Give thanks to the people who resolved to make pictures stand for sounds
By Johnson, columnist, Economist, June 30, 2022
If you are reading this column, a combination of 26 squiggles on a page or screen is putting the sounds and meaning of this sentence into your head almost without effort on your part, though you have almost certainly never met the writer.
If you are listening to this on The Economist’s audio edition, a reader who has also never met the author has turned a copy of those squiggles into intelligible sound waves for you.
Writing is such an everyday miracle that it is easy to take for granted. People who can read cannot stop themselves, as studies have shown in which subjects are told to ignore a word flashing on the screen while attending to another task, but are unable to do so. Reading is the prime goal of education everywhere. Writing seems so fundamental that it is hard to believe just how recent, and contingent, it really is.
Estimates differ widely on when language was developed, from 50,000 years ago to as many as 1.9m years. On even the most recent hypothesis, humans spent 45,000 years talking before it occurred to a few to make their words into durable visual signs. Writing was then independently invented just four (proven) times, in Mesopotamia, Egypt, China and Mesoamerica. Most people lived without it for a few more millennia.
Only in the 1940s did humankind pass a literacy rate of 50%.