Plus Ça Change

My relationship with information technology has gone through at least three phases: 1) the PPP, or Poo-poo phase, 2) the OPP, or Obnoxious and pretentious phase, and 3) the GOWIP, or Getting on with it phase. In phase one, for example, I disparaged the then novel “word processors” by wondering whether we wouldn’t be facing “language spreaders” next. In phase two — which is the reason I mention all of this — I would say to those unfortunates who were in their own phase one that, yes indeedy, the old ways were the best and I’d be right along with a clay tablet for them and some instructions in cuneiform. (I told you I was obnoxious.)

The book I’m reading now is Empires of the Word, by Nicholas Ostler, an incredibly detailed tour through those of the world’s written languages that have stood out in some important way or other — Akkadian, Aramaic, Arabic, Chinese, English, Sanskrit… So when he got to cuneiform writing (Sumerian, Akkadian) on clay tablets I paid especial attention and found this passage (p.67) that I thought was interesting to those of us toiling away in phase three:

As they moved eastward, we can only presume that alphabetic literacy spread with at least some of the Aramaeans, since the new materials, ink and papyrus or leather are biodegradable, and do not survive in the archeological record… The short-term practical advantages of the new media (less bulk, greater capacity) must soon have made an impression… Pictures of scribes at work from the mid eighth century [BC] show them in pairs, one with a stylus and a tablet, the other with a pen and a sheet of papyrus or parchment. As with the onset of computers, good bureaucrats must have ensured that the old and the new coexisted for a long time: the “clay-free office” did not happen in Assyria till the destruction of the empire by the Medes in 610 BC.


  1. And (as my husband, a computer geek, says) now we’ve come full circle with Tablet PCs.