The key agents of colonization, Diamond argues, are writing, weaponry, microbes, and centralized government. In Chapter 12, he’ll discuss the history of writing, and see why some civilizations developed writing while others did not.
We’ve already seen, via the history of Cortez and Atahuallpa, how writing can be a major advantage in combat. Now we’ll see why certain societies develop writing and others don’t.
All writing systems tend to fall into one of three different camps (with a certain amount of overlap between all three): alphabet, logogram, and syllabaric. An alphabetic system uses a combination of signs (letters) to approximate the sounds of words (English is an alphabetic language). A logogramic system, like Chinese, uses single signs to represent whole words. Finally, syllabaric languages use signs to represent different syllables—these languages are now very rare, but used to be common.
There’s a lot of useful background information in this chapter about the different types of writing. As with many of the categories in the book, these three categories aren’t entirely distinct—most languages incorporate some aspects of all three categories, and Diamond necessarily simplifies things to make his point in a succinct way.
It’s known that the Sumerians, Mesoamericans, Chinese, and Egyptians developed writing independently, with the Sumerians being the first to do so (around 3000 B.C.). Sumerian cuneiform, the first language, combined aspects of alphabetic, logogramic, and syllabaric language. Individual syllables of Sumerian words were modeled with simplified pictorial images; images that could also stand on their own as words. To read Sumerian would be like an English speaker seeing a picture of a bee, followed by a picture of a leaf, and pronouncing the word, “belief.”
Cuneiform, the first known language, is a good example of how Diamond’s three stated categories of writing aren’t absolute—cuneiform mixes elements of all three. As is typical of his writing, then, Diamond over-simplifies things but also generally admits that he is over-simplifying.
How does writing spread from civilization to civilization? There are two basic ways for ideas to spread: blueprint diffusion (replicating a specific idea) and idea diffusion (trying to imitate a more general idea). Often, languages spread through blueprint diffusion. For example, the Roman alphabet (A, B, C, etc.) arose because of blueprint copying of the Semitic alphabet. However, all new languages have modified previous languages in some way: the blueprint diffusion is never perfect. For example, the Romans modified the Semitic alphabet by replacing the third letter of the Semitic alphabet, “g,” or “gimel,” with the letter “c.”
In his discussion of the diffusion of agriculture, Diamond distinguished between the diffusion of ideas about farming and the diffusion of literal crops. He makes a similar distinction here between the diffusion of a specific invention (a writing system) and the basic idea of an invention—that is, copying literal symbols or letters from another society’s writing system, or simply copying the idea of a writing system based on symbols or letters.
There are also many cases of idea diffusion in the history of language. In the 19th century, the Cherokee developed a method for writing down their language based on their partial knowledge of the existence of a written English language. After experimenting with a pictorial language, they settled on a syllabaric language, using about 85 signs (each sign representing one syllable) to represent all spoken Cherokee words. There are many other examples of how civilizations have created languages inspired by the general idea of another civilization’s language.
This passage contains a good example of idea diffusion—the general, vague idea of a written language preceded the Cherokee knowledge of any specific alphabet.
The question remains, however: why did some civilizations develop languages while others did not? It’s important to recognize that the earliest languages, like cuneiform, were cumbersome and ambiguous by modern standards. Many of the words in cuneiform had multiple meanings, and were much more dependent on context than words written in modern languages. But cuneiform did not need to be more precise. Cuneiform was a tool for a small class of scribes and scholars, used to keep track of taxes and debts: which people owed what goods to people in power.
To begin with, it appears that languages emerge in response to very specific needs and requirements of a society. Thus, the Sumerian use of cuneiform reflected a demand (based in its agricultural history) for record keeping, tax collection, etc.—the potential usefulness of a written language, one could say, preceded the written language itself.
As we can see from the history of cuneiform, writing was largely invented in order to keep track of the “flow” of economic transactions in a large agricultural society. But while having a large agricultural society is a necessary condition for the invention or adoption of writing, it’s not a sufficient condition. There were plenty of large agricultural societies that lacked writing.
In this passage, Diamond makes an important distinction between necessary and sufficient. When we say that X is “necessary” for Y, it just means that you couldn’t have Y without first having X. When we say that X is “necessary but insufficient” for Y, it means that you can’t have Y without first having X, but also that having X doesn’t necessarily mean you must have Y, too.
The vast majority of human societies acquired writing by interacting with other civilizations, not by developing it independently. Therefore, one major reason why certain civilizations had a written language while others did not is that they were close to other civilizations that already had one. Writing spread in an east-west direction faster than it spread north and south. North Africa acquired writing from Mesopotamia sooner than West Africa did, largely because West Africa is farther south and isolated by the Sahara Desert.
As the chapter ends, Diamond hasn’t really answered the question of why writing emerges in certain societies, and perhaps there is no complete answer to the question. Diamond can only show how certain conditions favor the invention of writing. Instead of focusing on the exact reasons why writing emerges in societies, he will now focus on how writing spreads across the world.