Does writing have a future?

Does writing have a future?

Friday 23rd August 2019

The story of writing’s evolution includes its origins in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and Mayan symbols carved in stone and the clay tablets into which Cuneiform scripts were pressed. Through the early printed texts such as William Caxton’s edition of The Canterbury Tales to the art of note-taking by some of history’s greatest minds, and onwards to the digital communication tools we use today.

Language evolved from the early days of mankind and that evolution played a pivotal role in the development of agriculture and, later, civilisation. The ability of ancient peoples to communicate using a wide range of specific and abstract ideas and to share information was essential to their survival or to their progress as a group. It became increasingly necessary for early man to communicate facts, knowledge and information and to record aspects of the environment and personal history. Verbal communications were inadequate to transmit thought from one generation to another. As people changed from being hunter-gatherers to living in settled communities, it became increasingly possible for people to store artefacts and tools.

What is writing?

What was it in existence before the invention of the pen? What other forms of writing do we see in history? Hieroglyphs, Cuneiform, Chinese characters and pictograms were alternatives to writing using letters or symbols, that represented the sounds of speech, through to the use of letters based on spoken phonemes. It is possible that the very earliest writings did not represent spoken words but actions or pictures of the natural world. These would have been pictograms or signals or signs that could be made (on some physical medium) and this lead to the development of writing.

We should distinguish between the act of writing, using some form of instrument, and the text or script that results from such activity. Writing could mean typing as much as using a pen. Text is written language. The boundary between text and speech is being blurred with the continuing advance of voice recognition software. Writing is likely to become synonymous with the output more than with the activities used to regenerate it.

Today, writing is largely electronic. Ink is being replaced by the electron. What does history tell us about the technology of writing? Is there something about the art and craft of writing that will ensure its survival into the digital age of multi-media? Will writing be one of those activities that will attract and engage people beyond the changes that will take place in the technology of communication? Even given the prevalence of electronic, digitised literature, many people still cherish reading books printed on paper. For the few, there is still the enchantment of using a pen to write on paper. People who love literature cherish the nostalgia of paper and the hand-written word. For the majority, however, digital communication is the norm and will be in the foreseeable future.

Does writing have a future?

Can we foresee a time when humans will communicate with each without the need to write? Science fiction writers have imagined a time when people communicate with each other directly using telepathy. Others have imagined electronic implants in the brain enabling people to send messages to each other without the intermediation of the written or spoken word.

Will writing survive the increasing prevalence of video? Will we take advantage of technology to talk to each other without the need to learn the written word? Will we lay down the pen in favour of the camera? The development of technologies of communication affects how people communicate. But, does it also affect what people communicate about? Mobile phones have increased the ability of people to engage in communication. Do we see, from this, that what people communicate has also changed?

There will always be two kinds of communications: those that are made by people as part of their everyday lives, such as communications between family members and between friends and those that are undertaken in a work setting. Given the prevalence of telephones, it is likely that communications will be by spoken language. Sending text messages is very common these days but users are mostly required to type the text into the phone using their fingers. It is likely, I believe, that, in the future, voice applications will be available allowing a message to be spoken and converted to text with voice recognition software. It is also likely that spoken messages will be sent as though they were text. Photos and videos are already being sent in preference to text messages. Speech recognition software has been available for several decades and has become increasingly sophisticated. This trend is likely to continue as people turn from the time-consuming process of typing individual characters on keypads to dictating the content of a message they wish to send. Predictive text messaging is now widely available on smartphones and this has speeded up the composition of written messages.

The second kind of communication is formal, business or governmental messaging. This is where text is likely to survive over other media because of the legal requirements of accurate transmissions. For communications of this kind, text is preferable because of its accuracy and because it leaves a searchable archive of what has been sent. But, voice recognition software might be more widely used, in such circumstances, than it currently is today. In the world of commerce, government and science, text will continue to offer the best medium through which information can be sent and messages exchanged. One consequence of this is that users will need to speak very clearly and accurately. That is nothing new. Even back in the day when I worked in an office, Dictaphones were used to compose correspondence that would later be sent to a pool of typists. Users who need not speak clearly would find many mistakes in their letters and this would cause lengthy delays while corrections were made.


Is the technology of writing something that changes what is written? Is the mobile phone changing what people say? Is what we say affected by how we say it? Clayton describes how the development of the technology of writing brought about changes to what people wrote about. In fact, he examines the relationship between handwriting, printing and changes to the world including the industrial revolution. As the technology used to make writing became increasingly sophisticated, the way people wrote changed. Authors began to write in a way that suited the printed medium. The layout of a printed book was different from that of one that has been written using a quill pen. The medium has become the message and written communications are gradually being changed by the way in which they are transmitted. This process has been driven more by the demands of the commercial and governmental world than it has by the arts.

Technology has changed writing over millennia. This will continue as technology becomes increasingly sophisticated. When text messaging became widespread (with the mass adoption of phones and computers) we saw changes to written language. A new vocabulary emerged tailored by the needs of texting from phones. Texting saw users shortening words and using abbreviations to avoid typing lengthy words. Abbreviations such as LOL became universally used. The informality of person-to-person text messaging saw rules of grammar, syntax and punctuation is ignored. The distinction between upper and lower case characters was largely abandoned in the days of the early mobile phones; only later did it become re-established with predictive text. The use of predictive text has improved the quality of written communications.

Sending text messages (or emails) is a routine activity and few people would approach it as they would a craft or form of art. It is perhaps rather odd that the layout of the English keyboard did not change with the emergence of digital communication. The same QWERTY configuration is used today as that invented for the early manual typewriter. Even on devices that do not have an external keyboard, such as the mobile phone, this standard way of arranging the letters of the western alphabet is used in preference to ordering them alphabetically. People these days know where to find of the letters in a QWERTY keypad even if they have never used an external keyboard.

Where more substantial changes to written language will be seen is when speech becomes the ubiquitous way of writing. In everyday life, people do not speak in the way they write. Spoken English is different from written English. It is therefore very likely that written English will change as more of it is originated by voice dictation. Dictation, in the world of the office, has been with us for a long time. Following the development of the office typewriter, men would dictate with letters to their (female) secretaries. Office shorthand started to be widely used in the early part of the twentieth century. It became a basic requirement for all secretaries and typists. It was also used by reporters to take notes during interviews and when reporting events. Pitman shorthand was first introduced in 1837. Something approximating shorthand was also known in ancient Greece and in imperial China, where court clerks used an abbreviated form of characters to record proceedings. These were later used to create more formal transcripts. A form of shortened writing emerged in England in the sixteenth century. Thomas Shelton’s Short Writing of 1626 was used by Samuel Pepys for his diary and by Sir Isaac Newton for his notebooks. These developments did not take place because of changes in technology; they came about as a result of the need to make speedy recordings either in courts or in interviews or during scientific inquiries.

Writing has been with us for the past five thousand years. It is not likely to die out in the near future. It will change as the technology used to do it changes. Written language has changed with the development of printing and digital communications. Spoken language too will also change as people become accustomed to dictating what they want they want to write. Despite these changes in technology, many people will continue to practice the craft of writing with a pen simply because they love it for what it is. By the same token, people will continue to read printed books in preference to digital formats. Nostalgia is a considerable force, in this regard.

Re-inventing writing

If we try to imagine what might happen to human communications in the far future, what might we see? English is not easy to learn; neither does it have the logicality of a computer programme. English results from history; from invasions and cultural change. Just as shorthand was invented in order to speed up the process of keeping written records (prior to the invention of electronic recording) so too there will be a demand for being able to communicate using something other than English words. What might that something be? Two things could happen in the far future. Firstly, English will become increasingly simplified. That is already happening. It is a process driven by the pace at which communication takes place, in the digital age, and by increasing cultural and ethnic diversification. English is fast becoming a second language for a large section of the population, in this country. This has already started to create new styles of English and to the simplification of English grammar and syntax. I predict that communication will become increasing graphic. Ideas are already being expressed by emoticons and other symbols. Ideas that would take several words to put across. If I were to visit England in two hundred years time, I would find a form of written language that I would hardly recognise as being English and would not be able to understand, at first sight. Written text would appear as a combination of words using a standard alphabet and graphical symbols that are substitutes for phrases or sentences. The purpose of communicating in this way is to speed up the process of sending and reading a message. It is possible that people will begin to use the kind of pictograms that were familiar to our ancestors in the age before formal written language.
Secondly, thought will become more complex. That will demand new styles of communication that are better able to meet the demands of increasingly sophisticated ideas. In this respect, the use of graphical representations will increase in order to state ideas that would be long-winded in standard English. Already, the internet, with its worldwide web, has given the power to mix together text and graphics in a powerful medium of communication. That medium is now multi-media including sounds and video.


The Golden Thread: the story of writing, Ewan Clayton, 2013, Atlantic Books.

Related articles:  Language and evolution.