The Evolution of Written Languages

Image result for i love languages

There’s a Twitter thread called I F***ing love science (@IFLScience), which is spelled a number of ways, as well as a Facebook page, but I think there’s got to be one for I F***ing 💕愛<3 languages (#iFNGluvlangs). I’ll let Mack Flavelle (@MackFlavelle) explain in more detail.

In an amazing, thought-provoking and desperately needed piece on the evolution of written language posted on digitalculturist.com and titled “The Sticky Truth about Modern Written Language: What hieroglyphics, emoji, and stickers have in common,” Mr. Flavelle puts to shame people, including yours truly, who sometimes rail against the “devolution” of written language. For me this has traditionally – but not exclusively – revolved around grossly gross grammar, poor punctuation, excessive emojis, and elusive emoticons. Etcetera. And so on. Period.

As people the world over know well and goodly, I’ve long had a fetish, er, fascination with languages. It was actually the subject of one of my favourite short stories, “The Language of Love,” in which two people, one from Japan and one from Canada, struggle with how to properly express the universal concept of love in each other’s respective language.

However, what Mack Flavelle does in his piece is approach written language from a historic, academic and – yes – linguistic point of view. He opens with this gambit:

“There has been a lot of ink spilled about how stickers and emoji are bringing about the death of modern communication, but that draws an incorrect (and Western-biased, and frankly kind of racist) parallel: that language evolved from a logographic language (hieroglyphics, say) into an alphabetic language (English). In point of fact, English didn’t evolve from a logographic system at all; it’s a cousin, not a child. And Mandarin, whose billion active speakers make it the single most spoken language in the world, uses a syllable-based logographic language system.”

From there, he provides a visual example (who doesn’t love their visuals?) to sink your two full eyes into and then comes back swinging hard, er, not biting his tongue:

“Logographic writing systems are not devolutions from alphabetic systems. It isn’t hard to find articles arguing exactly that point, but it actually shows a deep misunderstanding about the origins of written language (as well as a hefty dose of racism against the Asian languages that still employ logograms). Understanding how and why alphabetic and logographic systems developed requires going back to the beginnings of written language.”

True to his word, Mr. Flavelle starts from hieroglyphics (actually, he goes back even further to cuneiform) and ends up at modern-day stickers (not the scratch ‘n sniff variety), coming to the following conclusion:

“Stickers are not a devolution of language. They aren’t even an evolution. They’re a cultural memory of the way things used to be, made possible by recent advances in technology. For the East, they’re a natural progression; for the West, they’re a millennial old pent-up need that can only now be satisfied.

They’re logography — and they’re sticking around.”

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