Opening new worlds

A stab at the Greek alphabet from the quill of a Latin 12th-century scribe, British Library Arundel 173

Unlike learning to ride a bike, learning to write is vehicle-specific.

Learning to write is learning to write a particular language in a particular script.

If you’ve only learned to write English in the Latin alphabet, you won’t know how to write Arabic, Korean, Sanskrit or, closer to ‘home’, Greek.

Learning a new script is like learning to write all over again – the pen feels unsafe, the signs don’t make much sense, it’s all about imitation, and the learning curve is usually less steep. Many give up, while the rest go on bleeding.

A language is more than a tool enabling us to exchange information with others – it is a gateway into new universes of being, familiar and strange at the same time. The limits of my language are the limits of my world.

Language and script, universe and territory.

It is reasonable to expect great difficulties in learning new languages and new scripts. New worlds are seized through strife and industry. Ad astra per aspera.

The Western medieval scribes were masters of Latin writing, plowing on with pen and parchment for days, weeks and months, blackening the whiteboards of culture. Yet, when they had to write Greek or Arabic – the two most common scripts outside Latin Christendom, they generally failed. Those worlds were closed to them as much as their failure to master the Greek and Arabic scripts.

The limits of their world were the limits of their script.

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