The True History of Letters

Graham McArthur's picture

This was posted today on cyberscribes and I thought it quite appropriate given recent discussions.

In the beginning there was silence and there was no understanding. And then
man spoke and there was noise. And man called this noise language and said
"This is my Language in which I am well pleased, and I shall have no other
languages before it.” But Language went forth and multiplied.
And so it was that Proto-Indo-European begat Balto-Slavic, Germanic, Celtic,
Italic, Illyrian,Albanian, Thracian, Hellenic, Armenian, Phrygian, Anatolian,
Indo-Iranian and Tocharian and then died of exhaustion & was forgotten.
And it came to pass that Balto-Slavic subdivided and became Baltic and Slavic
and the number of their begating was three .... but
the languages of Slavic were fruitful and multiplied, went condo and ate up
the languages of Baltic.

Hellenic begat Greek and Italic begat Latin and had many other languages and
was eaten by its off-spring. Latin begat and begat and begat which was all
very Romantic.

And Germanic Begat Anglo-Saxon which had an illicit relationship with Norman
French, the illegitimate off-spring of Old French and a Northern Dialect of
Germanic, & begat Middle English. And Middle English became vague and begat
English, a language which even its own speakers do not speak. And so Language
multiplied until the peoples of the earth could not understand themselves, and
there was no understanding.

There were in that same land Calligraphers and Scribes, and they said “Let
there be an Alphabet that we may grow and prosper.” and so there was an
Alphabet. Now in that Alphabet there were letters and unto each letter there was one
sound, or two sounds, or three sounds, or two letters for one sound and this
greatly pleased the Calligraphers and Scribes for no others could read it. And
so they grew and prospered.

Now each Language took unto itself an Alphabet except Latin. Latin took unto
itself the Greek alphabet, and after changing a few letters for copyright
protection, called it Roman and inflicted unto the far reaches of the world, even
unto Cleveland in the far west.

And the Calligraphers and Scribes conspired together and said “Now there is
an Alphabet there must be something to write.” and so they invented Literature.
Now those among the Calligraphers and Scribes who produced Literature called
themselves Authors. And the Authors waxed powerful among the Calligraphers and
Scribes for their writings were as numerous as the forms of the IRS and about
as understandable. And those who could not express themselves in their native
language quoted important passages in foreign languages and when pressed to
explain their eccentricities exclaimed “I know how to write, let others learn
to read.” And those amongst the Calligraphers and Scribes who were not Authors
grew sore afraid; so they invented Critics.

Then arose Joyce, a great one amongst the authors, who spoke for many hours
of many things and many were there among those present that drifted off to
sleep. There was one present who, after sleeping for many hours, awoke and found
that Joyce was still speaking and this so greatly disturbed his waking thoughts
that he emitted a piercing shriek and ran from the chamber. And thus it was
that the Scream of Consciousness became an integral part of Joyce's style.

But there were those amongst the Calligraphers and Scribes who could speak
but plainly. And they, wishing to share in rich spoils of confused thinking
arose early in the afternoon worked for many minutes and invented Statistics, and
Marketing Surveys, and after a three martini dinner did they invent jargon.
And thus did “Method” become “Methodology” and even the paradigm of “paradigm”
shifted and so did plain speaking become confused and plain speakers became
great by proving whatever they willed. And they called themselves Bureaucrats
and worshiped at the Bottom Line.

Then came forth out of this wilderness a prophet unto the Elders among the
Calligraphers and Scribes, even unto the High Author and Chief Bureaucrat, and
demanded of them explanations of their deeds. And the Elders answered him in
word both wise and wonderful and almost entirely content free. And the prophet
said unto them “Speak not to me in words of flowing rhetoric for I come from
the wilderness where I was Illuminating the Letters of the Law and yea, I can
recognize the droppings of male bovines when they are displayed before me.” And
they Answered him speaking such words as are not to be recorded in Holy Books.

And again he spoke, saying “Lo, it is written, for I have written it, that
one shall come forth from the wilderness and found a new order amongst the
scribes. Behold, here am I.”

And these be the words of the Prophet: “Yea, though I speak the words of
angels or the words of corruption yet shall they be considered wise; and yea,
though I walk uprightly amongst men or wind sideways through the sand on my belly,
yet shall I be respected, and yea, though my ancestry be of noble kin or that
of the barracuda and shark yet shall I be honored above all; for I am a

And so it came to pass that there was much wailing, and an outcry was
heard throughout the world, and there was much litigation, but there was still
no understanding.
Author Unknown

James Arboghast's picture

Sum up: Potted history of letters condenses the history of language and writing into a mind-tickling 864 words using mock biblical tone and quasi-ecclesiastical parlance. Writing style lives life on the Deuterocanonical side of the Old Testament, relying heavily on capitalized key words and the kind of atrophied orthography begat by the changeover from Indo-Germanic to Latin, verifying that ancient scholars made a golden turkey of an error when they swapped the "Th" fuþark rune for the Latin "Y" glyph, merely because the latter looked just like the "Th" fuþark rune. If only pre-Latin-speaking peoples had gone about saying, "Yea". Except they didn't. In reality they went about saying "The", but their scholars let them down with that slip-shod glyph substitution, creating the enduring falsehood of "Yea".
Sorry, where was I? Oh yeah, the review. Narrative thread makes out a case for the history of language being convoluted and rather corrupt. The author is correct, it really did develop that way. Humankind starts off bereft of understanding, invents language, then languages, writing, literature, and finally bureaucrats, ad men and lawyers. Humankind winds up bereft of understanding in the end. The author has a point. Language sets out to demystify the human condition, only to obfuscate it. More people need to read this stuff.
For: Veracity of story, endearing cast of characters.
Against: Not entirely convincing ecclesiastical linguistic aspiration.
Spec notes: Hyphenation and comma omissions compromise rhythm and pacing, but not too seriously. Numerous references to U.S place names and culture give away the writer as being in all likelihood a U.S citizen.
Rivals: No, sorry, nothing springs to mind unless you count works by Coolhand McLuhan.
Also Try: The Wikipedia Literature portal because the articles are really very good.
Rating: Three and a half stars.
My choice: Yes please. I enjoyed it.

j a m e s

Graham McArthur's picture

Author has been traced: Robert W. Dills, 1988
A good bit of fun that brings a smile. Something that doesn't happen much around here.

typerror's picture

Graham, I have spent my whole career concerned with the unexplained disappearance of Baltic. I have phoned one of the "Cold case" file television shows here in America to pursue this. If only they can get some confessions from the exhumed individuals I will be grateful and will sleep easy.


James Arboghast's picture

Author has been traced: Robert W. Dills, 1988
Ah, thank you for tracing that. Looks like he is a U.S citizen.

A good bit of fun that brings a smile. Something that doesn’t happen much around here.
I do my best to inject humour into Typophile, and at least half of Typophile's regular contributors crack jokes whenever they can, but the punchlines aren't always obvious. Probably many of Typophile's readers have a good laugh offline, but in cyberspace nobody can hear you laugh.

Oh no it's half past one in the morning again. I have to get some sleep. Goodnight :^)

j a m e s

Jongseong's picture

Does it betray my incurable lack of humour when I confess that of all the things, my attention was drawn to the reference to Balto-Slavic and Michael's subsequent comment on the 'unexplained disappearance of Baltic'? Balto-Slavic is a hypothetical grouping and there is no compelling evidence that they ever formed a single group. Also, the demise of the Baltic languages has been somewhat exaggerated, as Latvian and Lithuanian at least are very much alive.

That and the fact that the invention of language in this history apparently concerns only those of the Indo-European family.

Graham McArthur's picture

How sad. I certainly saw no reason to check on the historical facts - already new it would be just a fictitious story twisted to be funny - which it is. Relax, have some fun and a laugh. You will feel better for it.

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