The Writing of the Gods

/ San Francisco, California

Here’s Edward Dolnick in his lovely book The Writing of the Gods:

The crucial point is that though speaking comes naturally, writing had to be invented. Speech is part of our biological heritage, like crawling and walking. Writing is a product of human ingenuity, like the telephone or the airplane.

Thinking of a language as a technology or a product is strange at first but the more you look at them the more they resemble microwaves or dishwashers; incredibly complicated under the hood but also sort of boring on the surface. I don’t think the same can be said for hieroglyphs though, as they’ve managed to capture the imagination for thousands of years. Forgotten and unreadable for more than a millennia, Dolnick’s book captures the strangeness of hieroglyphs and how they don’t function like English or Italian or Spanish:

The word snake consists of five signs, and three of them are snakes.

Before reading Dolnick’s book, I had no idea that in order to read hieroglyphs you needed to know this vast library of puns and visual cues; sometimes a glyph could stand for a sound, sometimes for words unrelated to the picture, and sometimes they stand for the act they’re portraying, like walking.

The story that led to breaking the code of the hieroglyphs is fascinating, and The Writing of the Gods details the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, the plunder of a country, and Napoleon’s bonkers failed expedition into the desert. But although each story that makes up this book is fabulous, I can’t stop thinking about Dolnick’s argument that the alphabet is a technology:

Though writing was invented independently several times—in China, the Middle East, and the New World—scholars believe that the alphabet was invented only once and then spread across the globe.

The alphabet sounds so rudimentary—how can it be a technology?—but it wasn’t until a few hundred years ago that there was an established order given to the alphabet in English (a, b, c, etc.). What makes this even more interesting is that letters weren’t invented by any single person but evolved like an organism over thousands of years.

And Egyptian hieroglyphs were at the very beginning of this alphabetic breakthrough.