Writing: Making Your Mark at the British Library

Writing: Making Your Mark at the British Library


The more integral something is to our daily existence, the easier it is to take it for granted. After all no one’s hobby list includes ‘respiration’, and so among mankind’s achievements the written word is often treated like something of a red-headed step-child.This is not a grumpy accusation that no-one appreciates literature, but rather than the actual creation of a written form of language, it is somewhat shrugged off compared to flashier innovations like the pyramids or pokemon. ‘We’re a civilisation, so ergo we have the written word’ seems to be the take on it, as if each alphabet was handed down to us on Mount Sinai whole-cloth by the God of semicolons. However our lack of appropriate context for one of the most important developments in human history is hardly surprising. Considering that most people don’t study Neolithic linguistics at degree level, and there aren’t any historical re-enactment societies acting out ‘the subsumption of Phoenician alphabet into Latin’, there are really not a terribly large amount of opportunities to learn about it.

“Writing: Making Your Mark at the British Library” peels back to the misty origins of the first written language. This is, naturally, a very wordy exhibition, the opening stretch in particular offers some intimidatingly detailed informational placards, fairly bristling with increasingly technical linguistic terminology. However the selection of fascinating and unthinkably ancient exhibits on display helps keep things from becoming too dense. Whilst our interpretation of ancient writings tend to be hieroglyphs proclaiming the godhood of a long dead pharaoh, many of the exhibits are charmingly simple: a four- thousand-year old stock inventory is still just a stock inventory jotted down by a bored workman, thinking about the nice horn of mead he’s going to treat himself to when he clocks out. Whilst the exhibition posits some of the inspirations for the development of language as springing from the need for funereal and religious purposes along with more possessive reasons [after all you can’t show people what you own if you can’t label it ] it’s slightly alarming to think that the need for better bookkeeping was the first step on the road to Shakespeare.

The exhibition features more than 100 exhibits and showcases at least 40 different writing systems from all over the globe, including an indigenous Inuit language from Arctic Canada, as well as Ethiopia’s liturgical “Ge’ez” script. If writing is one of the great achievements of humanity, then the exhibition demonstrates it as a collective one. Our own alphabet receives an interesting deep dive, showing how our seemingly inviolate 26 letters contorted and mutated as they greedily snapped up linguistic principles from any rival alphabet that looked useful. One of the highlights of the Exhibition is a series of ancient inscriptions, discovered across the Eastern Mediterranean, which demonstrates the Latin alphabet’s jerky sideways evolution by showing how, over almost two millennia, the stern capital letter “A” evolved from its original form: a modified Egyptian hieroglyph depicting an ox-head which wouldn’t have looked out of place on a Led Zeppelin album.

The ox-head was originally part of a system adopted and disseminated by Phoenician traders, who bore it across the Mediterranean on their fleet. The sign was later finessed by the Greeks and Etruscans, who made it sleeker and more abstract, and swivelled it around, so that its “horns” pointed downwards, before it was finally standardised under the Romans into its familiar form. This is “Making Your Mark” at its best, but often to get to grips with the fascinating information on offer requires seriously dedicated concentration. Perhaps I just didn’t pay enough attention at school, but I’m not sure words such as “syllabaries” and “abjads” are really as broadly understood as the British Library seems to believe: they mean respectively ‘ a set of written characters representing syllables’ and ‘writing systems where every letter is a consonant’. By the time we’re informed that in some of the illuminated medieval gospels on display which “harmonises Roman cursive minuscules with uncial majuscules”, you might be having the scholastic equivalent of Vietnam flashbacks.

Thankfully this is balanced by a somewhat puckish and almost irreverent selection of exhibits. Tennyson’s broken quill jostles for position with a BIC ballpoint and dour gothic texts abound with cheerfully illuminated rabbits and fish. There’s also an oddly fascinating selection of personal writing from famous hands: James Joyce’s alarmingly dense colour-coded notes for “Ulysses” makes an appearance as does Mozart’s quickly jotted down list of his own compositions and perhaps most strikingly of the lot is Captain Scott’s Arctic diary, lying open on its anguished final page.

Even more interesting however is the prosaic nature of many of the exhibitions:  a pair of Egyptian wax tablets, bound together with string, dating back to the 2nd Century AD is one of the earliest homework books in the world and you can practically feel the student’s stultifying boredom curling around his beautifully copied Greek characters.  Where the exhibition falls down, however, is in the final section which attempts to plot out where the written word is headed in the future. Taking the form of a series of recorded “Vox Pops” with scholars and members of the public, the sudden twist to video is jarring.  Whilst it was probably meant to be a nod to how writing has been perceived as being threatened by evolving technologies, in practice it’s just annoying and rather unenlightening.

There is a persistent murmur that language is under threat; across the internet, pedants spit bile at each other for the smallest literary infraction. As words change meanings due to collective misinterpretation, there are many who despair that our languages are being dumbed down from intellectual splendour to grubby colloquialisms through the stultifying influence of the internet. This exhibition offers a much needed rebuttal to this pessimistic view. Language is always in flux, always changing, stealing and breaking from the past. The written word is no more finished than history is at an end. One of the scholars cited in “Writing: Making Your Mark” describes writing as a “system of graphic symbols … used to convey any and all thought” and despite what YouTube comment sections might have you believe, thought’s not going anywhere for awhile.

Until August 27th

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