The world’s very first invention of writing took place over 5,000 years ago in the Middle East, before being reinvented in China and Central America. Today, almost all human activities, from education to political systems and computer code, rely on this technology.
But despite its impact on everyday life, little is known about the development of writing in its early days. With so few original sites, the first traces of writing are fragmentary or completely absent.
In a study just published in Current Anthropology, a team of researchers from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, showed that writing very quickly becomes “compressed” for efficient reading and writing.
To come up with this idea, they turned to a rare African writing system that has fascinated foreigners since the beginning of the 19th century.
“The Vai script of Liberia was created from scratch around 1834 by eight completely illiterate men who wrote in ink made from crushed berries,” says lead author Dr Piers Kelly, today at the University of New England, Australia. The Vai language had never been written before.
According to Vai Bai teacher Leesor Sherman, the script has always been taught informally from a literate teacher to a single apprentice. It is still so successful that it is even today used to communicate health messages in the event of a pandemic.
“Due to its isolation and the way it has continued to develop to the present day, we thought this might tell us something important about how writing evolves over short spaces of time. », Explains Kelly.
“There is a famous hypothesis that letters evolve from images to abstract signs. But there are also many forms of abstract letters in the early scriptures. Instead, we predicted that the panels would start out as relatively complex, and then get simpler through new generations of writers and readers. “
The team reviewed Vai-language manuscripts from archives in Liberia, the United States and Europe. By analyzing the year-to-year changes in its 200 syllabic letters, they traced the entire evolutionary history of writing from 1834. Applying computer tools to measure visual complexity, they discovered that letters became really visually simpler year after year.
“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 and then taught to new people, they became simpler, more systematic, and more similar to each other, ”says Kelly.
This simplification scheme can also be observed on much longer time scales for older writing systems.
“Visual complexity is useful if you are creating a new writing system. You generate more clues and greater contrasts between signs, which helps illiterate learners. This complexity hinders effective reading and reproduction later on, so it fades, ”says Kelly.
Elsewhere in West Africa, illiterate inventors have reverse engineered writing for languages spoken in Mali and Cameroon, while new writing systems are still being invented in Nigeria and in Senegal. Responding to the study, Nigerian philosopher Henry Ibekwe commented: “Indigenous African scriptures remain a vast untapped repository of semiotic and symbolic information. Many questions remain to be asked. “