2.b.11 – Writing has allowed a leap in quality?

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January 29, 2010 — Riccardo Sabellotti - Giacinto Sabellotti


Writing has allowed a leap in quality?

Among the first forms of writing, it is important to remind the pictographies, i.e. the systems of representing by a drawing more or less stylized what we want to communicate. For being effective, pictographic writing needs that the context and materials objects to which they relate images are known (a man running below an arrow is not synonymous with emergency exit for everyone and everywhere), but when this happens, the understanding is immediate and goes over the problem of diversity of languages (think of the signs used in railway stations, in stadiums etc.).
The oldest traces of writing date back over 6,000 years ago; it seems that the transition from a symbolic language based on drawings to the designs of representing words is due to the need to make accounts for the trade or other bureaucratic needs typical of large agricultural town. As a complex social life has helped the development of articulate speech, an intricate bureaucracy has required the development of a language of symbols equally efficient than the words.
Writing was therefore a necessary tool for archiving accounting data related to the inventory of stocks, the taxes collection and commercial transactions , but was then used for other purposes such as witnessing the strength and power of kings; this happened with public and solemn records, made so that the shape, materials and the size could be preserved over time, as a perennial symbol of the power which they came from (think of the inscriptions on the gates of the towns or to the celebratory wordings on monuments or on facades).
Over time, to the original records made of images, in which every symbol was a word and where the signs had an essentially mnemonic function, were added the phonetic writing, that writing systems that mirrored the spoken language. The phonetic writing has allowed the creation of a system made of a few signs, but that could be put together in countless combinations: the alphabet.
The latter, being much easier to learn and to manage, was also essential for the development of printing in much more recent times.
Writing allows to set the words on a material support, which becomes so an expansion of human memory that can store words, thoughts and knowledge for centuries. By writing, the human cultural heritage can be deposited in a more reliable safe than the mortal and sometimes inaccurate human memory. Writing made thus human culture even easier to be stored, so that the experience of an individual could overcome the limits of his personal life.
We said that the reconstruction of cultural history is difficult and imprecise because culture leaves no fossils or genetic trace, but this is true until the invention of writing; with the discovery of the oldest written texts, our knowledge of the past takes a huge leap in quality: writing marks the transition from prehistory to history.
The symbolic written language had in the same period a second major evolutionary branch; the development of mathematical symbols: basically it’s always a form of writing, not representing words but abstract concepts of measuring and quantity of objects: the numbers. So we must recognize to writing the credit for having permitted the development of the fundamental operations of calculating (that can’t be developed beyond a certain complexity without a written support). The writing also allows the construction of tables with two or more columns, i.e. the formation of a visual scheme that cannot be done verbally.
The possible applications in commerce and administration are easy to imagine and still in use, but there is an application even more closely linked to agriculture: the measurement of fields that led to the development of geometry in ancient Egypt; in Egypt, after each flooding of the Nile, since all borders were deleted, it was necessary to  redesign them and this environmental peculiarity made the Egyptians masters in geometry and mathematics.
Currently, the ability to write is not only widespread, but it is always more frequently common to write with machines, the advent of computers, with their countless fonts, with the different formatting of the pages and even the possibility of spelling and grammatical corrections, automatically makes it difficult to conceive how much effort has cost the implementation and development of writing, but according to a  ancient Persian Treaty, the calligrapher must have a delicate hand, acute eye-sighted spirit, refined senses, a pure soul and a superior intellect. In ancient times the writing was anything but a normal phenomenon: it was so exceptional in its conception, implementation and enforcement that people could not avoid to give divine origins to it. On the other hand, also in previous eras men have been seeking directions from Gods in particular signs (a special position of bones, a sequence of pebbles, etc.) and then the divination of writing, as well as its highest form, the sacred books, was a natural phenomenon.



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