If the human species has been around for 200,000 years or so, and we now know that is the case, then why don’t we know more than a mere 4,000 to 6,000 years of history? There had to be a lot going on as nomadic tribes warred and mankind suffered through the vagaries of weather, including an ice age. I found an answer in my current read, “The Information” by James Gleick. History as we know it had to await the invention of WRITING.
A Jesuit priest, Walter J. Ong, made it his life’s work to study the differences between oral and literary cultures. He said,
“Try to imagine a culture where no one has ever looked up anything.”
In an oral culture, it turns out, vocabulary is very limited, only a few thousand words. In contrast, written English currently has well over a million words, a corpus that grows by thousands of words a year. The effect of this is profound – the simple ability to write and read enables abstract thought.
Ong says that when you ask a person from an oral culture to define a tree, for example, she is unable to do so. The answer you are likely to get instead is, “It isn’t necessary to describe a tree, everyone knows what a tree is.” Indeed. It takes writing to organize knowledge about a tree, how it has bark and sap, how one kind of tree differs from another, how it requires water, how roots function, how long it lives, and on and on. Writing makes it practical to structure, categorize, organize knowledge and retrieve it efficiently, and thus makes abstractions possible.
It takes writing to make what we call civilization. Cities, machines, transportation systems, schools, factories, politics, cinema, space flight, war, treaties, disaster planning, organized religion. These are the fruits of abstract thinking, an endless cornucopia that would be impossible without writing.
People in an oral culture on the other hand live largely in the moment. They are reactive to their environment, but they do not indulge in abstractions. Oral cultures rely heavily on myths, legends, parables and the like. Such things are typically laced with wisdom and are designed to be handed down by word of mouth through generations. Reading about this gave me an “aha! moment” – it explains very well such tales as the Garden of Eden and the Flood, and thus would account for their ubiquity in the world’s religions. Native American mythology is typical.
The first writings apparently arose about the same time in both Babylon (near present-day Baghdad) and in Asia, but those early scribblings were dull stuff, principally dry accountings for tracking commerce in commodities. Real expression came much later. The first known dictionary was written by a village schoolmaster and priest in 1604, one Robert Cawdrey. He called it The Table Alphabetical. Nobody knows how many copies the printer made and only one has survived. In 1933 the first editors of the Oxford English Dictionary mentioned their respects for Cawdrey’s humble beginning. In 1989 the second edition of the OED was published, totaling 22,000 pages and weighing in at 138 pounds. “The third edition is different. It is WEIGHTLESS.” Think about that. We are still in the early stages of the evolution of written information and are just now encountering a technology that may affect human behavior in ways not fully understood.
At the time of Cawdrey’s invention, “Language did not function as a storehouse of words, from which users could summon the correct items, performed . On the contrary, words were fugitive, on the fly, expected to vanish again thereafter.” Little wonder then that we see such wide variance in old spellings and usages like Beowulf, and the Canterbury Tales, not to mention Shakespeare. Prescribed rules about reading and writing are astonishingly new stuff! The first real work of fiction, enabled by the printing press, was Robinson Crusoe, published less than 300 years ago!
Gleick’s book is a literary feast in itself, a veritable vocabulary stew that entertains while it informs. The discovery of such a work is a delight. I believe it to be a seminal work that will enhance our understanding of ourselves even as we change.
It’s hard to imagine life without writing, but our species has had it for less than two tenths of one percent of its existence! Amazing.