Writing: from complex symbols to abstract squiggles

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There's a new exhibition on "Writing:  Making Your Mark" at the British Library.  Judging from the homepage and all that I've heard about it, this is an exciting, informative, comprehensive display of more than a hundred objects and forty different systems pertaining to the history of writing during the past five millennia and drawn from around the world.  Since it's open until Tuesday, August 27, 2019, if you're in the vicinity it would be worth your while to stop by and take a look.

There's also an excellent article by Kristina Foster about the exhibition in Hyperallergic (6/7/19):

"A History of Writing, from Hieroglyphs to Squiggles:  An exhibition at the British Library powerfully delves into the personal and political complexities of writing, driving home that it's not only one of humanity's greatest inventions, but born out of the strongest human motivations."

Near the beginning, Foster admits:

No one can pinpoint exactly when writing was invented, but the earliest evidence of this faculty hails from Mesopotamia (ancient Iraq). On show is a 4,000-year-old Mesopotamian clay tablet impressed with cuneiform script — wedge-shaped markings made with a reed stylus — indicating wages distributed to farm laborers. Next up is picture-writing: Egyptian and Mayan hieroglyphics stand preserved in limestone stelae lionizing their respective pantheon of deities and dynasties.

But my favorite paragraph is the last:

"Isn't that amazing?" mused the art historian E. H. Gombrich in his book A Little History of the World, "with twenty-six simple signs, each no more than a couple of squiggles, you can write [down anything] you like, be it wise or silly, angelic or wicked." If nothing else, this exhibition fascinatingly details the communicative powers of the "squiggle," weaving the nuances of human character and emotion through the history of writing in a way that is at once intellectual, fractious, moving, and joyous.

If writing, as the exhibition's wall text refers to it, is "mankind's greatest invention", then those twenty-six little squiggles are the most wondrous creation within that achievement.

Selected readings

"Universal alphabet" (2/27/13)

"The World Alphabet Olympics" (10/16/12)

"Love those letters" (11/3/18)

[h.t. John Rohsenow]



21 Comments

  1. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    June 11, 2019 @ 1:47 pm

    Fascinating!

    Also interesting is the text immediately following the second-quoted paragraph from Foster:

    "Somewhere along the way, at around 1800 BCE, the alphabet is born as migrants in Sinai assign Egyptian hieroglyphs to spoken language. We see the symbol of an ox head morphing across a sandstone Sphinx, an urn, and a slab, eventually becoming a recognizable majuscule "A.""

    So, if the first "writing system" (as distinguished from logographic or mnemonic "proto-writing") took shape at around 2600 BC https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_writing ("About 2600 BC, cuneiform began to represent syllables of the Sumerian language."), only 800 years separated that development from the development of the first "alphabet" ("abjad"?).

    I wonder why it was hieroglyphic writing, rather than cuneiform, that was used as the raw material for alphabetic letters. Anybody have any guesses?

  2. Adam said,

    June 11, 2019 @ 2:29 pm

    Being lucky enough to live in London, I went to see this last week. Worth a visit if you're (as I am) a paleography or lettering nerd.

  3. David Hargreaves said,

    June 11, 2019 @ 3:04 pm

    Isn't it a bit odd that the review (not sure about the exhibit itself) doesn't mention the history of writing in China at all?

  4. Ethan Merritt said,

    June 11, 2019 @ 3:14 pm

    The linked review article finishes with a picture of an oracle bone from the Couling-Chalfant collection. According to the collection overview "[The oracle bones] date from between 1600 and 1050 BCE (Shang Dynasty) and this makes them the oldest items in the entire British Library."

  5. cameron said,

    June 11, 2019 @ 3:14 pm

    The article doesn't mention Chinese writing systems, but there's a fine illustration of an ancient oracle bone inscription, presumably an item on display at the show.

    The idea that Egyptian hieroglyphics don't encode a spoken language, and the alphabet derived from its adaptation to a spoken language is problematic. I think the idea could be saved by inserting a clarification that the proto-alphabetic early Sinai scripts were an adaptation of the Egyptian symbols to encode a spoken language other than Egyptian.

  6. Andreas Johansson said,

    June 11, 2019 @ 4:01 pm

    @Benjamin E. Orsatti

    The phonetic principle of Cuneiform is syllabic, whereas Egyptian hieroglyphs encode consonants. To create an abjad from the latter requires only dropping the multi-consonantal signs, whereas creating any sort of segmental system from the former requires a more radical reinterpretation.

    That said, Cuneiform was used as the basis for an alphabet (abjad) in Ugaritic, and Old Persian Cuneiform is a weird halfway house between an alphabet and a syllabary.

  7. Ex Tex said,

    June 11, 2019 @ 4:12 pm

    The mention of "squiggles" made me think of the development of precise letterforms, followed by degeneration into actual squiggles, in the form of hasty or sloppy handwriting. I wonder if anyone has studied how poor handwriting is deciphered (word shapes, letter decoding?) and how bad the handwriting has to be before the letterforms they allude to are no longer recognizable. Obviously, you must be literate in printed (or very neatly written) letters first, then have to do a lot of backfilling when reading untidy handwriting.
    I have the same question about Chinese scripts, of which I am mostly ignorant. I have long wondered how readers turn those sinuous brush scrawls into seemingly much more complex characters.

  8. John Swindle said,

    June 11, 2019 @ 5:25 pm

    @Ex Tex: In a way alphabets constitute a millenia-long experiment in what's needed to differentiate their characters.

  9. John Shutt said,

    June 11, 2019 @ 5:57 pm

    @Andreas Johansson
    @Benjamin E. Orsatti

    Perhaps affected by writing medium? I've gotten the impression cuneiform is pretty specialized to writing on clay tablets.

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 11, 2019 @ 6:12 pm

    Gombrich got a bit carried away, since quite a lot of societies have found the 26-squiggle set insufficient for their purposes and have accordingly chosen to supplement the basic set with additional squiggles of their own. Indeed, the title of Gombrich's own first published book (Eine kurze Weltgeschichte für junge Leser) required a teensy bit extra, even if he wrote all of his subsequent books in an umlautless script after relocating from Austria to England. But of course had English and its speakers had the same degree of worldwide power and influence 600+ years ago that we do today, the English alphabet itself would be different than it is, because under those circumstances we would never have given up our useful additional glyphs like thorn, ash, yogh, etc etc for the convenience of foreigners.

  11. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    June 11, 2019 @ 8:31 pm

    @John Schutt
    That answer makes so much sense that I'm furious with myself for its not having dawned on me before.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    June 11, 2019 @ 11:09 pm

    @J.W. Brewer

    When Gombrich said "with twenty-six simple signs, each no more than a couple of squiggles, you can write down anything you like", he was talking about the English alphabet. I don't think he got carried away.

  13. Adam said,

    June 12, 2019 @ 4:23 am

    Ugaritic cuneiform took the pen-writing → cuneiform thing in the opposite direction (being a cuneiform borrowing of a written abjad), so there is at least a little precedent for being able to switch between the forms.

  14. WSM said,

    June 12, 2019 @ 9:22 am

    One interesting facet of this for Sinographs is the "evolution" of 雪, which actually went through a rather tortuous, non-linear path of increasing and then decreasing complexity (i.e. more structure, less "squiggle"), presumably as the radical system was introduced (and then simplified again). I'd think that writing systems evolve much as the organisms who use them, namely through adaptation to changing environments, rather than progression towards some telos which tends to conveniently be situated exactly where we find ourselves.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    June 12, 2019 @ 9:51 am

    So xuě 雪 ("snow") is the ancient simplification of 䨮?

    Then what happens? 彐? But I don't see anybody using that form now.

    We're not talking telos, we're just describing the current situation.

  16. WSM said,

    June 12, 2019 @ 10:35 am

    The earliest logograph for 雪 is a good deal less complex, in terms of structure and stroke count, than any of the subsequent forms.

    'We see the symbol of an ox head morphing across a sandstone Sphinx, an urn, and a slab, eventually becoming a recognizable majuscule "A." ' implies a process, as do phrases such as "linear developments", which I took as meaning a process uniformly in a specific direction.

  17. Victor Mair said,

    June 12, 2019 @ 2:40 pm

    "The earliest logograph for 雪 is a good deal less complex, in terms of structure and stroke count, than any of the subsequent forms."

    彐?

  18. Catanea said,

    June 13, 2019 @ 7:25 am

    @Ex Tex
    My experience in deciphering some pretty strange scripts, is that if you make the movements yourself (actually copy what you can see of the forms) you get much closer to decipherment. This seems to apply in both historical (Roman) scripts & in modern idiosyncratic cursives, across five (IE) languages, so far.

  19. ~flow said,

    June 13, 2019 @ 11:05 am

    @Ex Tex "Obviously, you must be literate in printed (or very neatly written) letters first, then have to do a lot of backfilling when reading untidy handwriting."

    I don't think this is obvious when I look at how people wrote before the advent of ubiquitous, cheap printing and typewriters and now computers, all of which are rather recent events. In the first decades of the 20th c it was still considered normal that library cards, bureaucratic correspondence, personal letters and so on was all done in handwriting. The hands were often very skilled ones but by no means always. Even in the 16th century many or most books were still handwritten, meaning that exposure to classical letter shapes must have been quite limited. It may be the case that under these circumstances handwriting was considered by many the standard and indeed more readable form of writing.

    I once met an elderly man in Shanghai who was so nice to jot down a street address for me. He did it in swift strokes of what probably qualifies as very cursive or even grass script. Upon my asking of him to bear with a foreigner's level of literacy, he wrote it down a second time, with very careful strokes that, however, turned out to assemble to the very same squiggles.

  20. James Wimberley said,

    June 13, 2019 @ 1:29 pm

    J.W. Brewer: "under those circumstances we would never have given up our useful additional glyphs like thorn, ash, yogh, etc etc for the convenience of foreigners." IIRC the crucial foreigners at the time (ca. 1480) were early Flemish printers, who supplied Caxton with cast type suitable for Latin and Flemish. Caxton could presumably have ordered the missing letters for English but couldn't be bothered, so the failure was for his convenience not the Flemings'. Noþing stops us today from reviving ðese useful letters.

  21. Bathrobe said,

    June 14, 2019 @ 5:22 pm

    Noþing stops us today from reviving ðese useful letters.

    If English speaking countries were to do this, it could have wider repercussions than you might suspect. With such a precedent, many languages that feel constrained by the 26 letters of the Latin alphabet but feel that additional letters would look unrespectable or outlandish might be emboldened to do the same.

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