Michael J. McDonagh

An established writer who recently went to work becoming an author, trying valiantly to make someone give a damn and chronicling the process.

This is Your Brain on Words Part Two: Evolution (we’re basically a bunch of primates with books).

In this installment of the Brain on Words series, I am taking a look at the history of the human race as it relates to words on paper. Well, most of the time they were on clay tablets, but you know what I mean.

In the beginning, there was the word…

In the great evolutionary scheme of things, language is a new thing. When and where spoken language first happened has been called “the hardest question in science.” Since half the arguments I have with my daughters involve some variant of “I never said that” about something that was or wasn’t said last week, yesterday, or five minutes ago, it’s pretty easy to see why. Even if I had a time machine and a translator and could go back to the day after spoken language really happened for the first time, I’d probably find some protohuman couple standing in front of their cave and hear one of them saying, “I never said that.”

Fortunately, that part doesn’t matter a hell of a lot to us. We don’t need to get caught up in the debate about whether spoken language evolved 1.7 million years ago, as some scholars think, or 200,000 years ago, as others argue. A few even put it at about 40,000 years ago, though discoveries since the 1990s tend to discredit that view. In this analysis, though, we can just agree that it occurred “RFLTA” (a Really Fucking Long Time Ago). What matters is that homo sapiens were communicating through sound RFLTA, which was also a RFLT before they ever tried communicating through something other than sound.

It took a long freaking time for anyone to write that word down…

Writing – using agreed upon symbols to mean something – is so new that, in a evolutionary sense, the paint is still wet. Between grunting “I never said that” and anything we can really call writing, pictograms started showing up on the cave walls. They communicated ideas, but not through an agreed system of “this means that.” Instead, they just depicted the idea by showing exactly what the idea was. There was no reason to standardize them, and you didn’t need to be “literate” in any language to read them. They were, literally, just pictures:

Image

Cave of Altamira, depicting what appears to be a Red Bull Energy Drink product placement, dated to around 15,000 B.C.E.

In other words, pictures, not writing. Over the course of the next 12,000 years, thanks largely to prehistoric humans’ lack of cable TV and internet access, they had plenty of time to think about standardizing those pictures a little bit. If you want to spend all week painting a beautiful picture, that’s one thing. If all you want to do is say there was an animal, there’s really no reason to go all Michelangelo on it.

So, eventually, a rudimentary system for writing developed. We went from pictograms (I drew you a picture) to ideograms (we’ve agreed this picture represents that thing). Sumerian cuneiform, showing up around 3,200 B.C.E., is thought to be the first, with Egyptian Hieroglyphics arriving around the same time. Cuneiform looked like this:

Image

These appear to be want ads from a Sumerian newspaper, and someone is giving away free kittens.

This still isn’t writing as we know it, but it was a huge step in the right direction. This is certainly not an alphabet. It is a series of pictures that represent nouns and verbs. It was also a huge pain in the ass, with around 2,000 different symbols (although that number dwindled over time).

Ideograms were of limited use themselves, but in them were the seeds for something special. The number of symbols kept dwindling, meaning they had to cover more things. This process seems to have fed on itself until the Egyptians were down to just twenty-two symbols.

Here’s the cool part…

Those symbols no longer represented specific things. They represented sounds. By 2700 B.C.E., Egyptian hieroglyphs each represented a specific syllable that began with a single consonant of their language, plus a vowel (or no vowel) to be supplied by the native speaker. That development is huge. On a whole bunch of different levels.

Why hieroglyphs still matter

Think about this for a second – we (humans) had spoken language between two million years ago and two hundred thousand years ago, depending on who’s estimate you’re using. Not counting the time we also drew pictures on cave walls (since that’s not really “writing”), we had symbols that represented “things” for about five hundred years, total. Then we switched to syllables, the most basic component of human speech. When I say “speech,” I mean sounds we make.

We write sounds. We read sounds. Not counting the 500 years it took us to get from standardized pictures to pictures of sounds, humans have never communicated in any way other than sounds.

A little math shows how important this fact is. For something between 99% of our existence as a species (with the shortest estimate of when speech developed) to 99.99975% of our existence (with the longest estimate), we have only communicated with each other through sound. Either directly, or for a small slice of the most recent little bit, symbols that represent sounds.

It’s no accident our first written language was broken down by syllables. Syllables are single sounds, and sound is how we had been communicating at least since the development of anything we can call language. When we first developed written words to communicate ideas, they were single sounds.

And guess what?

That’s what we still do. And this is the payoff for the prehistoric history lesson. The only thing we’ve done with language since the Egyptians started associating syllables with pictures is tweak that system. The Greeks developed the first “true” alphabet, with consonants and vowels, and every writing system since is either a collection of symbols that represent syllables (e.g., the Chinese “alphabet”) or symbols that combine to form syllables (like I’m doing right now as I type this and you’re doing right now as you read it).

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It hasn’t even changed all that much

 

We didn’t evolve to read

…writing evolved (or was developed) to work with the already existing part of our brain that hears sounds. We haven’t had time to evolve, anyway. In the first place, 5,000 years isn’t enough time to evolve much –unless you’re a virus or other simple organism, Also, hardly any people have been reading for much of the 5,000 it’s been an option. Literacy has ebbed and flowed over the millennia, with a few high points if you happened to live in Rome or ancient Greece at the right time, but for the most part, we’ve been an illiterate bunch for all but about the last 300 years. Chaucer and Dante were writing for the ten percent of the population who could read, but the other ninety percent couldn’t tell Dante from Danielle Steel.

The Bottom Line

Humans have always communicated through sound. Ironically enough, that’s precisely what a writer is doing, too. Our brains have not had time to develop “reading” abilities. Instead, we have created a system that uses symbols to represent (or combine to represent) sounds – i.e., syllables. The part of our brain we use to process written words is the same part we use to listen to someone talk. As far as our brains are concerned, they’re doing the same freaking job.

This is only the first step on our journey through the whole process this series will cover, but it is a crucial one. The first thing a reader does when she looks at letters on the page is (almost always nonconsciously) translate those letters into sounds. Not words, not images or ideas – syllables. Those syllable/sounds are then “heard” by the brain and combined to form words. That process (and the things that can interfere with it going smoothly) will be a big focus of this series. All of it is predicated on the fact that all human language – spoken, sung, written, or however it comes – is the same thing as far as our brains are concerned.

Coming up next…

The weird way we created a system of writing that works ideally with eyes that spent a few million years only worried about hunting and gathering.

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7 thoughts on “This is Your Brain on Words Part Two: Evolution (we’re basically a bunch of primates with books).

  1. Linda on said:

    This explains why so many people recommend reading your work aloud as part of the editing process…while we may not see/read problems, we are more likely to hear them…at least until our brains evolve a bit more. Am I understanding this correctly?

    • I think so, at least in part. That’s a very basic way of making sure the syllables flow together well, and hearing it aloud is closer to what you’re putting into the reader’s mind than silent reading.

      That said, I think the main benefits may not be directly related. I’m amazed how much easier it is to find errors whenever I change anything about how I read my writing. Just going to a different front from what I’m used to seeing it in will make previously hidden mistakes more noticeable. Going through it aloud is a version of that, too.

  2. This is a great series, I’m fascinated, and enjoying this trip through language, writing, and our brains. I learned a bit about the written language/sound connection when I did some research about the Deaf community several years ago, but seeing it laid out concisely–nice.

  3. Thanks. It’s interesting you said that, because one obvious question this information begs is — what happens with a person who is born totally deaf? That has to complicate the process of teaching her how to read enormously.

  4. Carol on said:

    I’m truly impressed, Michael, at the amount of research this took. Nice work and I love the extra humorous comments.

  5. Thank you so much. I’m glad you like the humor too — the hardest thing about my day job is that I always write like that in my head, but have to filter the crap out of everything I do professionally. 🙂

  6. Pingback: Michael J. McDonagh

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