Wednesday, 21 March 2012

From the Shelf: Lost Languages by Andrew Robinson

I happen to have a thing about historical mysteries, and I also happen to have a thing about the history of writing.  These two interests of mine seem to have come together admirably in Andrew Robinson's Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World's Undeciphered Scripts.

'Lost Languages' is a bit of a misnomer in this case.  'Lost Writing Systems' would've been a more accurate if less poetic title.  While lost languages often walk hand in hand with lost writing systems, that isn't always expressly the case, as Robinson makes clear.  For example, the famous case of the decipherment of Linear B showed that the Linear B tablets recorded a very archaic form of Greek.  Likewise, ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs expressed a form of archaic Egyptian quite similar to Coptic, which was still a living (if only strictly liturgical) language.  This isn't a book about the lost languages, it's a book about lost writing systems (in the sense that their meaning is largely lost to us), and about attempts at decipherment.  What makes this book fascinating is how culture often seems to inform the decipherment of scripts.  As such, Robinson throws in a lot about the history of each culture, as well as the technical details of decipherment.  Robinson gives us a taste of the history of writing, bringing to life a human need that has spanned the ages.

This need is the need to organise, record and remember, and it is the single most fascinating thing about this book.  People say we now live in an 'Information Society'; but I believe that we always have, just in ways that have been limited by the available tools and infrastructure around us.  This desire to order and make sense of our world has led to the invention of many hundreds of different scripts, of varying degrees of complexity and efficiency (Robinson highlights the fact that Japanese is the most inefficient writing system in the world, yet Japan has one of the world's highest levels of literacy).  Throughout time, human ingenuity has been funnelled into the activity of writing and recording, even if it means re-inventing the wheel again and again.

The mysterious rongorongo script.
The most intriguing example of this is the rongorongo script of Easter Island, a relatively young script which died possibly within the space of 90 years.  No one knows exactly when it was invented or when it died out, what it was used for or what any of the beautifully cartoon-like characters mean.  But somehow, for some reason, someone on this isolated little island in the middle of nowhere felt the need to invent a complex script that flourished for a short time before its flame suddenly and dramatically died out with the coming of the slave trade and disease from the West.  And yet this writing system, constructed about the 18th-19th century, shares striking similarities with a totally unrelated system (The Indus Valley Script), which died out nearly 3 millennia before.

An Indus Valley seal.
What I found most enlightening about Robinson's book is the fact that nearly all the scripts he highlights were created not in order to create but to record.  There are no great epics or literary works to be found amongst the earliest records.  Nor are there mythologies, histories, or philosophies.  Most of the earliest writings deal with records, itineraries, calendars, and lists of people - slaves or kings.  What drove people to invent writing?  It was a need to record, enumerate and catalogue information.  To order our world, even to the most mundane degree.  That is what those first pioneers, the inventors of writing, bequeathed to us.  Their's was an information society as much as ours was, and Lost Languages gives an intriguing insight into the lost information societies of yesteryear.

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