In Writing As Superpower we discussed that writing is really for the eye, at the expense of the hands, despite the fact that our brains may have evolved to comprehend speech. We still prefer to 'listen' with our eyes, despite our eyes not having been designed for this.
The way we write is for the hand but the shapes of our symbols are for the eye. And that is due to culture.
You’d be surprised to see a rhinoceros with a rider on its back. In fact, a rider would seem outlandish on most large animals, whether giraffe, bison, wildebeast, bear, lion, or gorilla. But a rider on a horse seems natural. Unless you grew up on a farm and regularly saw horses in the meadows, a large fraction of your experiences with horses were likely from books, television and film where the horses typically had riders. Because of your “city-folk” experiences with horses, a horse without a rider can seem downright unnatural! In fact, if aliens were observing the relationship between humans and horses back when horses were our main mode of transportation, they may have falsely concluded that horses were designed to carry humans on their backs.
But, of course, horses aren’t born with bridles and saddles attached, and they didn’t evolve to be ridden. They evolved over tens of millions of years of evolution in savannas and prairies, and it is only recently that one of the primates had the crazy idea to get on one. How is it that horses could have become so well adapted as “automobiles” in a human world?
Horses didn’t simply get pulled out of nature and plugged into society. Instead, culture had to evolve to wrap around horses, making the fit a good one. Horses had to be sired, raised, fed, housed, steered, and scooped up after. Countless artifacts were invented to deal with the new tasks required to accommodate the entry of horses into society, and entire markets emerged for selling them. Diverse riding techniques were developed and taught, each having certain advantages for controlling these beasts. The shapes of our homes and cities themselves had to change. Water troughs in front of every saloon, stables stationed through towns and cities, streets wide enough for carriages, parking spaces for horses, and so on. That horses appear designed for riders is an illusion due to culture having designed itself so well to fit horses.
Just as horses didn’t evolve to be ridden, eyes didn’t evolve for the written. Your eyes reading these words are wild eyes, the same eyes and visual systems of our ancient preliterate ancestors. And yet, despite being born without a “bridle,” your visual system is now saddled with reading. We have, then, the same mystery as we find in horses: how do our ancient visual systems fit so well in modern reading-intensive society?
Eyes may seem like a natural choice for pulling information stored on material, and indeed vision probably has inherent superiorities over touch or taste, just as horses are inherently better rides than rhinos. But just as horses don’t fit efficiently into culture without culture evolving to fit horses, the visual system couldn’t be harnessed for reading until culture evolved writing to fit the requirements of the visual system. We didn’t evolve to read, but culture has gone out of its way to create the illusion that we did. We turn next to the question of what exactly cultural evolution has done to help our visual systems read so well.
From the Hands of Babes
You might presume that a two and a half year old girl couldn’t have much to say. If I were struck on the head and reduced to infant-level intelligence for two and a half years, I’m fairly sure I wouldn’t thereby have a flood of stories to tell you about. None, at least, that are not considerably degrading. But there she is, as you well know if you’ve seen these creatures, talking up a storm. A little about the few things that have happened to her, but mostly about things that never have, and never will: princesses, dragons, Spongebob, Stegosauruses. She’s five now and there’s been no let-up. She’s talking to me as I write this!
I just gave her a piece of paper and crayons, and although she’s just begun trying her hand at writing—“cat,” “dug,” “saac” (snake), “flar” (flower)—she’s been putting her thoughts and words to the page for a long time now. By drawing. Children are instructive for the invention of writing because they invent their own writing through pictures. Through the work of Rhoda Kellogg in the mid-twentieth century we know that children world-wide draw very similar shapes, and follow a similar developmental schedule. Since they are not designed to draw, these similarities are, in a sense, parallel discoveries about how to ably communicate on paper; on how to write. Sir Herbert E. Read, an early 20th century professor of literature and arts, encountered Rhoda Kellogg’s work late in his life, and wrote the following:
It has been shown by several investigators, but most effectively by Mrs. Rhoda Kellogg of San Francisco, that the expressive gestures of the infant, from the moment that they can be recorded by a crayon or pencil, evolve from certain basic scribbles towards consistent symbols. Over several years of development such basic patterns gradually become the conscious representation of objects perceived: the substitutive sign becomes a visual image. … According to this hypothesis every child, in its discovery of a mode of symbolization, follows the same graphic evolution. … I merely want you to observe that it is universal and is found not only in the scribblings of children but everywhere the making of signs has had a symbolizing purpose—which is from the Neolithic age onwards.
[from Herbert Read, “Presidential Address to the Fourth General Assembly of the International Society for Educational Society for Eduation through Art.” Montreal: Aug 19, 1963.]
Aren’t children’s drawings just that, drawings? It’s certainly true that sometimes children are just trying to depict what they see. Those are “mere” drawings. But often their drawings are primarily aimed to say something—to tell a story. When my daughter brings me her latest drawing, she usually doesn’t brag about how real it looks (nor does she tell me about its composition and balance). Sure, sometimes she asks me to count how many legs her spider has, but usually I get a story. A long story. For example, here is a Cliffs Notes version of the story behind her drawing in Figure 1: A house with arms and eyes; the windows have faces; it is a magic house; there is a girl holding a plate of cream puffs; two people are playing with toys at the table but a tomato exploded all over the toy; there are butterflies in the house. Her drawing is intended to communicate a story, and that sounds an awful lot like writing.
Figure 1 A drawing by my daughter just after having turned five years old.
But if she’s truly writing, then she’d have to be using symbols. Is it really plausible that small children are putting symbols on the page before they learn formal writing, as Rhoda Kellogg and Herbert Read believe? I think so, for consider that most of their drawings have only the barest resemblance to the objects they are intended to denote.
Look again at nearly any of the objects in my daughter’s drawing in Figure 1. An attempt at realism? Hardly. We find similar kinds of symbols when even adults draw cartoons—adults who could draw realistically if they wished. These cartoon symbols, like those in the first row of Figure 2a, are ridiculously poor renderings of objects. You have surely seen similar visual signs out and about in culture. Although you’ll probably have no trouble knowing what animals the drawings are intended to symbolize, your dog would have no idea what those (or my daughter’s) drawings are supposed to be. They get their meaning by convention more than by resemblance.
We’re so used to these conventions that we have the illusion that they look like the animals they refer to, but other cultures often have somewhat different conventions for their animals. For example, I find it difficult to tell what kind of animal I’m looking at in many of today’s Japanese cartoons for kids, some of them shown in the second row of Figure 2a.
Figure 2 (a) Some simple drawings of animals. The first row would be understood by nearly anyone in the West. The second row shows samples of the same four animals in Japanese cartoons. Each has at best minimal resemblance to the animals to which they refer. (b) A small sample of the variety of shapes across human non-linguistic visual signs. Do a web search on pictograms or symbols and you’ll find tens of thousands more. Notice how these look roughly like objects. (c) Example logographic signs, where this means that the symbol stands for a spoken word. As in (a) and (b), the symbols are object-like.
The same is true for sound. We in the United States say “ribbit” to refer to the call made by a frog, and after growing up with that as the symbol for frog calls it can be hard to appreciate that frogs don’t sound at all like that. In fact, people from different cultures use different sound symbols to refer to frog calls, and each person is initially convinced that their sound resembles frogs. Algerians say “gar gar,” Chinese say “guo guo,” the English say “croak,” the French say “coa-coa,” Koreans say “gae-gool-gae-gool,” Argentinians say “berp,” Turks say “vrak vrak,” and so on. Just as in children’s drawings, the sound “ribbit” is a symbol for the call of the frog, not a real attempt to resemble or mimic it.
Children’s drawings communicate stories with symbols. That sure sounds like writing to me. Or at least the barest beginnings. If these little whippersnappers are so smart that they can spontaneously invent writing largely on their own, perhaps it couldn’t hurt to look into the kinds of symbols they choose for their writing. And the answer is so obvious that it may be difficult to notice: children draw object-like symbols for the objects in their writing. Their drawings may not look much like the objects they stand for, but they look like objects, not like fractal patterns, not like footprints, not like scribbles, not like textures, and so on. The same is true for the cartoons drawn by adults, as in Figure 2a. And we find the same so-obvious-it-is-hard-to-notice phenomenon for animal calls: although there are lots of different sounds used for frog calls, they are all animal-call-like. All those frog calls sound like some possible kind of animal. What might this phenomenon mean for writing?
Word and Object
Is the strategy of object-like drawings for objects mere child’s play? Apparently not, because it’s not just in kids’ drawings and cartoons that you find this, but among human visual signs generally. Most non-linguistic visual signs throughout history have been object-like, such as those found in pottery, body art, religion, politics, folklore, medicine, music, architecture, trademarks and traffic (see Figure 2b for a small variety). And computer desktop icons are not only object-like in appearance, but can even be moved around like objects. Much of formal writing itself has historically been of this objects-for-words form, such as Egyptian hieroglyphs, Sumerian cuneiform, Chinese, and Mesoamerican writing. Modern Chinese is still like this, used by nearly half the world. In these writing systems we find drawings with the complexity of simple objects and used as symbols to refer to objects, and also to refer to adjectives, adverbs, verbs and so on. (See Figure 2c for several examples.) Object-like symbols for objects—that trick’s not just for kids.
Is there something beneficial about drawing objects for the words in writing? I suspect so, and I suspect that it is the same reason that animal-call symbols tend to be animal-call-like: we probably possess innate circuitry that responds specifically to animal-call-like sounds, and so our brain is better able to efficiently process a spoken word that means an animal call if the word itself sounds animal-call-like. Similarly, we possess a visual system designed to recognize objects and efficiently react to the information.
If a word’s meaning is that of an object (even an abstract object), then our visual system will be better able to process and react to the written symbol for that object if the written symbol is itself object-like.
We'll address that in our last installment, The Trouble with Speech Writers.
This is a modified excerpt from my book, The Vision Revolution.
Changizi MA (2009) THE VISION REVOLUTION: How the Latest Research Overturns Everything We Thought We Knew About Human Vision (BenBella Books, Dallas TX).
Changizi MA&Shimojo S (2005) Character complexity and redundancy in writing systems over human history. Proc Roy Soc Lond B 272: 267-275