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The Birth of Writing: The Path of the Write-ous

There are certain ways in which humans communicate with each other; some of the most prominent ones being non-verbal (aspects such as body language), written and oral. About 200,000 years ago speech was developed while symbols were established about 30,000 years ago. On the other hand, the birth of writing as a form of communication as we know it today came into existence about 7,000 years ago. At the same time, symbols can be considered as the earliest forms of written communication as they were used for showcasing knowledge and information to the beholder.

Of course, one can be amazed at how different vibrations can create sounds which we perceive. Even more amazing and awe-inspiring is the way we have attributed meaning to these sounds and actually have embedded these meanings so deeply in our lives that the sounds no longer seem like mere vibrations but can actually be used for conversation and creation.

Communication, as well as the ways in which we communicate, can be considered as essential results of evolution. But, a revelation which came to us later was how our evolution today is based on communication, let it be scientific or spiritual or even on an atomic level.

When looking into communication, the means of oral communication is humankind’s first and still most ubiquitous modes of communication. This is what Desdemaines Hugon (Stepping-Stones. A Journey Through the Ice Age Caves of the Dordogne) had to say about the contrast between written and oral ways of passing information and knowledge;

“Oral traditions are far more faithfully passed on than the written word. A written account can be open to multiple interpretations, distortions, and transformations, depending on the time and situation, economic imperatives, or the whims of political or religious leaders. Orally transmitted traditions, in contrast, must be rigorously and accurately passed on in order to survive in all their subtlety, and in the smallest of details. Furthermore, the written word, thought to be the surer and safer means of communication, is not only less reliable but also more permeable to outside aggression than are the more secret codes of an oral system. During the time of the Roman Empire, for instance, the fact that the Celts were still ‘prehistoric’—meaning that they hadn’t recorded their history, ways, and beliefs— made it much harder for the conquering Romans to devise an appropriate strategy to subjugate them.”

Writing as a form of communication started with an intention to preserve incidents and important reminders, and was also driven by a fear of losing the information provided during the oral communication. Writing also served as a way to preserve the underlying emotions behind the information being passed down.  One can only be awed at how these meaningless symbols and hieroglyphics were given meanings which when bought together had the power to convey the emotions as well as the immense plethora of knowledge which were filled in these. If we look closely and juxtapose the art of writing with a far larger picture, we may see that words are coherent with the microchips of today that we find in the motherboards of computers. They may seem small, but have a plethora of information hidden within them. This also serves as a reminder that each word and sentence, with their myriad meanings, can contain far more information than they were intended to, which is ultimately dependent on the individual who derives meaning out of these. In essence, the very aspect which was considered to be a fallacy of writing by Desdemaines Hugon can also be considered as the most powerful aspect of writing. This is synonymous with the fact that when I am writing this article I have attributed to a certain syntax behind each word and have constructed each sentence in such a way so as to portray or paint a particular picture of information. On the other hand, when you are reading this article you are in turn painting your own picture with the information provided within, which essentially may result in you perceiving the information in a completely different way. This just serves to prove how we can use writing as an art form to create meaning out of seemingly “dead” symbols.

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Genesis

The ancient Egyptians used papyrus scrolls, in the form of paper-like thick material produced from the pith of papyrus plant. Their hieroglyphics and symbols eventually transferred onto structures and architecture, such as the pyramids of Giza, where the stone acted as a canvas for them to paint their ancient heritage and culture on.

papyrus1

The urge to scribble something has been present since a really long time. The first instances of writing were found in Neolithic Stage or the Early Bronze Age (4th millennium BC). The archaic Sumerian hieroglyphs are considered as the earliest true writing systems. Other types of writing include the un-deciphered Elamite script, Indus script, early Semitic alphabets, Chinese writing, Cretan and Greek scripts.

hieroglyphics

Tripped out fact: Greeks started writing from left to right and their style managed to make an impact on the scripts in Europe.

Tripped out fact: Latin is descendant of the Greek Language

The shift that occurred from oral traditions of passing down knowledge to written forms of communication was a paradigm away from the ancient ways of information transfer. This paradigm shift was an immense one, due to which it was resisted by quite a few scholarly individuals throughout the ages. For instance, Plato had the following to say about writing:

“If men learn this (writing), it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows.”

Evolution

“Finally, it should be emphasized that the text as arranged on the papyrus was much harder for the reader to interpret than in any modern book. Punctuation was usually rudimentary at best. Texts were written without word-division, and it was not until the middle ages that a real effort was made to alter this convention in Greek or Latin texts…” Reynolds and Wilson (Scribes and Scholars)

During the Middle Ages, Arabic over-shadowed other languages. Arabic script became the primary script of the Persian language and the Turkish language. This script also heavily influenced the development of the cursive scripts of Greek, the Slavic languages, Latin, and other lingual dialects.

Tripped out fact: The scriptures of Muslims all around the world was preserved orally before the transition to the written copy of today.

Then came the renaissance, which marked the blossoming of writing into something more than just a way of passing information; it blossomed into an art form. After the end of Islamic Golden Era and the birth of renaissance in the 14th century, a revolutionary invention was made by Johannes Gutenberg.

gutenbergpress

In 1997, Time–Life magazine picked Gutenberg’s invention as the most important of the second millennium. In 1999, the A&E Network ranked Gutenberg no. 1 on their “People of the Millennium” countdown.

The present day printing press is a product of Gutenberg’s. His invention had led to mass production of books in Europe, created various job opportunities not just for labours but also opportunities for writers, where their works could become widespread and their talent would be recognised.

A single machine produced about 3600 pages per work day. By 1500, the printing presses in operation throughout Western Europe had already produced more than twenty million copies. In the following century, their output rose to an estimated 150 to 200 million copies.

Communication in today’s society has been heavily influenced by the history that we just explored. The printing press acted as an ‘agent of change in societies’. The printing press caused revolutions that shaped our history in a way we are aware. Societies revolted, evolved and progressed. It became a medium through which scientists exchanged ideas while, at the same time, knowledge became more easily accessible. It is through this that many other fields had a sharp growth. Reading also changed, moving from oral readings to silent, private reading. The literacy rate grew amongst the adults in Europe. There were astounding developments in the economic and socio-cultural aspects of society. The advent of writing is one of the key factors which led to modernization. Printing press led to the fall of Christian ideals and religious beliefs and people started to think logically. They didn’t limit themselves to the knowledge which was force-fed to them; there was space for exploration which eventually led to change in attitudes, behaviour and also the evolution of communication to another level of clarity and understanding.

Image Sources: [1], [2], [3], [4]

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About Mariyam Saigal

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