Monday, May 15, 2017

Anne Trubek, 'The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting' (Part I)

Anne Trubek, The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting. New York: Bloomsbury, 2016. 

I. Trubek seems ambivalent about the loss of the ability to write, pointing out that for most of human existence, no one could write; that even from the time of the first written historical records, most people still could neither read nor write; and that, indeed, people in vast numbers didn’t learn how to read and write until the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a mere blip in the long record.

I disagree, however, with this seeming ambivalence. To me, it’s important to keep some sort of redundancy, a manual analog back-up system. As recent events illustrate, people in the contemporary world are at the mercy of a fragile interconnected electronic envelope subjected to electricity failures and cyber-attacks.

Keeping the knowledge and skill of writing is a practical back-up. Having hand-cranked word processors might be another option – and there’s always the manual typewriter, though such "writing machines" still need ink, ribbons and maintenance. Finally, we need to maintain archives and special collections, much as seed vaults are maintained in case of global catastrophe, at least to retain representative samples.

To me, cursive lettering is a key component in freedom, providing a certain measure of self-autonomy. If you include reading with writing, Frederick Douglass knew this. Upon reflection, anyone must understand why both reading and writing are important. 

President Donald Trump provides a cautionary tale as to why we don’t merely want to tweet or text our way through life, while never once, apparently, reading a book, not even the ones that were, based on his shambolic ramblings, ghost-written on his behalf.

II. Trubek’s contemplation of the written word initially takes the reader from the Sumerian system of cuneiform through Egyptian scripts, and of the latter, not just hieroglyphs but hieratic and demotic scripts, too.

Before cuneiform, there was proto-writing, such as: “Cave paintings, tally sticks, and memory boards” (page 4).  By most accounts, cuneiform – wedge writing on clay tablets, originated somewhere between 3,000 and 3,500 B.C. (5,000 to 5,500 years ago). As other empires and civilizations displaced or absorbed Sumer’s literary heritage, cuneiform ceased to be used or even understood. Only in the nineteenth century was the code cracked again for modern times (pages 6-7), translatable into currently used languages.

Because they it was baked into hard, hand-held tablets, cuneiform is well-preserved (unlike, say, most email or electronic texts of this century).

Cuneiform was utilized for administrative purposes, record-keeping and so on, but eventually came to be used for other purposes.

One of the most interesting aspects of Sumer described by Trubek was the use of personal seals: “All Sumerians, even the illiterate [which was most of the population], carried seals: small, cylindrical pieces of stone (not clay) upon which were carved, intaglio-style [think engraving], raised words and images. Seals had holes through them” for wearing like necklaces, and they performed the same duty as the modern signature or autograph (pages 10-11).
If you'd like to try your hand at creating a monogram in cuneiform, the Penn Museum (University of Pennsylvania Museum of archaeology and Anthropology) has a translation tool via this link. That's mine pictured above. "Joe Sumer," as Professor Jack Sasson used to joke back in Chapel Hill.  

In any case, cuneiform helped spawn fifteen languages (page 11).

At the same time or just after Sumer began developing cuneiform, Egyptian civilization took to writing also, and kept at it for a long time: “hieroglyphics . . . was in use for three and a half millennia, much longer than the Roman alphabet has survived thus far” (page 14). Papyrus was the main writing surface, though elaborate inscriptions were also made on walls and monuments.

In Egypt, writing served the top of the social pyramid, and so what we can read of it now is derived only from the top, the ultra-elites (page 21). As an aside, archaeology helps close the gap in understanding, but even in death the richest tend to have gotten the obelisks and poshest burial sites. 

The ancient Egyptians were so weird that, unlike the Sumerians, their writing did not fire up new languages elsewhere (page 14).

Thanks to the Penn Museum, you can turn tour name into hieroglyphs. "Write like an Egyptian" here.
[To be continued].  

Today's Rune: Partnership. 

1 comment:

Charles Gramlich said...

Great points. Particularly the idea of redundancy or back up. My handwriting is horrible but I can still print if I have to and get my point across.