A blog wot I wrote…

Language is a strange thing when you pause to truly consider it. And writing is another. I found this on social media the other day. I thought that it really captured the magic that the written word can evoke.

Read this to yourself. Read it silently.

Don’t move your lips. Don’t make a sound.

Listen to yourself. Listen without hearing anything.

What a wonderfully weird thing, huh?

NOW MAKE THIS PART LOUD!

SCREAM IT IN YOUR MIND!

DROWN EVERYTHING OUT.

Now, hear a whisper. A tiny whisper.

Now, read this next line with your best crotchety-old-man voice:

“Hello there, sonny. Does your town have a post office?”

Awesome! Who was that? Whose voice was that?

It sure wasn’t yours!

How do you do that?

How?!

Must be magic…

And for the grammar police and pedants out there, I am aware that the title of the blog is not exactly grammatical. My reason is a small homage to Ernie Wise, who was part of a UK comedy duo back in the 1970’s called Morecambe and Wise. Ernie Wise fancied himself as a playwright, and every week the duo (with amazingly famous guest stars) would perform his naff new play. His classic line of introduction was always “and now, a play wot I wrote…”

But language and with it, over time, the rules of grammar, always evolve. Shakespeare is famously credited with the creation of over 1,700 words, many of which have fallen into common usage, obscene, worthless and puppy-dog amongst them.

And ahead of a changing language, our alphabet has also continually evolved. I found this graphic really interesting:

Graphic showing the evolution of our alphabet from early hieroglyphs

Many writing systems stem from Egyptian hieroglyphs dating back to 1850 B.C. and the chart allows you to trace our modern alphabet all the way back to their origins.

Different cultures took elements of Egyptian writing and adapted them to sounds in their own language. For example, the Phoenicians took an existing hieroglyph, a wavy line that stood for n, (the initial character in nt and nwy meaning ‘water’) and used it instead to stand for the initial sound of their own word for water mayim; it would later become our letter m. How cool is that?

The letter A resembles the head of animal with horns. It is fitting because, in ancient Semitic, the letter originally translated to ‘ox.’

Take a look at the letter E. About 3,800 years ago, the letter ‘E’ was pronounced as an ‘H’ in the Semitic language. It looked like a stick figure of a human with two arms and one leg. In 700 BC, the Geeks flipped it, and they changed the pronunciation into an ‘ee’ sound.

Many of the letters origins are surprisingly familiar. Particularly when you consider how their forms have evolved, often due to being reversed (since the Phoenicians wrote from right to left) and often, over the course of a millennia, turned on their sides. If you don’t immediately recognize an early letter, try rotating it in your mind.

And then there are more modern introductions. The ancient Greeks gave us ‘U’, ‘V’, ‘W’ and ‘Y’. It originally resembled ‘Y’ and the Greeks called it ‘upsilon’ and pronounced it ‘waw’. The Romans used V and U interchangeably and then the letter ‘W’ entered use during the Middle Ages, with the scribes of Charlemagne writing two ‘u’s’ side by side, separated by a space. At that time the sound made was similar to ‘v.’ The letter finally appeared in print as a unique letter ‘W’ in around 1700.

It all slowly fed into the Indo-European language family which includes English. The Indo-European language family includes more than 400 other languages. English shares strong common roots with German but also with Spanish and French as well as Bengali, Polish and Persian.

This beautiful chart by Minna Sundberg, a Finnish-Swedish comic artist, shows some of English’s closest cousins, like French and German, but also its more distant relationships with languages originally spoken far from the British Isles such as Farsi and Greek.

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Cheers! Santé! Salud! Sei Gesund! Будем здоровы. 乾杯

Did the printed page make us who we are?

I saw a post on someone’s Facebook page that quoted Carl Sagan on the nature of books and knowledge and it made me think.

This is the quote:



The irreplaceable Carl Sagan

For 99 percent of the tenure of humans on earth, nobody could read or write. The great invention had not yet been made. Except for firsthand experience, almost everything we knew was passed on by word of mouth. As in the children’s game “Telephone,” over tens and hundreds of generations, information would slowly be distorted and lost.

Books changed all that. Books, purchasable at low cost, permit us to interrogate the past with high accuracy; to tap the wisdom of our species; to understand the point of view of others, and not just those in power; to contemplate — with the best teachers — the insights, painfully extracted from Nature, of the greatest minds that ever were, drawn from the entire planet and from all of our history. They allow people long dead to talk inside our heads. Books can accompany us everywhere. Books are patient where we are slow to understand, allow us to go over the hard parts as many times as we wish, and are never critical of our lapses.

— Carl Sagan The path to freedom


Thoughts? You certainly wont find me arguing with the esteemed Mr. Sagan btw. But is that all there is to that story? That once man/woman kind discovered the secret of transitioning learning from our individual thoughts, rhymes and songs and instead recording them onto some medium: cave wall, pottery, papyrus, paper, whatever, did that simple act make knowledge accessible?

How old is the written word anyway? An ancient Mesopotamian poem gives the first known story of the invention of writing:

Because the messenger’s mouth was heavy and he couldn’t repeat (the message), the Lord of Kulaba patted some clay and put words on it, like a tablet. Until then, there had been no putting words on clay.

— Sumerian epic poem Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta. c. 1800 BCE.

Bloody hell – so the history of writing dates back to at least 1800 BCE! Of course glyphs and pictographs have been around much longer, we have examples of those that have been dated back to 6600 BCE.

But Sagan’s quote specifically states books, so perhaps the invention of the printing press was at the heart of Sagan’s “great invention”?

So, Gutenberg?

That was Johannes Gutenberg in 1436 of course. He invented a new printing press that used precisely molded printing blocks to create high-quality and consistently identical printed pages. If that wasn’t enough, at the same time he created an oil-based ink that was much more durable than the previously used water-based inks. A true revolution was about to be launched on the world.

Early wooden printing press, depicted in 1568

So in that era we now had the capabilities to create mass, identical copies. Erasmus for example became a best seller. He sold at least 750,000 copies of his works during his lifetime (1469–1536). I might be tempted to kill for those numbers!

And yet, one more element was needed to allow the true, timely and precise sharing of information. It was to come only a few years later, in 1470, when Cologne’s only second printer ever, a man called Arnold Ther Hoernen, printed a book titled “Sermo in festo praesentationis beatissimae Mariae virginis.”

Translated the book title says “The Sermon on the Feast of the Presentation of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary,” but that’s irrelevant. What is important, the one subtle difference that would truly change the world forever? Hoernen unilaterally, amazingly, for the first time ever, after 3270 years of the written word having been in existence, thought “you know what bitches? Today, I’m gonna number these fuckers!” I am paraphrasing slightly.

Amazingly, that first numbered page is still in existence, you can see it in the image below half way down the page and in the right hand margin.

Earliest known book to have page numbers.

Literacy and the emergence of scholarship

Doesn’t seem like something that would rock the world right? But here is the thing, page numbers were revolutionary. They made it easy to quote, cite, and to cross reference — they made accessing, studying, and comparing texts much, much easier.

The printing press meant that the same information would fall on the same pages. That was an undeniable game changer. But the seemingly humble, simple page number allowed tables of contents, and indices to be created. Suddenly one reader could quickly and easily direct another reader to the same precise piece of information they needed to share. Scientific collaboration was made tangible.

Authorship, particularly as it related to scientific papers became more meaningful and profitable. It was suddenly important who had said or written what. This allowed the exact citing of references to become common and a required practice.

This era of mass communication permanently altered the structure of society. Ideas transcended borders, captured the imagination of the masses in the Reformation, and threatened the power of political and religious authorities.

Literacy increased exponentially, threatened the monopoly of the literate elite and with the increasing cultural self-awareness of the European languages, led to the slow but steady fall of Latin as the long held lingua franca.

I do hope you enjoyed this blog post. You can find other musings on seemingly random subjects and updates on my book projects on my website. Follow the blog and sign up for the regularly irregular newsletter.

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