Writing is among the greatest inventions in human history, perhaps the greatest invention, since it made history possible. But its diverse development, global spread, and invisible operation do not naturally lend themselves to television. This intelligent, articulate, and visually imaginative three-part BBC documentary series about five millennia of writing – shortened into two parts for US transmission as A to Z in the PBS series NOVA – is therefore particularly welcome, and will probably be watched for many years. Its aim, mentioned at the outset, is ‘to explore this transformative technology, the different scripts that can turn spoken language into visual form, the varying methods we have used to put words on a page, and the way that changing the way we write has changed the course of history.’
The idea grew from a long-standing friendship between David Sington, its writer and director, and Brody Neuenschwander, a leading calligrapher, who demonstrates his skill with ancient and modern scripts, pens, and materials such as papyrus, parchment, and paper. Neuenschwander inspired Sington with his insight that Latin alphabetic letter forms were ideally shaped for the movable metal type created by Johannes Gutenberg for printing, hence the growth of European literacy – unlike the signs of other featured scripts, such as Egyptian hieroglyphs and Chinese characters. Presenter Lydia Wilson, an academic with a background in medieval Arabic philosophy, has the winning ability to interview archaeologists, historians, philologists, and artists at their own level while rendering their views understandable and engaging for a general audience. (Regrettably, NOVA prefers an off-screen narrator.)
Distinguished interviewees include British Museum curator Irving Finkel, a lifelong scholar of Sumerian cuneiform. Sitting among the museum’s 130,000 cuneiform tablets, and dissecting some of their signs, Finkel explains how the earliest writing emerged from the need felt by Mesopotamian city-states c.3300 BC to record accounts. He deadpans: ‘Anybody who works for the Inland Revenue will be proud to feel that that was their striking contribution to the progress of mankind.’ Finkel speculates that the vital rebus principle, using sounds of pictograms to express the sounds of an unrelated, non-pictographic word – such as a camp with tents and a bell for the name ‘Campbell’ – could have occurred to human groups anywhere in the world, even an imaginative child. Hence, the probable multiple origins of writing, rather than a single origin in Mesopotamia or Egypt, as once favoured by scholars.
Ranging from ancient handwriting to modern Chinese text messages written in phonetically based Pinyin (‘spell-sound’), rather than the conventional Chinese characters originating in Shang dynasty oracle bones c.1200 BC, the series ultimately returns to pictography, such as emojis. Could the internet eventually lead to the kind of ‘universal’ writing system, independent of particular languages, dreamt of by the 17th-century polymath Gottfried Leibniz? Unlikely, in my view, but if it were to do so, Wilson warns that ‘a world of perfect communication is also a world of cultural uniformity’.
Review by Andrew Robinson.
The Secret History of Writing, Written and directed: David Sington, BBC Four television series.