Old scripts, new insights

October 13, 1995

Are hieroglyphs making a comeback? Andrew Robinson examines ancient and modern writing.

Writing is among the greatest inventions of human history. Yet it is a skill most writers take for granted. We learn it at school, building on the alphabet, or (in China or Japan) the Chinese characters. As adults we seldom stop to think about the mental-cum-physical process that turns our thoughts into symbols on a piece of paper, or bytes of information in a computer disc. Few of us have any clear recollection of how we learnt to write.

A page of text in a foreign script, totally incomprehensible to us, reminds us forcibly of the nature of our achievement. An extinct script, such as Egyptian hieroglyphs or cuneiform from the ancient Near East, strikes us as little short of miraculous. By what means did these pioneering writers of 4-5,000 years ago learn to write? How did their symbols encode their speech and thought? Do today's writing systems work in a completely different way from the ancient scripts? What about the Chinese and Japanese scripts are they like ancient hieroglyphs? Do hieroglyphs have any advantages over alphabets? Might they, in fact, be making a comeback at the end of the 20th century, in the age of instant communication between countries and cultures, with talk of "universal" languagesin the air?

In the mid-1970s, with ever-increasing international travel, the American Institute of Graphic Arts cooperated with the United States Department of Transportation to design a set of symbols for airports and other travel facilities that would be clear both to travellers in a hurry and those without a command of English. They came up with 34 symbols. The design committee made a significant observation. They wrote: "We are convinced that the effectiveness of symbols is strictly limited. They are most effective when they represent a service or concession that can be represented by an object, such as a bus or bar glass. They are much less effective when used to represent a process or activity, such as ticket purchase, because the (latter) are complex interactions that vary considerably from mode to mode."

The designers concluded that symbols should not be used alone, they must be incorporated as part of "an intelligent total sign system", involving both symbols and alphabetic messages. To do otherwise would be to sow "confusion" among air travellers. Many scholars of writing systems disagree with this assessment of the potential of symbols for communication. They are willing to call modern hieroglyphs such as airport signs, road signs and the signs used in instruction manuals for electronic goods, "writing" along with musical notation, mathematical notation, circuit diagrams and the pictograms on the earliest clay tablets from Mesopotamia. In theory, they argue, with enough imagination and ingenuity, a system of signs could be expanded into a universal writing system which would be independent of any spoken language and capable of expressing the entire range of thought that can be expressed in speech. In other words, it would be purely logographic, without any phonographic component.

For these scholars do not hold with the belief that "writing", in the full sense, is based on speech. They say, on the contrary, that alphabetic writing has influenced speech, hence the fact (for example) that children think there are more sounds in "pitch" than "rich", even though the two sign sequences tch and ch are phonologically equivalent. These scholars do not accept the "triumph of the alphabet". Indeed they see no theoretical need for the phonetic principle in writing or reading. They point to the Chinese characters (less so the Japanese script) and claim them as evidence that pure logography is at least a possibility. Their basic contention is that there are two kinds of possible writing system, phonographic and logographic, which are of equal validity. I maintain, by contrast along with many others that there is only one kind of practical system, in which phonography predominates, though supplemented by logography; thus all practical writing systems are differing mixtures of phonography and logography.

The desire to believe in logographic writing is deep-rooted and complex. The classical author Horapollo, whose largely mistaken (and wonderfully grotesque) readings of Egyptian hieroglyphs were accepted until the 18th century, was a believer. So was the mathematician and philosopher Leibniz. Umberto Eco, in The Search for the Perfect Language, published this autumn in English translation and already a bestseller in Europe, considers the long history of the idea in detail. And the phenomenal growth of the Internet has fuelled this interest.

There is today a general (if obscure) wish to view logographic writing as "holistic", rather than "reductionist" like alphabetic writing; as the writing of the colonised rather than the coloniser, the virtues of which have been overlooked; and as being capable of expressing thoughts more subtly than phonographic symbols, which are seen as artificial, even inherently authoritarian. Pure logography thus becomes a kind of Utopia, in which language barriers no longer exist and we all fraternally communicate through universal symbols.

Overall the belief in logography, for all its vaunted modernity or would-be postmodernity is really a latter-day version of the ancient belief in the mysterious East. In the view of a European expert on Chinese calligraphy, Jean-Francois Billeter, the alphabet is "like currency, which reduces all the products of nature and human industry to the common denominator of their exchange value (and) contracts the infinite wealth of physical reality to combinations of a few signs devoid of any intrinsic value . . . Chinese writing, (by contrast), . . . leads one not so much to look behind the visible signs for abstract entities as to study the relations, configurations and recurrences of phenomena which are signs and of signs which are phenomena . . . It sets the mind thinking along lines which are different from ours but just as rewarding."

This is seductive. The logographic principle accords with the way most of us feel that we think better than the alphabetic principle, which is inevitably associated with the reductionist idea that our brains are just extraordinarily sophisticated digital computers. The logographic principle reminds us of E. M. Forster's famous injunction "only connect!", whereas the alphabetic principle might be summarised as "only dissect".

The increasing visual bias of 20th-century culture reinforces the seductiveness. In the industrialised world we are surrounded by powerful imagery. We depend on the word, whether spoken or printed, much less than previous generations. Cinema, not literature, has been the art form of the century. Cinema's capacity to engage mass audiences worldwide subliminally suggest that a language of images is feasible and natural. We tend to forget how important words actually are to movies.

There is a parallel between the development of cinema and of writing systems. In order to tell a story, most silent movies were periodically compelled to insert caption cards, printed or handwritten; the images alone could not cope. And of course once "talkies" were introduced, the silent cinema quickly perished. Even the greatest film artists did not feel a need to eschew sound in the interests of cinematic purity. Jean Renoir wrote of sound: "I didn't know how to see until about 1930 when the obligation of writing dialogue brought me down to earth, and established a real contact between the people I had to make talk and myself." As for the audience, it immediately embraced talkies. Today, to watch a silent film even one of the most imaginative is to feel that something is missing. The same is true, a fortiori, of our reaction to one of the early pictographic tablets from 3000bc or indeed the US Department of Transportation symbols of the 1970s. They lack a dimension. The introduction of sound revolutionised cinema; the introduction of phonography turned protowriting into full writing.

If this is a valid parallel, in what sense can we speak of modern writing having "evolved" from ancient writing? Until the last few decades it was universally agreed that over centuries western civilisation has tried to make writing a closer representation of speech. The alphabet was naturally regarded as the pinnacle of this conscious search; the Chinese script, conversely, was generally thought of as hopelessly defective. The corollary was the belief that as the alphabet spread through the world, so eventually would mass literacy and democracy. Scholars at least western scholars thus had a clear conception of writing progressing from cumbersome ancient scripts with multiple signs to simple and superior modern alphabets.

Few are now as confident. The superiority of the alphabet is no longer taken for granted. More fundamentally, the supposed pattern of a deepening perception of phonetic efficiency producing an increasing simplicity of script, is not borne out by the evidence. The ancient Egyptians had an "alphabet" of 24 signs nearly 5,000 years ago, but chose not to use it. And the Japanese, rather than using more and more frequently their simple syllabic kana (about 50), chose to import more and more kanji (Chinese characters), of which there were at one time almost 50,000.

It is tempting to draw another parallel, this time between the evolution of writing systems and the evolution of life on earth. From simple beginnings pictograms and protozoa there developed complexity. Sometimes, this ramified, leading to unwieldy excesses cuneiform or Chinese characters, and dinosaurs; but it also led to highly successful forms the alphabet, and homo sapiens. In both processes of evolution, extinction periodically occurred.

No doubt one cannot read too much into this comparison. It is difficult enough to assess the contemporary relationship between the alphabet, literacy and democracy. Surely, one might think, if a script is easy to learn, then more people will grasp it than if it is difficult to learn; and if they then come to understand public affairs better than they did before, they will be more likely to take part in them. Certainly, government educational policies in democracies stress the importance of high levels of literacy and reinforce the common assumption that to be illiterate is to be backward.

The person unfamiliar with Far Eastern scripts must surely be amazed that anyone could use Japanese kanji or Chinese characters with ease. And the same goes for the scripts of the ancient Egyptians, Mesopotamians and Maya. So, is that the chief interest of the ancient scripts for those of us outside a tiny esoteric circle of scholars a sense of wonder at human linguistic ingenuity? Leaving aside the aesthetic appeal of many ancient writings, the cultural information they contain about the ancient world, and the intellectual challenge they furnish to decipherers, are these deceased scripts simply curiosities?

It seems unlikely that alphabet users have anything to learn from the ancient world that will be of direct use in improving their own scripts. If anything, China, Japan, and other Far Eastern nations that employ Chinese characters, are likely to turn increasingly to phonetically based scripts, such as kana and Pinyin (romanised Chinese); in other words, the alphabetic principle will eventually spread even into these last logographic bastions. This, after all, is what has happened to every other nation in history. In China, it is what Mao Zedong, Zhou En Lai and some other leaders desired, even though they were thwarted by more conservative minds. Any writing reform must take a long time and be a chaotic process somewhat in the way that Latin took centuries to disappear from educated written discourse in Europe. In the English-speaking world, even the smallest spelling and grammatical changes may provoke extreme feelings.

The legacy of the hieroglyphs is perhaps a more subtle one, which touches on the relative status of speech and writing, phonography and logography. Aristotle called the basic unit of language by which he meant both spoken and written language gramma. In the final analysis, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Mesopotamian cuneiform, Mayan glyphs and other complex scripts are fascinating because they make us ponder afresh the processes of reading, writing, speaking and thinking. And the living, functioning presence of the equally formidable Chinese and Japanese scripts reminds us how little of these processes we understand. We can probe the chemical composition of stars in far-off galaxies and analyse the neural chemistry of our brains. But in the realm of the mind and consciousness our understanding is primitive. As yet no one can give much account of what is taking place in your head as you read this sentence. Detailed study of ancient writing systems in comparison with our own may provide us with some helpful clues.

Andrew Robinson, literary editor of The THES, is the author of The Story of Writing: Alphabets, Hieroglyphs and Pictograms, published by Thames and Hudson.

Please login or register to read this article.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments