The Meaning of Writing

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GN: ‘Attached an old text that has not been published. I polished it to the shape of the present discussion. Something for your resources?’

Many years ago a boy was sentenced to death in a British trial because he was assumed of having said: ‘Let him have it.’ A typical case of handling subtleties rigidly.

The real meaning of writing

From the onset my description of typography as writing with prefabricated characters has been criticised, not because it distinguishes typography from other writing by its prefabricated characters, but because it includes typography in writing, though the word writing should cover instant writing only. At first sight the critique is lexicographic moralism, an attempt to reduce the scope of a word to the meaning it has in an entirely different context.

Britannica 1955

The word ‘writing’ enjoys special attention of meaning watchers. My 1955 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica carefully suppresses any extension of the category of writing beyond writing by hand. The index only refers to sentences that understand writing as limited to handwriting. The editors shrewdly avoid the expression Arabic writing by describing the Arabic writing system as the ‘Arabic alphabet.’ With Chinese writing the Arabic trick would not work: since the Encyclopaedia Britannica could not seriously refer to a ‘Chinese alphabet,’ the index sends the reader away from ‘Chinese writing’ to a different subject: ‘see Chinese Language.’ The article ‘Writing’ declares the principle in its first sentence: ‘The subject of the present article is handwriting in its common uses in Europe since the period when the invention of printing superseded its employment for the making of books.’

The English sentences

A collection of well documented English sentences shows that the old edition of the Britannica does not match actual English:

‘Writing is the graphic counterpart of speech, the fixing of spoken language in a permanent form.’ David Diringer, Writing.

‘Man is obliged to devise a tool capable of overcoming the limitations [of speech]. This tool is writing.’ George Unwin in his translation of Hans Jensen, Sign, symbol, script.

‘Writing: A system of intercommunication by means of conventional visible marks.’ I. J. Gelb, A study of writing.

‘The importance of writing can easily be realized if one tries to imagine our world without writing. Where would we be without books, newspapers, letters?’ I. J. Gelb again.

Typography is writing

Gelb explicitly includes printed matter in his written things, thus making the word ‘writing’ evoke the notion of typography. It is the sentence that defines the words. The solemn wording of scholars (I found the formula in an article by George L. Trager) raises the same observation to the status of a law: ‘The meaning of linguistic forms proceeds from the context.’ In a discussion the context opposes two meanings at least. One cannot oppose a meaning of writing that includes typography without seriously reflecting the funny idea first. If it is not sufficient to extend the meaning of writing to typography by declaring typography to be different than writing, such a sentence at least connects the subjects. Typography is writing (with prefabricated characters).

Britannica 1999

The CD 1999 edition of the Britannica has the Systems of writing embedded again in its editorial structure. In sentences collected from different articles writing covers all aspects of text making:

‘Chinese writing and Semitic writing constitute the two great writing systems of the world.’

‘Writing renders language visible; while speech is ephemeral, writing is concrete and, by comparison, permanent.’

‘By writing system is meant here a full writing in which the individual signs of the writing stand for the corresponding elements of the language.’

Linguistic obstacles

The last sentence confuses writing system with spelling, the regulations that connect symbols of writing with the symbols of a language. Many languages are connected by as many spelling systems to Western writing. Spelling, writing and language are different identifiers. Writing identifies civilisations, language identifies tribes or groups of tribes, spelling identifies administrative authority .

Writing identifies a civilisation. Identification does not suggest that in a mysterious way writing and civilisation should become identical, they are just inseparable, much like the fingerprint that identifies me. Western civilisation is not Western writing but the society that communicates by Western writing. Writing can reveal the expansion of a civilisation with remarkable precision. When Chinese authorities felt urged to prescribe the spelling of Chinese names in Western writing they gave way to the expansive Western civilisation by adopting its identifier; the writing system is not separately available. The expansion of writing may be irrelevant from a linguistic point of view. For civilisation the move is fateful.

Writing and speech

Linguistic hierarchy charges writing with the recording of speech. In every-day reality both writing and speech are bearing language at the same level as visual and audible ‘semaphores.’ In the long run short lived language cannot control eternal, ‘by comparison,’ writing. Successive languages have been using the same writing system, adapting spelling to writing (and not, e. g. with so-called diacritical marks, writing to whim). In the history of civilisation writing is independent of the languages it supports. Writing is not necessarily a linguistic invention either.

I could accentuate the autonomy of writing by imaging the beginning of the alphabet as the invention of an ideographic numeric system that easily transgressed linguistic frontiers, thus allowing intercultural commercial communication long before (oral) conversation, let alone (written) correspondence. Speculations of this kind easily explain the five Greek additions to the alphabet as the missing numerals in the set of hundreds. Linguistic explanations of the Greek resource do not seem to explain anything. My invention of alphabetic numerals leaves some tough questions open; but it meets the hasty answers.

This is all about a point of view, rather than about the meaning of words. Things that look so clearly separated from another point of view, appear to be connected in my perspective. Any view may be nicer, more correct and more decent; for access to design, however, try mine.

Set in IBM Plex (Fín lettertje). Generated with Jekyll