Silvia Ferrera headshot and Greatest Invention yellow book cover

The Greatest Invention: notes on language and writing

Writing is one of humanity’s greatest inventions, and both it and language evolved in predictable ways. They are related but distinct.

That’s a theme from this year’s March 2022 book “The Greatest Invention: A History of the World in Nine Mysterious Scripts” written by Silvia Ferrera.

Below I’ve captured my notes for future reference.

My notes:

  • 90/10 we spend our time interpreting other people versus everything else we do; baboons the opposite
  • Hubel and Wiesel’s Nobel prize-winning research contrasts emerged when shown different letters
  • Writing systems across languages have common shapes (more L and T than X and F) and these shapes are in the natural world
  • Occipital temporal area of brain is used for written language but it was co-opted because it was originally used for the visual perception of objects
  • Iconicity
  • Japanese: “korokoro” refers to a rolling object that is light, and “gorogoro” when heavy
  • Pictogram
  • Logogram to ideogram, is how many letters appear to have emerged
  • Voynich manuscript remains undeciphered
  • Why did so many undeciphered scripts started on islands like Cypress, Crete and Easter island?
  • Did a cat pictograph evolve into our letter A?
  • The “meow” cat sound is similar across languages but other animals aren’t, why?
  • Michael Ventris, internal decipherment of Cretan Linear B
  • Cypro-Minoan language
  • Cypriot tablets appear to be narratives not inventories like other early texts
  • Cypriots put their names on possessions but not pre-Greek Aegean which were all industry
  • Cypriots had copper for bronze
  • Easter Island did invent Rongogrongo, a logo-syllabary script as most invented languages begin as, All from a civilization that lasted just 1,000 years
  • Diviners In Dante’s hell: veder troppo davante
  • Rebus: just ? emoji is homophony for bore, the old Chinese logogram for horse was pronounced ma, same “ma” as word for mother. The rebus is where language Invention begins
  • Egypt, Mesopotamia, Mesoamerica and China (so called primary states) all independently invented writing and developed cities. The prevailing wisdom is that cities and writing are the chicken and egg
  • Richard Feynman began a Caltech lecture by saying: “The exception proves that the rule is wrong. If there is an exception to any rule, and if it can be proved by observation, that rule is wrong.”
  • Nietzsche: “On earth there is nothing greater than I: it is I who am the regulating finger of God.”—thus roareth the monster. And not only the long-eared and short-sighted fall upon their knees! Ah! even in your ears, ye great souls, it whispereth its gloomy lies!
  • Anthropology : stratified society (chiefdom), egalitarian society and the advanced state
  • “Wherever there’s a state with a population of more than 10,000, you can bet there’s a writing system” (85)
  • There were exceptions to the city-state and writing system though. (Writing systems without the state and like Kerma, whom Egyptians called Kush, the Sudan people with a state for 1k years without a writing system.
  • “The most grievous error, however, is that bureaucracy was the ultimate aim – the beginning and the end — of writing.” (92)
  • Frank Knight: uncertainty (unknown)and risk (measurable)
  • Mono genesis of language was wrong (language was invented multiple times, we think)
  • Is Tomb U-j older writing then Mesopotamia?
  • Most alphabets today (Roman, Greek, Cyrillic, Arabic, Hebrew and Thai) are cast in the same Egyptian hieroglyphic script mold, a segmental system in which a limited number of signs corresponds to a sound
  • Sinai peninsula 1900 BCE Canaanite speaking tradesmen used Egyptian hieroglyphics to write their dialect, an early repurpose (near a temple to turquoise and god Hathor)
  • Abgad led to our alphabet (popularized by Phoenician merchants) whereas a contemporary like Halaham died (111)
  • Pebbles of Mesopotamia were first used to identify different trade goods before their representations replaced physical small stones, which led to stone tablets
  • Chinese written form is essentially unchanged for 3200 years
  • Did we lose the developmental stage of Chinese even earlier (assumed)? Did it suddenly get invented fully (unlikely) or did earlier forms from Mesopotamia find their way(unlikely)? 128
  • Chinese plastrons were single use turtle shell Ouija boards (Oracle bone inscriptions)
  • Lady Hao a military leader and favored wife buried in famous tomb
  • Diego de Landa Yucatán Mayan codices
  • Even our alphabet uses logograms (@&$%)
  • Zapptec script is oldest in Americas
  • The path of writing system invention: Iconicity; Syllables; Limited syntax
  • Our brains are programmed for news, this part of the brain is the substantial nigra located in the mid brain when we learn something new we get a hit of dopamine yes similar to the experience of cocaine
  • The Diderot Effect: get something new and then you upgrade everything else
  • The difference between viral “episodes” and a “tradition” to spread and shape culture
  • Oliver Morin’s 2011 book “How Traditions Live and Die”: Repetition, redundancy, proliferation
  • Hildegard of Bingen wrote scripts (Oliver Sacks said she had migraines)
  • Wilfrid Voynich bought an unknown manuscript language
  • Sequoyah for Cherokee writing to create “talking leaves” like white men
  • Shong Lue
  • Incan quipu was a kind of writing alternative of the Americas: Why quipi? A wide system across languages and conquests but also used to tell life stories. Is it writing?
  • The black ink from the movie Arrival is semaisiography, non phoenetidal (musical notes or music or even buttons on a washing machine)
  • Phaistos Disk, Magliano Disk
  • Minoan tablets were stamped /printed not engraved 195 Phaistos disk
  • “Language and writing should never be linked to ideology and politics. “ (198)
  • Indus Vslleu script debate
  • Statistical regulators used to determine if a symbol is script or just symbology (Markhov chain)
  • “Inventing (or reinventing) is relatively easy. It’s standing the test of time that’s difficult.” 204
  • Brad Pitt experiment with a Pictionary-like game to silently exchange information: most groups create rebus or other images that get more and more simple after more rounds. And those active in the game are most able to track subtle changes. More repetition, more distant from image: repetita iuvant
  • Darwin wrote in the Descent of Man: “the better, the shorter, the easier forms are constantly gaining the upper hand.”
  • Leonard Cohen sings: “There is a crack a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
  • Language and writing are related but not on same track. Author says Saussure was wrong to say writing is parasitic to language
  • A script’s success is “In the enduring force of interaction” not simplicity or effectiveness. (215)
  • “The work is not done for the sake of an application. It is done with the excitement of what is found out.… Without understanding this you missed the whole point. You cannot understand science and its relation to anything else unless you understand and appreciate the great adventure of our time.” Richard Feynman University of Washington lecture 1963 (this is one of the three lectures that made up the 1998 collection “The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist”)
  • Note to myself this Feynman quote reminds me of journalism which is a reminder that citizen science is another example for journalism thinking
  • Johari window is source of known unknowns (author uses for languages too)
  • We have Etruscan -Phoenician bilingual tablets but can’t decipher, even though we have a lot of Etruscan examples (big data hasn’t helped)
  • Pasteur: Chance only favors the prepared mind

Five steps of decipherment:

  1. Inventory (alphabet or syllabary; are those different sounds or different fonts)
  2. Positional frequency of signs (some have continuous script like old Latin)
  3. Grammatical patterns
  4. Typological concatentations (network analysis) is it religion or administrative
  5. Common factors with other scripts
  • Deep learning is every philogists big bear
  • “There’s nothing inevitable, deterministic or teleological about the invention of writing.” Though yes several different civilizations to invented writing
  • “Writing is sound made visible and tangible…”
  • Writing always followed from icons and seals
  • Milman Perry showed the formula of Homeric poems, allowed for oral stories to last and extend. Oral communities rely on their hippocampus, where new neurons continuously form but where memories are durable if ever changing
  • But poets wouldn’t want their poems using Linear B, the stuff of palace administration. Like writing poetry in Quickbooks today
  • Plato in Phaedrus, said the new emerging technology of writing “ Will implant forgetfulness in the souls of all who learn it. They will cease to make use of their memories, sins, relying on what is written, they’ll call things to mind not from within themselves, but from without, by means of external signs.” (262)
  • May-Britt and Edvard’s 2014 Nobel Prize found our internal GPS, which is same as memory which is why method of loci (memorizing by visualizing movement) is so effective
  • Umberto Eco and semiotician Thomas Sebok: in 1984 to keep safe nuclear power waste they didn’t just use images, they created an oral history 265
  • For 200k or so years, we speak, just 5k that we write
  • Writing is rarer and slower than language (7k of them). We developed for dialogue (synchronic communication) not distant monologue like writing but it’s a technological feat for data and efficiency
  • MRI shows learning to read changes our cognitive system, Visual word form area VWFA . We took over line recognition in our brain
  • Swedish national history museum ranked writing as 30th most important invention
  • @ 1345 is in a letter in Vatican today
  • Author predicts in a 100 years, just a few languages will actively survive and writing will fade, but our emotions need voice and writing is good at that. “Time is a breath, ethereal, ephemeral, made of air.”
  • “As long as there are emotions, there will be written letters.”
  • Leonardo Sciasca in the mystery of Majorana: “ his graphomania was a way of expanding the radius of a light be felt was constructed by times brevity“ She wrote the book with an oral voice “ to get a sense of just how heavy the armor of writing can be“

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