Blog / Early Humans / Writing and Language




 It’s a writing thing.  I do it all the time.  At times, I’ve made a living from it.  The reading of words backward.  Trying to break the code as to what is really meant, what is left out, and what is the true thinking really going on.

Writing is not the science of mathematics.  It is the music of sound.  The noise of what is said.  That which you are thinking.  Just ask Shakespeare.  He is still around!

“Babe, cake, deed, fife.”  Double consonants to aid when practicing articulation.  “Mine is a magnificent mind.” “A box of biscuits, a box of mixed biscuits and a biscuit mixer.”  Vowels make sounds, but consonants make words.  Go ahead and repeat the above.  It will make you a better speaker, and easier to understand.  And make you a better actor on stage and with your friends.

And note the power of the vowel consonant combinations.  These syllables are often where your rhymes are found.  And that will launch us into the next exciting round.  How writing evolved into all of the world’s languages.

It started with cave paintings, which developed into sound sensations that, even now, are bouncing round in our minds.  We often pronounce them when thinking, even as you do now, while reading.  And it is possible to create new concepts from such sounds in your thinking.

What I mean, sounds something like this.  An eye sounds like an “eye” when we write it down and pronounce it.  But it also sounds like an “I.”  We have agreed to disassociate this sound from its original picture of an eyeball and attach it to a totally different one.  “I” declare, therefore, that “eye” now means “me!”  This is the linguistic concept of a “rebus.”

Here is a famous one from Shakespeare that I use in my Junior College classes.  Picture the following … the numeral 2; a drawing of a “bee” insect; an “oar” from your boat; a “knot” in a pile of rope; the numeral 2 again; and another picture of a “bee.”

Drawings of things as your eyes might see them can become simplified symbols meaning precisely such items.  If you were trying to decipher my example above, you might imagine the symbols to mean:  “There were 2 bees that I swung at with my oar, and then tied up with a rope after hitting them!”  Reasonable, but an unlikely translation.

Once you decide to use those pictures as a “rebus,” then you can begin to search for their component sounds in speech, and attach them to other meanings.  Same drawings.  Same sounds.  But now they mean more than one thing, and usually not the thing originally intended!

You might even create new combinations of sounds to mean something different.  Words that represent thoughts, not things, for example.  And now, up rises Shakespeare to thusly speak.  “To be or not to be.”  That is the question!  And “rebus” is the answer.

Here is where those pesky, cacophonous consonants come into play.  Sometimes picture symbols can stand for something other than single things or sounds.  They can refer to combinations, such as syllables of vowels, defined by air-stopping consonants [watch a singer closely to see all the lip and tongue blockages].

Now you are on your way!  To understanding why the world’s languages are not all like ours.  Alphabetical utterances, I mean.  Writing one symbol for each component of sound spoken.

An alphabet seems simple and efficient, and is widely found.  But you can do just as well [maybe even better]with picture signs (logograms), signs for syllables [usually a combination of vowels and consonants], and a smattering of alphabetic ones [one sound, one symbol].  That is what ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics used.  And it is not just picture writing.  It contains syllables, and uses the rebus principle.  Many of the same concepts are found in Chinese script today.

Here is some fun data to lead your way!

Depending on how you parse it, the human voice can make a lot of noises.  Only a significant subset is utilized in any one language, especially one using an alphabet [even in those, like ours, where the same alphabetic letter may be given different tones].  That’s why French sounds different to Americans.  English doesn’t use some of the sounds common in France.

Now how to get those sounds in written down form.

Let us say, for the purpose of this essay, that writing was invented four times in four places:  Egypt, Central America, Mesopotamia, and China.  And in these areas, four different scripts were utilized:  hieroglyphics, cuneiform, alphabetic, and the Chinese script.

Remember that writing uses symbols to detail thoughts or things expressed as speech [is that how we think, or just communicate?].  And, depending on how you analyze sounds made by your mouth, you start with as many as 45 or so significant ones.

When writing expresses a complete picture of the word sound for an idea or thing, we call it logographic, and the picture drawn often starts out looking like the thing originally described.  Like a house or a hand.  It takes thousands of logograms to express speech in those forms.  Chinese, for example, uses many logograms.

But, as was discovered in deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs and Mayan glyphs, many of the drawings represent not whole words, but syllable combinations of vowels and consonants.  These are called syllabic languages.  About 100 combinations represent the number of significant syllables used by humankind.

Finally, there are systems with individual symbols for the individual sounds that sound out the letters and, in combination, syllables, and words drawn, written down, or spoken.  We call them alphabetic.  Between twenty and thirty-five symbols make up most common alphabets.

Mayan glyphs fall into about 800 different sign categories.  A large amount of artistic license was exercised in their creation.  That is too many to be based on just an alphabet or a syllabary, but too few to express all the words as logograms.  Mayan glyphs turn out to be a combination of logogram (word signs) and syllables.

Egyptian hieroglyphs are also a combination of logograms and syllables, but do also have some alphabetic symbols.  It is not a surprise, then, that modern alphabets may have arisen in Egypt and in the Sinai Peninsula, as shorthand developed by wandering, laboring peoples.

Cuneiform went through the full spectrum of logogram and syllabic expression, modifying its clay-incised impressions made with a reed stylus until it was fully alphabetic.  The reed imprints became a far simpler look from the original object upon which it was based.  My junior college class writes in cuneiform.  We use modeling clay and the rectangular end of chopsticks.  Gilgamesh or Hammurabi, anyone?

Here are some approximate timelines.  Thirty thousand years ago our species was making paintings on cave walls.  And now we know that Neanderthal People were doing the same, even before then [they did have bigger brains!].

Ten thousand years ago, clay tokens were encased in clay balls in Mesopotamia to count and reflect ownership of such things as sheep.  By 2,800 B.C., impressions were being drawn on the outside of those clay balls describing their contents.  Cuneiform on clay tablets evolved when someone started flattening those balls by about 2,000 B.C.  Easier to write on!

Hieroglyphics in Egypt appeared by 3,000 B.C.  But the Egyptians would later develop a written form called hieratic, and even later, a more phonetic form called Demotic.  That was the one found on the Rosetta Stone, along with the same text in Egyptian Hieroglyphics and the Greek alphabet.  That which allowed Champollion to crack the code in 1822.  Now, Hieroglyphics on the walls of the many Egyptian temples, silent since the Council of Nicaea, can again speak directly to you!

The marvelous Mayan system of counting looked back to the Mayan creation date of “4 Ahau, 8 Cumku.”  That would be August 11, 3,114 B.C. in our modern calendrical system.  But the earliest Mayan glyph writing only goes back to about 250 B.C.  Isn’t mathematics older?  Or were they just wishfully thinking?

Alright, back to that backward reading of modern letter writings.  Or emails, or texts, or utterances that allow unlimited combinations of sound symbols for human transmission.

Words thusly formed can have a number of different meanings.  Hence sentences can be treated in different ways, making them difficult to parse out true messages.  They can even allude to thoughts not actually written, but equally obvious.  Thoughts that might express, more accurately, the meaning of words written down that are, otherwise, furious!

A good writer can catch a reader’s interest by the use of rhythmically spaced rhyming.  Calm the reader into hearing the writing as singing.  Restrain the reader from delving deeper into the message’s greater meaning.  Not recognizing the author’s talented manipulation.  One that can be later pointed out in an appropriate court of law.  In a devastating fashion.

Reading backward can break out those word signs, allowing one to think about them more clearly.  Perhaps identify their hidden meaning.  Allow for a more effective reaction.

So, I finish with another tongue twister to practice articulation.

“Marvelous Mammals Mimicking Minimal Man!”

It seems as though all of the world is now full of such consonants!




About Author

Ronald R. Van Stockum, Jr. is a lawyer, teacher, biologist, writer, guitarist, and recently an actor living on his family's old farm in Shelbyville, Kentucky. He has a Bachelor of Science in Biology from Santa Clara University, and a Masters and PhD. in Biology from the University of Louisville. He also has his Juris Doctorate in Law from the University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law. He practices law from offices in Shelbyville, Kentucky concentrating his legal practice in environmental law. His biologic research is in historical phytogeography. Dr. Van Stockum, Jr. has published numerous books, articles, and short stories in the areas of law, science, and creative writing. most of his 24 titles are available on this site and Amazon with many on Kindle and Audible!

1 Comment

  • fschiro
    August 10, 2020 at 10:49 am

    Great read, Reggie. The evolution of our alphabet and mathematics out of the need to maintain crop records and land ownership is indeed fascinating


Tell me what you think about my posts!

Sign up for newsletters, podcasts and new posts!
We respect your privacy.
%d bloggers like this: