A turn of writing history bounces from screenplay to screenplay

During his island hopping and forays into his own research, Ferrara develops a bold argument. The standard history of writing has long held that the first true writing was invented by Mesopotamian clerics. (Imagine them keeping track of goods using stylized images.) One day one of the employees may have noticed that the image of, say, the cane – im – could duplicate by also representing the verb “to repay”, which in Sumerian sounds the same. Such realizations have given rise to hundreds of signs representing enough syllables to capture an entire language. Writing enabled Mesopotamian city-states to project power deep into the hinterland and administer the first territorial empire.

For Ferrara, this story is true enough, but it has crowded out alternatives that are less about imperial bureaucrats making paperwork (or rather, since paper hadn’t yet been invented, working clay). Consider, for example, Lady Hao, one of the 64 wives of Wu Ding, the ancient Chinese king. Undaunted by competition, she became a military commander, in charge of 13,000 troops. But her real power came from her job as the king’s fortune teller. In ancient China, fortune was told by manipulating inscriptions on turtle shells, and it was from these manipulations that writing was born. It would later be taken over by bureaucrats, who would eventually invent paper, but the origins of writing lie in imagination, creativity and the creation of meaning. Lady Hao understood the power of culture.

Other examples of creative invention take us to Easter Island, where the inhabitants may have developed writing in complete isolation from the rest of the world, and to the mysterious Voynich Manuscript, written in an unknown script and hitherto indecipherable in Renaissance Europe. Was it the job of a loner trying to be difficult? Is he hiding something spectacular?

Some of Ferrara’s most ambitious ideas stem from his collaboration with scientists, including the claim that writing literally alters the brains of those who learn it. This is perhaps what makes it so difficult for scholars to appreciate oral traditions. I would have liked to know more about the difficult times when writers met non-writers and wrote down their stories, as happened in countless colonial encounters. Ferrara describes the intriguing case of the Cherokee script, invented in the early 19th century to counter alphabet-bearing settlers, but she says little about those who completely refuse to write. As with any tool, people have done terrible things with and in the name of writing.

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