The Written Word

Calligraphy means “Pretty Writing.”

Language creates the ability to convey thoughts.  Language can be spoken or it can be stored by writing.  Writing stores knowledge.  I have had several conversations (thoughts conveyed) in the past month that have unsettled me.

When we look back on the timeline of the development of language there is much that we do not know.  The reason for this is that much of the development of language likely happened before the ability to store knowledge was developed.  As a species we mostly agree that the presumption that the vocalized transferring of thoughts likely occurred before the written transferring of thoughts.  And that’s a reasonable thing to presume.

So the conversations over the past month have been about the difference and validity of passing on knowledge via oral mediums and via written mediums.  Realize these conversations all happen inside the context of historical re-creation in the SCA.

In the post-modern world that we live in today in industrialized countries, the written word is everywhere.  It is in books, advertisements, the internet, our phones,on vehicles, just about everything has a written label on it of some kind or another and in truth it is almost impossible to get away from writing.

Today, the passing on of knowledge is rarely done in a formalized manner.  Those who do and perform inside this arena are hailed as unusual and something to pay attention to.  This may be a passing attention or a rapt attention but attention is paid all the same.  It is to say the least, unusual and to many it is a dying art.

So which one is better?

I’m sorry, but that’s the wrong question isn’t it?  In truth the question should be, which one do you find more appealing?  Or maybe, which one do you prefer?

“Which one is better?” is a question that can only be answered with another question, “For what?”  The written word is terrible as a live performance for most audiences.  Who want to watch someone typing away at a keyboard for extended periods of time?  Or even write in calligraphy for an hour or three?  Yet, people happily pay hundreds of dollars to see live performances.  So the question remains, “Which one is better for what?”

Keeping history – Both work.  But the written word has more staying power if that is what you’re looking for.  The Epic of Gilgamesh is from Mesopotamia from around 1800 BC.  We know it today because of writing. The civilization it came from is no more and the oral story telling chain of this epic has been broken and there is no way to trace it back to its original speakers.

Yet, it is very likely that the surviving written copies first came from those who only told the story orally, using memorization techniques and lots of practice.  The Storyteller was more important than the story itself.  The oral storyteller was the history keep and the cultural glue of society as well as wonderful entertainment.

So wait, one isn’t better than the other?  No, they are different.

But the spoken word came first.  Most likely yes.  But how does one coming first, second, last or anything in between make one more or less valid than the others?  The first airplanes were made of sticks and canvas and used bicycle gear chains an the pilot lay down in it exposed to the elements.  Today we have airplanes that are made of high tech metal alloys with enclosed cockpits that allow the plane to go above 30,000 feet at speeds several time faster than the speed of sound.

Is one more valid than the other as a plane?  No.

But in today’s modern world the written word is taken for granted in industrialized countries.  That’s just the way it is. People have lists they make to buy groceries, to do lists, bills to pay, checks to write, labels to read, advertisements to ignore.  WAIT!  Writing is so common, we can ignore it?  Yes, it has become that way.

In the pre-17th century world, things were different.  Vastly different.  Books were often a sign of wealth even if they weren’t filled with gold or encrusted with gems of varying qualities.  In Christian Europe to have an entire Bible, even in a church as almost unheard of.  Instead they traded back and forth various books of the Bible.  Literally books of the Bible.  We’ll give you the book that contains Genesis in it if you will give us the book that has Matthew in it.

Calligraphy is the art of drawing language.  Even in a place and time where writing is everywhere, calligraphy gets noticed and appreciated for its beauty as an art.  Story telling given orally gets noticed and appreciated for its beauty as an art.  Each person may determine that one of the two is more appealing and that is fine.  But neither oral or written traditions are inherently better than the other one.  Each is superior for certain things and those things rarely overlap.  Oral traditions have more flare, more focus on the storyteller and frankly in many ways are more entrancing and I myself certainly love them.  Written traditions are more enduring simply by the nature of the writing.

So to answer which one is better, both are, it just depends on what you want to achieve.  If you want something to hold an audience, oral is by far better.  If you want something enduring, the written word has proven it does that better.

Personally I love both and I say that even as a calligrapher and lover of books.

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2 responses to “The Written Word

  1. You are a thoughtful and thought-provoking philosopher. I appreciate your ability to express your ideas with relevant analogies in various aspects of society. Your blog reaches far more than just those who love calligraphy!

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