Chapter 10. The Written Word

To imagine a language is to imagine a form of life.


The Origins of Writing

MOST OF WHAT WE DESIGN INVOLVES WRITING IN ONE WAY OR ANOTHER, and writing has properties that are different from aural communication. Writing is much newer, but it’s no less fundamental to our daily reality.

Writing as we know it emerged as an elaborate game of charades using scribbled and imprinted signs to create a mélange of evocations—some representational pictures, some phonetic, some a combination of both. Eventually writing became much more about encoding the richness of verbal language than mere pictorial representation, because the pictures were quickly co-opted into representations of the sounds of oral language, instead.[210] That is, pictograms were transformed into phonograms. After all, oral language was already a much more sophisticated and capable ability: why keep using clunky pictures strung together when so much nuance was possible by mimicking the sound of just talking?

Enter the use of phonetic writing. For example, a picture of a bull with horns might be co-opted to stand for a spoken sound that means “king.” When that innovation happens, the flood gates open: writing starts being used mainly as a way to encode verbal language.[211] Chapter 9 relates how research has shown that our nervous systems fire signals for reading aloud even when we’re reading silently. When we read the written word, we are picking up information from ...

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