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Writing and Reading as Technology (4): Innovation at Play; or, A Loaded Pun

Writing History by Messing Around

As far as we know, writing has been invented four times in human history. The big four are Sumerian cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Chinese characters and Maya script.

Our best guess is that in each case the transition from simple pictograms to a true written language – where images are used to represent sounds as well as the things pictured (see the rebus principle) – came about because people can’t help but play.

Who could resist, say, combining a picture of a pot of stew and a verruca to spell “Stuart”? It seems quite plausible to me that the pressure to decode scribal in-jokes was a key incentive for early accountants to upgrade to rebus-principle writing, and that the ability to carve cryptic insults about one’s peers was literacy’s first killer app.

And so a fundamental innovation that lead to our most transformative general-purpose technology started out as a (bad) joke.

You couldn’t script it.

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...