Pictures as words

A word like ‘cat’ in written English has no resemblance to the real thing, so association has to be taught, often with supporting imagery. (Cat image courtesy of WP

English is written in a modular symbolic form: the word ‘cat’ has no inherent relationship to what we know as a cat, it acquires its meaning only through learned association. The letters within words denote sounds and sometimes meanings as well, but they are not constant. Contrary to what we were taught as infants, ‘A’ is not for apple, it has many other uses and when placed within the spelling of apple, the letter itself is meaningless other than as an indicator of sound; but even that can change, as it does in ‘day’.

On a website about nature, such observations may seem like irrelevant pedantry, but there is a view that the need to record and write about our natural world in this confusing, abstract form has changed the very way we regard nature itself, and limited the manner in which we discuss it. Some leading international ecologists contend that, in the same way that when we give something a number instead of a name, it loses its character and identity, the abstract symbols used in written languages of modern western culture serve to anonymise nature and distance us from it in our discussions of the natural world.

Some Mandarin word symbols are still recognisable as pictographs of real world natural objects today. Image © Copyright 2018.

In comparison, the written languages of Ancient Egypt, Japan and China use pictographs, little representative images, to describe and discuss the natural world. In Mandarin the sun was, in ancient times, depicted with a recognisable image of the sun; today the word for a tree is still a recognisable pictograph of a tree. Could it be that the use of this type of written language, as opposed to ours, inherently fosters closer cultural connections with nature? Some people believe so.

Various modern English letters also began their history in ancient times as depictions of real entities, but they have evolved over the ages to the extent that most are now barely recognisable as illustrations of their original subjects, and they no longer have any meaning associated with that origin. The letter A began life as an image of an Ox’s head (you can get the idea if you turn the A on its side), but it does not mean ‘Ox’s head’ in any words in which it is placed. B was a house (unrecognisable in its modern shape); D was a door; L (upside down) was a walking stick; M was water, showing the waves on the sea; N was a snake; O was an open eye; P was a mouth (ironically still used in jokey modern text messages to show a mouth with a tongue out); Q was an image of a monkey (and yes that sweeping lower stroke was its tail); X was a fish (representing the part where the fish’s tail joins the body). An X was used as the secret fish symbol of early Christians.

It’s a strange thing, but even discussing these ancient origins of our English letters and Chinese pictographic words does seem to draw us a little closer to the natural world of our past, and it invites conjecture on how a pictographic modern western language, if we had one, or even some other linguistic form, might have influenced discussions and attitudes to nature and ecology today.

This article was inspired by the visionary and thought provoking book ‘The Spell of the Sensuous’ by David Abram.

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