muddy woman

I was going to write a letter

Let’s play an imagination game, but it will take a lot of imagination. Let’s suppose we’ve never seen anything written, that we have no idea what any kind of writing looks like. Furthermore, we’ve never heard of it and don’t know that such a thing as writing exists.

While we’re pretending, let’s go for a walk in this world without writing. As we walk, we’re talking about an old woman in our town, about how much she knows. People looking for information on many topics go to her, wanting to learn, for instance, who owned the land down by the river before the Johnson family, or which plants are best to brew a tea to relieve nausea, or how to get stains out of a good shirt.

The problem is that the woman is so old we all know she’ll die soon. “What will happen to all the things she knows?” I ask.

“It goes with her,” you say.

Suddenly, I am struck with brilliance (that happens with me sometimes), and I bend down, scoop up some wet clay beside a puddle and pick up a stick. “Here,” I say, holding them out to my friend. “Let’s use these things to come up with a way that we’ll know what she’s thinking, even after she dies.” If you were standing there with me, what would you think? Would it be pretty clear that I had gone insane?

And yet people did this. They used the natural materials in the world and figured out ways to record thoughts, including some that were never even spoken out loud. Certainly no one person could ever have invented writing. The very idea would have been as impossible as the scenario I described above. It had to be a very gradual process over a long time, beginning with pictures that sort of looked like things, when imagination was applied.

With the invention of writing, it’s possible for us to read someone’s thoughts even after they’ve died, so we can read “All Gaul is divided into three parts, one of which the Belgae inhabit…” We are reading the thoughts of Julius Caesar from a book he wrote (or more exactly we’d be reading “Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres…” and so on in Latin).

early cuneiform writing

Early cuneiform writing

So far as we know, writing has been invented five times on the earth, and all the many, many ways of writing that now exist evolved from one of those five. The Latin alphabet, which we use in English, can be traced back to ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Another of the five original forms of writing was done with clay and pointed sticks, which I used in the scenario above, a type of writing called cuneiform from Mesopotamia (Iraq). You might think it would be mighty inconvenient to always need wet clay when you wanted to write something down, but cuneiform writing was stunningly popular for a very long time, and for several languages.

The form of a piece of writing is interesting to me, but that’s just me and my geekish ways. I began studying Russian from looking at the alphabet and thinking, “Wow! Look at those shapes!” It was like art that could speak.

The most remarkable thing, however, is not the form of writing, but the fact that we write at all. If no writing existed and someone tried to suggest it, we would probably not even understand what they were talking about. “Wha? Use mud to know what somebody’s thinking?”

Writing is simply inconceivable, and yet here we are. We have words on a screen, taking ideas out of one brain and putting them in another brain. It’s like a miracle. Only now I’m wondering how to get all this clay off my keyboard.

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Filed under How We Create Magic, Language

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