[Editor’s note: This is the twenty-seventh of an ongoing series that examines the rise of writing – and therefore reading – around the world. We will be looking at the major developments and forces that shaped the written languages we use today. Links to all the previous posts are listed at the end of this one.]
Although we cannot know the future with any certainty, we can predict trends based on past experiences. This not only holds true for our personal lives, but also for the potential manifestations of writing in the years to come.
First, let’s review the media of writing since the inception of a codified form. Starting from the earliest writing in ancient Mesopotamia, cuneiform inscriptions on clay tablets were the state-of-the-art for almost 3,200 years – from about 3100 BCE until the last-known inscription from the 1st century CE. The technology was simple but effective. The clay tablets came in two forms: 1) Flat on one side and convex on the other, with the flat side being inscribed first; when the tablet was turned over, the flatness protected the inscription. The tablets were easily accessible from the shelves on which they were put to dry; they could be altered by smoothing the surface first with water; and they could be baked in a fire if a permanent record was required. 2) Hinged together with a wax-coated writing surface. Both of these media were difficult to work with, and that difficulty drove changes in the forms of signs, in the signs’ orientations, and even in the writing’s direction (left-to-right or right-to-left).
In the 8th century CE, the Neo-Assyrian emperor Tiglath-Pīlēser III adopted the Aramaic language and script, which was an abjad (a type of writing system where each symbol or glyph stands only for a consonant; the reader must infer the necessary vowels). The ease of using a script and of recording that script on rolls of papyrus finally ended cuneiform’s hold on the written world. It is interesting, however, to note that the transition from one written form to the other did not occur overnight. The Aramaic abjad and its papyrus scrolls co-existed with the Assyrian logosyllabary and its clay tablets for almost 800 years. Papyrus scrolls eventually gave way to codices, but from their first appearance in the 2nd century CE, it also took about 800 years for the scrolls to disappear completely.
The earliest type of printing was fixed type. A block of text was carved in the negative, usually on wood, and then covered with ink to create prints. It first appeared during the Han dynasty in China at the beginning of the 3rd century CE, but it was used primarily on material at first and only later on paper. The demand for Chinese texts meant that woodcut printing took off particularly rapidly in Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, which all used the Chinese logosyllabary. The most significant development in printing from that point was the invention of movable type, where numerous copies of the same signs could be redistributed to print different works. Though movable type appeared during the 11th century, woodcut printing remained the most common method of Chinese printing until modern times because the large number of Chinese signs made movable type problematic – again, an overlap of about 800 years.
When Johannes Gutenberg printed copies of the Bible in 1455, he used the first movable type in Europe. The smaller number of alphabetic signs made metal typefaces more practical than they had been for Chinese characters, and Europeans were impressed by the relatively low price of the process (compared with manuscripts), the high quality, and the consistency. While codices had been the preferred medium since the 2nd century or so, they gave way to the printing press, though once again there was a sizable time lag until their disuse.
Printing had other effects on writing, such as the shape of our scripts and spelling conventions. A number of characters that were problematic to typeset were phased out of the alphabet, with other letters picking up the slack. Printing also encouraged the idea of a single “correct” orthography – the way that words ought to be spelled. That gave rise to the “Age of the Dictionary,” and compilations of spelling and standardized writing format guides.
So now that we know where we’ve been, where do we go from here?
Next up: The Future of Writing, Part 2 of 2
Zender, Marc. (2013). “Writing and Civilization: From Ancient Worlds to Modernity.” The Great Courses Lecture DT2241.
To read Part 1 (Sumerians), click here.
To read Part 2 (Egyptian hieroglyphs), click here.
To read Part 3A (Indo-European languages part 1), click here.
To read Part 3B (Indo-European languages part 2), click here.
To read Part 4 (Rosetta Stone), click here.
To read Part 5 (Chinese writing), click here.
To read Part 6 (Japanese writing), click here.
To read Part 7 (Olmecs), click here.
To read Part 8 (Mayans), click here.
To read Part 9 (Aztecs/Nahuatl), click here.
To read Part 10 (Etruscans), click here.
To read Part 11 (Meroïtic), click here.
To read Part 12 (Runes and Futhark), click here.
To read Part 13 (Musical Notation), click here.
To read Part 14 (Printing, Part 1), click here.
To read Part 15 (Printing, Part 2), click here.
To read Part 16 (Printing, Part 3), click here.
To read Part 17 (Origins of English, Part 1), click here.
To read Part 18 (Origins of English, Part 2), click here.
To read Part 19 (Origins of English part 3), click here.
To read Part 20 (Origins of English, Part 4), click here.
To read Part 21 (Printing and the Digital Age), click here.
To read Part 22 (Music’s Later Developments), click here.
To read Part 23 (Featural Scripts, Part 1), click here.
To read Part 24 (Featural Scripts, Part 2), click here.
To read Part 25 (Featural Scripts, Part 3), click here.