A cultural gadget

Writing – the habit of turning language into something that can be transmitted across space and time – is 5,000 years old or more; but that is nothing in evolutionary terms. Unlike speaking, reading and writing involves parts of the brain reserved for other tasks by the non-literate. It’s not natural, in other words. “Writing is an object created by us … It is not biological, it is not in our genes. It is, in short, a cultural gadget”, writes Silvia Ferrara in The Greatest Invention: A history of the world in nine mysterious scripts. Pushed further, this conception of a familiar tool becomes even more unsettling: “writing is something we could also do without”.

For Ferrara, writing is part of a bigger story about ingenuity and curiosity. “The protagonists of our tale… are not the scripts alone, nor those who discovered or deciphered them. We ourselves are the protagonists – our brains, our ability to communicate”. It is a panoramic view, spanning millennia between the multiple inventions of different scripts and more recent efforts to decipher their archaeological remnants. And it is sensible: the temptation to corral historical material into an all-explanatory theory is firmly resisted.

The story always comes from, or with, an unexpected angle. “Take a look at the objects around you”, Ferrara urges: rather than tell the history of the letters through the pictures they came from, she instead points out universal prompts for letters, Ls in table tops, Vs between mountains, the “o ” of the sun, the asterisk of the stars, the signifying curls of cords and cables. Neuroscience tells us that lines and contours are more important to our visual cortex than what lies between them, and a comparison of scripts across time shows the same frequency of shapes, from the ubiquitous L- and T-type forms to the less common but still recurrent Xs and Fs. “It’s as if writing sought to copy nature’s contours, to make itself easier to perceive and simpler to read.”

Writing that can’t easily be read is still instructive, however. Not knowing what a script means forces us to turn from the symbols to their context, so from the start Ferrara brings island cultures – Crete, Cyprus and Easter Island – to the fore. Far from being isolated peripheries, these places were “nodes of invention and aspiration, affirmations of identity”, driven by “the urge to prove that [they were] unique.” Such uniqueness underpinned both the success and the downfall of their writing systems: the desire to express an identity meant the scripts were limited to the site of invention, and without spreading further afield they were doomed. “Very few island scripts end in success”, she writes. “Neither for themselves, since they vanish, nor for us, still unable to penetrate their enigmas.”

But such enigmas drive Ferrara’s curiosity about writing: decipherment is the subject of her own research, and the heart of this book is a kind of manifesto, a call for collaboration, to understand the ways in which invention and interpretative rediscovery intertwine. Celebrating the work of archaeologists, anthropologists, geomatics engineers, historians, computer scientists, cognitivists and experts in linguistics, Ferrara describes her field of study as “cooperative … with no more room for prophets.” The mantra today is synergy. Not only of group action but of thought”. It’s a call to arms in these days of academic silos and boundaries, but more importantly it says something about the technology she is investigating.

The fact that independent systems arose around the world multiple times is not enough for Ferrara to conclude that writing was ever bound to happen. “There’s nothing inevitable, deterministic, or teleological about [it]”, she writes, putting herself at odds with Jared Diamond and Yuval Noah Harari, who have stressed the “need” for writing and its subsequent invention as a means of satisfying that need. Writing, on this mechanistic view, is an engineer’s response, a solution to a problem, but this “problem” was identified from the point of view of the present, from a highly literate society. Was this “problem” recognized as such by the societies that developed writing? Did they sense the lack seen by Diamond and Harari? If so, the response would have been one-off inventions, which we do not see in the historical record.

Writing is not an engineer’s diagram. Repeatedly, Ferrara finds, it came about as the result of “a series of coordinated, cumulative, and gradual actions” (bar the interventions of lone inventors such as the indigenous American polymath Sequoyah, who wrote down the Cherokee language, and Hildegard of Bingen , creator of a mystical lingua ignota in the twelfth century). “We’d be mistaken to look at this culminating moment … as a project, a scheme, the result of a conscious plan”, Ferrara writes. Instead, she concludes: “Writing is a social invention, where alignment, coordination, and feedback play essential roles”. Without social agreement on the use and meaning of written symbols, there can be no communication, and such a joint activity results in adaptation and innovation across society, seen in changing conventions of grammar (the TLS He tells me I can now in some cases split an infinitive, for example, but we haven’t quite reached in print form that ubiquitous innovation of gamers, the emoji).

In her exploration of four sites in which writing was, separately, invented – Mesopotamia, Egypt, China and Mesoamerica – Ferrara complicates the usual explanation, which is that this “gadget” emerged to help with the running of states and states. She gives counter-examples on both sides: Tifinagh is a script still used to record Berber Tuareg languages ​​in North Africa, but the societies that gave rise to the writing were without a governing class or an attendant bureaucracy; Conversely, there is Kerma, a culture from Sudan that formed a state nearly 5,000 years ago, without any writing system. The inevitable conclusion is that the emphasis on a bureaucratic purpose is absurd. It is historically illiterate to have such a teleological view of a past invention; worse, for Ferrara, it generals the wonder of writing and the people who developed it. The origins of our greatest invention lie not with some “bloodless monster that is the state, purveyor of taxes”, but “in the imagination … in our deep desire to name – ourselves, and everything around us”. Discoveries often precede their applications; curiosity matters, and “invention comes later, as an effect of discovery … it needs time and energy before it becomes [an] intention.”

Ferrara writes with a breezy elan, nicely caught by her translator, Todd Portnowitz. The reader is familiarly addressed and there are many invitations to draw a picture or guess the meaning of words; questions and asides. The directness is deliberate: “I wanted the book to feel dictated … I’ve given it an oral form, to get a sense of just how heavy the armour of writing can be.” The result is that “almost without realising it, I’ve … sidelined the very subject of this book”. But it’s not quite that. The effect of the rhetorical style and of Ferrara’s tendency to disrupt the conventional picture – emphasizing context, stressing disruptions and failures, giving attention to the gaps in our understanding – is to see writing as distinct from its uses, aims and constituent language. “Saussure … the father of linguistics, thought of writing as something parasitic, something subordinate to language. And he was wrong”, Ferrara argues. “Writing has a parallel, independent life of its own.” The religious communities of historic Islam used scripts made up of Hebrew, Greek, Arabic and Armenian alphabets to write not only the languages ​​associated with those alphabets, but also the languages ​​of empire, Ottoman Turkic or Arabic. (For example, Judeo-Arabic is the name given to Arabic written with Hebrew letters.) Conversely, the alphabet you are reading now is used to notate hundreds of different languages. The link between language and script is not fixed. As Ferrara says:

A script can note several languages ​​… but a language can [also] be noted in several scripts (Greek is one example, written with the alphabet, Linear B, and the classical Cypriot syllabary). The two tracks can be interchangeable, but they always run parallel.

In Silvia Ferrara’s conception of it, writing is a fragile object, nurtured over many phases of human development. Many different kinds of writing have disappeared into obscurity. Even the enduring successes – the alphabet I’m typing now, the much older Chinese script – were not guaranteed; they owe their longevity to accidents of politics and society. The Greatest Invention is a celebration not of achievements, but of moments of illumination and “the most important thing in the world: our desire to be understood”.

Lydia Wilson is a research fellow at the University of Oxford and an editor at New Lines and Cambridge Literary Review. She presented the BBC television series The Secret History of Writing2020

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