The Write Stuff

It’s still magic even if you know how it’s done. – Terry Pratchett from A Hat Full of Sky

We might do very little writing using pen, ink or pencil in an age of digital devices but the development of symbols to communicate with in a script form has been one of humanity’s greatest inventions.

Even the most mundane of messages can tell us so much about People in the past. Excavations at the Roman fort of Vindolanda uncovered wooden written notes left by the inhabitants giving us an insight into how the fort functioned on a daily basis but also a contact with those people two thousand years ago.

Earlier still the Ancient Egyptians recorded all sort of details using their hieroglyphic script.

The earliest writings in China were found on ox scapulae, tortoiseshells, and bronzes during the Shang dynasty. Dated from around 1400-1200 B.C.E, the inscriptions on bones and shells-called “oracle bones”-recorded divination used by the Shang royal house. 

Writing and Technology in China

Now researchers from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, have been studying  a rare African writing system to try and work out how a written language evolves.

Dr Piers Kelly explained:

“The Vai script of Liberia was created from scratch in about 1834 by eight completely illiterate men who wrote in ink made from crushed berries.”

The transformation of indigenous symbols into Vai letters Credit :Momolu Massaquoi (1911)

The team examined manuscripts in the Vai language from archives in Liberia, the United States, and Europe. By analysing year-by-year changes in its 200 syllabic letters, they traced the entire evolutionary history of the script from 1834 onwards.

Applying computational tools for measuring visual complexity, they found that the letters really did become visually simpler with each passing year.

Dr Kelly continued:

“Because of its isolation, and the way it has continued to develop up until the present day, we thought it might tell us something important about how writing evolves over short spaces of time.

“There’s a famous hypothesis that letters evolve from pictures to abstract signs. But there are also plenty of abstract letter-shapes in early writing. We predicted, instead, that signs will start off as relatively complex and then become simpler across new generations of writers and readers.”

“The original inventors were inspired by dreams to design individual signs for each syllable of their language. One represents a pregnant woman, another is a chained slave, others are taken from traditional emblems. When these signs were applied to writing spoken syllables, then taught to new people, they became simpler, more systematic and more similar to one another.”

This pattern of simplification can be observed over much longer time scales for ancient writing systems as well.

Commenting on the study  Nigerian philosopher Henry Ibekwe said:

“African indigenous scripts remain a vast, untapped repository of semiotic and symbolic information. Many questions remain to be asked.”

The research, The Predictable Evolution of Letter Shapes, was published in Current Anthropology

The first page of Vai manuscript MS17817 from the British Library. Credit: The British Library

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