(Originally published 4th July, 2007)
The Written Word. Have you ever stopped to wonder about how what are essentially random squiggles on a page or a computer screen can suddenly take on so much meaning?
I’ve been guilty over the years of taking reading for granted. After all, I started reading when I was about four. Some of my earliest memories at school are of asking my teacher how to spell a particular dinosaur name and then looking at the word she gave me back and saying, “no, that’s not spelled right.” I didn’t know how to spell the word, but I recognised when it was spelled incorrectly. I knew what the squiggles meant, even if I couldn’t remember how to create them myself.
These days, I’m forever reading and writing. I’ve had material published. I read stuff every day, whether it be old fashioned dead-tree books, or stuff that’s purely electronic on the Internet. I take it as much for granted as I do breathing or walking. About a decade ago, I even did a speed reading course at work, and managed to get my reading speed up to about 900+ words per minute.
But recently, I’ve been forced to consider the whole process of reading. My son’s struggling with his reading at school and I’m trying to find ways to help him out. I’ve even gone so far as to write a sight words computer program for him, so that we can practice his basic words and hopefully start to make things a little easier for him.
It’s made me stop and think about what it is that I do so much about. How do I see the words written in front of me and instinctively know what it is that the author is trying to say?
Part of it is memory – I see a word and my subconscious mind remembers how to pronounce the word and even what it means. It does this so fast that I don’t even realise what it’s doing. I just recognise the word, understand what it means and just get on with the next thing.
But there’s more to it than that. Somewhere along the line, lost in the sands of time, someone decided that creating particular shaped squiggles on a page was a good idea. Writing things down isn’t particularly new – after all, the ancient Egyptians are well-known for their hieroglyphics. But somewhere along the line, someone decided to simplify the whole letter thing and we eventually ended up with the alphabet as we know it today.
The thing that gets me is who decided that the letters we write down and read back were to be shaped the way they are? Why are there 26 letters in the alphabet we use in English, and a distinct lack of accent symbols, whereas other languages and cultures use more? Heck, some cultures use a form of written symbology that doesn’t even come close to resembling the alphabet that this piece is written in. You only have to look at scripts like Chinese, Japanese or Thai to recognise that different cultures put their emphasis on the written word in different areas.
It doesn’t take much to destroy the meaning of the written word either. Try reading something in a language that you don’t understand. If your only language is English, then reading something written in a language like French, German or Spanish is going to confuse you. You might be able to recognise some words as similar to the English ones, but much of it’s going to look like gibberish. If you move away from the alphabet that we’re familiar with and look at something like Cyrillic or Arabic, then it really is going to look just like scribbles on a page. And yet, there are people who can interpret those same squiggles and extract meaningful information from them.
Why is any given word spelled the way it is? How did that particular combination of letters come to be instilled with a special meaning, so that when other people see it written down, they understand what the author was trying to say. Who decides these things and why did they do it in the first place?
As Stephen King said in his autobiography, On Writing, writing is a form of telepathy – it’s the transferring of ideas from one human mind to another freed from the boundaries of space and time.
This all blows my mind. The ultimate arbitrariness of the written word fascinates me. It all reinforces to me the concept that all systems are arbitrary, as Serge Kahili King once wrote. All it takes for a particular set of squiggles to gain or lose meaning is the ability of the reader to be able to recognise and interpret the shapes that they see. What might be unintelligible nonsense to one person might be a beautifully profound piece of poetry to someone else.
To me, that’s a wonderful thing.