making. Law to govern society should be precise and understood, which those international conventions never can be nor are intended to be, and the law should be open to frequent reform, as international conventions cannot be.

That Law can never be against Reason, our Lawyers are agreed; and that not the Letter,(that is, every construction of it,) but that which is according to the Intention of the Legislator, is the Law. And it is true: but the doubt is, of whose Reason it is, that shall be received for Law. It is not meant of any private Reason; for then there would be as much contradiction in the Lawes, as there is in the Schooles; nor yet (as Sr. Ed, Coke makes it (Sir Edward Coke, upon Littleton Lib.2. Ch.6 fol 97.b),) an Artificiall Perfection of Reason, Gotten By Long Study, Observation, And Experience, (as his was.) For it is possible long study may encrease, and confirm erroneous Sentences: and where men build on false grounds, the more they build, the greater is the ruine; and of those that study, and observe with equall time, and diligence, the reasons and resolutions are, and must remain discordant: and therefore it is not that Juris Prudentia, or wisedome of subordinate Judges; but the Reason of this our Artificiall Man the Common-wealth, and his Command, that maketh Law: And the Common-wealth being in their Representative but one Person, there cannot easily arise any contradiction in the Lawes; and when there doth, the same Reason is able, by interpretation, or alteration, to take it away. In all Courts of Justice, the Soveraign (which is the Person of the Common-wealth,) is he that Judgeth: The subordinate Judge, ought to have regard to the reason, which moved his Soveraign to make such Law, that his Sentence may be according thereunto; which then is his Soveraigns Sentence; otherwise it is his own, and an unjust one.

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Last year was so last year, lads

Tension in the Commons, procedural skirmishes, the Lords ready to pounce, rebellion on the government side of the House, all over Brexit. Yet this is not 2019. That annus horribilis was meant to be over and done with when Boris rode back to Downing Street in triumph after the Winter election.

This time the voices are as shrill but it is a matter so petty that you wonder why they bother being so emotional. Last year Brexit itself was in the balance and for all the platitudes about procedure and just securing a deal (which they then voted against) it was about whether Britain would leave the European Union at all, and the entire country knew. Brexit itself was in the balance. Then the election happened, the Zombie Parliament was driven out and Britain sailed cleanly out of the European nightmare.

Compared with all that, this local difficulty is as nothing. It does not concern the grand picture but two lines or so in the Withdrawal Agreement, and with no intention to change them anyway.

The principle of keeping to treaty obligations is generally a good one, but this phase ‘international law’ is lie in a line, and always has been: there is no such thing as international law, or rather it is not actual law, just a way of getting along. The concept is there, but there is also the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and no one has been arrested for trying to break that. The word “law” is a red rag to a Twittermob and many a foolish remark has been heard on the subject. It turns the stomach to hear an adjustment to an administrative arrangement compared to murder or to the Uighur genocide.

This site has observed before the imbalance that the EU negotiators have at every step introduced into negotiations: in several places their proposed treaty provisions have provided for heavy punishment were Britain ever to depart from points in a trade agreement, but no sanction at all for their own breaches. A glance at the EU’s practice over many years shows it to be an unrepentant, serial rule-breaker, so no one should be outraged that our government should seek to prepare for when they do it to us.

Another cause of dissent, and one more comprehensible, is that the role of the House of Commons in supervising all this seems to have been minimised, and MPs want to do the job they were elected for. In fact, the Bill as presented strikes a practical balance. It is good for the government to hear strident voices from the backbenches, and even the weird voices projected from the other side of the House, but ultimately speedy action must come from the executive.

Al this said, the whole thing has been appallingly handled in public relations and diplomatic terms, unless; unless it was a smuggling exercise, but let us pass over that – BEIS knows what that is about and it has been successful if so.

The Bill last night passed in the Commons, unamended though with assurances about the use of the powers and promises of further consultation. The rebellion was small, and the DUP voted for the Bill, as well they might as the clauses fought over are for the protection of Ulster. In the Lords, we can but wait and see what more overblown rhetoric emerges. The margin in the Commons was massive: this is not 2019.

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