Writing: Making Your Mark

The British Library looks at changing communication, John Westbrooke reports

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The British Library has long been receiving a copy of every book and magazine published in the UK and Ireland, about 400 miles of them so far. But since 2013 this has extended to digital publishing as well. And with that huge technological change in mind, they’ve opened a new exhibition on the history and the future of writing.

The history starts more than 5000 years ago in Mesopotamia, now Iraq. It’s represented here by a tablet with a cuneiform inscription, made by the point of a reed on wet clay. It’s small – Mesopotamians must have had sharp eyes – and it lists offerings made at a temple. As you might have guessed, writing was created by bureaucrats to create lists and keep count of things, much as they do today.

The Egyptians seem to have come up with hieroglyphs not much later, and the exhibition includes the oldest object in the library’s collection, a 3,600-year-old limestone slab. In fact, the curators point to six different regions that appear to have developed writing independently: China 3000 years ago (for purposes of divination), Mesoamerica (2500 years ago, recording dates), the Indus Valley, and Rapa Nui – Easter Island.

Little Easter Island invented its own writing? It could be: there’s a wooden tablet here with an inscription nobody can understand. Still, though there’s no proof either way, some scholars do wonder if there were links between any of these regions, Mesopotamia and Egypt for instance. It’s not unknown for travellers and merchants to bring back news from other lands of the latest novelties, and for locals to come up with their own versions.

Learning to write isn’t easy. One of the prize exhibits is an Egyptian child’s homework. The teacher has written two lines of Greek on a wax tablet to be copied. The pupil has missed the first letter altogether, and still overrun the end of the line. He (or maybe she) has tried again and made the same mistakes again. We’ve all been there, but our mistakes haven’t been handed down two millennia for everyone to giggle at. The child must have been glad to get back to hieroglyphics.

Writing can record speech in various ways. Chinese, Japanese and Korean all developed slightly differently, representing sounds, things or (in the case of Korean vowels) heaven, Earth and humanity. Arabic writing omits vowels, which is probably no more confusing than English having 10 ways of pronouncing ough. Hieroglyphs are a mixture of sounds, syllables and whole words.

The exhibition traces the development of A: an Egyptian ox’s head, then a Phoenician version in which the horns have become the main lines and the head streamlined into a triangle, then Greek and Etruscan letters stood upright, and eventually the Roman capital A we use today. (Lower-case letters, not necessarily looking like their big brothers, came along later.)

Letters have come and gone. The most recent arrival in English was J, which used to be an I with a tail; they were split in two in the 1600s, one a vowel, the other a consonant. Among those that have vanished are thorn, which looked like a Y but was pronounced “th” – it still lingers on in Ye Olde Shoppe-style names, which our ancestors would have simply pronounced “the”.

The exhibition ponders all the tools of writing. A stylus, once for wax, is now for tapping on your Ipad. Quill pens were used into the 19th century: one that belonged to poet laureate Lord Tennyson is on display (as movie producer Sam Goldwyn is alleged to have said about Shakespeare, “And to think he wrote it all with a feather!”) There’s a pencil from 1400, a fountain pen from as early as 1720, a dip pen from 1831, a Biro (kickstarted by the RAF, which bought 30,000 of them for writing at altitude because they didn’t leak) and some Bics – so cheap and ubiquitous that the writer Umberto Eco called them true socialist objects: you didn’t have to own one, you just picked one up off the nearest desk at the office and nobody minded.

The big upheaval, the biggest until now, came with the invention of printing, when writing became mass production. There’s a Diamond Sutra from China dated 11 May 868 and printed with woodblocks, a technology already 200 years old. There’s also a Korean document from 1442, printed with movable type, and a first edition of the earliest English movable-type book – William Caxton’s publication of The Canterbury Tales, from 1476; its typeface was modelled on the writing of the finest Flemish scribes.

Sometimes “gothic” scripts with heavy black letters were used, but they survive now mainly in the mastheads of the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail; most modern printing is done in the sort of simpler lettering pioneered by Italians.

More new technology came in the 19th century with the invention of the typewriter. Having the alphabet in alphabetical order didn’t work, the most used keys got tangled up, so the qwerty keyboard was invented. Computer keys don’t tangle, but qwerty is still with us. That’s nothing, however, compared to the problems faced by Chinese typewriters. There’s an impressive and complicated Double Pigeon machine here, which deals with almost 2450 characters, but it took them a century to get it right.

The telegraph brought news for 150 years before dwindling away. Its specialty was terseness (humourist Robert Benchley from Venice: “Streets full of water, please advise”) but here’s a four-page one from playwright John Osborne to a critic who panned his latest work, ending “ALRIGHT STOP FROM NOW ON IT’S OPEN WAR ALL THE WAY”. All telegrams were sent in capitals, but this one really meant it.

Each advance has left pundits fearful that handwriting will die out. It hasn’t yet – although I won’t be the only person to admit that mine has gone downhill since I began writing on computers. A selection of formal and informal work is on display, from James Joyce’s colour-coded notes for Ulysses, to notes of a different sort by Mozart, Florence Nightingale’s diary, and an ornate record of an East India Company meeting in 1662. There’s also a section on calligraphy, about those who consciously strive to make their writing beautiful.

And what of the future? Will anyone still be writing at all, or will we just be skyping or sending texts and the occasional emoji?

The exhibition wasn’t much help with this when I visited, because of a mechanical malfunction. Alas, that sounds all too plausible: a computer crashes somewhere, and communications are down until help desk staff are located. Perhaps reliance on technology isn’t the best thing for writing after all, and we’ll be using thought transference – or going back to the future by picking up our fountain pens again.

Writing: Making Your Mark is at the British Library until 27 August 2019. Tickets £14, £12 for seniors.