For more than 5000 years human beings have been putting marks, symbols, drawings and signs on to rock, clay, papyrus, parchment paper and now on the computer screen in order to communicate with one another. Writing is one of our greatest inventions. To share knowledge we need to be able to store information and pass it on to future generations. This used to be done with memory – Homer’s poems were originally transmitted in this way. In oral cultures people require prodigious memories; this is something we have lost in our society. I don’t think I could recite a single poem. But although we may lament the loss of this oral culture, the invention of writing has revolutionised the way knowledge is transmitted and has proved to be immensely more powerful.
5,000 years may seem a long time but writing appeared relatively late in human history but this was long after humans had begun speaking, which according to some experts was as long as 150,000 years ago. Of the 6000 world languages some two-thirds are not written down. While speaking is something that we humans do naturally writing is in reality what John McWhorter has described as an “artificial add-on.”
Few societies have invented a writing system for themselves – most have been borrowed and adapted through cultural diffusion. Writing was limited mainly to the Middle East Asia and Europe. It all began in ancient Sumer (in modern-day Iraq) but it also emerged independently in China, Mexico and Egypt.
Hunter-gatherers never invented such a system because it wasn’t really necessary and there was no way that somebody could dedicate themselves exclusively to writing. It was agricultural surpluses that enabled people to specialise: and it was also valuable as a means of recording who owned these production surpluses. Who could possibly imagine that something used to record the number of sheep or bales of hay somebody owned, would later be used to create works of literature or to explain the mysteries of the universe?
Until Islam started expanding and Europe’s colonisers set out on their travels many parts of the world did not have writing. Writing was an essential tool for European colonisers. Knowledge is power and writing gave them a lot of it. Their objectives were written down. They sailed in boats using maps and instructions from earlier voyages of exploration. They could read about the exploits of their predecessors and so would have some idea what to expect in the new world. Writing also played a fundamental role in the development of the major religions, law and the economy. The arrival of Gutenberg’s printing press, in the 15th century, gave another enormous boost to the written word and indeed provoked many revolutions. Culture spread through society in a way inconceivable before. And now in the twenty-first century we have the Internet, chatrooms, email, messaging and of course blogs
There is a huge variety in the way we write things down. We write from left-to-right, right-to-left (Arabic) and top-to-bottom (Japanese). There are three typical ways of writing used throughout the world. They are not mutually exclusive and languages will use more than of these strategies for writing. The first type are known as logograms. The oldest type of lograms are pictograms, which are simplified drawings of a particular object. As time went by many pictograms were gradually simplified until there was almost no connection with the original symbol. These symbols are called characters or ideograms because each one represents an idea. The big disadvantage was the enormous difficulty in learning all these characters. On the other hand, this way of writing enables people from many Chinese regions, who speak different languages to understand a written text. This has its uses in an enormous country like China. We also use logograms in English – we are all familiar with $ or %.
The second way is a syllabic system where each grapheme corresponds to a spoken syllable usually a vocal-consonant pair such as ka and do. The Japanese have their Kana, which they use for foreign words, texts for the blind and bank statements. Other languages that use syllabic writing include the Linear B script for Mycenaean Greek and Cherokee. The number of graphemes in ia syllabury can be anything from fifty to several hundred.
Finally the most widespread system is the alphabet, where each symbol represents a sound. For example English has 40 sounds but only 26 letters in the alphabet. The degree to which letters of an alphabet correspond to phonemes of a language varies greatly from one language to another. Greek is often considered to be the first alphabet. The largest alphabet is Khmer with seventy-four letters; the smallest is apparently Rokotas, used in the Solomon Islands with a mere eleven letters
Writing has been subject to both praise and criticism. Socrates was famous for not wanting to write anything down. We only know about his thoughts through his disciple Plato. The problem is then to disentangle the thoughts of Socrates from those of Plato. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates attacked the development of writing. He felt that people would use the written word as a substitute for real knowledge. It would be bad for our memories. Some of what Socrates feared was undoubtedly true but he failed to see the benefits for spreading information knowledge and ideas all over the world. Writing is not only important because of the permanence it provides. The type of theorising that Plato engaged in would only be possible in a culture where thoughts can be written down.
There are those who see writing as somehow superior to the spoken word. Writing is seen as the source of linguistic excellence and authority. This is a mistake in my opinion as they serve different functions. Writing is a kind of linguistic arthritis – it has standardised grammar, organisation and vocabulary and is more resistant to change. Without writing the differences between British and American English would be much more pronounced. Thus writing serves to slow down change. Although it may be taxing for us we can listen to Shakespeare and have good grasp of what is being said. But it would have been much more difficult for the Bard to understand an Old English speaker.
Writing is permanent and has consequently influenced the way that people speak; many regional dialects and words have disappeared from use. But speaking can also influence writing; most new words enter a language through speaking. Some of them do not live long. It is when these words begin to appear in written texts that they can be said to come of age, they become real words. They need the recognition and permanence that being written down provides. So really writing and speaking are complementary. Speaking has that spontaneous quality that makes language such a vibrant living thing. Writing enables language and the ideas it transmits to be expressed with great precision and to inform, educate and delight future generations.