Images with meaning

Olivier Morin investigates how communication functions across time and space

May 23, 2018

Throughout history, people around the world have found ways and means of recording what they want to remember or share with others: in pictures, with signs or symbols or with the help of writing. At the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Olivier Morin and his team are investigating the evolution and development of such forms of graphic communication. The spectrum of their work ranges from the examination of coats of arms from all over the world to the analysis of the shapes of letters and the development of artificial graphic codes. In the interview, Morin gives an insight into his findings and the question that prompted his research group to develop their own games app.

What is special about graphic codes compared with spoken language?

What I like to call "graphic codes" are means of communication that use permanent images. Writing is an example. So too are flags, or the images you find on heraldic coats of arms. Cultures across the world use a wide variety of visual emblems to signal personal or family identity; sometimes they also use pictographic notations to note down prayers or chants. These are all graphic codes.

Does not every image contain a message, so that it could count as graphic code?

No, to be part of a code, images must be associated with precise meaning, in a conventional way. I would say that most art isn't part of a code in that sense. Graphic codes matter because they can do one thing that spoken language can't do (or couldn't do, at any rate, for most of human history, before voicemail existed): they can store information in a permanent way. They can carry it far across time or space. That's a unique power.

A lot of the past has been handed down in writing.

Scripts, or writing systems, are a special kind of graphic code — one that encodes a human language. Even for Chinese or Egyptian writing, you need to understand something of the languages that they encode to make sense of them.

What do we know about the evolution of writing?

For a start, we know that most human cultures did not have it. It emerged a handful of times in Central America, Mesopotamia, Egypt, China. Each time it was used for purposes of state administration, among other things. So there is certainly a link between state-building and the invention of writing. At the same time, we know that many states administer themselves perfectly well without writing. You can hold an empire together with tallies and other systems of signs that don’t encode a natural language.

What do you think are the most exciting questions concerning written and graphic language?

I can think of two questions: The first one is, ‘Why so late’? When writing arrives on the scene, humans have already been around for ages without needing it. We'd been using the kind of graphic codes that many cultures without a state have: they don't encode the phonemes of speech, and they tend to be specialised for a single purpose. To me the question of why things happened that way is far from settled. Stateless cultures are inventive, clever. No obvious technological or cognitive limitation prevented them from inventing writing. So why did it emerge so late?

And the second essential question?

‘Why is it so hard?’ Literacy is becoming just as important as speech. In some walks of life, people now text nearly as much as they talk. Yet there is a cognitive chasm between the two skills. Speech is easy and spontaneous. Writing is explicitly taught to children, and it takes a lot of pedagogical heavy-lifting. Many still struggle with it in ways they would never struggle with speech. Why?

Do different scripts around the world have anything in common?

They have a lot in common. A part of the commonalities is accidental: many scripts look like one another simply because they sprang from the same ancestors. One of the challenges that students of writing face is to tease apart these accidental resemblances from those that signal some deeper convergence. With appropriate tools, we can observe some important commonalities.

Which ones for example?
The shape of letters obeys general constraints that come from the way our visual systems are built, for instance. Our brains prefer horizontal or vertical lines (which you find in the letters E, H, T, etc.) to oblique lines (which you find in fewer letters like W, X, etc.). That tendency to favour these orientations isn't something that scripts would have inherited from their common ancestors: we see it popping up again and again in the historical record.

You and your team have developed a game app to explore graphical codes. What do you expect to get out of this?

One big question surrounding graphic communication is how independent of language it can be. One obvious answer is to do experimental work: bring people into the lab and ask them to communicate. Yet there isn't so much research studying the way that people can communicate with images when they don't have a language in common; one reason is that it's relatively difficult to bring together two persons who don't have any means of communication in common. The web changes this. Our lab has launched an app that people can use to enter into conversations with people from all over the planet. They use simple images to communicate, and their natural language never comes into play. We have players from over 40 countries and many find it exhilarating to communicate without any words.

Interview: Anne Gibson

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