Putting Bread in Your Head

It’s really fun to read Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond, but a lot of people, myself included, find it a bit much to take all at one go. It’s basically a comprehensive history of the human race.

Every domesticated plant or animal is discussed and there are tables showing when and where they were first domesticated. All innovations considered to be advances in human society are chronicled in the same way: agriculture, irrigation, specialization of labor, writing, metal smithing, navigation, sanitation… (notice he does not include religion, nor would I).

And he brings in evidence from so many different areas of science, as I mentioned in a previous post, and he takes it step by step so even a dummy like me can understand it if I take the time.

But it’s such a huge volume, I have more fun diving in – in medias res, as it were – and picking out little manageable chunks.

I’ve just been reading about the development of writing – fascinating stuff. The way societies went from pictograms (one symbol per word, therefore thousands of symbols) to syllabaries (one word per syllable, therefore hundreds of symbols) to a system of consonants with little doodads on them to suggest vowels to modern alphabets in which each letter stands for a phonetic sound, so you have a manageable number of letters.

Our own alphabet comes from the Phoenicians, who invented most of the consonants, and the Greeks, who invented most of the vowels, and the Romans, who took it all and made it their own, as they were wont to do with everything else.

But the earliest forms of writing, in ancient Sumer and Mycenae and a few other places, were really only for one purpose: collecting and keeping track of taxes, so they were mostly pictographic nouns – number of cows, sheep and pigs owed by so and so – and they didn’t lend themselves to rendering actual speech.

“The texts were merely accounting reports in a telegraphic shorthand devoid of grammatical elements,” he writes. “Gradually, the forms of the signs became more abstract… New signs were created by combining old signs to to produce new meanings: for example, the sign for head was combined with the sign for bread in order to produce a sign signifying eat.”

Makes sense when you think about it.