Thoth’s Pill – an Animated History of Writing


Writing. Reading. Typing. Texting. Written language is just one of those things that’s always been around. It’s a natural way for
you to use words. It’s a given. But there’s something you’ve forgotten. It’s understandable.
After all, it’s been a very long time. A long time since no one on the planet knew how to write. Our story starts with a legend: the tale of
Thoth and Thamus. No, that’s not a lisp you’re hearing. Thoth and Thamus. Thoth
and Thamus. After the Egyptian god Thoth invents writing, he runs to King Thamus to share this
discovery. But, to his chagrin, the king isn’t impressed. At all. Looking down his nose,
he starts pontificating on the destructive power of this newfangled technology. “Oh, clever Thoth! This invention will produce
forgetfulness in the minds of learners, with the neglect of their memory, because their
trust in writing comes from strange external marks and not their own internal recall. The
drug you’ve discovered isn’t a memory-enhancer, but a mentioning-enhancer, and you’re offering
students pretend wisdom, not truth.” This sounds strange. It’s easy for you – and
your world full of writing – to dismiss Thamus. But hear him out. He brings you back to the
early days of writing, when it was the hot new thing. And, like many other inventions,
not everyone was on board. Ok, so, let’s say, for the sake of argument, you don’t
want writing. What are the alternative technologies? You could bust out your abacuses. They’ll
help with counting and doing complex calculations. Or maybe you prefer icons, ritualized images
that help you relate to culturally significant figures, events and attitudes.
The quipu is an amazing Incan information storage system using cords, colors and knots.
Oh, and don’t overlook rote memorization – a basic option, sure, but it’s really
useful in preliterate societies, where sentences can be memorized and recited by the thousands.
Your brain’s bigger than you think. Perhaps you prefer petroglyphs, rock carvings
with major cultural ties that may refer to nearby places or animals. Ooh, watch out,
writing – we’re getting uncomfortably close. All of these inventions helped humans keep
track of their thoughts. So what makes writing different? What is Thamus afraid of? Let’s talk some ‘ness. Embeddedness. These
things are all embedded in minds, tasks, rituals, events, cultures. Rip them from those contexts
and you rip out their expressive heart. Thoth’s drug doesn’t come with so many
strings attached. It will de-embed you, letting you record any specific thought and letting
future generations read it in any context. So, human. Was Thamus right? Is writing an
unnatural intrusion? Or do you want to swallow Thoth’s pill and see for yourself what we
actually unleashed when we invented writing? La France. 17,000 years ago. It’s cold out.
And getting colder. Possibly dangerous, too. This may be France, and this may be the history
of writing, but there’s nothing for you here. Until you take shelter in a nearby cave, and
see how creative some of your ancestors really were. Drawing on their enlarging brains and
a long prehistory of building ever more complex tools, these early artists took to etching
and painting beautiful visual representations of the animals around them. These aren’t
words, they’re not stories, they’re pictures. Early pictures like these start to become
very routine, not necessarily depicting the world, but marking and standing for things:
a place to hunt… a place to eat. These are pictographs. The story gets sketchy here, but it’s important
to notice that pictographic symbols like these petroglyphs – rock carvings – weren’t words,
they weren’t language, but they became more than personal and communal artistic expressions.
They became regular and repeatable, possibly mapping to specific things, and, for that,
these pictographs earn themselves the fancy label of Proto-Writing. Many pictographs have an intuitive give-away
quality: they look like drawings of the things they represent. Draw me a human: easy. Draw
me a horse: sure. A river: there it is. But how do you clearly and simply draw less tangible
ideas like “playing around” or “taking it easy” or “don’t even think about
it”? Uh-oh. Watch out for this “Major Moments
in the History of Writing”! Meet Metonymy. This principled fellow lets you represent
a general, nebulous idea with a related pictogram or part of a pictogram or a pictogram combo
that’s pretty specific and obvious. Ancient stick-human is a regular old pictogram, but
if you cut off stick’s legs, you can get across the general idea of… what? Walking
or moving. What about a man leaning against a tree? What’s the idea here? Taking it
easy. Resting. These are ideographs – symbols for ideas and concepts. In some sense, all of these drawings express
ideas: the concept of a horse, the concept of a human. So they’re all ideographic.
But with a little imagination and a lot of time, extended ideographs let you cut and
combine basic pictographs to be far more expressive and abstract. Just when you’re ready to grab that chisel
and get your pictographic and ideographic carving on, someone more inventive than you
comes along. Your pictures and ideas aren’t enough for her. Gone are the days of Lascaux. The world outside
this cave is changing, she says. Crops, cities, rulers, markets, and she needs a way to keep
track of it all. She likes your icons. She can use them for goats and pots, fields and
even long walks through the desert. But she has an incredible practical streak. She takes
those goats and those pots, and starts to tally the items she’s recording. One goat,
she says. Then two goats, three goats, four goats. Notice what she’s done. These aren’t
simple depictions anymore. They’re not just ideas. She’s reading one word for each symbol.
She’s encoding language. Let’s slow down here, because it’s hard
to overstate the importance of this “Major Moments in the History of Writing”. These
goat counts are word-symbols now – logographs. Pictographs can be visualized. Ideographs
can be imagined. But logographs can be directly and consistently read. Logographic systems emerge and flourish in
the early civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and Mexico. Characters for people,
animals, land, crops, hundreds – even thousands – of logographs for everything under the sun
and moon, including the sun and the moon. Even after all these millennia, if you squint
hard enough you can still pick out the symbols scratched into weathered artifacts bearing
the world’s early scripts: a Chinese turtle, an Egyptian house, a Sumerian head, a Sumerian
head eating bread, a Mayan jaguar. And, in each of these places, in all of these languages,
these were read as words. We know what these logographs mean, and we can put that meaning
into words. The world is now in a race to fill itself
with logographs. But which humans started this craze?
Well, the Mesoamericans started writing more than 2900 years ago. Some Chinese characters
are at least 3200 years old. Writing popped up in Crete 4000 years ago. But the two clear
contenders are Egyptian Hieroglyphs and Sumerian Cuneiform, both a whopping 5000 years old!
Minimum. It’s common to say that the Egyptians stole the idea of writing from Mesopotamia
and just came up with their own glyphs – common, but not demonstrated. For a while, monogenesis made sense. This
is idea that one civilization was king of all the writing, that writing started once
in Mesopotamia, where people pressed a stylus into wet clay to make these wedge (cuneus)
shapes (forms): Cuneiform. So the monogenesis story goes, everyone else steals Cuneiform
and reskins it to fit their needs. It’s not a popular story these days, given what
we know about Chinese and especially Mesoamerican writing, along with some very early Egyptian
finds. Whoever’s first, in these early days of
writing, all the civilizations start manufacturing hordes of logographs, so many in fact that
they unwittingly unleash an epic memory burden on budding logographers, from would-be ancient
scribes to beginning students of Mandarin Chinese. Do they really need this many characters to
write? Surely there’s an easier way! Say hello to this smart rogue, who’s about
to solve your problem with an innocent mistake. His father has been counting sheep. Literally.
And he just asked his son to record a measly line in his budget: “10 sheep for uncle”.
The son writes the 10, and the logograph for sheep, but uncle? He pauses and scratches
his head. Eager to play with his friends, he writes the character for “ankle”. “10
sheep – ankle”. He hurries away without a second thought, but don’t take his invention
lightly. If you’ve ever played fill-in-the-blank
or guessing games where you have to sound out picture-words, you’ve seen and used
this principle for yourself. But it’s not just for quirky puzzles with funny solutions. The name for this is another “Major Moments
in the History of Writing”. Ahem, the name for this is rebus. This familiar language
game lets you look beyond the meaning of a character and use it simply for its sound.
Sun sounds like son, and, by extension, perhaps soon and sown. Logographs, like the symbol
for “sun”, could already be read as words. Now, with the rebus principle in your pocket,
logographs can also be read as sounds. This isn’t just useful for getting ancient
uncle his ancient sheep. Once Aztec city planners finished building their stunning capital in
the middle of a lake, the Venice of the New World, Tenochtitlán, their scribes needed
a way to write its name. They’ve been using what amounts to basic picture writing. Since
Tenochtitlán has a stone, “te”, and a cactus, “nochtli”, it’s natural to write
it with two fairly obvious glyphs. Then these become not just symbols meaning cactus and
stone, but symbols for the noises “Tenochtitlán”, making them just as much rebus fun as those
puzzles you solved as a kid. And now you know the name for those. You also know why there’s
a cactus on top of a stone in Mexico’s flag. It’s not just for show! How alike does the sound-alike pronunciation
have to be? Which sounds can we chop off? Pit the Egyptians against the Sumerians one
more time. Egyptian hieroglyphs cut off the initial consonant, or, less often, two or
three consonants from the original word. Sumerians, on the other hand, with their cuneiform, take
whole syllables. These two paths don’t just add some local flavor. Rebusing out consonants
doesn’t just impact ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. It leaves a legacy for later spinoffs: the
mentality that these are either read as logographs or they stand for consonants. Cuneiform leaves
a different legacy. Completely unrelated languages will spend thousands of years borrowing and
reborrowing cuneiform to write their own words, but, each time, the symbols are read as logographs
or as syllables. Flexibility is key here. Look at this Egyptian
hieroglyph. It can be read as a logograph for “mouth” (“re”), or as the consonant
“r”. This character could be read as the logograph meaning “house”, or it could
stand for the consonants pr, the two consonants in the Egyptian word. Conveniently, in Egyptian,
the little slashy below lets you know when it’s a pure logograph. The rebus discovery brings up a tension between
meaning and sound. Is writing phonetic or semantic? Is it about encoding the meaning
of words or encoding speech sounds? The old logographs were fundamentally a meaning-writing
system. Sure, this sounds like “re” in Egyptian, but what’s crucial is that this
is the logograph for the word meaning “mouth”. Rebus writing takes a big step towards sound-writing:
this will come to stand for the consonant “r”, regardless of meaning. It may come as a surprise, but, once discovered,
sound writing doesn’t oust meaning writing. Not at all! Indeed, early writers notice that phonetic
writing brings up a problem, a problem you probably missed because of your comfort with
sound-writing, a problem that meaning-writing can solve. Brace yourself, history, because
logographs are about to make a comeback! Like all of the world’s earliest writing
systems, Chinese characters start out as symbols that stand for words. A rice paddy. A person.
A tree. These are logographs, and they let you depict specific language pieces – to write
what you mean. But instead of requiring different characters for every word, the handy rebus
principle lets you write other things that sound like the logograph – to write what you
say. Sure, you could use the rebus “sounds like”
principle to write any sound in your language. But please consider this symbol and answer
the question that follows. Does it mean ‘son’, ‘soon’, ’sun’ or ‘sown’? Oh my,
did rebus writing get you into a bit of trouble here? When we see this character, we could read
it as a plain old logograph, according to its meaning, or any of these rebus ways, following
its pronunciation. Which one should you choose? Think a bit outside of the jade box here,
and take the lead of this Han scribe. His solution is elegant: don’t choose one. Use
both systems together! What’s that behind is back? Is that a…
oh, yeah! “Major Moments in the History of Writing”!
So, here’s the logograph for “horse”. But it also sounds the same as the word for
“ant”, so the rebus principle lets us write them both with the same glyph. Confusing?
Not if you add the logograph for “insect” next to the sound-alike character! This says
it’s pronounced like “horse”, which it is, but that its meaning has something
to do with “insect”. You don’t read the extra character – it’s a meaning hint,
determining how to read the sound character, so it’s called a determinative. One more Mandarin example. This logograph
means “moon”, which happens to be pronounced “yuè”. Using rebus writing, “yuè”
also means “amputate your feet”. Incidentally, the word “key” is pronounced the same
way. Same problem. But nothing a couple determinatives can’t fix! Add the determinative for “metal”
to this character. Add “knife” to that one. And let’s leave the moon be, because
that’s already what it means. Here again, the “sounds like” reading
of a character gives you its phonetic component. This extra logograph clues you into its meaning
– its semantic component. Together, they form a unit – a whole character with a clear meaning
and a clear pronunciation. Determinatives are very common in Chinese characters, natively
called Han characters. In fact, since they hint at the character’s root meaning – its
radix – Han determinatives get called radicals. Bring back the character “sun”. It can
be pronounced many ways, true. But add a determinative, a silent helper character, and you can quickly
narrow down its meaning. These extra determinatives avoid ambiguous readings. Which one is the
“sun” in the sky? Which is a father’s “son”? Which one means “soon”? Too
easy. There’s something else to learn from this
quiet scribe. He’s using radicals to clean up some ambiguity, but even he knows that
context matters. He won’t spell everything out for you every time. Sometimes this character
means “for”, as in “this is for you”, other times it’s the verb “supply”.
He’s balancing this tension in the history of writing between what’s easy on the reader,
who needs more information to interpret the words, versus what’s easy on the writer,
who typically knows what he means when he’s writing it. Plus, hand cramps. The choice of leaving in or leaving out helpful
information isn’t simply about clarity and laziness. It’s aesthetic. Throughout the
history of Chinese calligraphy, from oracle bones to the rough cursive script, stylistic
choices are made, not just semantic and phonetic choices. Seeing through the calligrapher’s
eyes, you can find in the history of writing not only a vision of what words and sounds
look like, but where words and sounds go and where they stop. When it comes to aesthetic choices and Han
characters, none is more fundamental than the decision to arrange character components
in blocks. Bonus note: this is definitely not the only time in history that writing
gets organized in blocks. So this radical sits on top of this phonetic
component in a block, making up one whole character – the character for “flower”.
The ideograph man plus tree, a man leaning against a tree, has two components sitting
side by side in a block, and they’re the character for “rest”. And here’s one
tree in its own block, two trees meaning “woods” and three trees for “forest”. Aesthetics aside, what would happen if we
took this “sounds like“ principle a step further and make writing about the sounds?
Isn’t that a better solution to our “soon”, “son”, “sown”, “sun” problem,
and one that doesn’t make us memorize tons of characters? A Maya stoneworker etches elaborate rows of
characters onto a stela, a tall stone brought in from far away that’s now standing straight
up in the middle of the city. The characters he’s carving look more like detailed pictures
than writing, but don’t let that fool you! Take a look at this block. It means mountain,
but it’s not a logograph standing for “mountain”. It’s not a rebus symbol for “think of
a word that rhymes with shmountain”. It’s actually a block of two sound symbols that
spell the word “witz”, the Maya word for mountain. That’s great for climbers, but
chocolate lovers may instead prefer to sample these three symbols that together spell the
word “kakaw”, cocoa! There’s a nifty shortcut here – this bit doesn’t even mean
“ka”, it’s actually a syllable multiplier! Or “iteration mark”, if you want the fancy
name. Shhh. I think you’re being watched. Over
there in the jungle. Maybe not. Hmmm, “Major moments in the history of writing”! Both of these Maya glyphs combine syllable
characters into blocks to write words. This is full-fledged sound writing. These aren’t
logographs that happen to be read as sounds. They are sounds. Sounds capable of writing
any syllable in the language. In a full syllabary, like the Classical Maya script, there are
separate characters for just about every possible syllable in the language. No longer must you
invent new word characters. You can make do with a much smaller set of syllable characters. Nice! But syllable writing comes with its
own set of problems. Here’s a glyph that’s quite useful around these parts: “jaguar”.
The word is actually “balam”. But, have you noticed something about the Mayan syllabary?
Consonant plus vowel, consonant plus vowel, more consonants plus more vowels – all of
these syllables end in vowels! How in the world are you supposed to write the -lam in
“balam”? Shifty, scripty syllabaries have grappled with this problem and settled on
two solutions. One: leave out the final letter. Just ignore it. The term for this is underspelling….
because…. you’re not fully spelling the word. And it’s a good solution, because,
you know, ignoring your problems makes them go away, right? Option two: spell the last
letter with an extra syllable, but use a syllable that just repeats the last vowel so that we
know we can just ignore the final vowel. This gets called the “echo vowel”. Mayan likes
number 2. A lot. So “kakaw” is ka-ka-wa – well, ka-times two-wa. “Witz”, the mountain,
is actually wi-tzi. And your new pet “balam” is spelled ba-la-ma. Cross out the echo vowels
and the words practically read themselves! Your new friend pulls you along to show you
another project he’s working on – an amate codex. That’s a paper book. Yes, he has
paper and yes, books! But that’s not what’s got him excited. He folds open the book he’s
working on… maybe to share new ideas? No. To brag how inventive and potentially efficient
his writing system is? No! For his people, the invention of the new wasn’t
about ditching the old. He shows you how creative he’s been with the characters you learned.
He shows you a mountain and calls it “witz”. And then a jaguar and calls it “balam”.
Logographs? Wait a second. You stop and ask him, which is the correct way to write “balam”?
He writes ba-la-ma. You ask him to write it again. And he writes the logograph, but with
a syllable. And again, but he writes the logograph plus two syllables. He smiles mischievously.
They’re all “balam”. This is what he’s proud of. He can write the same word – even
the same syllable – in different ways and combinations without repeating himself. Creative! But his use of logographs plus syllables recalls
the tension between sound writing and meaning writing. Meaningful determinatives helped
us choose the right pronunciation for our rebus character, and Mayan logographs can
still do that. But the helping hand goes both ways: the syllabary can also clarify the sounds
you should make when you read a logograph. Here’s the character “jaguar”, but add
a couple extra syllable hints and you make it clear that we’re meant to read this glyph
as “balama”, minus the echo vowel, so “balam”. These are phonetic complements,
pronunciation clues sitting comfortably alongside logographs. If that’s all too complex, just remember
that you can write everything in syllables. But before you have time to settle into this
land of balam and kakaw to practice those syllables, a sandy wind starts blowing in
from the East, a familiar reminder from a faraway land where even more dramatic changes
are about to shape the future of writing. Even in these ancient times, Egyptian monuments
have been sitting and weathering for thousands of years. On their great murals and pillars,
you find rows of little pictures. Sorry, not pictures. Hieroglyphs. Sacred symbols. But,
despite appearances, this isn’t some mysterious Pharaonic picture writing. It’s consonants. One consonant signs! Two
consonant signs! Three consonant signs! A wall of consonants!! Plus a sprinkle of logographs
for determinatives. It’s not that Egyptian was a harsh, vowelless desert of a tongue.
It simply did not write its vowels. Imagine if you wrote this way. Would that work? And
then imagine if you could add in logographs to make sure you really got your point across? Imagine you wrote like that, and you’re
thinking with hieroglyphs. Too difficult? Fine, off to the caves with
you, where you toil away with with ancient miners on the Sinai peninsula. You and your
fellow miners would find it handy to leave messages for one another. But there’s no
time for deep studies of rows of fancy hieroglyphs in here. You need to keep it simple if you
want another “Major Moments in the History of Writing”! Your characters look like scratchy, rushed
versions of those glamorous Egyptian symbols, but their meaning doesn’t matter anymore.
Nothing but consonants. And the same symbol for the same consonant every time. Take this
character. In Egyptian, it means “house”. These Semitic miners are calling a house a
“beth”. Acrophony, or “top sounds”, suggests that you can just take the first
letter of a word, like the Egyptians had already been doing with much of their consonant writing.
You end up with a letter for your sound “b”. Do the same thing with “water”, which
the Semitic speakers are calling “mem”, and you now have an “m” sound. With a
couple dozen elegant simplifications, you create a simple, reliable list of consonants.
An alphabet! And you’ve given generations of future children the joy of reciting their
ABC’s. Actually, at this point in history, their a-b-g-d’s, sometimes called an abjad
or an abgad, because who needs that wishy-washy C when you can just use an S or a K! After a long hard day of mining and etching,
you turn to find that someone’s been watching you this whole time. She’s a trader. A Phoenician
merchant who knows a good thing when she sees it. She’s already made major cash in the
paper business, where they turn tufty, stalky, swampy Egyptian papyrus into flat, inkable
sheets of paper. She rushes back home to Phoenicia and smirks. Think of the advantage she has
– keeping track of whatever anyone else tells her just by remembering about as many characters
as she has fingers and toes. Old kings can keep their obtuse hieroglyphs and their stone
monuments. The future of the Mediterranean will belong to alphabets and paper. Writing
is going portable. She uses this newfound alphabetic leverage
to turn a huge profit across the entire Eastern Mediterranean, leaving people inspired to
adopt and adapt her alphabet wherever she goes. All this and she doesn’t even write
you a thank you card! How hard could it be? Writing is easier than ever! It feels universal, like writing’s here
to stay, for everyone. But there’s a peculiar quirk that’s easier to spot in hindsight.
You and your mining crew were communicating in a Semitic language. Phoenician’s a Semitic
language. All of these friendly shades of the Phoenician alphabet were being used for
languages that sounded similar and worked much the same way. Even Egyptian, though no
Semitic language itself, is at least a distant relative of the Semitic languages, with a
similar personality. This consonant alphabet is being tested in easy waters. But history’s
shaking things up. Your merchant friend comes back for your help. She needs you to deliver
your alphabet to a very different people living along her trade route. What will happen when
the alphabet gets leaked outside of the family? Greece. No, not that Greece. Greece before
there was a Parthenon. A stern old man in a trademark sporty toga seems a bit on edge
as he glares at the papyrus sheet clutched in his hand. Aakh, you see!? You try to shrug
off his outburst, but he can’t let this go. My friend, my friend, he recounts how
five hundred years before he was even born, when the walls of Troy still stood, the Greeks
had a writing system of their own. It was one of those more elaborate syllabary-plus-logograph
types. But that script had come and it had gone. The new Greeks were a people on the
rise, but an illiterate people on the rise. A people looking for something new, something
great. And this alphabet thing seems great. Almost. He calls over his close friends. The Phoenician consonants are useful, he concedes,
but why these extra characters for huffing, coughing and clearing your throat? These are
Barbarian sounds. Greeks have no need for them! And what about the voicy noises like
aaah and oooh? How to write them, huh? So much extra yet so much missing. What a mess.
You try to explain, but they laugh it off. Here, I fix for you, he says. See, he was
going to ditch the… ahem… “barbarian” letters, but he had second thoughts, and it
struck him: why not use these un-Greek sounds for vowels? The one you call ‘aleph, ignore
the throaty catch at the beginning: it’s “a”. Take that “he” but ditch that
hhh, and we’re left with a vowely “e”. Loosen up that tight “w” in “waw”,
and it’s the vowel “u”. This isn’t just a small correction. This
is a powerful “Major Moments in the History of Writing”! He’s fundamentally shifted
the way the alphabet functions. It used to be just the consonants suggesting the pronunciation
of a word. Once you recognize the word, the job’s done. But Greek spelling isn’t merely
about writing recognizable words. It’s about matching letters to sounds. A new principle
has just emerged, perhaps even a new goal: one sound, one character. You suspect that he’s not aware of the impact
of his discovery, as he tells you to drop everything and come enjoy some dinner and
dancing. The party goes on and on, so long that your new friends don’t even see what’s
happening beyond the walls of their city state. This consonant-vowel alphabet, this pronunciation
writing, is spreading, inspiring new alphabets to the East, with flavors like Armenian and
Cyrillic popping up. Out West, in Italy, the Tuscans – the Etruscans – borrow it, and they
pass it on to the Romans. The Romans burst out and splatter it among Celts and Germanic
peoples. And, eventually, the world. Such a visual rainbow of variations, and yet they’ll
all stick with the basic principle of writing a character for each sound, consonants and
vowels. Finally, you see your writing system in this
story. Your alphabet! All because a handful of Semitic symbols got mistaken for Greek
vowels. But before you get overconfident, know that
the history of writing doesn’t stop here. This isn’t the be-all-end-all. Not even
close. You’re back in old Phoenicia, where it turns
out the Greeks aren’t the only ones looking to buy a vowel. Your contact in town is still
your merchant frenemy, who reminds you of how she traded your consonant alphabet across
the ancient world. That abjad spread to every language with even a passing resemblance to
Phoenician. Every town from here to Carthage has some version of her abjad, spot the Egyptians
– those stuck-in-their-ways traditionalists. Initially, these Semitic speakers loved it.
They were proud of it. But the days are turning to years, and that love grows cold. They grumble that they’re stuck with these
consonants. Just consonants! Clamoring for vowels, they get desperate and grab a few
characters to stand in for a long sound. Take a look. This symbol is originally the stop
between a’-a’-a. This one’s a “y”, a /j/ sound. And this is a /w/. But they’re about to become not these things
thanks to “Major Moments in the History of Writing”! This moment hits you twice, because it brings
up both an innovation specific to Semitic scripts and a more general principle that
kind of bends the rules of the alphabet game. First, it’s worth reiterating that abjad
writing systems are viable ways to write and read a language. They work. But with one obvious
shortcoming: those missing vowels can create ambiguous situations. But what if, instead
of writing every vowel, we just had a few helpful hinters that suggested the presence
of certain kinds of vowels? Take this letter /w/ – well, actually, they called it “waw”.
Wow! Now imagine that we keep using it in words that have the sound “w”, but we
also extend its use, placing it between consonants for the similar enough vowel sound /u/. In
the old abjad, you’d have to write “soon” and “son” with the same characters: s
plus n. Everything else is vowels, and we don’t have those. But suddenly our extended
“w” comes in handy: “son” doesn’t have that “oo” sound, so it’s still
s+n. But “soon” does, so we add in the “w”. Do the same thing with /j/, which
can double as a long “i”, and this quirky catch-in-your-throat pause between uh-oh,
’aleph, which can double as a long /a:/, and you end up with three handy vowel suggesters:
the matres lectionis, these helpful “mothers of reading”, that show up in Aramaic, Hebrew,
Arabic and Syriac. But these “mothers” don’t leave their
consonant-ness behind. They still double as consonants. The abjad traded the ambiguity
of a vowelless existence for a new kind of ambiguity: depending on context, each of these
“matres” may be a consonant or it might be a vowel. One character, multiple sounds.
This is a huge trend in alphabets – why invent new characters when you can reuse an old one? Repurposing consonants for vowels here and
there won’t satisfy everyone. These bickering scribes aren’t content with matres lectionis.
You see, they’re not just trying to tell son apart from soon. The bickering scribes
are bickering over how to read of one of their most treasured sayings. One says that it’s
such a fine point, you wouldn’t understand unless you were incredibly well versed in
his language. But he makes an analogy for you: write the word “news” in a consonant-only
alphabet. It’s “n-w-s”. Fine. Now imagine that someone comes along with their fancy
consonant/vowel hybrids and spells the word “noose”: “n-w-s”. Hmmm, wait a second. He shows you a cheat sheet he’s been keeping.
“It’s so easy!”, he says, pointing out the little dots and dashes above and below
letters to keep his vowels straight. Put them here for an “a”, there for an “e”,
you can even add them below one of the long vowel things if you need to distinguish, say,
an “i”. Nobody’s confused! That’s it, he won’t tolerate the vagueness any
longer! Effective immediately, in all important texts where clear reading matters, everyone’s
to use this method. And so for generations, scribes would mark vowels above and below
the consonants, writing vowels in what was once a consonant-only alphabet. But, as much as the pious and students swear
by their dotty vowels, modern Arabic and Hebrew speakers stick with the simple consonants
plus the extended consonant/vowel mothers. The optional helper dots get thrown in like
a life preserver for struggling learners or careful texts. But grown ups don’t need
them anymore. A spice market in India. The hooded figure
in front of you apologizes for the kidnapping. He needs your help. He explains that his land
has taken part in history’s most elaborate and rigorous memorization exercises. Instead
of scribes, they had recitations. These weren’t retellings of campfire stories, these were
whole libraries of knowledge handed down for generations. He says his name is Ashoka. This
is his land, and he’s king. After a bloody and violent war, he had a change of heart,
and now has but one singular focus: to spread his message – a law of tolerance and compassion
– throughout the land. But he doesn’t want to use the mouth-to-ear
memorization ways of the oral tradition. That’s for old texts and old ideas! No, his vision
is to install massive pillars around his empire, each one engraved with his list of edicts.
This, he explains, is where you come in. See, he’s been keeping tabs on you as you roamed
the land of the Semitic abjads, and he really likes this crazy consonant alphabet idea.
He’ll take it. But he also appreciates the whimsical simplicity
of accenting consonants with vowel marks. Oh, and he doesn’t want to have to write
the vowel if it’s just a short “uh”. His language is full of those. So he’ll
write “funnel” something like this, with these built in syllables. But wait, it’s
not “funnel-uh”. That final “l” isn’t a separate syllable. He needs a way to write
just bare consonants, to tell his past apart from his pasta. How? With a simple “hush”
stroke below the letter. Now, he brags to you, his system is complete. Make sure you don’t miss the step he’s
taking here. It’s a “Major Moments in the History of Writing”! Each of the character
units fundamentally represents a syllable. It just so happens that, unless the vowel
in that syllable is a short “a”, the vowel gets added onto (or below or beside) the consonant
character. On their own, the base characters contain that dummy vowel “uh”, like “puh”,
but you can take that “puh” and modify it with any vowel you like. Certain vowels
go in certain places – like “ee” to the side or “oo” below. So in India, characters
are syllables, but, unlike a full syllabary, you don’t need a completely separate character
for each separate syllable. And all characters give consonant plus vowel information, but,
unlike a full alphabet, you don’t line up sequences of consonants plus vowels, consonants
plus vowels. The hybrid combination nature of this system earns it the name “alphasyllabary”. Combos are built into this system, paving
the way for over a thousand ligatures – commonly linked characters – in the alphasyllabary.
Sure, other writing systems develop ligatures in their calligraphy. But the Indic alphasyllabary
welcomes them naturally. As it’s passed all around this entire slice
of the world, up to Nepal and Tibet, down the coast to Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia
and beyond, this script keeps updating its look but continues to capture consonants and
vowels accurately, like an alphabet, and to write those voweled consonants in syllable
units, like a syllabary. Even completely unrelated alphasyllabaries
seize on this same idea. This is the Ethiopic symbol for “ma”. This one reads “me”.
And this is “mu”. This is “la”, “le” and “lu”. Now that you understand alphasyllabaries,
you must answer this next question: if this symbol sounds like “ba”, how do you write
“be” and “bu” in Ethiopia? This is your Ge’ez abcd’s, the abugida – looks
different, but works much the same way. Your characters have never looked so different,
even after the Greeks and Romans took them over. Maybe it’s this dizzying variety of
writing systems. Or maybe Thoth’s pill is starting to wear off. Another time, another king. This time in a
Korean palace. He presents himself as King Sejong. As you get a grip on your surroundings,
you begin to tell him of your journeys. Yet, with a sweeping gaze, the king looks right
past you. You’ve been out for a very long time, over
1000 years. The world has come so far, and the scripts you once knew have, too. He reminds
you of the old Chinese logographs and sound-meaning combinations. Those are still useful to his
court, to a point. You see, Chinese has these nice word units, one after another. But Korean,
he boasts, has these elegantly complex words with different pieces and endings. Fitting
Chinese writing to Korean grammar hasn’t been easy. He tells you of a people across the sea who’ve
gone through a similar struggle. The Japanese simplified Chinese characters by turning them
into a fixed syllabary, which they now use alongside the Chinese characters. So they
have these syllable characters and these thousands of Han characters. They use the Han characters
for the meaning-heavy components, the vocabulary terms. Then they use the syllabary to write
little grammatical words and word pieces or new vocabulary words that don’t historically
have their own Chinese logograph. (Such a complicated system, gentlemen!) The king has an almost puzzled look, like
he’s holding back a punchline. He recounts how, in Old Japan, women wrote entire books
using only the syllable characters, because writing with the traditional Han characters
was seen as the masculine thing to do. But he knows of another land. He’s heard
exotic tales of the West, where people write out all of their sounds logically. He pauses.
He can’t quite grasp this himself. You snicker as you think back on how you saw the alphabet
develop with your own eyes in your journeys. You would know. So you sit down and show him
how to write every vowel and consonant with the alphabet. A couple dozen shapes and you
can write any sound! You smile and think, so simple! But he lets out an unimpressed
sigh. Why do all the characters look so different,
so haphazard? I mean, you make “f” and “v” by putting your bottom lip against
your top teeth, the only difference is that your throat vibrates when you say “v”.
He quizzes you – why do you write “f” and “v”? And he goes on interrogating
you – what about “b”? Why does it look that way, when it’s just taking the “v”
sound and saying it through smacked lips? Seems you underestimated the king. He doesn’t
want any old alphabet. He wants a writing system that shows the various features of
sounds – that the sound is made in your throat, against your teeth, made with your lips, and
so on. He puts his brightest scholars to work, giving them the humble name of the Hall of
Worthies. In go the experts, and out comes another “Major Moments in the History of
Writing”! They develop Korean Hangul, a featural alphabet.
Every syllable gets separated out into its own block. The syllable’s consonants and
vowels will be written side-by-side within that block. Each consonant and vowel letter
inside that block will be shaped according to its features. So here are the consonants
that get pronounced with the lips. See the similar lip shape? Here’s /g/, and here’s
/k/. Again, similar sounds, similar shape. The featural alphabet was so simple and straightforward
that one of the king’s historians almost dared people to learn it: “if you’re smart,
you can learn it in one morning. If you’re a fool, it’ll take you ten days.” Not everyone’s jumping on the Hangul easytrain.
Community-accessible writing bothers traditionalists, who skip out on the innovation and keep using
Chinese characters fitted to Korean, Hanja or Han characters, even into the 1900s. Still,
for the rest, writing is easier than ever. It has its first rockstar. It even gets its
own holiday! Oh, writing! You’ve come a long, long way
from pictographs in a cave. The day that Thoth invented writing, Thamus
warned him that he’d discovered a drug that would make people lose touch with themselves.
If you’re still watching, you took Thoth’s pill and saw for yourself the effects it really
had. It started with visual depictions of the world
(pictographs), signs for ideas and thoughts (ideographs), then a transformation from picture
writing to true writing with symbols that stand for words (logographs), using those
word-symbols to stand for similar-sounding words (rebus), then those sound-alikes became
syllable characters (syllabaries), consonant characters (abjads), and then consonant and
vowel characters (alphabets), or even consonant and vowel syllables (alphasyllabaries), and
if things get really linguistic, savvy alphabets become all featural, characters grouped by
their phonetic properties. Along the way, writing had to deal with tensions
and take sides. Should it represent meaning or sounds? Should it benefit the reader or
the writer? Contain maximum information about every sound or just enough to recognize the
shape of a word? Should it be flexible and creative or rigid and consistent? How do physical
techniques shape it? Oh, and who did it first? Who did it best? Maybe you’ve learned to make some sense
out of the chaotic noise of world writing systems. Maybe you can appreciate some of
the problems each one solves, the traditions it captures, the ambiguities it creates. Or
perhaps it’s more comfortable just to close your eyes and wake up back at home, looking
at your familiar characters of your familiar writing system plastered across your favorite
websites. Still, somehow you can’t even look at that the same way. It’s just one
invention among many in the long history of this language technology we call writing.

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