The Idea of Writing: Beyond Speech?


The conference is scheduled to take place on 24-25 October 2014, and will be hosted by the Leiden University Institute for Area Studies (LIAS).

From the Conference Circular:

Ferdinand de Saussure’s concept of writing as encoding of speech has since long been modified, and on some points rejected. Writing is so much more than speech, and so much less at the same time.

‘Less’, because writing never seems to capture all the information transmitted by oral expression, such as intonation, volume, facial expression, gestures, and the sheer context of speech, including e.g. people present (listening or not), or the weather, at the time of speaking. ‘More’, because writing makes up for being such a poor speech substitute by means of its own intrinsic properties, such as materiality (hence, a promise of permanence), material and visual context (e.g. palaeographic embellishment, impressive monumental context), and by simply being a system of its own. Writing is a systematic code with visual appeal. It wants to be read; potential readers feel attracted by its appearance and the system they suspect behind it. Even if not acquainted with the language encoded, or with the rules of the writing system, people feel the urge to decipher.

Is it a surprise, then, that those who do not master writing come up with systems that share some characteristics with it? With visual codes that capture something of the information normally transmitted by speech, but which are not necessarily concerned with language? Such encodings are all too easily considered ‘alternatives’ to writing. In fact they may have their own contexts and histories, independent from writing, and even precede the earliest writing systems. Systematic visual and material codes existed long before writing, for instance in the decoration of prehistoric pottery, or monumental rock art. Our inclination to call this ‘proto-‘ or ‘pseudo-writing’ says much about our own literate biases. Alternatively, we may try to think of such systems as entirely different from writing, and unrelated to language. But are they, and can they be unrelated to language, when they can be read, even aloud, and when they show some kind of syntax?

The conference envisaged is, on the one hand, about ‘alternative’ visual systems, such as pictograms, marking systems and pseudo script. To what extent are language and contemporary scripts important for the way they work, and look? At the same time, the conference will be about non- linguistic(?) aspects of writing itself, such as graphic design, ornamental writing, and the choice of support. Are these to compensate for the loss of information that would have been available in oral speech; do they actually convey linguistic information, or are they there to add a totally different dimension to what is being communicated, something that could never have been expressed in language?

For inquiries and further information, please contact the conference organizers: