The Greatest Invention

Greatest Invention coverThe Greatest Invention: A History of the World in Nine Mysterious Scripts
Silvia Ferrara
translated by Todd Portnowitz
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (March 1, 2022), 280 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $23.78

The author is an expert in the world of writing and scripts. In The Greatest Invention she talks about the history of writing. And “talk” is an appropriate word here, as her style is conversational.

She begins writing about Crete and tells us that ancient Crete produced four scripts: Cretan Hieroglyphic, Linear A, the Phaistos Disk, and Linear B. Scholars have deciphered only one of those: Linear B. On the island of Cyprus there are four tablets written in what scholars call Crypto-Minoan. That is also undeciphered. From here Ferrara goes to Easter Island, where she discusses the Mamari tablet, written in the undeciphered Rongorongo script. Ferrara received a grant to lead a research group focused on the invention of writing and to decipher these so-far undeciphered scripts.

Ferrara then goes on to discuss when and how writing arises. She writes that when a civilization reaches a population of ten thousand you will find writing. However, she emphasizes that civilizations have existed without writing systems, and that “writing systems have formed like pearls in oysters, with no warning, no territorial expansion, no clear purpose.” Many people believe that writing arises out of the needs of bureaucracy, as we see in the Linear B scripts of Mycenae and the cuneiform tablets in Mesopotamia. That idea, she says “is just reckless drivel.” Ferrara dispels the notion that writing was invented only once. She cites multiple examples that show writing must have arisen entirely independently in different places.

Ferrara delves into means of communication that did not involve writing, for example, the Incan quipu, which she describes as “rows and rows of cords, all strung together like charms on a necklace, all covered in knots.” She says that these were used for record keeping, but perhaps also to tell stories.

The author spends a lot of space discussing the rebus: a combination of letters and images. It seems a lot of ancient scripts used them. No doubt you played with rebuses in elementary school. For example:

bee in a rebus


She also writes about emojis. She tells us they are here to stay. Heaven help us. (One of the disadvantages of reading this book in the Kindle edition on my iPad is that the rebus and emoji images were very hard to see.)

In the final quarter of the book the author ends her conversational tone and takes on a drier, more academic approach as she discusses how scholars study language. She admits that computers have been of great help in attempts to decipher those still undeciphered scripts. But she emphasizes that it is the human effort that is the best tool for studying language and she insists it is a multidisciplinary undertaking. She enumerates: “epigraphists, archaeologists, anthropologists, geomatics engineers, historians, cognitivists, semiologists, and computer scientists. And linguists.”

Ferrara originally wrote the book in Italian. Todd Portnowitz translated it into English. This is interesting because there is a lot of casual language, idiom, and word play throughout the book. I have to wonder whether the Italian version differed somewhat from this English edition and if this is a revised version specifically intended for an English-speaking audience. I suspect Ferrara must have been involved in the translation. Her English is no doubt good enough. Her biography at the end of the book states that she studied at University College London and at the University of Oxford. It says she researched archaeology and linguistics at Oxford, and that she has taught at University College London, the University of Oxford, and the University of Cambridge. That makes me wonder why she didn’t simply write the English version herself.

No matter. If you are interested in the history and science of script and writing, take a look at The Greatest Invention.

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