4. Writing


Defined in my dictionary as "marking paper etc. with the symbols which are used to represent words or sounds". Only partly correct as we shall see later.


Pictures and Words

       Let us go back to the pre-historic tribe we left at the beginning at the essay on Art. They are still busy, experimenting with all the interesting things an active and curious race of beings can do when confronted with a rich variety of natural phenomena - like children in a toyshop.

       But let us concentrate our attention on one group who seem to be mostly interested in marking bark, dried skins, slabs of stone. They are the more artistically inclined of the tribe and have been working for some time on a "Collection" of interesting designs. Today the rest of the tribe has been invited to their hut and we can imagine them standing around, with half-coconuts in their hands, talking about the "Oeuvres" on view. The older members of the tribe will be looking with approval at the traditional coloured geometrical figures of most artists: the others are grouped before the controversial "free-hand" doodles of one young artist in a corner.

       "I feel his strength lies in his integrity of the picture plane, in the emphatic surface of his pictures, which it is his concern to maintain and intensify in all that thick fuliginous flatness which began...."

       "Oh, no! Surely it is the tension inherent in the constructed, in the as-it-were ‘re-created flatness’ of the surface?".

       "But if he strives to preserve the tactile qualities..."

       Yes, we are in a vernissage and are they discussing, strangely enough, what is to become one of the later products of Art - Abstract Art - a type of Art that was rediscovered when Representative Art had worked out all the combinations, and finally had been given a death-blow by the invention of the camera. We are looking at Tribal Art - Abstract Art the first time round.

       A few thousand years later some genius (and I am not being ironic) discovered that it is possible to draw the actual things you can see, things that can be recognized for what they are by other members of the tribe. This representational Art must have had immediately two applications, which we named Play pictures and Useful pictures.

       Play pictures are going to become a branch of what we call Art and have been discussed under that title. (see "Art")

       In this essay we are going to first discuss Useful Pictures, as they are the earliest form of Writing.


Useful pictures       

       Useful Pictures would have been used to record information such as:

-          The position of a particular star pattern, which indicates when a certain crop must be sown.

       - Pictures of fruit or berries, which are useful for various purposes such as eating, colouring, medicinal.

       - "How to" pictures. What a lion trap looks like. How a fishing net is made. How grass is plaited. How a neighbouring village is to be attacked.

         Plaiting grass cannot be described with a single picture - you must do this and then that, then this bit goes under here. A sequence of pictures is required. Similarly for the attack on a village. "We wait until the moon is behind this peak so. Then Bill takes the spear company to the fold in the ground here. In the meantime Joe takes his bowmen round the back of this hill so when the moon reappears Bill attacks with covering fire from Joe on the hill here…      

What is being shown in each case is a strip cartoon. There is no attempt at a realistic portrayal of Joe's stalwart bowmen, oiled skin gleaming in the moonlight, bows drawn back, arrows fitted to the strings ready to release their silent deadly hail. The most we can hope for is a few stick figures.


Picture writing

       Note now that these sort of strip cartoons have much wider and important applications than those for which they were originally intended. The piece of bark holding the plaiting manual can be sent to the next village or (even more important) it can be saved to instruct the young, the next generation. Information transfer suddenly becomes easier and human development takes off.

       Thousands of years pass and our tribe is now completely accustomed to storing information on an early form of paper. A library has been built up.

       Note that everyone can still understand this writing - it is still in the form of pictures. It has the wonderful advantage in that it crosses language barriers (Ah, yes, I forgot to tell you, but speech has been invented now and each tribe has its  own language.) It is possible for the  headman of one village to dictate a note to his secretary and then send it to a neighbouring village, having a different language, where the headman can read it out to his wife in the different language. Even we, thousands of years later, can read it out in our language.

       Time continues to pass and communication using picture writing facilitates military conquest, empire building and tax collection. See Egyptian writing. The pictures or ideographs still vaguely resemble the original objects but are very much easier to draw now. And this simplification was urgently necessary as with the growth in popularity of writing, many more pictures have become necessary as its application is widened. A delivery of sub-standard rice might once have been returned to vendor with a reject notice marked with the sign for” repugnance" (a pair of hands pushing something away). But pressure of business has reduced this to a curt downward pointing thumb over the offending rice sack.

       The price of simplification is of course that the symbols are no longer immediately obvious to everyone and so must be learnt. And there are by now thousands of these symbols.

       Before we pass on to the next step, it is worth pointing out that a large portion of the educated world population still uses ideographs (Chinese and Japanese). And clumsy and over-complicated as the method seems to us, I am told that these ideographs have the power to express delicate nuances and arouse deep emotions in the reader.

       The most highly developed form of this type of communication is found in Japan and China. At the last count a Japanese child has to learn up to 3000 ideographs called "kanji" which are used with 96 imitated pronunciation symbols called "kana". Alphanumeric characters are also used. Both kanji and kana characters are needed because kana characters, being phonetic, are not able to distinguish between homonyms (like "sun" and "son" in English). Because kanji characters depict ideas, they are used to supplement the kana characters in clarifying a word's meaning. Before special word processors were available, the Japanese had to deal with all documents by hand.

       I have shown how Picture Writing must have developed. It was an obvious first step, and is still being constantly re-invented by young children. It only survives in the Western world as the strip cartoon, used at most to illustrate the text, which contains the real information.



       This essay is entitled "Writing" and you may be wondering when we are going to get round to actually discussing it.

       "Writing" to most people means a way of putting Speech down on paper. Later we will discuss how Writing, and then reading Speech modifies its effect on the writer and the reader, but first we must have a look at Speech by itself. And to be consistent, we must look at Speech under the two headings of Play Speech and Useful Speech.


Play Speech as Art

       By Play Speech I mean Speech used uniquely to create a mood or feeling. In this application it is therefore Art, and it should be possible to compare it to other Art forms such as painting, films or music.

       One way of doing this is to try to use words to describe a piece of music or a painting, and see if they evoke the same mood. Does the verbal description or a poem of a moonlit landscape move you in the same way as looking at a painting of one or hearing "Clair de Lune"?. As discussed in "Art" it depends on many factors - is the speaker using words that you know, do they have the same meaning for him as for you? And as he is speaking, does his accent affect the mood he is trying to evoke?

       But putting all these reservations aside, it seems that to the ordinary average Western-world educated person a verbal description of a scene cannot but "direct" your feelings much more than a painting and certainly very much more than music. The voice doesn't allude to the scene, it describes it and tells you what to think about it: "See the silvery full moon sailing high over the peaceful mountain lake". Not only does a voice grab your attention and tell you what to feel, it also pushes anything else, painting or music, into the background.

       Yes, an emotional verbal description such as the reciting of a poem can have an intense effect on your mood - if you are in agreement with the poet. Speech is our main communication channel, we are very perceptive to and critical of Speech and so mood-provoking Play Speech works fantastically or not at all.


Useful Speech

      Well, it's not easy to write a pithy sentence, which describes the purpose of Useful Speech - it's just about what made most of human civilization possible. It is a rapid communication channel and if we didn't have Speech we probably wouldn't be where we are now.

       Speech is so much a part of our life - is our life – that it is rarely possible to make a distinction between Useful and Play Speech. There are some extreme examples which can be classified as one or the other (poetry meets our definition of Play Speech, whereas a weather forecast is strictly Useful Speech). But in general they are inextricably mixed. The fact that we are talking about a serious theme does not prevent us from slipping in colourful metaphors or even puns. When one person is trying to convince another that some action should be taken, it is quite common to mix an appeal to logic with an appeal to the emotions. We even have a name - "Rhetoric" – for the bag of tricks that professional speakers use to render their listeners more emotionally receptive.



       Before we go on and discuss Writing, the actual putting down of words on paper, we should perhaps note that although all human ears, larynxes and brains are very similar, there are an amazing number of languages in use. Apart from the difference in the words themselves, the way they are strung together in a sentence varies enormously. And the fine differentiation of words varies. An African tribe would find no need for a word for "snow", whereas we are told Eskimos have a vocabulary of 50 words for it.


Two-tier languages

       Language probably evolved in two parallel paths. The first was the language spoken by the "people" – grammatically simple, polished to the tribe's need. The second was a version of the "peoples' language" spoken by the ruling class and priests. Obsessed with power, ritual and secrecy, they would have an extra vocabulary of secret words and incantations and a different, more impressive way of speech. In the same pathetic way doctors and pharmacists still use Latin in an attempt to inflate their image in an increasingly critical world. ("Aqua purificata" for distilled water and if the Romans didn't have a word for it they manufacture a Latin-sounding one as in "Acidum salicylicum" for salicylic acid, or Aspirin).

       Some fool of a priest, thousands of years ago, conceived the idea that nouns had gender: were masculine, feminine or neuter. OK for living things, but objects were not all neuter, as an English speaker might think, but also could be masculine or feminine. And of course there were different ways of saying the plural form of each gender. Then other words, like adjectives, which were used with the nouns. had to "agree" with them. So you could end up with six versions of each adjective, the masculine, the feminine, the neutral and the plural of each. And don't forget the possessive pronouns `him, her and its' which also had to agree. Some derivatives of such languages became slightly simplified, but this didn't help comprehension any. French has "only" masculine and feminine nouns and only one form of the possessive pronoun. So if you want to say "her glass" in French you can't - the nearest is "son verre" which translated back into English means "someone's glass". You have ”spent" the gender of the possessive pronoun, not on the gender of the person owning the glass, but on the gender of the glass. Totally pointless. German, which retains more of the rigidity of the original language, "solves" this self-inflicted problem by having (mein Gott) a different possessive pronoun for "him", "her" and "its", each with their masculine, feminine, neutral and plural versions! And don’t forget there are 4 cases in German so there are different versions of the above for each case – 64 in total! 

       The next problem is that the "priest-speak" had the verb at the end of the sentence. So: "Dog man bites" or alternatively "Man dog bites". In English the verb has a double function - not only is it the "action" word but it also separates the subject from the predicate. But as the verb is at the end in Latin and often in German, the two nouns "man" and "dog" have to be marked or coded in some special way, to show you which is the subject and which the predicate (Who bit who). This problem is "solved" by having different endings on the nouns to identify the subject and the object.

       It is no wonder that English speakers are such poor linguists. It is because they find all other languages so unbelievably and unnecessarily complicated. It is understandable that foreigners have different words - we wouldn't mind learning them. But when we find we must also learn a completely illogical gender with each noun, that each adjective has a different form for each gender, that in some languages the nouns and adjectives have cases too ....

       It is also no wonder that so many foreigners find English so easy. Learning English after German must be child's-play.


Imitated pronunciation - Writing

       But to return to our theme. We have seen there must have been two versions of each language: "people-speak" and "priest-speak".

       At this point some other genius thought of the idea of writing down symbols to imitate the sounds of speech. And "priest-speech" would be the first to be so written. It would be very involved to start with. The language was already complicated, and its pronunciation would be imitated with a large number of elaborate written symbols.("Don't make it too easy for the peasants".) And finally the writing medium for this holy script would be something like beaten gold or marble.


Writing becomes simpler

       But under pressure of the soon discovered usefulness of writing, the technology advanced, making writing easier and cheaper. The wider use of writing would then react back on the writing itself, simplifying the symbols necessary and reducing their number. We in the Western world have reduced them to the 26 letters of the alphabet.

       Everyone from the Greeks onward uses this system. It records language like someone speaks, and can be as rich as the spoken language. Using the same symbols over and over, it is fast to write and can be mechanized by printing machinery and typewriters. Once the simple rules of pronunciation have been learnt, it can be translated back into speech. By changing a few conventions, and possibly adding one or two "modifiers", these 26 letters can be used to write down many languages. Of course, some do it better that others. German, for instance, is done so well that it is possible to take a dictation in German and write it down almost error-free, without having the faintest idea of what it's all about. French is the absolute opposite, so much so that the ability to take a dictation is always included in French exams. (The verb endings -ai, -ais,-ait, -aient,-ez, e, es, -ee, -ees, all sound the same and you have to understand what the text means in order to choose the right one.)

       English is a mish-mash of a language derived from many roots and has been considerably grammatically simplified. But unfortunately this has left many irregular parts of speech as a sort of residue - mouse, mice - can, could - think, thought - am, was, will, etc. And as for the spelling! Womb, comb, rough, plough, would, pseudo, phone ... If only we could use German spelling for English!


Speech modified by writing

       The wide use of writing would now react back on the language being written, the "priest-speak". It would become somewhat simplified, resembling "people-speak". The new language, being written, would now only evolve very slowly. But it would evolve, and each nationality can look back to a time when its language was more complicated and formal than it is today.


Writing as a data channel

       So how would a communications engineer regard Writing? He would probably first look at the letters themselves and try to measure what he would call the Signal to Noise Ratio (see

Tutorial). He would want to find how easy it is to recognize one letter from the others. Going through the alphabet - a b c d e f g are quite different and could be distinguished one from the other even if printed badly. But then comes h - not very different from b. Carry on and he would find that g and q are not very different as are u and v (especially if hand-written). The engineer would probably try to measure signal to noise ratio by giving someone random lists of letters, printed (say) on poor quality paper to add "noise", and see how well the letters could be identified.

       This procedure would give a very pessimistic view of writing (a low signal to noise ratio). But we know that in fact people can correctly read very garbled writing. There are three reasons:

       1. In any given language, there are combinations of letters, which just don't occur.

       2. There are words, which just don't exist in certain languages.

       3. There are genuine words, which "don't fit" in a sentence.

       In other words, there is a lot of "redundancy" both in speech and yet more in writing it down.

       Yes, writing by marking paper with symbols which imitate the sounds of speech is a neat idea, but of course you must know the language that is being written. It's a pity that we lost the universality of a written language when we dropped picture writing.


Summary so far

       We have shown that Writing today is the imitated pronunciation of Speech and each has affected the other. The wide use of writing (and reading) - literacy - has made Speech more formal and also simplified the originally complicated Writing.

       Writing, as imitated pronunciation, has also more or less "frozen" the evolution of Speech.



       This essay is entitled "Writing", but for most people the word is internally changed to "Reading". Not many people write, not even inter-office memos.

       The elder generation complain that the "youth of today" don't read anymore, but I'm not sure this is right. They must learn to read and write at school, and achieve a reasonable standard, because almost all their educational material is printed.

       The shops are filled with books and the numerous libraries are well attended. There are lots of people who can read, but hardly ever do for pleasure. They might have read more 100 years ago, when there was no cinema or television, but then their parents probably complained they were always sneaking off to the theatre.

       Books still have a lot going for them. They are a cheap robust way of storing a fair amount of information (one medium paperback = 100 000 words = 800kbytes = 1 floppy disk) with reasonable "access time" and they need no special “reader” – you just look at the page. This means you can quickly flip through a book to find out if you want to read it or to find something. You can also read a book at your own speed, re-reading certain parts, skipping over others. Watching a film on the cinema or TV can often be irritating - it sometimes feels as though the Producer is holding up a book in front of you and regularly turning the pages. The speed has been set for the average audience and you can't speed it up or run it back. I prefer watch TV films via a video recorder so I can do this.


Writing as an aid to thinking

       Anyone who has done any "serious" writing, by which I mean a piece of writing designed to explain something, to put a point of view, to summarize a situation, immediately finds out that it's not the same as talking about the same subject.

       For one thing, you can't go back. Once it's "committed to paper" it's taken as being your considered view and many people may read it, carefully weigh up each word you have used, and judge you by it. So when you pick up your pen (or word processor) you think a lot more carefully about what you want to say than if you were merely going to have a chat with someone. You will imagine the piece of paper being passed from hand to hand and commented on. It will be filed and brought out later and maybe the thoughts in it compared with what actually happened.

       So "never put it down on paper" would seem to be a first principle in business or politics. But there can be advantages, as will be seen later.

       The whole level of a piece of writing is higher that the off-the-cuff, thinking on your feet, off the top of your head, (wafffle), that usually passes for conversation. Yes, that is one of the biggest advantages of writing down your thoughts. You have to go slowly, one tends to use a more ponderous and measured form of speech (how often would you say "one tends ..." in a normal conversation?) Deeper thoughts and implications have time to rise to the surface of your consciousness. And to your surprise you find yourself writing a mature, considered, almost wise piece of prose. You can hardly believe you wrote it.

       But you did. A deeper, profounder, wiser "you" wrote it. I am not afraid of using a wide vocabulary when I write. What may seem pretentious and pompous if spoken, adds power and lustre to a written piece. It is as though a different personality takes over. This can be overdone of course, but it carries its own remedy - if I can imagine it being read out in mocking tones, I will trim it.

       And not only is this personality wiser and more tolerant than me (I am trying to convince a wide spectrum of readers, after all) but it is a lot more inventive. This must be because, as discussed in the Tutorial, we store data in our brain in a completely different way to a computer. We apparently learn (or know) simple facts in our youth and then use them as hooks to hang on new facts. These new facts are then used as hooks for further facts etc. So everything we know is connected somehow. To check this, think of some object. After a while you will find that having pulled this object out of your memory, other objects, concepts, experiences come up with it – are "associated" with it. And writing is an excellent way to pull out these pieces of hooked-together data. If you are in the right mood, the words just seem to flow from the end of your pen.


Inhibition to Writing

       But serious Writing today means putting your thoughts into print - ie. typing, and if you are not an expert typist the worry about making a typing error can act as a great dampener on your creativity.

       When I first started writing, I first had to use a pencil and paper to make a rough draft which I would edit, then type. Then I found one of those "Magic Slate" devices which you can write on with any pointed object and then instantly efface by pulling up the writing surface. I would write and edit on it before typing.

       Then I discovered that white paper you can type on to efface a letter (Tippex it's called here), and that started me off typing my thoughts directly onto paper. But it was not very satisfactory and most days I found myself typing more on Tippex than on the typing paper.


The word processor

      And then I discovered the wonder of the word processor! No longer did I have to worry about making mistakes: I could bash on in a totally uninhibited manner and then go back, picking the best out of these almost free-association scribbles and incorporate them into a final version. Of course, the word processor is best at what can perhaps be called the "fine grain" of writing ie. up to 20 lines of print (the size of the monitor display). You can flip from one page to the next in order to check the "large scale" but you really need to see a hard copy print-out of the whole piece to get the overall flow.

       I think the word processor is a significant step forward in helping man to use his brain. I would rank the other steps as follows:


       1. The invention of speech

       2. The invention of writing as imitated pronunciation

       3. The invention of the word processor


       Each step amplifies the one above it.


Some everyday applications of Writing

      As with Speech, there is Play Writing and Useful Writing, but there are few pure examples of the extremes. Poetry at one extreme and a car manual at the other, perhaps. Usually however the two styles are inextricably mixed.


The essay

       Writing a short treatise is a wonderful way to clarify your thoughts on some subject. The structure of the language forces you to be rational, you have to go logically from one step to the next. As often as not your writing will reveal holes in your previously held opinions or show you lack information which needs to be obtained before you can go further. You can argue yourself into a corner and it's not unusual to discover a whole new view point when writing an essay.

       The essay can be kept and handed out to people you wish to convince of some course of action. A written piece has a much more powerful impact than a verbal argument - it is much more serious and shows you have really studied the subject. If you hand out your essay in the middle of a furious argument, it will introduce a rational note and may cool things down as the participants will have to stop shouting to read your piece. And both sides will read it, if only to learn about some telling argument they fear the other side will find in it. The power of the written word has been recognized since the invention of writing - hence the way totalitarian regimes ban printing presses and photocopiers, burn books, register typewriters.

       Another application is to write an essay for your own consumption. If you have an important decision to take – which partner to marry, which job to take, which car to buy, in general which course of action to take - write it all down in detail as though describing it to an older, wiser person. Put down the pros and cons, advantages and disadvantages, together with your innermost thoughts. Defend your final decision and then put the whole thing aside. Read it again a few days later and if you are still in agreement, take that course of action and destroy the essay.


The memo

       Writing a memo on some subject can make an excellent impression on people in authority above you. Proposing an improvement in procedure, (and there is always something being done badly in every organization.) a new market, a different course of action, shows you are an intelligent cooperative person with the Company's interest at heart. Someone who is not only observant but is willing to take the time off to write about it. And remember incoming memos have to be time and date stamped: someone has to do something with it - if only to file it. It has to be filed because it is known you have a copy and can bring it out at some future date saying "I told you so".


Fiction writing

       It can be great fun to write fiction. You are really writing a program to control the emotions of your reader. It is the nearest thing to programming a human being. You invent your own characters and make them interact amongst themselves as you wish, all the time with an eye on your reader. He will hate, respect, despise, or love them as you wish. You can put him in a excitingly disastrous situation and then release him with an ingenious solution. You can make him laugh or cry.

       It affects you too. You will thrill with him as in a howling gale, cutlass between your teeth, you crawl along the Frenchman's yardarm to sever his backstay, watched with horrified admiration by your loyal crew below. You may have to take a shower after writing some scenes.

       Your hero, by his behaviour under experiences which you design and choose, can show a character and philosophy of life you admire. The reader will approve and admire him too.

       Again, think of all those verbal arguments you had with someone but only thought of the telling ripostes afterwards. In a piece of fiction you can conduct an imaginary debate where the arguments of your opponent are brought out one by one and then knocked down by your hero, with scholarship and wit.

       Because of the "directing" power of writing, you can have a firm, unambiguous control over the emotions of your reader.

       But like all Art, most of it will only work if he likes your style, approves of your sentiments and knows the same vocabulary. If all these are true you can have a god-like power over him.

       It is the ultimate ego-trip and can be addictive.