The Solid Form of Language

The Solid Form of Language by Robert Bringhurst

Drop a word in the ocean of meaning and concentric form. To define a single word means to try to catch those ripples. No one’s hands are fast enough. Now drop two or three words in at once. Interference patterns form, reinforcing one another here and canceling each other there. To catch the meaning of the words is not to catch the ripples that they cause; it is to catch the interaction of those ripples. This is what it means to listen; this is what it means to read. It is incredibly complex, yet humans do it every day, and very often laugh at the weep at the same time. Writing, by comparison, sees altogether simple, at least until you try.

Writing is the solid form of language, the precipitate. Speech comes out of our mouths, our hands, our yes in something like a liquid form and then evaporates at once. It appears to me that this is part of a natural cycle: one of the ways the weather forms on the ocean of meaning. What else are the words we drop like pebbles in that ocean if not condensing droplets of evaporated speech, recycled bits of the ocean of meaning itself? Yet language can also solidify – into iridescent, sharp, symmetrical crystals, or into structures more like hailstones or shale beds or mud. In solid as in liquid form, the intersection meanings may reinforce each other or rub each other out.

To bring the metaphor ashore, writing is language displaced from the mode of immediate gesture or speech to the mode of the memento – something like the seashells and the driftwood and the footprints on the beach. Writing is leftovers – but of a kind some people prize as highly as they do the original meal or parent organism itself.

And what is language? Language is what speaks us as well as what we speak. Through our neurons, genes and gestures, shared assumptions and personal quirks, we are spoken by and speak many languages each day, interacting with ourselves, with one another, other species, and the objects – natural and man-made – that populate our world. Even in silence, there is no complete escape from the world of symbols, grammars and signs.

Like other creatures ,humans are heavily self-absorbed. We frequently pretend (or self-righteously insist) that language belongs to humans alone. And many of us claim that the only kind of human language, or the only kind that matters, is the kind that is born in the mouth. The languages of music and mathematics, the gestural languages of the deaf, the calls of leopard frogs and whales, the rituals of mating sandhill cranes, and the chemical messages coming and going day and night within the brain itself are a few of the many reminders that language is actually part of the fibre of which life itself is spun. We are able to think about language at all only because a license to do so is chemically written into our genes. The languages we are spoken in are those for which we speak.

In the next few pages, I will use the words language and writing most of the time in rather selfishly human terms. It is worth remembering, however, that language and writing are the value in the human world primarily because, in other forms, they are implicit in a world very much larger and older than that. Lovely though they are, human languages, and the language-like systems of symbols with which they are written, don’t exhaust or even dominate the realm of possibilities. They constitute something more interesting yet: a wonderfully accessible, well-documented, varied special case.


Linguists distinguish with some care (though never with perfect consistency or success) between languages and dialects. Languages are analogous to species. They may have borrowed much from one another or have sprung from the same root, but time has redesigned them. Speakers of one must temporarily regress and learn a whole new set of skills before they understand the speakers of another. Mentally and socially, to learn another language, you must pass again through childhood. Dialects, however, are the subspecies of language. A fluent speaker of a language can move to another dialect without much loss of cultural seniority.

Dialects almost always have regional roots, but dialects, like languages, can cut their local ties and become the mobile hallmark of certain ethnic groups or social classes. If they retain some isolation, they are likely, over time, to grow into different languages. If not, educational campaigns or population shifts may flatten them instead.

A script in itself is not a language; it is a system of representation, sufficient to catch some (but never all) of a language in its net. Human language, for its own sake, has no need of being written so long as it is spoken. Languages can and do attain at least as much sophistication, and as great a pitch of eloquence, in oral cultures as in cultures rich in printed books. And for ninety-five per cent of their time on earth, members of the species Homo sapiens evidently felt no need for the managerial control over language that a writing system permits. Still, language can and does adapt to writing, just as plants and animals adapt to farming and ranching. Standing row on row, like corn and squash or squawking chickens, in memos, periodicals and books, there are varieties of language that would never exist or survive without the protection afforded by writing.

Languages divide and subdivide, forming families and branches, like the phylogenetic trees of animals and plants. Scripts do the same – but human scripts are quintessentially invented, and languages are quintessentially not. The world of manuscript and print requires artificial sustenance – organized training of the young: in other words, a school – while spoken languages sustain themselves and flourish wherever humans live. These are some of the reasons why the phylogenetic trees of the world’s scripts and the world’s languages don’t match.

Languages and scripts, like plant and animal species, are also subject to change. Their territories grow and shrink and subdivide and fuse, but then are none that are not mortal, none that will someday be extinct.

Reading comes first. The reading of tracks and weather signs is a fundamental mammalian occupation, practised before primates started walking on their hind legs, much less using hands to write. And writing, in a sense, is always on the verge of being born. All of us who speak by means of gesture, or who gesture as we talk, are gesturing toward writing. But it si a rare event for instincts such as these to crystallize into a system that can capture and preserve the subtleties of speech in graphic form. Such a system can only mature within a culture prepared to sustain it. Starting from scratch, with no imported models, people have made the shift from oral to literate culture at least three times but perhaps not many more than that. In Mesopotamia about 5,000 years ago, in northern China about 4,500 years ago, and in Guatemala and southern Mexico about 2,000 years ago, humans created a script and a scribal culture, apparently without imported models of any kind.

In each case, the writing began with pictures – which, as they came to stand for words and then for syllables, grew increasingly abstract. In each case, the originating society was already highly organized with a heavy investment in agriculture, architecture, social institutions and political centralization. And in each case, so far as we can tell, writing was first used in the work of political, economic or religious administration. Its use for literary purposes came later.

Writing in the literary sense is one of the world’s most solitary crafts, but it is only pursued on the margins of highly organized and centralized societies.

Literature – meaning storytelling and poetry – involves the use of language more for purposes for discovery than for purposes of control. it is a part of language itself: present, like language, in every human community. There are no natural languages without stories, just as there are none without sentences. Yet literature is not the cause of writing. Literature in the written sense represents the triumph of language over writing: the subversion of writing for purposes that have little or nothing to do with social and economic control.

Writing, as Leonard Bloomfield wisely observed, is “an outgrowth of drawing.” But in growing out of drawing it turns into something else. There are intermediary stages between the two, but when writing has fully distinguished itself from drawing, it has the following characteristics:

(1) Writing is abstract. Pictures can be made by playing games with writing, but in writing itself to important pictorial content remains. .In Eric Gill’s famous phrase, “letters are things, not pictures of things.” Some very eminent non-readers of Chinese have wanted to think otherwise, but this is true for Chinese characters as well as for Latin, Cyrillic, and Arabic script. Non-readers seek out every wisp of pictorial residue in Chinese characters because learning to recognize the pictures is ever so much easier than learning to read the language. But fluent readers of Chinese do not see pictures of horses, trees and mountains in their texts any more than fluent readers of English see pictures of I-beams, D-rings, T-squares, vees of geese or S-shaped links of chain Such child’s play intrudes upon the reverie of reading. The pictographic origins of Chinese writing, like the pictographic origins of Greek, Hebrew and Phoenician, belong to the embryology of the script, no to its function. Readers trade these pictures in, learning in exchange a different kind of vision.

(2) A writing system is codified. It consists of a repeating set of symbols sufficient to the language that it serves. Twelve Latin letters are enough to write Hawaiian. To write a lenghty Chinese text, thousands of glyphs may be required. But whatever system is used, writers can write what has never been written before without inventing further symbols. The system is not entirely closed; new symbols can be borrowed or created. The point is that they very rarely have to be.

(3) These symbols are defined in terms of something else. The something else is usually speech but needn’t be speech. What it has to be is language.

(4) The system is stylistically as well as symbolically self-contained. As a calligraphic tradition develops, the symbols start to talk to one another, nourished by the dialogues of writers with their tools. The line of the scribe, like the stroke of the painter, the gesture of the dancer or the touch of the musician, then becomes in itself another means of speaking. Latin script did not begin with the system of stems and branches, ascenders and descenders, bowls and counters now familiar to lettering artists and typographers; Arabic script did not begin with its now canonical initial, medial, terminal and independent forms; and Chinese script did not begin with the seven basic strokes now taught to apprentice calligraphers nor the set of basic glyphs or radicals which has, since the second century CE, formed the cornerstone of Chinese lexicography. Scripts acuire internal grammars of this kind as they mature, by being written.

Sūn Qiáli, a Táng Dynasty calligrapher, put it this way: dăo zhī zé quán zhù, dùn zhi zé shān tuŏ: “Where the brush leads, springs flow; where it halts, the mountains stand.”


A script is not a language – and the classification of scripts is as different from the classification of languages as the classification of clothes is from the classification of people. Writing, nevertheless, is many things, used by different people in many different ways. In itself, it is both less and more than language. More because it can develop into rich and varied forms of graphic art. Less because, much as we love it, it is not an inescapable part of the human experience or the perennial human condition. If language is lost, certain kinds of civilization and society are last, but many other kinds remain – and there is no reason to think that those alternatives are inferior. Humans lived on the earth successfully – and so far as we know, quite happily – for a hundred thousand years without the benefit of writing. They have never lived, not ever yet been happy, so far as we know, in the absence of language.


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