Daily Archives: April 14th, 2007

History of Writing

Finally finished this today – you know how it is when you’re nearly finished a book, but the last half a chapter just seems like such a slog… yes. Well, that’s exactly how I’ve felt with this book, much as I have enjoyed it.

Let me get the gripes out of the way to start with. Lack of definitions irked me. Maybe Steven Roger Fischer is only writing for experts – although it doesn’t really seem like it – but he talks about graphemes and logography and other such words and doesn’t give a definition for any of them until about chapter 5, and then only defines a couple! So that was a bit annoying. I also should say that I didn’t entirely understand all of it; part of that is me – I am definitely not an expert in the area, and some of it just went over my head, as I knew it would – but some of it is Fischer: while he mostly writes plainly, every now and then he got a bit carried away with fancy-pantsed academic language that may not have been necessary.

Anyway… the first chapter is “From Notches to Tablets” and the second “Talking Art” – fairly obvious what they’re about. Mostly concentrating on the Mediterranean and Mesopotamian area (Fischer is a proponent of the idea that ‘complete writing’ started in just one place, Sumer, and developed everywhere else because of foreign influence), it looks at why complete writing developed, and how, and the advantages that came because of it. Knots, notches, pictography… humans really are quite creative. In the development of writing I particularly like the idea of the rebus – smart cookie, whoever realised that you can substitute a picture of one thing for something else that sounds the same but means something else (eg a bird’s bill for Bill).

Chapter 3 is “Speaking Systems,” It looks at the dissemination of writing throughout the Mediterranean and into India, Phoenicians and the Middle East and all. Basically tracing how syllabaries (where a sign represents a syllable) developed and influenced one another.

“From Alpha to Omega” is the fourth chapter, and there are no prizes for guessing its emphasis: the Greek alphabet. From Greece to the Etruscans to the Romans, and then on into all areas conquered by them, is the story told here. Mention is made of Ogham, Slavonic scripts, and Gothic script too. Very interesting, and lots of pretty pictures showing different writing styles.

Fifth is “The East Asian ‘Regenesis'”, which mostly looks at Chinese writing – its development, changes, and how it has influences cultures within its orbit, such as Vietnam, Korea, Japan and Mongolia. I had already read about the Korean script somewhere else, but the story of it being developed in the 1400s by the king (or at least under his aegis) is a brilliant one. And I had no idea just how complicated Japanese is… crazy, the amount of stuff Japanese kids have to learn just to be literate! And my students complain!

“The Americas,” the sixth chapter, is not one I had expected to be very long, but it was actually quite involved. It looked at who might have had writing when, who influenced who, and what role writing might have played in the different Mesoamerican (primarily) societies. The Spanish have a lot to answer for, with regard to destroying Aztec records, but then I guess we knew that.

Penultimately, “The Parchment Keyboard” looks at the development of handwriting styles in Europe basically from Charlemagne on, the dissemination of them and literacy more generally, and then the development and impact of printing. It always amuses me that we place so much emphasis on Gutenber, in the West, when the Chinese had been using paper and block printing for centuries before him. The joys of Eurocentrism…

Finally comes “Scripting the Future,” which is Fischer’s attempts at prognostication, for the most part. What the impact of computers will be, the likely success of trying create a ‘visual language,’ and the scripts that will still be around in 400 years.

This is a very, very brief overview of the book. I really liked that, in general, Fischer was not triumphalist, smug or assured about the overwhelming use of the Latin-based alphabet. Indeed, he went out of his way to emphasise that this is not necessarily the ‘best’ alphabet – pointing out a lot of the problems with it, calling it deficient, which I liked – and holding up the longevity and usesfulness of Japanese writing systems (three of them!) in contrast. It is mostly readable, and reveals things about writing that I had never thought about. Good for nerds who like thinking about the way things are done, and why, and the history of things we take for granted.