Illustration by B. Bentzman

Suburban Soliloquy #96


Something extraordinary happened about fifty thousand years ago. We have been walking around on two legs for over 4,000,000 years and are slowly getting better at it, although we still succumb to backaches. We wandered out of Africa about 2,000,000 years ago to spread across Asia. A mere 100,000 years ago we evolved into anatomically modern humans, the Homo sapiens sapiens. They looked like us and they were us, except culturally they had more in common with their antecedents, chipping away at stone tools, grunting a protolanguage, and admiring the work of artists with berry-stained hands. But 50,000 years ago, according to William H. Calvin, kaBOOM!, a switch goes on in the human mind. With no change to our outward appearance, the ganglia in our brains became rewired and we found ourselves with the ability to manipulate and appreciate a sophisticated syntax.

There it was, a propensity for language (and music). Both were probably the serendipitous result of the birth of a different survival mechanism. William H. Calvin and Derek Bickerton, in their cleverly composed book Lingua ex Machina suggest language was the consequence of cerebral circuitry that had evolved to improve our ability to throw with power and accuracy. Once the circuits were in place for planning and coordinating the complicated movement of the arm and body to throw a stick or stone, that same circuitry was then available for other things, such as the sophisticated syntax of language.

If you follow the notion that history begins with a written record, then history begins with the Sumerians. Already, 6,000 years ago, some ancient Sumerian Timothy Leary was recording an account of his psychedelic euphoria upon ingesting a poppy plant. Then there is The Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest literary work known, and a particular favorite of mine. It impresses me with its subject matter, the fear of death, the value of friendship. The story convinces me that we are no more emotionally sophisticated than the Sumerians were at the beginning of civilization. Which reminds me, I must get a newer copy of History Begins at Sumer by Samuel Noah Kramer; my 1959 paperback is coming apart. Kramer writes, "The literature created by the Sumerians left its deep impress on the Hebrews, and one of the thrilling aspects of reconstructing and translating Sumerian belles-lettres consists in tracing resemblances and parallels between Sumerian and Biblical literary motifs. To be sure, the Sumerians could not have influenced the Hebrews directly, for they had ceased to exist long before the Hebrew people came into existence."

Language allowed us to communicate information and ideas between people within earshot. Language was already thoroughly developed prior to the existence of any written language. But the storage of information and ideas would have been restricted to what human memory could hold. The oral tradition required the assistance of mnemonics, of rhythms and rhymes and repetitions in order to sing the epics. There are steps from the oral tradition to the alphabetic script. The alphabet necessitates there being a spoken language first, but we didn't get to the alphabet right away. We went through stages.

From 30,000 years ago we find protowriting, the graphic recording of thoughts on cave walls. Leila Avrin, in her excellent book on writing and handmade books, Scribes, Script and Books, writes about embryo writing, which are signs invented for the writer alone, a memory device scratched into stone or into the more portable bones of birds to represent an idea known only to their author. True writing is the medium of symbols used to communicate between humans. What first developed was logographic writing, which includes pictographic writing, the graphic representation of objects that can be recognized for what they are independently of the spoken language; and, ideographic writing, which are the graphic representations of concepts. What finally develops is phonographic writing, which does not represent objects nor concepts, but are marks that stand for sounds of the voice.

From 5,000 years ago there appears a phonetic script. First it is the syllabic script in which each unit represents a combination of consonant and vowel, and for which about a hundred units or signs are necessary. This is improved upon by the alphabetic script, which attempts to provide a sign for every sound, reducing the required number of units or signs to between twenty-two and thirty.

The alphabet I am using to communicate with you was born in the Middle East among the Semites. When the Greeks displaced the Phoenicians as sailor-merchants in the Mediterranean, they had the good sense to adopt the Phoenician alphabet. How strange that the Phoenicians weren't very literary, but focusing on business they employed a very efficient alphabet, although lacking vowels just like the Hebrew. The Greeks could not know the acrophonic principles of their adopted alphabet. Acrophony refers to the letters originally having been pictures of objects, but came to represent the initial sound of what was formerly pictured. The famous example is the first letter of the alphabet, Aleph, meaning ox, and was originally a drawing of the head of an ox. The Greeks had adopted a Semitic alphabet for a non-Semitic language.

To quote myself from
an earlier Soliloquy: "To someone who doesn't have a written language, the ability to communicate with symbols must appear to be magic. I am in awe of the distinction this ability to write has given our species. This incredible human invention, the ability to store any kind of information outside of the skull-bound memory, has no equal for the power and the meaningfulness it confers on our species." So there you have it, twenty-six magic letters that can be formed into words; when properly arranged they can maybe engage a reader's interest.

This essay is the most recent in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.
Mr Bentzman's collection of poems, "Atheist Grace" is available from Amazon, as are "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman"