Technology and the Written Word

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Biology 202
2004 Second Web Paper
On Serendip

Technology and the Written Word

Maria Scott-Wittenborn

The history of the development of written language reflects the parallel relationship between the human capacity for communication and technology. The written word allows for populations to develop a shared, cumulative body of knowledge based on the experiences and records of previous generations. The human mind is ill suited to serve as a passive vessel for knowledge or ideas. In the process of acquiring new knowledge we cannot help but twist and revise the information in light of our own story, perceptions, and opinions. In creating a written language humans found a way for information to exist independently from a human host, allowing it to remain free of the distortion and bastardization that it would inevitably undergo. Our capacity for language is perpetually evolving to allow for better communication in order to gain more quickly and effectively new information and modify behaviors accordingly. To this end the recent development of computers and the creation of the Internet provide human society with an unprecedented forum in which the written language instead of serving as a means of preserving knowledge, is an immediately accessible source of information and method of communication to larger and more diverse groups than ever before. Such developments are altering our language structure as it now exists and making significant new demands on our methods of communication in the future.

Language has always been a fairly fluid entity, evolving and shifting to get the intended point across. As cultures emerged and faded out or merged into different groups, so with them went a variety of different systems of written language (3). The earliest languages tended not to be solely phonetic, ideographic or pictographic, but combinations thereof (3). Our modern languages, at least since the invention of the printing press, have tended towards phonetic alphabet based systems. The invention of computers drastically alters the situation. Computers offer a graphical interface that allows the use of graphical languages in a way that the printing press and typewriters did not.

Computers fundamentally alter the content timing and manner of written communication. They remove many of the technical difficulties that limited the ways in which text could be created and used effectively. Since the advent of the printing press in the mid-fifteenth century, texts and documents were more easily created using a phonetic alphabet. It is more practical to re-arrange a limited set of phonetic symbols to create all possible words than to have the thousands of individual ideograms and pictograms. In the Japanese language, for example, there are two distinct systems for writing. One of these systems, Kata Kana is a phonetic system of writing using 71 graphic symbols and when read must be comprehended syllable by syllable (unlike English words for example, which are easily identifiable just by looking at them). The second language, Kanji, is mostly ideographic and represents both sound and meaning and is comprised of over 40,000 ideograms (3). Obviously, it is easier to create a typewriter, printing press and even word processor working with 71 phonetic symbols rather than with 40,000 plus ideograms. The first Japanese typewriter, for example, was produced in 1915 and had a flat bed of 3,000 keys (4). As books became the preferred method for conveying ideas, stories and knowledge, practical concerns continued to encourage the use of alphabets over ideograms. Libraries faced the practical challenge of being forced to catalog and index texts. It is reasonably straightforward to index works written using an alphabet. It is significantly less straightforward to index ideograms. Computers remove most of these technical issues. Computers' graphical interface allows the use of graphical languages, presenting society with a new possibility for creating a sort of hybrid method of communication between ideographic and phonetic writing systems. Computers potentially can utilize the strengths of both writing systems to address the difficulty that various individuals have with phonetic processing by using other means to communicate information usually only available in a phonetic writing system. Dyslexic children, for example, can learn to read when the words are represented by single characters rather than a series of phonemes (1). Computers have the potential to use this distinction between phonetic and non-phonetic processing to the child's advantage by converting texts. Similar possibilities exist for victims of stroke or other brain damage whose phonetic processing abilities have been injured (1). When speakers of Japanese, for example, suffer certain damage to the left hemisphere, their ability to read kana is profoundly disrupted, while their ability to interpret kanji, or ideographs, is relatively undisturbed (1). Even in individuals without brain injury, the simultaneous integration of phonetic and non-phonetic processing presents new communicative methods. Beyond the technological possibilities presented by computers, the creation of the Internet is a space that has profoundly altered human communication. It provides a new forum in which texts composed of a mixture of pictographs, ideographs and the written word are immediately made available to a broad audience. Unlike books, much of what is written on the internet is not intended for posterity. Rather, the internet is meant to facilitate immediate communication. This development is a fundamental shift in the intention of written language and, as a result, the way in which the language is used is evolving to best suit its new purpose. To that end it has evolved it's own 'shorthand' in an attempt to allow for written communication to take place at the same speed as spoken language while retaining many of the subtleties of speech. In this context ideograms have come back into use, because they communicate a larger idea or sentiment in a single character. 'Emoticons', small graphical depictions of faces making a variety of expressions (smiling, winking, frowning), for example, have come into frequent use in Instant Messaging programs, because the written word alone does not provide the recipient with enough information about the exact meaning behind a message. (was it intended sarcastically, jokingly, seriously, ect.) In some ways it is much more a form of literally 'written speech' and as such is based in the phonetics of the spoken language. 'Want to' on the internet often becomes 'wanna,' 'going to' becomes 'gonna'. The technology of computers is allowing humans to continue to develop systems of written communication consistent with their ability to process and exchange information.

Humans are moving away from texts that are purely phonetic and evolving a writing system that makes use of a variety of communicative methods. Many of the forces that previously determined the nature of our language no longer apply and technological advances allow us to make use of the many ways in which humans can receive information and express their knowledge and thoughts. Joseph Brodsky once wrote that "..apart from pure linguistic necessity, what makes one write is...the urge to spare certain things of one's world-of one's personal civilization-one's own non-semantic continuum. Art is not a better, but an alternative existence; it is not an attempt to escape reality but the opposite, and attempt to animate it. It is a spirit seeking flesh but finding words." Perhaps what this more diverse, integrated system of writing moves us towards is not finding words so much as meaning. It again allows us more freedom in using written language to express ideas instead of forcing ideas through the sometimes inhibiting paradigms of language.


1)Kandel, Eric R. Principles of Neural Science. Simon & Schuster. 1991.
2)Birth of a Writing Machinediscusses the development of a Japanese type-writer
3)History of Cuneiform As the title of the page might suggest, this is a history of Cuneiform.
4)Early Office MuseumImages of early type-writers ect.
5)website of the International Dyslexia Foundation

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