Languages & Writing Systems

Language is an ever evolving process on planet Earth varying from culture to culture and place to place depending on the needs of the civilization that existed at that timeline. Written language evolved from hieroglyphs - cave wall art (pictographs) - stone or clay tablets - papyrus - paper of arious and writing implements.

Language is a system of conventional spoken or written symbols by means of which human beings, as members of a social group and participants in its culture, communicate. Language so defined is the peculiar possession of humans. Other animals interact by means of sounds and body movements, and some can learn to interpret human speech to an extremely limited extent. But no other species of being has conventionalized its cries and utterances so that they constitute a systematic symbolism in the way that language does. In these terms, then, humans may be described as the talking animals.

Language has a structure or a series of structures, and this structuring can be analyzed and systematically presented. When language is spoken, a complex series of events takes place. These events are on many planes of experience: physical (the sound waves); chemical (the body chemistry); physiological (the movements of nerve impulses and of muscles); psychological (the reaction to stimuli); general cultural (the situation of the speaker in respect to the cultural system of his society); linguistic (the language being spoken); and semantic (its meaning).

Languages are classified genetically if they are descendants of a common ancestral language. The conservative genetic classification of languages into a language family is based on an abundance of cognates (related words) in the member languages. Using these terms, one may treat the languages of the world according to the following geographic divisions: Europe, South Asia, North Asia, Southwest Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Americas.

The languages of Europe and of regions inhabited by descendants of Europeans (e.g., the English- and Spanish-speaking peoples of the Americas) are primarily of the Indo-European and Uralic, or, more specifically, Finno-Ugric, language families. In the Indo-European family, Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan, French, Romansh, Ladin, Friulian, Italian, and Romanian constitute the Romance subgroup of the Italic branch.

The extant Germanic language groups spoken are English, Frisian, Netherlandic-German, Insular Scandinavian, and Continental Scandinavian, with these groups dividing further on national criteria (e.g., Continental Scandinavian divides into Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish).

The Celtic branch of Indo-European is composed of Welsh, Breton, Irish Gaelic, and Scottish Gaelic. The literary languages within the Slavic branch of Indo-European may be divided into three geographic zones: East Slavic, West Slavic, and South Slavic, of which zones Russian, Polish, and Serbo-Croatian are respective examples.

The three remaining branches of Indo-European are Baltic, Greek, and Albanian. Languages of the Finno-Ugric family, such as languages of the Sami (Lapp) and Baltic-Finno groups (e.g., Sami, Finnish, and Livonian), are spoken in parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia.

Hungarian is also a member of the Finno-Ugric family.

In South Asia, the languages of India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and the border states are genetically classified into the Indo-Aryan and Iranian subgroups of the Indo-Aryan branch of Indo-European.

There are more than 20 members of the Indo-Aryan subgroup and many more dialects, but the most widely spoken are Bengali-Assamese, West Hindi, Bihari, and East Hindi. The languages of the Iranian subgroup have fewer speakers in South Asia than the Indo-Aryan languages: Kashmiri and Shina, the most widely spoken Iranian languages in South Asia, are spoken only in Jammu and Kashmir.

A few indigenous languages, such as the Dravidian languages of Telugu and Tamil, are spoken in South Asia, as are a few Sino-Tibetan languages. In many parts of postcolonial South Asia, English is still spoken as an interstate and international language.

The languages of North Asia are those spoken from the Arctic Ocean on the north to South Asia and China on the south and from the Caspian Sea and Ural Mountains in the west to the Pacific Ocean in the east. These languages are genetically classified into either the Uralic family, the Altaic group, the Indo-European family, or the Paleo-Siberian group.

Although speakers of the Uralic languages are few in number, many speakers of Altaic languages are found in Iran, Afghanistan, and the Kansu province of China. Most Indo-European languages, such as Iranian, have been introduced into North Asia only recently.

The Paleo-Siberian languages are not genetically linked to each other or to the other languages of North Asia and are spoken largely in northeasternmost Siberia.

In Southwest Asia--i.e., in Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel--the languages spoken are either Indo-European, Turkic, Caucasian, or Semitic. Of the Indo-European languages, almost all the Iranian languages, including Persian, Pashto, Kurdish, and Balochi, are spoken in Iran; and Armenian is spoken in Armenia and Georgia.

The Turkic language Turkish is spoken in Turkey, and other Turkic languages are spoken in the Caucasus, where more than 30 Caucasian languages are spoken. Of the Semitic languages spoken in Southwest Asia, Arabic is spoken in North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and much of the rest of the Middle East.

Hebrew is spoken in Israel, and West Aramaic dialects are spoken in Lebanon and Syria.

In East Asia the languages spoken are largely Chinese languages (or dialects) in China, Japanese in Japan, and Korean in Korea, though the Altaic group is represented in China by Uighur, a Turkic language, and Manchu, a Manchu-Tungus language.

Of the Chinese languages, Mandarin, Wu, and Cantonese are the most widely spoken. Mandarin, the native language of 70 percent of the Chinese, has more native speakers than any other language in the world. Tai and Miao-Yao languages are spoken in south-central China, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand.

Southeast Asia is composed of a mainland subregion south of China and east of India, insular Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, and the name of the language generally corresponds to the name of the country.

The languages on the mainland belong to the Austroasiatic, Tai, and Sino-Tibetan language groups, while the insular languages are all members of the Austronesian family.

More than 50 Austroasiatic languages, such as Khmer in Cambodia, Mon in Thailand, and Vietnamese in Vietnam, are spoken on the mainland of Southeast Asia.

The Tai and Sino-Tibetan families are represented by Thai in Thailand, Lao in Laos and Cambodia, and Burmese in Myanmar (Burma). In insular Southeast Asia, more than 500 Austronesian languages are spoken, the largest group of which is the Western Indonesian subgroup, which includes Tagalog, the basis for Pilipino, and 100 other languages spoken in the Philippines.

While New Guinea and Australia may be said to belong to insular Southeast Asia, they contain only non-Austronesian languages, predominantly the Papuan languages of New Guinea and the more than 200 Australian Aboriginal languages.

Although, in many parts of Africa, European languages imported with 19th-century colonialism are still spoken as functional national languages, the native African language families are the Afro-Asiatic (formerly Hamito-Semitic), Nilo-Saharan, Niger-Congo, and Khoisan families. The Afro-Asiatic languages are spoken across North Africa from Mauritania to Somalia and beyond into southern Asia.

The Nilo-Saharan languages are spoken in central interior Africa.

The Niger-Congo languages, of which there are almost 900, are spoken from Mauritania to Kenya and south into South Africa.

The Khoisan languages consist of about 50 languages spoken in southern Africa and Tanzania.

In the Americas, European languages such as Spanish, English, Portuguese, and French predominate. English is the language of most of North America, while Spanish and Portuguese are the dominant languages in South and Central America.

The Western Hemisphere's indigenous languages, which came from Asia with the ancestors of the American Indians, are classified into the North and Central American Indian language families and the South American Indian language families.

The North and Central American Indian language family is in part composed of the 20 Athabascan languages, the 13 Algonkian languages, the Macro-Siouan languages, and the Penutian languages, the only North American Indian language group successfully traced into South America.

The South American Indian languages are much more numerous: the Andean-Equatorial group, for example, includes 14 familiesand almost 200 languages spoken from French Guiana to Colombia and south to Paraguay, as well as along the Amazon.

The Dawn of Writing

Writing is a form of human communication by means of a set of visible marks that are related, by convention, tosome particular structural level of language. This definition highlights the fact that writing is in principle the representation of language rather than adirect representation of thought and the fact that spoken language has a number of levels of structure, including sentences, words, syllables, and phonemes (the smallest units of speech used to distinguish one word or morpheme from another), any one of which a writing system can "map onto" or represent.

Indeed, the history of writing is in part a matter of the discovery and representation of these structural levels of spoken language in the attempt to construct an efficient, general, and economical writing system capable of serving a range of socially valuable functions. Literacy is a matter of competence with a writing system and with the specialized functions that written language serves in a particular society.

Languages are systems of symbols; writing is a system for symbolizing these symbols. A writing system may be defined as any conventional system of marks or signs that represents the utterances of a language. Writing renders language visible; while speech is ephemeral, writing is concrete and, by comparison, permanent.

Both speaking and writing depend upon the underlying structures of language. Consequently, writing cannot ordinarily be read by someone not familiar with the linguistic structure underlying the oral form of the language. Yet writing is not merely the transcription of speech; writing frequently involves the use of special forms of language, such as those involved in literary and scientific works, which would not be produced orally. In any linguistic community the written language is a distinct and special dialect; usually there is more than one written dialect. Scholars account for these facts by suggesting that writing is related directly to language but not necessarily directly to speech. Consequently, spoken and written language may evolve somewhat distinctive forms and functions. These alternative relations may be depicted as follows:

In his book Technopoly, Neil Postman discusses the mythic debate over the introduction of writing between Teheuti, Thoth and Thamus the technological skeptic in Plato's Phaedrus.. Teheuti argues for the positive advantages of writing, but Thamus counters that rather than aiding memory or wisdom, writing will lead to decreased memory and a false wisdom - a belief that information is the same thing as knowledge. Plato's own ambivalence about writing is well known - as Derrida points out, he calls it pharmakon , a word that suggests both medicine and poison. Of course, by Plato's time, writing in Greece was fairly widespread, and many oral tales that had long been retold over and over (such as Homer's Iliad ) were finally being put down on the written papyrus.

It's fairly easy to list the obvious changes made possible by writing. Certainly, it allowed the emergence of classes of people in charge of recordkeeping, taxation, and religious liturgy - scribes, bureaucrats, and priests - and thus made possible hierarchical social organization. The first types of writing - hieroglyphs, cuneiform, Chinese idiographic writing - were mostly pictorial, but the creation of alphabets (arbitrary representations of phonetic utterances) made possible larger vocabularies and more complex semantics. Most cultures clearly associated the origins of writing with the birth of their own civilizations, hence the technology of writing was ascribed to some mythic "culture-bringer" - Ogham, Thoth, Quetzalcoatl, etc.

Most people are not aware, however, what writing had undone. Plato talks about how many rhetoricians used a technique known as the Art of Memory for facilitating their recall - a technique which seems to have involved projecting concepts or ideas into internally visualized architectural spaces, there to be later recalled. He laments how writing has made the once noble Art of Memory largely a forgotten art. Many cultures utilized an entirely oral tradition for maintaining their cultural sagas and mythos - the Druids had to study twenty years of wholly oral instruction. Even today, there are bards which remember and sing national epics and tales which are thousands of lines long. Plato may not have been the first one to notice that writing may have destroyed man's own prodigious mnemonic talents.

Part of the Art of Memory also involved using tools and images - icons, if you will - as metaphors for symbolic, moral instruction. Even today, we see this in chivalric, fraternal organizations such as the Freemasons, who use the tools of the building trade to symbolize their higher precepts. But if there is anything recent religious history has suggested, it is that the various Peoples of the Book (Biblios ) - those whose religious life lies in an intimate connection to a sacred text - have overcome those whose religious life is tied to images or icons ('idolaters'.) Nonetheless, for the various monotheistic religions, it is clear that the Logos or uttered word is prior to and superior to the written or recorded revelations of the Divine. Hence, in Judaism, the importance of prophetic proclamations about the spirit rather than the letter of the Law, and the priority attached to the "oral Torah."

The spoken word is intimate, tied to the very breath and health of the speaker. The written word makes possible the autonomous survival of knowledge - with an oral tradition, it disappears when the oralists have all been killed; but, as people have noted for a long time, writing is impersonal, does not carry emotional intonations as well as speech, and lacks the identifying characteristics (pitch, tone, timbre, rate, etc.) that links speech to a speaker. Certainly, writing displays styles - some people insist they can recognize any particular writer's writing - but it is also not as idiosyncratic as speech. Even on the phone, we immediately know the voices of our loved ones. They are distinctive and unique. Most civilizations recognized that writing had been introduced as a divine gift, perhaps by a group of hieratic initiates - but, like Thamus, they knew that it had costs as well as benefits.

The Renaissance

As most commentators have pointed out, throughout the great breadth of the Dark and Middle Ages, literacy was not very widespread. There was little need for it to be, since monastic copyists often took years to reproduce a text. Literacy was reserved for the elite - the nobility and the priests - who were all too glad to perpetuate the ignorance and lack of learning of their hapless serfs. Copies of the great Greek and Latin thinkers - Cicero, Aristotle, Pliny, Herodotus, etc. - existed; but they were held tightly by Schoolmen in cloistered universities, and not easy for the common man to access. The printing press made these texts more widely available, and for once the common man could study Aristotle or the Bible for himself, and not have to take the scholarly elite's word for it. Hence, the Renaissance - a renewed interest in classical knowledge and learning.

Was the printing press purely serendipitous? It does seem to have arrived at the right place at the right time. We know much about the esoteric traditions surrounding the guilds of the journeyman builders (masons, the compannage ) and coalminers/charcoal burners (Carbonari) of that time, which often operated like secret societies. But few people have been exposed to the equally mysterious traditions of the printers' and papermillers' guilds. Harold Bayley, in his book The Lost Language of Symbolism, finds that the watermarks used by the various printers' guilds were not arbitrary - they were a Hermetic, hieratic "language" in themselves, rich in alchemical and mystical content. Bayley was one of the first people to suggest that it might be worthwhile to historians to take a closer look at the membership and structure of the printers' guilds, but his call for such an examination has been largely ignored.

Bayley felt he had given "a new light on the Renaissance," by suggesting that the heretical content of many of these watermarks or emblems linked the printing guilds to the earlier guilds of papermakers. Bayley advanced the startling thesis that "watermarks denote that papermaking was an art introduced into Europe, and fostered there by the pre-Reformation Protestant sects known in France as the Albigeois (Albigensians) and Vaoudois (Waldenses), and in Italy as the Cathari (Cathars) or Patarini (Popelicans.)" Further, he said, "The nursing mother of the Renaissance, and consequently of the Reformation, was not, as hitherto assumed, Italy, but the Provencal district of France."

Bayley suggests it was Huguenot refugees that brought papermaking and the printing art into England; and he feels that the Huguenots were tied into a tradition stretching back to the Cathars of Provencal and to the even earlier Gnostics. Since Gnostic groups had always stressed knowledge over faith and self-discovery rather than instruction by hierarchical authorities, one might see the "Gutenberg revolution" as quite a Gnostic coup - destroying the literacy monopoly of both the Catholic Church and the feudal state. The watermarks, Bayley suggests, are key symbols of a not yet forgotten oral, iconic, and allegorical tradition. He felt they pointed to some of the earliest and most fundamental concepts of language (i.e. Indo-European tongues) and to allegories of the journey of the soul after death.

Bayley felt that many of the watermarks pointed to key mythic complexes in European legend - today, we might call them archetypes of the collective unconscious - such as the Star of the Sea (Stella Maris), the Single Eye (of Horus), the "President of the Mountains," and the Shulamite or beloved of the Song of Solomon. One might say that the printers' guilds knew that introducing widespread printing, just as with the introduction of writing, would create winners and losers. But, like Thoth, they might have known who the losers would be beforehand, and possibly planned things that way. In addition, however, in distributing books far and wide, they also may have been propagating a more hidden, subliminal code within the text - the message of the watermarks themselves. This may have been the hidden center of the "Gutenberg Galaxy."

History of Writing  Wikipedia

Origin of Language  Wikipedia