27 Feb 2012

The magic of literacy

As I read through Duane Smith's latest entry, Cuneiform writing and scribal values, I'm reminded once again that writing wasn't just a practical tool to store information for ancient people. It was something magical by a great many, and for most of our recorded history. Once upon a time, we saw magic in the mere act of representing spoken language in a visual form. (Or in the case of the Inca, the magic was tactile in the form of knotted strings called quipus.) The smallest word pun or special use of a symbol was an opportunity for awe and contemplation, regardless of the writing system used.

Then I think on one of my favourite scenes from Black Robe, demonstrating a dramatic culture clash between the Algonquin perspective and that of the European point-of-view of the priest. The French Catholic priest, referred to as a "black-robe" by the locals, has made it his mission to "educate the primitives" through the love of his Saviour. He takes for granted that writing in his world is an everyday thing, For him, writing is something good and, in the case of his bible, divinely blessed as well. To the Algonquin band journeying with him however, the priest's alien ideas are shocking to their traditional way of thinking and he comes to be seen as a harbinger of death, an otherly curse. The magic of his writing that he demonstrates to them is interpreted negatively as a sign that he's a demon using black magic.

This dramatizes well both the positive and negative reactions to this power to communicate, two halves of our human quest into the unknown country beyond the comforting territory of what we know, the reverence and the fear, the worlds of our angels and demons. Both holy writ and written curses well up from the same source, an infinite universe of imagination within, incapable of ever being conveyed in its purest totality, and only insufficiently so through our finite systems of language. In our modern internet culture, we still swing between awe and dread in regards to what kinds of information exchange are to be considered good and what are to be assigned to evil (ie. copyright issues, piracy, Wikileaks, etc.).

1 comment:

  1. Every year in Leiden, we organize the Linguistics Olympiad.

    I've written an assignment for it in 3 years. This year, I wrote a Historical Linguistic assignment on Berber comparing Ghadamès and Zénaga Berber with each other.

    The last assignment asked the high-school students to explain why a certain group of words is believed to have lost a consonant by Linguists.

    It was funny, yet understandable, that some of the students explained it as such:

    "The consonant that disappeared could not be heard that well, so they did not write it down, and since the spelling didn't have it, it disappeared".

    Not realizing that the words they were looking at were one of the first times that both these languages had been written.

    Writing has become so obvious to the western world, that it has been linked with language. Having language, is having writing and vice-versa.


    I've run into another, inverse problem which expresses this same mentality.

    Whenever I tell someone that I want to get my PhD by writing an Etymological Dictionary of Berber people often say:

    "But how is that possible? Berber isn't a written language!"

    While of course, as a linguist, those things make you laugh, it does betray some of the mentality about writing and language in the western world, which is great.