This is a guest post by Tim Gorichanaz
Evolutionary linguistics seeks to explain the origins and evolution of spoken language, but it tends not to consider written language. Perhaps rightly so: Writing is different from speech, and trying to consider both at once might only cloud things up. Still, given that writing is a symbolic representation of human thought—just as speech is—I believe analyzing the development of written language can be helpful in fleshing out the holistic story of the evolution of language.
We might, at first blush, think of writing as dependent on spoken language. Charles Hockett, for example, famously described writing as a *reduction* of spoken language. Indeed, our alphabetic writing system seems to correspond (granted, in some ways more than others) to the sounds of our language, minus paralinguistic and pragmatic features like speed, tone and volume.
But taking a historical and global perspective suggests that written language and spoken language may not be as intertwined as it seems at first: Classical written Latin had little to do with the Medieval Romance languages, though it was considered a visual representation of the same; moreover, the Chinese and Arabic writing systems are, even today, used to represent disparate dialects that are, in speech, not mutually intelligible.
Is it possible, then, that writing did not arise as a way to overcome the limitations of speech, but rather something that emerged independently and alongside spoken language? Let us consider the possibility that both writing and speech sprang up at the same time, both fruit of the same evolutionary boom that gave rise to our human brain with the capacity for symbolic thought. Writing, then, can be seen as a co-evolutionary force that developed alongside spoken language. Just as writing and speech influence each other today, perhaps this bidirectional influence was of some importance during the evolution of both.
After all, in the 100,000-year-old smears of red ochre on some rocks in Israel, we can see the roots of written language just as we can see the basis of spoken language: It is the oldest element of symbolic human thought, a necessary component of both. Our ancestors went from smears to hand tracings to images of humans and ruminant animals, and from there continue the history of art and that of writing. And also that of language.
What linguistic lessons can we learn from the evolution of pictograms to cuneiform wedges to veritable alphabets? And what of the different languages and cultures that collectively decided that their needs were best served by syllabaries as opposed to alphabets, or logographic systems as opposed to something more phonetic? I think we’ve barely scratched the surface.
N.B. If you’re interested in learning more about the history of written language, I highly recommend the book The Writing Revolution: Cuneiform to the Internet by Amalia Gnanadesikan.
Bio: After working a few years in digital advertising, Tim Gorichanaz returned to academia to earn a master’s degree in applied Hispanic linguistics. He wrote his thesis on the linguistic issues of written language on the Internet, and he plans to pursue similar investigations as a PhD student in the near future. In the meantime, he records his thoughts and research about written language on his blog, ScratchTap. When he’s not studying, Tim can be found running (ultra)marathons and drawing.