colin f lane

Alphabet: NYRB

Quinn, Josephine. 'Alphabet Politics'. The New York Review of Books, vol. LLX, no. 1, January 19, 2023, pp. 6-10.

the same language can be written in multiple scripts (as with Elamite, and later Turkish or Malay) and the same script can be used to write multiple languages (as with cuneiform, and later the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets). But as we see in modern writing systems from musical notes to emojis, script isn't always tied to language at all.

In ancient Mesopotamia numbers came first, in the form of token and tally systems. Adding a picture of what you were counting - a sheep, say - helped to keep the books straight. This was good for communicating too: people speaking different languages could read the same thing the same way. Whether the first written document to change hands was a bill, a receipt, or a ration book, it didn't look so different from an online shopping cart today.

The next step was to develop these early sketches into 'signs' that represented specific elements in specific languages. Over time this produced a gloriously complicated writing system for Sumerian, the earliest surviving written language and another isolate. Its cuneiform characters can represent entire words, like the English logograms & and %, or individual syllables, or grammatical 'determinatives': signs that tell you that the next word is a kind of god, or city, or waterfowl. People needed these determinatives because despite the existence of hundreds of signs, many could be read in several different ways and in all three categories.

What prompted the writing down of language? The traditional answer is the state: writing appears in Mesopotamia and many other places with the development of centralized political institutions. It suited their administrative and fiscal requirements, and it often worked to their benefit: the earliest surviving Chinese writing, oracles inscribed on pieces of bone including turtle shells, predicts the military maneuvers of the king's enemies and neighbors.

One obvious problem with claiming that writing is a universal human instinct is that it has rarely been invented from scratch.

The biggest obstacle to deciphering ancient languages is the assumption that premodern societies were primitive. The signs that make up unfamiliar scripts are easy to dismiss as pictograms, symbols, or even art. But almost all writing systems turn out to be largely phonetic: Mayan glyphs, for instance, long thought to be simple memory aids, were finally decoded in the second half of the twentieth century as a mixture of logograms and syllabic characters. The rules here are clear even for undeciphered scripts: several hundred signs point to a logo-syllabary; fifty to a hundred to a syllabary; fewer than that and e enter the realm of the alphabet, in which each letter denotes a single unit of sound.

It was only in the twentieth century that scholars began to build a case for an 'alphabet effect', seeing the addition of vowels to the Levantine abjad as a change of immense significance that enabled voweled writing systems to capture - or impose - the smallest details of sound responsible for Greek philosophy, democracy, and individualism.

How worried should we be by alphabet supremacy? Is it simply an improvement on earlier scripts, just as syllabaries improved on picture-coded accounting systems? That might seem obvious: with fewer letters, alphabets should be easier to learn. But there's more to reading and writing than learning your letters, and schoolchildren today can be taught to communicate effectively in all sorts of writing systems. Even the cuneiform script, with its hundreds of characters and specialized equipment, was no bar to functional literacy in the early second millennium BCE: in some Babylonian cities, writing tablets were found in more than half the houses.

There's a bigger question about whether writing, the handmaiden of imperial taxation, conscription, and surveillance, is a good thing at all. ... in a world without writing we'd live 'suspended in a continual present'. But that isn't quite true: the power of collective memory is remarkable. The songs and stories of past glory that the Greeks called Homer were passed down for centuries without the help of writing. Indigenous coastal legends from Australia to the Outer Hebrides appear to describe landscapes that have not existed for thousands of years, and in some cases since the end of the last Ice Age. Oral history doesn't survive the onset of literacy, when the time before writing becomes myth. But writing has been around for only six thousand years or so, and most people didn't see much of it - it wasn't omnipresent in daily life - before the invention of the printing press and the rise of the modern nation-state. There is no particular reason to think it will outlive them.