In high school, I was one of those geeks who went on GT field trips. Mostly, it was just an excuse to get out of class and hang with some of my equally geeky friends. Sometimes the symposium style trips were surprisingly interesting. One of them we went to dealt with different facets of archeology, with one of the panels focusing on language and alphabet development. Why, we were asked, was every language so different.
We were given a chart similar to this, and told to explain it. Going from hieroglyphs to Phoenician, the symbols were simplified (as well as becoming sound based, rather than ideograms, but that’s a separate subject). Going from Phoenician to Greek/Latin, letters flipped. Most of the flipped letters happened along the vertical axis, but X and W changed orientation completely, turning sideways. X became (well, reverted back to) T, W became S. I wondered if the Phoenicians were perhaps dyslexic.
The bigger question raised, of course, was how writing can influence ways of thought and the culture itself. I think in a lot of ways, we’re seeing an even bigger shift over the last 20 years in how we write than we have since the Greeks took the Phoenician alphabet. In an age where communication is instant, and little attention is paid to the formalities of language, the question is raised: What matters?
Ultimately, the point of written language is to communicate thoughts between people. As long as those thoughts are intelligible, the form is less important than the content, they argue. X-ing out, crossing out, same difference. No one cares…
Except for writers, and those who take pleasure in well crafted words, it’s not even close to comparable. Which would you prefer? “Jack walked down the hall and saw Jill.” or “Jack sauntered down the linoleum corridor, ignoring the inferior kids in his way. He only had eyes for one person, the red head standing at her locker, reading the note he’d slipped in there the night before.”? They both accomplish the same action, but it’s in how we tell the story that makes the story. Two different people could start out with the same premise, have the same overall events occur, and yet end up with two very different stories by the end of it. X-ing out, crossing out, scribbling out, frantically scratching the magic marker across the page… They all mean very different things, they all SAY different things. And sometimes, the hardest part of writing is figuring out how to say what you want to say, in the way it needs to be said.