Friday, May 20, 2005

Development of Alphabets

Yeah, I know I have been writing a lot about this early stuff, but it's interesting anyway. Now about early writing. First of all, what would be considered the difference between writing and drawing pictures. You can create stories with both of them. Aren't all letters really nothing but scribbles without the interpretation of humans? Each letter and word has a meaning, if you are literate enough it often causes an instant recognition in the mind, so you know what it means. Pictures can act in the same way, so what is the difference between an alphabet and pictures? Much of this is theoretical, so I'll warn you, much of it is also my own theories.

First, we need to figure out the needs to create an organized alphabet. Well let's define an alphabet first. An alphebet is a group of characters that each imply a vocal sound and/or actual object or idea. Now back to the needs. I have often used scenarios so I will use another one here. A hunter , let's call him Bob, has just returned to a village after a very good expedition, maybe he was chased by a pack of wolves, swam across a lake, climbed up a tree to escape a bear, fell down, beat the bear with a branch that had broken off in the fall, and then manage to drag it all the way back to the village. If that happened to you, you'd probably want some recognition for that. We can assume that there is an oral tradition already that allows for the passing down of information, stories, and things like that. But what impels Bob to record things in a non-spoken way?

Oral traditions are faulty, and we can assume Bob knew that, he didn't want anybody messing around with his story. Also, memories are not always the best and there may be disturbances in the population. In the early time of Bob, people are still highly vulnerable to predators, famine, disease, warfare, natural disasters, etc. Lifespans in general were not exactly long and the next generation had to be brought up fast. Therefore, a story would die if a person died. Let's assume Bob discovered that a certain type of bear can climb trees. Knowing this is important, he wants to tell other people. But the problems I described before are great, a surefire way of passing the story on unchanged over generations needs to be found.

By now, making paintings on walls and such is pretty common, so Bob makes a kind of primitive cartoon strip on a wall, or maybe he scrathes it onto a piece of stone together with dye. Perhaps about this time, Bob realised that painting has its limits. You can't tell ideas or dialogues very well. You can try to draw a picture of it, but you never know how the other person will interpret this. However, you can pass on exactly what you mean by saying it. So here is one push towards a practical alphabet, a need to write down exactly what you mean, and making sure other people will interpret it the same way as you. But most modern alphabets are not made of pictures of animals and objects, they are made of characters that one has to learn their meanings.

The story of Bob becomes famous, and other people want copies of it (beginning of written entertainment? Great, we have comic book fans already). They also want personal copies of it that they can refer to at any time, one tablet obviously won't do, so it gets copied. Here we get something new, it's laborious to copy entire pictures of animals and people so the copyers will look for shortcuts. Each person can also draw different things in different ways, maybe a different mouth shape of a bear (early handwriting?). To make the understanding of the tablets easier a kind of universal characterization would be needed. So now we have more character-like pictures that come in universal forms, people are taught what each picture means. In other words, copying creates a drive towards simplification and universalization.

Slowly, a primitive pictographic proto-alhabet forms. The simplification and characterization is continued, and quickened when people beyond Bob's village want to know the story. More people means a need for an effective character that can be taught and understood by people. Of course as the characters start to slowly less resemble their original representations, they become harder for illiterate people to understand. This may have increased the need for teaching, and later the rise of the literati class.

So far, I have mainly used the examples of stories, but there is also direct communication among people to be considered. Bob has made many other good hunts and even perhaps some expeditions against enemies, he rises to more and more important postitions, until perhaps he becomes the ruler of his village. Seeking a better life for his people, he starts a period of economic and political expansionism. A nearby village has discovered iron, a very useful metal, in return they are willing to exchange salt for it, something Bob has. Our new ruler senses a good chance for his village to progress, he quickly creates a complex trade treaty to be offered to the neigbor. Because he doesn't want his messanger to mess the details up, he does his best to write the details down on a tablet, and tells the messenger those things that will fill up the hole. All the messenger now has to do is go to the village and read the treaty. This becomes successful and trade quickly grows.

Now Bob is a wise guy, he sees that the alphabet system works, it has many advantages that can really improve things. He realizes that he can write down laws, court cases, religious customs, festival proceedings, other customs, government procedures, treaties, etc. The benefits of writing these down would be tremendous. A person's mind would no longer be the main storage of all the important documents. This meant that these things could be elaborated and detailed and added to without any danger of being lost because someone forgot. With official things this would also be a great thing, especially with laws. A solid visible record of a law would no wipe out the haziness the judges could have about them. Basically, when something was written down, it became something that was clear, hard to question, and able to be passed on mostly unchanged and intact. Any changes would more likely be intentional ones, instead of mistakes from trying to recall from memory.

With all these advantages staring at him in the face Bob acted quickly. He and some assistants and others who were literate gathered all the known and established characters, they then put them in logical orders on one place. Now that they had a beginning, they worked on any gaps they could find. After that they got together everybody who knew the details of the documents and ritals, and wrote everything down. As they did so they found more gaps, which they filled in. It would have taken years to put together the characters in a kind of alphabet, gotten together all the information they needed to write, and compiled it into written records.

The work paid off, government, culture, and trade became much more organized and efficient. Passing down knowledge, one of the vital aspects of survival, now simply required writing it down. That writing would dispense its info to everyone who read it. The social structure itself changed, with the increased roles of the government and with the additions of scribes and other government officials. This may have been the first Information Revolution. Knowledge needs to be found, recorded, and passed on. Reading and writing at least changed how recording and passing were done.

1 comment:

Tom said...

The growth of syllabaries is interesting too.