Today, the durability of writing. The University of
Houston presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
The words we read every day
are formed from ancient letters. And that same
writing, our Latin script, is used by countless
other languages as well -- even by whole other
language groups. The languages that use this
three-thousand-or-so-year-old writing have
undergone relentless change, while the script has
hardly altered. All the Germanic and Romance
languages use it. The Turks, the Vietnamese, and
many others, have adopted it more recently.
Now a Science magazine article talks about
a conference held at Oxford University. The purpose
was to discuss the death and/or durability of the
scripts that represent language. Scripts, they
find, usually survive language. The script
that stays tied to a single language is rare.
Egyptian hieroglyphs are a rare case where a script
was used for only one language.
Sumerian Cuneiform writing was more typical. It was
invented before the idea of alphabetic writing, but
its simpler characters were more adaptable than
Egypt's pure pictorial script. It could be used for
syllables as well as for words.
Cuneiform passed from language to language for
three thousand years, and it died out only shortly
before the birth of Christ.
You and I might well be surprised that script
should have a life of its own. Writing seems so
intimately tied to speech. We forget, for example,
that the word sight has that extra
gh because it was once pronounced a lot
like its German equivalent, sicht. We
forget, in other words, that not only our letters,
but even much of our spelling, has outlasted
The Science article goes on to other
arenas. The Incas, for example, created a strange
form of writing -- or, at least, means for
preserving what might've been said in words. The
khipu, used knotted strings to record
While debate rages over just how much could be
conveyed with khipu, it is, at the very least, a
means of record-keeping. And it survived the shift
from Incan speech to Spanish. It's still used today
in certain remote villages of the Andes.
But then, what are we willing to call writing? The
Huli people, in the New Guinea highlands, name each
ditch in their intricate irrigation system after an
ancestor. This, says an Oxford an-thropologist,
creates a rich genealogical record. Is it writing?
Well it serves the same purpose -- and it too
For years, in radio, I've written words to be
spoken. Yet I see a yawning chasm between writing
and speaking. The sometimes-awkward vehicle of
written English is no more a focus for creative
renewal than the awkward QWERTY keyboard with which I
write. Only the words themselves seem to have any
So language is alive -- shifting, mutating, and
eluding control. But the letters we use to express
language fly below our radar screen. I suppose they
survive exactly the way a low-level civil servant
survives political change.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
A. Lawler, The Slow Deaths of Writing.
Science, Vol. 305, 2 July, 2004, pp. 30-33.
I am grateful to Jeff Fadell, UH Library, for
A cast of the Rosetta Stone from the Houston Museum
of Printing History. Here, the same text appears in
three scripts: Hieroglyphic, Demotic (or Copt), and
Greek. Only two languages are represented however:
Egyptian and Greek. This is a rare and important
counterexample. We are far more accustomed to finding
different languages all written in the same script,
as in, for example, the seat belt instructions for a
modern jet airplane.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2004 by John H.