Apr 17, 2015

Writing as encoding

Unicorn seal from Harappa, c. 2200 BC. Image: Harappa.com.

This project explores the history of medieval information technology by modelling writing as code. But what, exactly, does writing encode? Answers to this question are complex, significant, and richly productive.
what does writing encode?

The easy answer is that writing encodes information. The earliest forms of writing seem to have been used for accounting. However, there is some debate among historians of writing over whether visual semiotic systems that encode non-linguistic information should be considered ‘writing’. This is perhaps a semantic quibble, but it underlines a very important historical development: at some point, every writing system commonly used today was adapted for linguistic information. Since the most commonly and frequently used method that humans use to create, store, transmit, and process information is verbal – that is, humanly usable information is mostly linguistic – this tight linkage of writing and language became overwhelmingly powerful. It is easy to think of writing only as a representation of language, and of spoken language in particular.

Indeed, this model of text was prominent in the Middle Ages and continues to be assumed today: writing as a script for speech. This model suggests that writing encodes whatever can be read aloud. There are good reasons for this idea, not least a cognitive one: current psychological research suggests that reading always involves phonological processing at some level. That is one reason why, in many circumstances, the visual form of a written text cannot in itself provide definitive evidence as to whether it was intended to be, or actually was, read aloud or silently. However, we know that writing does not record all the nuances of spoken communication. When email, then text messaging, then Twitter became common forms of written communication with the temporal but not the physical immediacy of speech, writers using these digital platforms had to be careful to clarify sarcasm, humour, level of urgency, and other aspects of spoken communication that were stripped out of written messages. Emoticons and other devices came to carry some of the meaning in these forms of digital communication that body language and intonation carry in face-to-face spoken communication. Indeed, punctuation (medieval ‘pointing’) itself developed as a way of reinvesting writing with some of the richness of speech.

Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Tanner 10, fol. 100r. Image: Bodleian Library.
[Image right: Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Tanner 10 (c. 950-1000), fol. 100r. Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica in Old English translation; C├Ždmon’s Hymn, an Old English poem, is in the red box. Doesn't look like a poem, does it?]

When the written text records a vernacular – that is, the primary language spoken by its readers – it is natural to read it as a script for speech. A fine example of this phenomenon occurs in early English writing: Anglo-Saxon manuscripts treat English, the primary language of their intended readers, very differently than they treat Latin, a secondary language that was more familiar from books than from spoken interaction. For example, Old English poetry was always written out in continuous lines, like prose, whereas Latin verse in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts of the same period was laid out with line breaks, as we lay out poetry today. A reasonable explanation for the visual differences is that the Old English poetic text was read as a script for speech; an English speaker reading the text aloud (or even imagining reading aloud) would find the words falling naturally into the familiar rhythms of Old English verse and the text would sort itself out into poetic lines aurally, without the assistance of visual line breaks. Latin verse, on the other hand, was studied analytically, and the Anglo-Saxon reader would need as many visual cues as possible to help him grasp the structure of the poem.

London, British Library MS Royal 12.C.xxiii, fol. 83r. Image: British Library.
[Image right: London, British Library MS Royal 12.C.xxiii (c. 975-1025), fol. 83r. Verse preface to Aldhelm’s ├ćnigmata: Latin text, laid out as verse (notice that the first and last letters on each line form an acrostic), with interlinear and marginal glosses in Latin.]

Answers to the question ‘what does writing encode?’ have great explanatory power for understanding documents in early medieval England. For, in that historical context, English writing encoded spoken language, but Latin writing encoded linguistic information that, for its Anglo-Saxon readers, was visual before it was auditory. It is for this reason, as Parkes has pointed out, that Anglo-Saxon scribes followed Irish scribes (for whom Latin was also a foreign language) in developing a visual ‘grammar of legibility’, introducing cues such as word separation and punctuation – graphic conventions that do not correspond directly to any component of speech – to help readers interpret Latin text. ‘The Irish,’ writes Parkes, ‘regarded writing first and foremost as a means of recording information on the page’ (1993, p. 23). He points out that this approach to writing had a precedent in the ideas of Isidore of Seville (c. 560-636), for whom ‘writing was no longer merely the record of the spoken word but could also signal directly to the mind through the eye’ (Parkes 1993, p. 21).

If this is the case, it suggests strongly that it was not encoding conventions such as word separation that led medieval readers to approach writing as visual information, but a model of writing as visual information that led to the development of encoding conventions such as word separation. All the earliest extensive records of writing in English – glossaries, interlinear glosses, even the longer runic inscriptions – present linguistic information in such as way as to make it difficult or undesirable to read it as a transcript for a spoken English text. All of them appear in conjunction with written Latin. That is, most early English writing was not simply a transcription of early English speech. Rather, the use of English writing to encode spoken English discourse – as a transcript for speech – was mostly a later development, after written English was used to add information, visually, to Latin texts that called for further study. Important exceptions to this statement are early English runic inscriptions, many of which assume a human voice, as if the inscribed object were speaking aloud. Thus, throughout the history of medieval English writing, a tension exists between an approach to writing as encoded speech and an approach to writing as encoded (not necessarily speakable) information. How one answers the question ‘what does writing encode?’ turns out to be complicated; the question had, and continues to have, direct implications for book history, document design, and the history of reading.

Yin Liu

References and Further Reading

On writing as information and as representing language, see Gnanadesikan 2009, the essays in Houston 2004, and Sproat 2010.

The literature on the psychology of reading is extensive, but for a recent overview see Rayner and Pollatsek 2013.

The standard English account of the history of punctuation is Parkes 1993, which also includes a version of his classic discussion of the ‘grammar of legibility’.

For a detailed discussion of vernacular literacy and the visual encoding of Old English verse, see O’Keeffe 1990.

For the history of word separation, the most comprehensive study is Saenger 1997.

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