The Evolution of the Written Word

In a few hundred years, we'll all be speaking Twitterese.

Posted Dec 28, 2016

Wikipedia Commons
Source: Wikipedia Commons

Writing is technology.  Like the mating displays of birds-of-paradise and the pheromone trails of ants, it is a form of communication.  However, unlike communication systems governed by genetic evolution, written communication has followed the rules of cultural evolution.  As the wheel evolved from something Sumerian potters first used to present day Michelin radials, so human writing has evolved over roughly the same time frame.  This evolution has been far from random.  In this time writing has evolved to be easier to learn, to deliver more information, and to be more quickly read without error.  If we take the historic arc of human writing and throw it under the macroscope, it predicts the eventual death of Chinese characters and the rise of Twitterese.  

The earliest forms of written communication, if we can call it that, come from cave paintings.  Some of our early ancestors liked Southern France as much as modern movie stars and lived in the Chauvet Caves near Vallon-Pont-d'Arc. These caves are housed in limestone cliffs above a now ancient river bed.  The paintings within date back to about 30,000 years ago and are chiefly painting of animals, such as rhinos, lions, deer, and hyenas.  With hundreds of paintings, the caves are a literal museum of prehistoric wildlife art. 

Archeologists aren't sure what these paintings were designed to communicate, whether they were shamanic, ritualistic, or just early mating displays. The fact that we can't decipher these beyond saying 'nice paintings' is evidence that the information they contain isn't exactly chatty.  But then sometimes maybe a cave painting is just a cave painting.

About 25,000 years later the Sumerians, in southern Mesopotamia, started writing on clay tablets and baking them to preserve the information.  The earliest clay tablets contained pictographs, in what is called proto-cuneiform. These communicate by representing the object of communication, in the same way that a child who draws a man means 'dad'.*  By around 3000BCE this had advanced to a cuneiform script, a logographic system where words represent concepts. Even though early cuneiform was only a partial script, much like mathematics, capable only of communicating on certain topics, this was still a huge advance over pictographs.  Foremost, it reduced the number of possible symbols a reader would have to interpret to figure out what the writer was communicating. By regularizing the writing system down to an agreed upon set of characters, it turned written communication into the products of groups, not individuals.  This had the added advantage that writers could communicate more complicated ideas with less confusion.

By 2000BCE, this writing was becoming a full script, capable of communicating a variety of ideas, even those as abstract as love, fear, betrayal, and hope. This was mirrored by full scripts that almost simultaneously emerged in Egypt, China, and pre-Columbian societies such as the Olmec and Zapotec. This transition to full scripts opened massive doors to communication and the posterity of ideas. People could not only write down balances paid and debts owed, but record the movements of stars, develop arguments that took more a few lines to communicate, and discuss ideas at a distance.  They could even record imagined and mythological tales, such as the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh. Early cuneiform could communicate five bushels of wheat paid to the king, but it was probably best interpreted by the person who wrote it.  By 1000BCE, one person could write another a love letter. 

Around 700BCE the Greeks invented an alphabetic system, which allowed the number of symbols to be reduced to just 24 characters. This was a huge advance in the economy of the written word, which still has implications to this day.  Many other writing systems rapidly took up this alphabetic system, leading eventually to the Roman alphabet that we currently use.

With advances in surfaces to write on, passing through clay, wax tablets, Egyptian papyrus, and the Chinese invention of paper, writing became more accessible, more long-lasting, and easier to distribute. This created opportunities for the further evolution of the written word.

Monks were busy for hundreds of years copying religious texts, but curiously (to us) they didn't bother to put spaces between words. Scripta continua, as it was called, was the norm. This was in part because texts were meant to be read aloud, even when the reader was alone, and no one yet saw the need to separate one word from another.  When we speak to one another, we often don't separate our words, and early writers didn't separate them in text either. The focus was on how the words sounded and less on what they meant.

By the thirteenth century, spaces between words were invented, and punctuation followed in short order.  This was followed in the fourteenth century by paragraphs and chapters. Though occasionally I run across a student who still hasn't heard about any of these things, God bless them.

With the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in the 1450s, book production took off. The supply of books and the growing demand for them fed off one another and the two spiraled into the stratosphere.  Some estimates suggest that more books were produced in the 50 years following Gutenberg's invention than were produced in the previous 1000 years.  

Production on a massive scale leads to standardization in much the same way that Sumerian text became regularized.  Book production led to standardized fonts, some easier to read than others. Here again, a selection process could focus on fonts more easily read, while eventually letting those less easily processed to fall by the wayside.  The difficult to read Fraktur (or Blackletter) font, which was a stylized calligraphic font used across Europe, remained in use in German texts up until the beginning of the Second World War. In 1941, it was conveniently considered Judenlettern (Jewish letters); some speculate the elimination of this script was in anticipation of needing to communicate to Germany's new territories, following the end of the war.  Whatever the case, it is a tricky script to read, and even state-of-the-art optical character recognition technologies have a hard time making sense of it. 

Unlike much of the world's uptake of the Roman alphabet, Chinese characters have remained largely logographic for several thousand years. But even this has seen modern attempts at simplification to make it easier to write and read.  Literacy in much of the Western world has been near 100 percent for almost 50 years. Chinese literacy, on the other hand, has lagged behind.  One reason is that Chinese literacy requires learning an estimated 4000 characters.  Chinese authorities have suspected this is to blame and have made attempts to simplify Chinese (with simpler characters) and in some cases adopted Western alphabets. If history is any indication, we can predict the eventual demise of the Chinese character system, especially as the Chinese economy increases the appeal of the language to second language learners.

Modern writing is evolving as we speak (and write).  The best selling novels in Japan in 2007 were all written on mobile phones and read more like text messages than the standard chapter format many of us are used to.  With text messages demanding brevity over elegance and our increasing tendency to scan headlines instead of read articles, the quality of writing continues to compress information and the ease of communicating it into ever smaller packages.  

A couple of years ago, James Adelman and I (Hills & Adelman, 2015) discovered that the written word in American English has continued to evolve even in the past 200 years.  In lockstep with immigration (almost entirely European immigration), American English has responded by becoming easier to learn and communicate. Simply put, American English gets to the point faster now than it ever has. But you can just as easily say it has become more childlike.

If you compare modern writing with almost anything written more than a hundred years ago, the change in writing style is like the difference between pebbles and mud.  In 1850, in The Scarlet Letter, Nathanial Hawthorne wrote this:

"Children have always a sympathy in the agitations of those connected with them; always, especially, a sense of any trouble or impending revolution, of whatever kind, in domestic circumstances; and therefore Pearl, who was the gem on her mother's unquiet bosom, betrayed, by the very dance of her spirits, the emotions which none could detect in the marble passiveness of Hester's brow."  

That's one sentence.  In fact, I recognize it from high school as the exact sentence that made me put the book down.

In 1994, in Barrel Fever, David Sedaris wrote this:

"If you're looking for sympathy you'll find it between shit and syphilis in the dictionary."

Both of the above examples are about sympathy.  But Sedaris has more sympathy for the modern reader than Hawthorne. Then again, Hawthorne's readers didn't have video games and sexting to distract them, so maybe they got their kicks slogging through a bit of high literature. It's hard to say.

One of the biggest changes in modern writing is the slow decay of what are called function words.  These are the articles (the and a) and particles (if, then, and well); these are the same kinds of words that get dropped in texts. If the trend continues, we should all be speaking and writing something like Twitterese in the next several hundred years.  Many of my students already do.

*Following my viewing of Rogue One, I'm feeling a bit seditious. To honor the fictional dead, I've decided to now use the British System of putting the punctuation outside the quoted text, where it belongs.


Hills, T. T., & Adelman, J. S. (2015). Recent evolution of learnability in American English from 1800 to 2000. Cognition, 143, 87-92.