Saturday, February 11, 2012
Reading, Writing, and Rearranging
So, as noted in my previous post, Orality and Online Writing, this is the 2nd of a 4 part series, where I'm posting here the lecture notes that I distributed in written form to the online class that I'm teaching this semester at Fordham University, on Writing for Online Media. As I noted last time, my goal here is to provide an overview of the history of writing, in order to put online writing into a larger historical, and media ecological context.
In this second installment, I go over the origin and evolution of writing systems, and their impact. Okay now, settle down, take your seats, and let's get started.
Comments on the History of Writing
Part II: Writing Systems
Back about 30,000-20,000 years ago, there was what some call a creative explosion, the appearance of primitive art, including the famous cave paintings you no doubt have heard about. Up to this time, there is little or no evidence of visual representation. This perhaps represents an important turning point in our capacity for symbolic communication, maybe also the development of language, or an expansion of oral tradition through the appearance of mnemonic devices such as meter and formulas. But it is important to stress that pictures are not writing. Pictures do not make statements, or arguments, and their meaning is rarely clear until words are used to explain them, and putting different captions to the same picture can change their meaning radically. Pictures can illustrate statements, can be used for evidence, they can describe in ways that words cannot, but they are concrete, they are what they are.
Applied to blogs today, a rule for our class is, never let pictures stand on their own. Always provide words of explanation, introduce them, and provide some additional comments following them.
Also back in prehistory, human beings developed identifying marks, like branding of cattle, iconic symbols that function as names, again on a very concrete level. And we developed means of counting by making notches or knots or marks. Systems of marks and notations eventually evolved into true writing about 5500 years ago, the first writing system being cuneiform, invented by the Sumerians in Mesopotamia. What I mean by true writing, based on the scholarship of Walter Ong, Eric Havelock, and others, is a system of visual marks or characters that are used to represent spoken language. By the translating an aural from into a visual one in this way, words gained a measure of permanence that they lacked in speech. Words could be preserved, viewed and reviewed, examined and analyzed. It was the most important development in all of human history, one that goes hand in hand with what we call civilization, as opposed to tribal society and culture.
Cuneiform was invented by accountants, as a means of taking inventories and keeping records. No one thought to write down stories at first, oral tradition worked perfectly fine for that purpose. Writing was used for an entirely new purpose of making lists, an inventory, a census, a genealogy, a chronicle of edicts and events, a set of instructions to follow, etc. These were entirely new forms developed through a new medium of communication.
The first writing systems used one character to stand for an entire word. This was the obvious way to represent language. The problem is that it requires thousands of different characters, tens of thousands to completely cover a spoken language. Obviously, this would make learning how to read and write a difficult and time-consuming task, one that could only be undertaken by small, elite groups, typically for vocational purposes. That's how it worked in Mesopotamia, and the same was true for Egyptian hieroglyphics (which means priestly writing). Similar systems later appeared in Crete, Greece, India, and China, and also Mesoamerica. Terms like pictographic, ideographic, and more generally logographic are used to refer to this type of writing, and Chinese writing is still largely logographic to this day. The reason for this is that Chinese dialects are actually different languages, as different as say French and Spanish and Portuguese are from one another, and while it is hard, sometimes impossible, to understand a different dialect when spoken, the written word can be understood across linguistic barriers.
We ourselves use logographic symbols for numbers, and if you think about it, we don't really pronounce a 3 or 6 or 9, and you can put any language's sound to those characters, so a 3 can be a trois, or a tres, or drei, of shalosh, or san, or three. That's why we say that mathematics is an international language. We also use international icons that have been introduced over the past half century, for example those used for road signs, for restrooms, etc. And then there are the emoticons that are used in email and other forms of messaging, although there are some cultural differences between the west and eastern Asia in their use.
Over time, logographic writing systems added characters and modifications with purely phonetic value, and also employed existing characters for a kind of rebus writing, and in some instances new, simpler forms of syllabic writing evolved, for example in Babylonia, where the shift to a syllabary was associated with the introduction of the first system of codified law, a written list of rules of conduct and punishments, which were connected to the ruler, Hammurabi. With a syllabary, you can go from thousands down to hundreds of characters. In Japan today, they use two syllabaries, totaling to under 100 characters, although they also learn our own Roman alphabet, and to some extent Chinese ideograms as well.
The breakthrough in writing that pretty much set the west apart from the rest of the world was the alphabet, which brought the number of characters down to 20-something, so few that a child could learn it without too much trouble. The first version appears in the Sinai desert about 3500 years ago, and this Semitic aleph-bet may well be associated with the events represented by the Biblical story of Exodus. I'm not suggesting a literal interpretation of the Bible, just that an uprising against Egypt is associated with a new, more democratic form of communication, and this new possibility for literacy is associated with the first fully monotheistic religion (which requires the kind of abstract thinking associated with literacy in order to conceive of a deity that cannot be seen, is all-powerful, all-knowing, omnipresent, and above all singular), the first representation of the past as written narrative history (as opposed to oral myths and legends), one of the first systems of codified law (the 10 Commandments being the first of 613 laws and commandments in the Torah or 5 Books of Moses), nascent concepts of equality and individualism, and generally speaking the religious and ethical basis of western culture.
When the Semitic alphabet was later introduced to the Greeks, and adopted about 2800 years ago, the result was the basis of western secular culture, including the beginnings of philosophy, science, secular history, theater, and democracy. The Greeks added the idea of vowels, which were only implied in the Semitic alphabet, and no further progress in writing systems have occurred since then, apart from the occasional addition of a letter or two (the original systems had 22 letters, we've gone up to 26, some others have a few more based on the use of accent marks). In addition to the Greek alphabet and our own Roman alphabet, there's the Cyrillic alphabet used in Russia, Ukraine, etc., the Hebrew and Arabic alphabets derived from the original Semitic version, an alphabet used in India that they adopted from the Semites, and a Korean alphabet whose characters look like Chinese ideograms.
The alphabet made it possible for literacy to spread beyond an elite group. Children could learn how to read and write relatively easily, and could read relatively fluently compared to what was required to read logographic writing. Writing eventually made it possible to record the entire culture in this new form, rather than depend upon oral tradition, so knowledge could be preserved, and accumulated, making real progress possible. Ong notes that before writing there was no such thing as study. The first schools were founded in Mesopotamia to teach cuneiform, but it was especially in ancient Greece that the concept of study and schooling really coalesced.
Along with education, widespread literacy went hand-in-hand with the development of a reading public, a readership who read not only as a vocation (as an accountant or priest might), but for pleasure or for edification. With writing, it became possible to edit narratives, and thereby tell stories that progress from beginning to middle to end in strict, linear fashion, whereas oral narratives were episodic, with the episodes relatively easy to rearrange, and the typical strategy being to begin in the middle of the action, in medias res, to grab the attention of the audience. Writing also made it possible to move away from flat type characters of mythic and legendary stature to more well rounded and realistic individuals.
Writing was still a means of perfecting oral communication in the ancient world, used for rhetoric, oratory, poetry, teaching, dialogue, but the growing number of written works meant that a true literature was accumulating. Writing also made it possible to separate oneself from one's culture, and one's thoughts, as Havelock put it, to separate the knower from the known. Our thoughts, our knowledge, and our culture could be studied from outside of ourselves. With writing, knowledge could be viewed and reviewed, allowing us to criticize, analyze, and evaluate our traditions, and our ideas, and to think in more abstract terms than had previously been the case.
Writing also put a new stress on vision that had not existed before, especially in Greco-Roman culture, a point that McLuhan emphasized back in the 60s, but it is only in recent years that neuroscience has shown that literacy actually rewires the brain, including its visual centers. Along with the visual came an emphasis on linearity, as letters are lined up to make a word, words lined up to make a sentence, sentences lined up to make a paragraph, etc. We remade our world in this image, so that everywhere you look, you see straight lines and right angles, like writing on a page, and these are forms that you do not find in nature.