The first letter of the English alphabet is believed to descend from a 4,000-year-old ox’s head. Over the millennia, minor stylistic changes slowly reshaped an ornate Egyptian hieroglyph into the austere “A” we see today. For centuries, scholars have suggested that all letters follow the same trajectory: they begin as iconic representations of real objects, then gradually evolve into simpler abstract forms. But the forces that guide these transformations remain poorly understood.
To fully decipher the process, you would need an unbroken record of these incremental changes – in other words, every variation between the beef and the A. Since only fragments survive from the earliest phases of writing (which has independently invented four times, in Mesopotamia, Egypt, China and Central America), it is probably impossible to trace the full history of most writing systems.
The unusual origins of a West African script, however, may offer a unique window into the mechanisms that shaped its ancient predecessors. The Vai language of Liberia had no written form until 1833, when an industrious group of eight men invented one from scratch, writing with ink made from crushed berries. Its progression since then is well documented, allowing researchers to observe what may have happened in the moments following the “Big Bang” of other scripts.
Piers Kelly, a linguistic anthropologist at the University of New England in Australia, and his colleagues compared Vai manuscripts from several decades ago, using computer analysis to track the development of his 200 syllabic letters over two centuries, according to a study published in Current anthropology in December. Based on the results, they concluded that writing systems are moving towards simplicity. “Left to their own devices,” Kelly says, “the letters go from more complex to less complex.”
Evolution by laziness
The experiment confirmed the researchers’ hypothesis: when we write, we follow the “principle of least effort”, an idea that researchers have also used to explain how spoken language changes in subtle ways to reduce the work required of its users. speakers. Applied to written language, this suggests that we will invest as little mental and physical energy as possible in each letter, the logical result being a writing reduced to the essentials. As long as each letter remains distinct from the others, our laziness will direct us towards ever greater simplicity.
As early as the 18th century, intellectuals glimpsed this concept. The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau noticed that writing had moved from images to words, then to alphabets. Future generations have refined his observation. A century later, German philologist Friedrich Wilhelm Ritschl (Friedrich Nietzsche’s favorite teacher, coincidentally) wrote that scripts change according to “certain laws or guiding impulses.”
Now Kelly and his team believe they’ve pinned down one of those laws, expressed nicely in a common paraphrase from Einstein: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Although it might be unfair to say that the letters just get “simpler”. Kelly prefers the term “compressed” because it emphasizes that each still conveys the same amount of information, but with less “descriptive effort” – they are no less sophisticated, but easier to produce . Fittingly, one of the metrics the study used to judge complexity was the amount of mathematical work required to compress the symbol into a digital file.
The bare minimum
The human urge to reduce symbols for the sake of efficiency has already been demonstrated. In a type of experiment called a chain of transmission (where researchers ask one person to draw an image, then ask a second to imitate the first, and so on in a phone graphics game), complex images become quickly coarser until optimum simplicity is reached. .
In a memorable study – a game of Pictionary with a twist – participants drew the same subjects over and over for a partner to identify. The first round requires a great deal of detail to establish the connection in the partner’s mind. Then, more and more abstract symbols can recall the same meaning. One of the images was Clint Eastwood. The initial version depicts him in full western attire, gun on hip. But in the final round, he is represented only by the faint outline of a cowboy hat.
This is what many linguists think during the initial phase of a writing system. Complex symbols are useful for the first generations who learn them because they exploit mental shortcuts. For this reason, it makes sense to use the image of a pregnant woman to denote the syllable for “mother”, as early versions of Vai did. But iconic images are hard to draw, and over time unnecessary details disappear, leaving only what’s really needed to get the point across. It’s almost like the writers are testing the bare minimum they can get away with. “Once we have identified a meaning and a sound,” Kelly says, “what is the path of least resistance?”
Search for balance
The claim that letters get simpler over time has to confront the reality that most scripts today seem remarkably stable. Many have not changed significantly over the centuries. Anyone who can read English or any other language that uses the Latin alphabet can just as easily read the words inscribed on a 2,000-year-old Roman monument. Kelly argues that’s because the ABCs have long since found their middle ground. “Just look at them,” he says. “They’re all about the same number of hits.”
So compression – the process by which letters become visually simpler but retain the same meaning – can’t go on forever. Rather than evolving into indistinguishable shorthand, every writing system will sooner or later achieve balance at its ideal level of complexity: a balance that makes letters easier to memorize and write, but also easier to tell them apart. Small changes can still happen, but at a much slower pace.
The Vai study provides another lesson in this regard. He found that the more complex a letter started out, the simpler it ended up becoming. “Supercomplex signs drop dramatically,” Kelly says, “while simpler signs barely move.” In Vai, the emblematic child of this phenomenon is a letter pronounced as “ga”, which begins with two outrageously long wavy lines. By 1900 the lines had been cut at the waist, much like W’s, and they haven’t changed at all since. Following the law of compression, the writers adjusted this unwieldy letter to fit into the same complexity range as the rest of the script.
Pressures beyond compression
Counter-examples abound and critics often point the finger at them. Hieroglyphs, for example, have gone through more than three millennia without diminishing their complexity. But Kelly insists that doesn’t undermine his theory – it just shows that compression isn’t the only process at work. He notes that Egypt used the script for religious purposes, which likely counteracted the bias for simplicity. (Nowhere is lettering more decorative than in the handmade Bible of a medieval monk, for example.) Along with hieroglyphics, administrators and businessmen used the simple hieratic and demotic scripts to make turn their secular world.
Then there is Chinese. In an as-yet-unpublished paper, Kelly and his colleagues found that the system’s beautifully convoluted characters have actually grown more complex over its 3,000-year career. But again, there is an explanation: script expansion. As more and more characters were introduced over the years, it took more complexity to tell them apart. English, with only 26 letters, obviously does not face this dilemma.
In other words, various forces compete with compression to direct the evolution of letters, and the results clearly vary depending on the circumstances of each script. In the modern era, all sorts of other historical and technological factors could contribute to this, especially the advent of the printing press and rising literacy rates around the world. “We’re in a whole new phase,” Kelly says. And while her paper focuses on individual letters as solitary units, Heriot-Watt University psychologist Monica Tamariz writes in a response to the study that their fates are linked – change one, and the rest may suddenly come under new pressure.
Even if compression can’t be detected in all cases, Kelly says, that’s no reason to dismiss it as a universal rule. Since humans of all ages share the same brain and motor skills, it stands to reason that Egyptians and people of the 21st century have unconsciously shaped their scripts in much the same way as Vai writers. “I think we can be pretty confident,” he says, “that what was true for Homo sapiens in West Africa in the 1830s was true for Homo sapiens in Mesopotamia in 3100 BC, and is true for us today.”