Olivier Morin

The piecemeal evolution of writing

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This paper argues that writing evolved gradually and in piecemeal fashion. Literacy as we know and use it is made up of at least three distinct features: it is a glottography (a notation of language), it is a generalist code that can note down anything we can say, and it is a form of asynchronous communication – a way of conveying information to other people across space and across time. This combination of features is uniquely powerful; but this does not mean the three features evolved together, or for the same reasons. Glottography, generality, and asynchronous use evolved out of pace with one another. Two huge lags separate, first, the invention of glottography from its generalisation beyond proper names, second, the existence of writing as a generalist tool from the routinisation of its asynchronous use. At each step the inventors of writing responded to distinct and specific pressures. The originators of glottography were not necessarily aware of their invention’s potential beyond the notation of proper names. Those who developed writing into a generalist tool, capable of encoding anything that can be said, were unlikely to anticipate that the code they were using as an accompaniment to oral recitations, or as a reminder of the transactions they took part in, would come to be used in a quite different way – to store information for the benefit of distant recipients to whom the information would be new.


  • literacy
  • cultural evolution
  • proper names
  • asynchronous communication
  • archives


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