Writing first appeared in the Middle East more than 5,000 years ago; independent of this, writing systems also developed in China and Central America. Whether in education, politics or technology, writing now forms the basis of all human activity. But despite its enormous impact on our everyday lives, we know little about how writing first evolved. In view of the few places of origin, writings can only be traced back in fragments or have disappeared entirely.
Max-Planck-Institut – 13 January 2022
In a study published in Current Anthropology , a research team from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena shows that writing is ‘compacted’ very quickly over time to make it more readable and writable. The team came to this conclusion while studying a rare African writing system.
“The Vai script of Liberia was created from scratch around 1834 by eight illiterate men writing in ink made from crushed berries,” says lead author Dr. Piers Kelly, who now works at the University of New England in Australia. Never before has the Vai language been written down.
Vai teacher Bai Leesor Sherman suspects that the script has only ever been passed on informally by a teacher as a literate to a single student. The font was so successful that it is still used today to convey important messages about the pandemic.
“Because of its spatial isolation and the way it has evolved to date, we suspected that it might help us understand how writing systems evolved over a rather short period of time,” says Kelly.
“According to a particularly famous hypothesis, letters develop first from images and then into abstract signs. But already in early writings we find numerous abstract character forms as letters. We therefore assumed that characters initially take on rather complex forms and simplify over generations of readers and writers.”
The team used several Vai language manuscripts from archives in Liberia, the US and Europe. By analyzing annual changes in its 200 syllabic letters, they were able to trace the entire history of the script from 1834 onwards. Using different methods of measuring visual complexity, they were able to show that the letters took on a more simplified form with each passing year.
“The original inventors were inspired by dreams and designed individual characters for each syllable of their language. One represents a pregnant woman, another a chained slave, others are taken from traditional emblems. When these signs were applied to writing spoken syllables and then taught to other people, they became simpler, more systematic, and more similar,” says Kelly.
Such a simplification pattern can also be observed over much longer periods of time in the case of historical writing systems.
“Visual complexity is especially important when developing a new writing system. By including more cues and stronger contrasts between characters, you help learners of the language. However, over time, this complexity gives way to efficient reading flow and language reproduction,” says Kelly.
In West Africa, the Vai script has been reconstructed for the languages spoken in Mali and Cameroon, while new writing systems are still being invented in Nigeria and Senegal. Nigerian philosopher Henry Ibekwe responded to the study with a comment: “African indigenous writings remain a vast untapped repository of semiotic and symbolic information about which many questions remain to be asked.”