Why Writing is like a Playtex Bra

‘It lifts and separates’ is a slogan that will be familiar to those of my generation – it was advertised as the chief virtue of the Playtex ‘cross-your-heart’ Bra. However, it also serves as a memorable illustration of my theory concerning the origin of what we think of as Language.

The conventional account presents Language, as we have it now, as evolved speech, i.e. its origins go back to our first utterance, with the acquisition of a written form for transcribing it a logical development that occurs in due course – around five thousand years ago – but only after speech has held sway as the primary means of human communication for a couple of hundred thousand years.

However, I think that is not what happened; in particular, the notion that speech was the original and primary means of human communication, occupying a position analogous to what we call Language (both spoken and written) today, is an erroneous backwards projection, based on the status that speech only now enjoys.

The conventional account could be summed up briefly thus: ‘First, we learned to speak, and that is what made us human and marked us out as special; then we learned to write down what we said in order to give it permanent form, and that enabled us to store the knowledge and wisdom which has enabled us to achieve our present pre-eminence.’

However, there are good reasons to suppose that the eminence currently enjoyed by speech actually results from the invention of writing and its impact on human expression – what I would call the Playtex Moment, because the effect of that impact was to lift speech above the rest of human expression, and separate it.

Prior to the invention of writing, and indeed for a good time after it, since its impact was far from immediate, speech was, I would say, simply one aspect of human expression, and by no means the most important. By ‘human expression’ I mean the broad range of integrated activity – facial expression, gesture, posture and bodily movement, and a range of sounds, including speech – which human beings use to express their thoughts and feelings. Bear in mind that up to the invention of writing (and for a good time after it) speech was always part of some larger activity, to which it contributed, but did not (I would assert) dominate.

My ground for supposing this is that it is only through the effort to give speech a written form (which probably did not start to happen till writing had been around for a thousand years) that we come to study it closely, and to analyse it. I suggest there are two reasons for this – the first is that it was not possible to study speech till it was given a permanent, objective form; the second is that the need to analyse speech is part and parcel of the process of giving it written form. Crucially, it is only in writing that the notion of the word as a component of speech arises; speech naturally presents as an uninterrupted flow – rhythm and emphasis are of significance, but word separation is not. Word separation – which not every writing system uses – is a feature of writing, not speech.

In the same way, the whole analysis of speech in terms of the relations between words – grammar – arises from writing (for the good reason that it is only through writing that we can become aware of it). It is the understanding of Language that arises through the development of writing as a tool to transcribe speech that elevates and separates speech from the other forms with which it has hitherto been inseparably bound up.

The notion that we invented writing expressly to transcribe speech does not bear examination*: it was invented for the lesser task of making lists and inventories, as a way of storing information. It was only very gradually that we began to realise its wider potential (the earliest instance of anything we might call literature occurs a good thousand years after the first appearance of writing). Rather than writing being a by-product of speech, speech – as we now know it, our primary mode of communication and expression – is a by-product of writing.

And that is why writing is like a Playtex bra: it lifts and separates speech from all the other forms of human expression – but also (to push the analogy to its limits, perhaps) offers a degree of support that is only bought at the expense of containment and subjugation.

The interesting corollary is that if our present mode of thinking is Language-based – in the sense of ‘Language’ that is used here, a fusion of writing and speech – then that, too, is a relatively recent development**; however much it might seem second nature to us, it is just that – second nature: our natural mode of thought – instinctive and intuitive, developed by our ancestors over several hundred thousand years – must be something quite other, with a different foundation (which is, I would suggest, metaphor).

*if you doubt this, examine it: ask how such an idea would first have occurred, that things should be written down and given a permanent form – to remember them? people had been remembering without the aid of writing for thousands of years – why should they suddenly feel the need to devise an elaborate system to do something they could do perfectly well already? Ask also why, of all things, they would select speech as the one thing to make a record of – only if it were the sort of speech we have now – very much formed and influenced by writing – would it seem the obvious thing to record. Finally, ask how they would go about it – devising a script for the purpose of recording speech requires the sort of analysis of speech we can only acquire through already having devised such a script.

**do not underestimate what I mean by this: it is more than using words to think with. It is the complete model of the world as an objective reality existing independently and governed by logic and reason and all that stems from that; all that can be shown to derive from Language, which in turn arises from the impact of writing on human expression, a process that is initiated about two and a half thousand years ago, in classical Greece, by Plato and Aristotle.

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