Writing in awe

The earliest evidence of human writing deals with the practicalities of life: accounts, lists, concern for the daily life. In every culture and society, the beginnings of writing take us back to the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid. It would appear that the earliest scribes only thought of the practicalities of life, the record of the most basic needs, food, shelter, equipment, etc.

Or it may just be that this kind of record was far more widespread than any other, religious, artistic, magical, the kind of writing which leaves the world of the body behind and seeks the transcendental. For this reason, more of the former type would have survived.

The Bronze Age invention of writing was doubled by a mythology of writing. A Sumeric poem from around 1800 BC recounts how writing emerged to save words from oblivion. Later myths put the gods right at the centre of the writing revolution.

The earliest remains of writing systems may be about conveying trivial information, but there is no question that writing was seen, from the start, by those who practised it, as the most advanced technology that mankind has ever possessed. In many ways, this is still true. Writing has given rise and shaped almost all aspects of our lives and culture. The only difference between us and the earliest practicians of writing is that we underrate the miracle of script. If Chomsky is right and we are endowed with a natural capacity for language, it doesn’t mean that we are born with a sense of script. Writing remains a contingency on the stage of human culture. So next time you write something, even if it’s a mere shopping list, do it in awe for the thing that could very well not have been.

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