Chapter Three Excerpt

Information and the Evolution of Human Language

The computer age seems to have swept upon us overnight, but in the history of man written language itself is a relatively recent development. Apparently we got on quite well for thousands of years without any form of writing whatsoever; it is only within the last 5,000 years that a system of speech-sign communication has emerged. Speech came long before writing, which evolved as an assignment of speech forms to graphic symbols.

Curiously, there appears to be no information content in the cave paintings of the prewriting stage of history. Exactly what these paintings symbolize and why they were made are matters for scholarly argument, but examination reveals no attempt to convey a record of numbers of animals killed, or ownership, or any time sequence associated with an event or story. This interesting anomaly aside, the history of writing is largely explained by the growing need to express information in a permanent form. The brochure on the story of writing in the entrance to the library section of the British Museum begins, “The purpose of writing is information storage.”

The attempt to communicate specific information was the first stage in the development of writing. The earliest writing was pictographic with mnemonic pictures representing objects, much as we use icons in certain mouse-based computer environments today. The typewriter keyboard retains some of this flavor today with the inclusion of %, &, and other such ideographic symbols. But it is hard to extend this pictographic writing very far, so written languages of this type gradually became more abstract and divorced from the natural form, to the extent that some of these writings remain untranslated to this day. The evolutionary trend was toward phonetic writing in which symbols were equated with sounds or segments of speech. In this stage of the development of writing, the signs represented words or syllables.

The principle of equating signs with words may have seemed ideal at first, but the expansion of knowledge increased the number of different symbols to an unwieldy number. In the period 2000--1000 B.C. the Egyptians had about 700 different signs, while the Sumerians used almost 2,000. The Chinese at this time during the Shang dynasty had 2,500 graphic characters, which offers a useful comparison with the 50,000 of Chinese today. Among all the world’s written languages Chinese has remained the most logographic (meaning signs represent words, but Chinese is more properly described as logosyllabic, since signs also represent syllables).

In these early stages the esthetic qualities we associate with writing were neglected in favor of recording objects and events. I am reminded of my own keen sense of disappointment on the occasions when I have viewed an ancient writing form in some museum only to read that the translation is something like “John owns 6 cows.” Somehow the aura of a priceless relic makes me always expect something like an Illiad or an ancient equivalent of a Gone with the Wind. Ironically, in the current early period of the information age, the same situation pertains in the computer storage and handling of information. Perhaps here too we will evolve towards more subtle use of the nuance possible in a language system.

Probably the most intriguing story of the deciphering of an ancient written language was that of Linear B, the earliest Greek writing. Over 3,000 clay tablets of this writing were uncovered beginning in 1902 at Knossos in Crete. These tablets dated from about 1400 B.C. to 1240 B.C.--the time of Agamemnon through the heroic age of Greece and the Trojan War. The story of the fifty-year quest for a translation, ending in the triumph in 1952 of the British architect Michael Ventris and the British classicist John Chadwick, has been recounted many times in print. What is seldom related is the content of this ancient library. Typical samples are as follows:

Koldos the shepherd holds a lease from the village: 48 litres of wheat.
One pair of wheels bound with bronze, unfit for service.
Four slaves of Koradollos in charge of seed-corn.
Two tripods: Aigeus the Cretan brings them.

In The Codebreakers, David Kahn has commented, “None of these tablets contains any literary work, nor any diplomatic instructions, personal letters, religious texts, historical writings, nor anything, in fact, beside these minutely detailed bureaucratic records of petty commercial transactions.” We could imagine a future civilization finally translating the magnetic computer language of a long-buried tape cartridge of today, and finding in disappointment exactly the same thing--writing for the purpose of information storage.

Language scholars suggest that the most important principle in the history of writing was phonetic transfer, where existing word signs were used to express words of like sound for which there was no sign. For example the sign for the word “eye” might also be used to represent the work “I.” These signs then have double meaning, and are context dependent. Although phonetic transfer increases the functionality of the written symbols, in the computer interpretation of language it becomes a greatly complicating feature. It is believed that phonetic transfer was forced by the need for record keeping, and in particular for the growing number of proper names this required.

The last great innovation in written language was the alphabet, which was invented by the Greeks in about the 9th century B.C. (The earlier Greek language, Linear B, had been a syllabic script.) In the alphabet a small number of different characters represents the basic speech sounds of the vowels and consonants. The flexibility of phonetic writing inherent in an easily managed alphabet held great appeal, and during the last 2,800 years the alphabet has swept throughout the world. Although the aim of a phonetic writing system would be a perfect correspondence between written and spoken language, no language has such a pure system. English has many impurities in the correspondence, and a patchwork of exceptions has grown as small, incremental language innovations have overlaid the older system. Nonetheless, English is our legacy, for all its richness, and for all of its inherent complexity.