“Its Proper Shape” Writing-evolution Mythologies

Tim Brookes is the founder of the Endangered Alphabets Project and author of Endangered Alphabets. His current project is to create a Red List of the world’s writing systems, identifying every script currently at use in the world and assessing its degree of health or vulnerability.

 

Last column I looked at a number of writing-creation myths, and I suggested they be viewed not as superstitions. Instead, I see them as a sign many cultures had a much clearer sense of the remarkable value and meaning of writing than we do — so much so that they include the birth of writing in their narratives of who they are, and how they came to be.

Of course, it would be easy to dismiss these narratives because we in the West don’t tend to believe in creation — we believe, instead, in evolution. But describing the development of writing as a process of evolution is also, in its way, a kind of myth.

Here’s a statement presented as fact by a reputable and widely-used current source of general information: “The evolution of writing from tokens to pictography, syllabary and alphabet illustrates the development of information processing to deal with larger amounts of data in ever-greater abstraction.”

This definition (which, although it doesn’t say so, is specifically about the Latin alphabet) strikes me as condescending and obnoxious. Many of the most beautiful scripts in the world are syllabic, and the few surviving pictographic scripts are among the most fascinating. Who is to say that these writing systems are unevolved, and thus their people are unevolved, and will presumably remain so until they update their scripts as alphabets, or abandon them altogether in favor of the Latin alphabet?


Nobel Prize winner and master storyteller of the British Empire Rudyard Kipling said: “And after thousands and thousands and thousands of years and after Hieroglyphics and Demotics and Nilotics and Cryptics and Cufics and Runics … the fine old easy, understandable Alphabet … got back into its proper shape again…”

 

Many of my collaborators and partners — including readers of this magazine — live in cultures with syllabic scripts. Does this mean they are backward or linguistically unevolved? Far from it: When I’m in touch with someone from South Asia, say, or Indonesia, they make me and my own language skills seem unevolved. We communicate in English, even though it is their second, third, or even fourth language, simply because, like most Brits, my own language skills are so limited.
Where did this idea of evolution, and the superiority of the Latin alphabet, come from?

As far as I can tell, one of the first to propose the idea was Rousseau, who equated pictograms with “savage people,” signs for words with “a barbaric people,” and the alphabet to “civilized people.” This conceit was revisited during the second half of the 19th century, the heyday of European colonialism.

In Ancient Society (1877), Lewis Henry Morgan, pioneering American anthropologist and social theorist, argued that writing, especially the written alphabet, was the sole innovation that marked the passage of humankind from what he called the “Upper Status of Barbarism” to the final and consummate “Status of Civilisation.”

At roughly the same time, this general progression was broken down into linguistic stages by one of the earliest and most influential cultural anthropologists, who argued that as a culture evolved, its writing system evolved. Morgan’s contemporary, Edward Burnett Tylor, an Englishman regarded as the father of cultural anthropology, proposed in Researches into the Early History of Mankind and the Development of Civilization (1865) that writing progressed from “ideograms” through to “verbal,” “syllabic,” and finally “alphabetic” glyphs, each step denoting the intellectual and social progress of that society toward, presumably, an Anglo-Victorian ideal. By this logic, any culture that used graphic symbol systems, often dismissed as “picture-writing,” was both primitive and childish.

The same general idea was expressed in popular form in the Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling, Nobel Prize winner and master storyteller of the British Empire: “And after thousands and thousands and thousands of years and after Hieroglyphics and Demotics and Nilotics and Cryptics and Cufics and Runics … the fine old easy, understandable Alphabet … got back into its proper shape again…”

So many things are wrong with that sentence. The words “old” and “again” imply the Latin alphabet predated Egyptian hieroglyphics, which is anything but true. The word “easy” is misleading, as runes are easier to inscribe than Latin letters, and as for “understandable,” any pictographic system is easier to comprehend at a glance than an abstract symbol system that needs to be learned. There’s also the fact that any writing system is understandable to its culture of origin, so the Latin alphabet is less understandable to someone in Kerala than the Malayalam script. And of course, all these assumptions come together in the word “proper,” which smugly asserts that the alphabet of the British Empire is naturally the right script, and everyone else’s scripts are inferior.

The word “evolution,” then, is a circular argument of self-justification: If an alphabet is the most evolved form of writing and we use an alphabet (it is astonishing how many writers use “the alphabet” as if there were only one), then we are the most evolved people. In short, there’s an element of colonialism, even racism, in this paradigm of linguistic evolution.

You’d imagine this argument would die out with the British Empire and the dodo, but no — it just became more sophisticated and, if anything, more outrageous. After World War II, Ignace Gelb’s seminal work A Study of Writing took it as gospel that writing systems evolved historically from a logographic to an alphabetic form. Other linguists and anthropologists went farther, proposing that the invention of alphabetic writing marked a sea-change in human cognition, culture, and civilization. In their eyes, the creation of the Greek alphabet was unique in first bringing about large-scale literacy, allowed human thought to transcend the limitations of “the oral mind” and permitted sophisticated philosophy, logic and scientific enquiry — all the higher forms of human thought.

This astonishingly colonial view implicitly denigrates not only all other forms of writing but all non-European forms of knowledge. For instance, the same argument was used to support the absurd claim that the Chinese script, not being a true alphabet, is incapable of expressing abstract thought. This comes as news to the Chinese, given that Confucius was writing roughly 2,500 years ago, when writing as we know it was virtually nonexistent in northern Europe.

The evolution of writing argument, then, is a myth that, like all myths, represents and justifies our common assumptions. The same authority I quoted earlier also says, “The development from tokens to scripts reveals that writing emerged from counting and accounting.” Well, hold on, there. It may be true that, at one of the three epicenters of the birth of writing, the earliest written symbols were associated with property ownership — but elsewhere, the birth of writing was associated with magic, not accountancy. This assumption that writing began in counting seems to make sense to us in the West because, I believe, we ourselves think of writing as a form of verbal accountancy — and, as the definition goes on to say, a means of information processing and data storage. That’s only one of many qualities of writing, but it’s our assumption, and we project it back on the past so we can create a mythical narrative of how it evolved to our present state of technical accomplishment.

Our dominant position in the world allows us to propose that our alphabet is not only the best possible writing system, but its supposedly superior ability to handle abstract thought has helped us into this dominant position.

We in the West don’t see that this is because history is written by the winners — in the alphabet of the winners. The Latin alphabet does not dominate the world because it is the most evolved form of writing. It dominates because at crucial points in history it had more lawyers, guns, and money than someone else.

Here’s one final thought. As I said, the evolutionary view of writing sees graphic symbol systems (pictograms, ideograms) as “picture-writing,” as both primitive and childish. According to this view, we in the West left behind pictograms and ideograms because abstract alphabet symbols were better suited for the purposes of communication. And yet recent history shows we want writing to regain something of its graphic roots, because visual images can do things that abstract symbols can’t.

As soon as bundles of fonts became part of the standard PC package, we started using them as a form of self-expression. Likewise, as soon as emojis became available, we started using them as a way to convey various kinds of immediate, emotional éclat that would be far more laborious to put into words and would take far longer.

I defy anyone to express the emotion implied in this emoji 😑 in fewer than 10 words.

What we have seen in the West is not an evolution of writing but a narrowing, and recent trends suggest we want to broaden it again: Right now, we may be evolving by going back in time. Pictures and diagrams encode data, too, and we are aware which form of symbolic representation works best for which purpose. We want writing to be more, to do more, and to consist of more than merely abstract symbols that represent the sounds of speech.

Above all, overthrowing the myth of evolution involves going out among the endangered alphabets and the endangered cultures that developed them, regarding each with a curious and egalitarian eye, wondering what they may have to teach us that we have been ignoring for so long.