What’s in a word?

"Without a way of visualising and recording our spoken words, our world would not be the same"

On a normal day, every table inside the British Library’s lobby is taken. Students, academics and freelances are hunched over laptops, living illustrations of the latest method of writing. To their left, a new exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, on until August 27, harks back to the very invention of script, some 5,000 years ago. It promises to take us from Egyptian hieroglyphs to emojis. Visitors are greeted with a limestone stele from AD 647. A sign says the stone’s Mayan glyphs describe a ruler and events from his reign, sadly without revealing any specifics. But in a nice touch, it adds: “Please don’t touch me, I’m not as young and stable as I used to be.”

Exhibition visitors line up and follow the displays around as if in a school cafeteria, while a soporific voice from a video drones on. The cafeteria queue makes the whole experience dull, but some of the objects are still worth seeing. The Mesopotamian “Jemdet Nasr” tablet records barley portions given out to farmworkers, revealing that an early function of writing was accounting, rather than something more romantic.

Mesoamerica was one of the first places, after Mesopotamia, Egypt and China, where writing first emerged. Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 15th century, but the Chinese had clay type in the 11th century and Korea developed metal type from the 13th century.

As was often the case, women’s contribution to early European printing tended to go unrecorded. The first woman to print under her own name was Anna Röger in Germany in 1484. A book that Elizabeth Pickering printed in Britain in 1540 is on display.

There’s something very touching about an ancient piece of homework. A student tries to copy two lines written by a teacher, but misses a letter, runs over
the right margin and tries again, only to run out of space once more. We see the result on a set of Greek wax tablets from the second century AD.

There’s a beautiful Japanese album from the seventh century, a Haggadah from the 15th century, and a handsome Thai folding book produced by Buddhist monks. But some of the other objects are just too recent—the “retro computer” and Bic pens. An activity trail for families recoups some playfulness—if this exhibition was about the invention of musical instruments, there would be no symphony at the end. It’s mainly technicalities. There should be more about what writing has done for civilisation. Without a way of visualising and recording our spoken words, our world would not be the same. Writing gave immense privileges to those who first mastered it. It rewired our brains. It enabled us to write history.

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