The Samsāra of Syntax and Symbols

As of 2014, we do not know exactly how language came about, and while some erudite professorial types have taken a stab at the matter, the genesis of human language has yet to be unearthed. What can be said is that logograms, specifically pictograms and ideograms, are the earliest forms of writing. In Buddhist thought, Samsāra is the infinite cycle of life and death which, generally speaking, can only be broken via Enlightenment. Cyclical philosophic musings aside, writing may be an ouroboros cycle unto itself.

Cycles seem to be ubiquitous to the nature of things, paradoxically representing change and constancy: septillions of stars have “life cycles”, ants were farming millions of years before the first humans came into existence and now humans farm ants,empires rise and fall into a spiral of political decay only to be replaced by another empire and so on. Why then, if cycles are so endemic to existence, would the state of writing be any different? It turns out, despite the thousands of written languages in use, that ancient habits have reasserted themselves now more than ever in our technocratic societies.

Sumerian Cuneiform and Egyptian Hieroglyphics are the earliest known writing systems to date, with the age of the former around 5000 years. Proto-writing systems existed thousands of years earlier. For example, Chinese Jiahu symbols date back to the Neolithic era, and evolved into true Chinese writing during the Shang Dynasty. Cuneiform started off as a pictographic language and became increasingly stylized over time. Below you can see how the pictograph for “head” evolved over the centuries:

Ultimately Cuneiform, Hieroglyphics and Chinese characters are logographic, meaning a symbol represent words, whereas phonographic languages, like Spanish and English, utilize written characters to represent different sounds. The usefulness of logographic languages can be easily demonstrated at a glance with these Chinese characters:

It does not take a great stretch of the imagination to see why the earliest civilizations on the planet utilized logograms; they are intuitive and practical in many ways. In fact, the human brain processes visual information 60,000 times faster than text based information.  It should be of no surprise then, that art has been around for approximately 50,000 years, the “universal language” math’s symbols are logographic, road signs are understood without words and that modern language, via typing, is once again drifting towards such pictograms and ideograms.

For the sake of efficiency, why would an English speaker type “laughing out loud” when they could truncate that phrase to “lol” or further truncate that into “ 😀 “ or “ XD “? What really separates the modern emoticon meaning “to smile” ^_^ from the Chinese character meaning “to smile” 笑 other than stylization? Tweens and whimsical adults can have entire conversations via emoji. Is this to say that phonetic languages are on the decline? Of course not. However, there is a transcendental simplicity and beauty to symbolic language that ensures it remain en vogue. The Buddha once said, “do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment. ” What seems to be ever present in our lives is the captivating cycle of Symbolic Samsāra.

Onyx Contributor:  Jiang Jie Min
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