Alphabet need not have the last word (2)

by Terence MacNamee

There is a new approach to the evolution of written language, questioning the assumption that it depends on (spoken) language and that the alphabet is its inevitable culmination. Greater awareness of Chinese writing in the Western world has prompted this kind of thinking. The late French scholar Anne-Marie Christin has been an important source of ideas here.

It seemed necessary to Christin to work against the obvious assumption that written language is just a visual version of spoken language. In her view, written language, unlike spoken language, depends on visual experience – the whole world of patterns and pictures and representation – rather than the sound world of spoken language. It has to do as much with the coding of space (the space of the inscribed surface) as with the code of the characters or letters themselves. What makes pictures into writing is, she says, the use of space itself to mean something.

Spatial arrangement means ordering: depending on the convention adopted, the characters are to be read top to bottom, left to right, or right to left. This came to correspond to the earlier and later of time we sense in spoken language. Space corresponds to time. But we now know from the technology of sound recording and analysis that, in speech, features get bundled and overlap each other. Speech is not a neat regular output of separate “segments”. The letters each standing for a sound – even the adapted letters used for phonetic transcription – are an abstraction.

Christin has said that writing began with the interpretation of the starry sky at night. This vast display, which must have enthralled early mankind, does not stand still; it keeps changing with the time of night and the seasons, and the stars seem to rise and set at particular points on the landscape. So one could say that before early man learned to write, he learned to read. He learned to read patterns that were already there in nature. And he believed that those patterns were not due to chance, but were put there by the gods.

Writing as reading had to do with interpreting the will of the gods. When Chinese shamans took omens from animal bones or tortoise-shells held over a ritual fire till they cracked, the will of the gods could be read from the cracks. That gave them the idea that they could make their own meaningful signs. The shamans set down the interpretation in their own characters as a sort of marginal gloss on the meaningful patterns they were reading. The oracle bones and tortoise-shells with early written symbols scratched into the surface represented “value added” to the omen signs themselves.

So writing – or more precisely, reading – was divination. Writing belonged to the gods. For that reason, the early Chinese shaman could put his own writing, a message for the gods, at the bottom of a ritual vessel containing sacrificial offerings – only the gods would see it. In Christin’s view, spoken language was the world of man and a world of sound, whereas written language was the world of the gods and a world of the visual.  In order to appreciate this perspective, you have to stop thinking like a writer and think like a painter instead.

To this day, Chinese writing is associated with painting. Both are done with brush and ink. The written characters are always on the verge of crossing over into representation and the representation into writing. Such an art seems to say: never forget that these two things belong together.

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