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A Tour of Writing’s History Bounces From Script to Script

In the course of island hopping and making forays into her own research, Ferrara develops a bold argument. The standard history of writing has long held that the first real script was invented by Mesopotamian clerks. (Imagine them keeping track of goods with the use of stylized images.) One day, one of the clerks might have noticed that the image representing, say, cane — gi — could do double duty by also representing the verb “to reimburse,” which in Sumerian sounds the same. Such realizations gave birth to hundreds of signs that represented enough syllables to capture an entire language. Writing allowed Mesopotamian city-states to project power deep into the hinterland and to administer the first territorial empire.

For Ferrara, this story is true enough, but it has crowded out alternatives that are less about imperial bureaucrats making paperwork (or rather, since paper hadn’t been invented yet, clay work). Consider, for example, Lady Hao, one of 64 wives of Wu Ding, the ancient Chinese king. Undaunted by the competition, she became a military commander, in charge of 13,000 soldiers. But her true power came from her job as the king’s fortune-teller. In ancient China, fortunes were told by manipulating inscriptions on turtle shells, and from such manipulations writing was born. It would later be taken up by bureaucrats, who would ultimately invent paper, but writing’s origins lie in imagination, creativity and meaning-making. Lady Hao understood the power of culture.

Other examples of creative invention take us to Easter Island, where inhabitants may have developed writing in complete isolation from the rest of the world, and to the mysterious Voynich Manuscript, written in an unknown and so-far-undecipherable script in Renaissance Europe. Was it the work of a loner trying to be difficult? Does it hide something spectacular?

Some of Ferrara’s most far-reaching ideas stem from her collaboration with scientists, including the claim that writing literally changes the brains of those who learn it. Perhaps this is what makes it so hard for the literate to appreciate oral traditions. I would have liked to hear more about the fraught moments when writers have met non-writers and taken down their stories, as happened in countless colonial encounters. Ferrara describes the intriguing case of the Cherokee script, invented in the early 19th century to counter alphabet-bearing settlers, but she does not say much about those who refuse writing altogether. As with any tool, people have done terrible things with, and in the name of, writing.

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