Andrew Robinson was literary editor of The Times Higher Education Supplement from 1994-2006 and is now a visiting fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge. He is the author of The Story of Writing, The Man Who Deciphered Linear B and Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World’s Undeciphered Scripts. His latest book is Writing and Script: A Very Short Introduction. Below is an original post by Andrew asking whether the internet will create a universal writing system.
The internet appears to suggest that the dream of universal communication across the barriers of language, nation, and culture by means of writing is within reach. Three centuries ago, the philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz wrote: “As regards signs, I see … clearly that it is to the interest of the Republic of Letters and especially of students, that learned men should reach agreement on signs.” But the nature of writing systems means that Leibniz’s vision remains an impossible illusion. There is no such thing as a universal writing system, and there never will be.
In the mid-1970s, with increasing international travel, the American Institute of Graphic Arts cooperated with the United States Department of Transportation to design a set of symbols for airports and other travel facilities that would be clear both to travellers in a hurry and those without a command of English. They invented 34 iconic symbols. The design committee made a significant observation: “We are convinced that the effectiveness of symbols is strictly limited. They are most effective when they represent a service or concession that can be represented by an object, such a bus or bar glass. They are much less effective when used to represent a process or activity, such as Ticket Purchase…”.
Pictographic and logographic signs at airports and beside highways are a limited language of universal communication, which belongs to proto-writing, not full writing. Mathematics, too, is a universal language, but it is no use for most purposes of written communication. Painting and music communicate powerfully across cultures, but their meaning is diffuse and ambiguous. To communicate any and all thought always requires phonetic symbols. Wikipedia may have started in English, but it subsequently evolved versions written in over two dozen languages, including Esperanto. Full writing and reading depend on knowing a spoken language. This fact has not been altered by the internet—however many computer icons (and emoticons) we may encounter online.
Until the last few decades, it was generally agreed that over the centuries western civilisation had tried to make writing a closer and closer representation of speech. The alphabet was naturally regarded as the pinnacle of this conscious search; the Chinese script, conversely, was widely thought of as hopelessly defective. The corollary was the belief that as the alphabet spread through the world, so eventually would mass literacy and democracy. Surely, one might think, if a script is easy to learn, then more people will grasp it; and if they come to understand public affairs better, they will be more likely to take part in them and indeed demand a part in them. Scholars thus had a clear conception of writing progressing from cumbersome ancient scripts with multiple signs to simple and superior modern alphabets.
Few are now quite as confident. The superiority of alphabets is no longer taken for granted. The ancient Egyptians, for example, had an ‘alphabet’ of 24 signs nearly 5000 years ago, but apparently chose not to use it alone, and instead developed a logo-consonantal system with over 700 signs in regular use. The Japanese, rather than using their simple syllabic kana more and more frequently, chose to import more and more kanji from the Chinese script, creating a writing system of unrivalled complexity. Mayan glyphs show that the Maya could have used far more purely syllabic spellings, if they had wished, instead of their elaborate logographic and logo-syllabic equivalents.
We might also mention the notorious irregularity of modern English spelling, which is by no means a logical and straightforward representation of speech. George Bernard Shaw left money in his will to invent a rational alphabet for spelling English. But the Shaw alphabet, though ingenious and simple to write, has never been used. It is almost impossible to imagine public acceptance of a wholesale change in English orthography of the kind that was introduced in Turkey in 1928, when the country changed from writing in the Arabic script to writing in the Roman alphabet, or in Korea, with the less abrupt changeover from Chinese characters to Hangul.
The reason why scripts flourish or vanish has more to do with political and cultural considerations than purely linguistic ones. Literacy concerns far more than merely learning how to read and write. A Japanese physics student once outlined for me the genuine linguistic disadvantages of writing only in kana, without kanji, and then added: ‘After all, a long tradition cannot change like that. It will NEVER happen!!’ In other words, writing Japanese in kanji is a key part of Japanese identity.
Many scholars of writing today have an increasing respect for the intelligence behind ancient scripts. Down with the monolithic ‘triumph of the alphabet’, they say, and up with Chinese characters, Egyptian hieroglyphs, and Mayan glyphs, with their hybrid mixtures of pictographic, logographic and phonetic signs. Their conviction has in turn nurtured a new awareness of writing systems as being enmeshed within societies, rather than viewing them somewhat aridly as different kinds of technical solution to the problem of efficient visual representation of a particular language.
While I personally remain sceptical about the expressive virtues of pictograms and logograms, this growing holistic view of writing systems strikes me as a healthy development that reflects the real relationship between writing and society in all its subtlety and complexity. The transmission of my intimate thoughts to the minds of others in many cultures via intricate marks on a piece of paper or a computer screen, continues to amaze me as a kind of barely explicable magic.