Daniel Hahn

Does knotted string constitute ‘writing’?

Quipus, the accounting devices used by the Incans, are one of Silvia Ferrara’s many fascinating examples of speech made visible

Quipu, dating from the Inca Imperial Epoch 1300-1532. [Alamy]

What particularly excites Silvia Ferrara, the author of The Greatest Invention, is not language per se but writing – that is, the specific tool created for recording and conveying language visually. Sound made visible, tangible. The impulse to communicate might be innate, but writing is cultural, and in no way inevitable. It’s a bit of tech, which needed to be developed, and which needs to be learned. Writing has many obvious benefits – allowing communication to survive across time, thus enabling cultural traditions and posterity – unlike purely synchronous conversation, face-to-face, stuck in the present. Yet as a species (and a species with memory, specifically) we could live perfectly well without it, as indeed we did. Writing is only about 5,000 years old, but we’ve been talking for about 200,000.

Ferrara reveals to us (using writing) the conditions under which this invention took place. Though perhaps, she says (writes), we should be thinking in terms of discovery rather than invention – and in any case, shouldn’t it be inventions, plural? Because whatever we might have been taught, writing is not a cultural gadget that was invented/developed/discovered once, in one place – cuneiform in Mesopotamia, perhaps – and then spread helpfully across the rest of the world. Rather it sprung up in many places, often quite independently, under conditions that can be very hard to generalise. Some writing systems were born out of large developing cities and states (writing that seems at first glance to have emerged out of bureaucracy, essentially); but then you have those that showed up on small islands, with a function that’s altogether different. Writing systems may have commonalities, but it’s hard to pin down any qualities in their development that are universal.

The main players are Egypt, Mesopotamia, China and Mesoamerica, writing’s four major birthplaces (China’s being the only one of these still in use).

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