The visual processes of recognizing shapes and patterns and even of recognizing the sequencing "rules" in written words have developed from the start of our evolution. Using our vision to understand our world was crucial to our early survival and has therefore had a long time to become well honed. Recognizing rules and patterns in the environment would provide early warning of predators. Developing that visual perception over millennia allowed us to develop the visual processing to recognize patterns and sequences that letters can have within words and non-words. In a recent study [i] discussed by Marshall in the New Scientist, baboons were taught to be able to recognize 4-letter English words and differentiate non-words from real words. This suggests strongly that the baboons had an innate capacity to learn the rules that determine letter ordering and were applying these rules when faced with unfamiliar words. Marshall explains that this suggests that the visual processing enabling the brain to recognize written words is evolutionarily ancient.
Speech is a much more recent development. It is true that many animals communicate by sounds; but only humans have the capacity for speech. Homo-sapiens was the first among our ancestors and the only mammal to evolve the neural controls to allow the very high level of tongue control for non-eating movement.[ii] This allows us a vast repertoire of sounds, which we can use symbolically, giving us the physical ability for speech from which we could develop language.
How and when language began evolving is a complex problem still confounding scientists and linguists today. However, David Bickerton[iii] suggests that two distinct evolutionary processes were needed for humans to begin developing language: 1) cultural emergence of symbolic representation 2) neurological adaptations in the brain allowing it to encode syntactic structure. Therefore language is a relatively recent accomplishment in our development as it requires auditory processes which allow us to understand the symbolization of sounds as well as the differences in the sound and word order (“you will come”; “will you come?”).
Early man painted pictures on his cave wall representing his life and events. These simple pictures did not have the higher function of representing something more than an event. The drawings were only used symbolically a lot later. What is considered to be the very first writing to have been discovered was on a tablet of solid limestone in the ancient Sumerian city of Kish in Mesopotamia, about 6000 years ago. It was a carving of a foot, a hand and a sledge with other marks beside them which are thought to represent numbers[iv].
Record keeping seems to have been a major motivator for developing easier writing. The scribes began by making simplistic drawings on clay to keep records for their stores and over time they simplified the drawings to become more of a symbol than a direct drawing of the object. Still, the reading process was purely visual as it reflected objects and numbers. Actions, feelings and concepts were not recorded in writing and one did not need to link the visual representation of an object to any spoken word.
Linking words to a drawn symbol began with Cuneiform writing in the Near East and Hieroglyphics in Egypt around 3000BC. To give a greater flexibility to writing, the scribes using Cuneiform writing began to develop ways of representing feelings, ideas and actions. They broke spoken words into syllables which could be represented by drawings. An example of this would be: “belief” being represented by the symbol for “bee” and the symbol for “leaf. The Egyptians mostly used their writing for sacred inscriptions on monuments and buildings. They also drew simplified pictures of commonly recognizable objects and animals. The hieroglyph (meaning: “sacred carving”) was sometimes used to represent the different syllables but began to also represent separate sounds within syllables. This was the start of true reading development, as recent as 5000 years ago! In evolutionary terms, that was just a blink away from now.
The difficulty with using pictures or symbols to represent whole words or syllables of words is that it is cumbersome to learn and the reader and writer both need to remember a large number of symbols. There were more about 600 different cuneiform symbols and about 700 hieroglyphs. Thus, the biggest advance in reading and writing was the realization that one can simply use symbols to represent sounds and that even syllables comprise other, more simple sounds. These basic sounds number only 20-30 in any language and therefore the number of symbols needed to represent them is much more manageable. The Canaanites, early Hebrews and Phoenicians around 1600 BC made this realization and the first alphabet was born, with 22 characters, placed in a set order and given names to make learning easier iv. This is similar to how we use letters no represent the basic sounds in syllables and words in our writing today. Writing and reading were finally beginning to link the sounds of spoken words to a drawn symbolic representation.
The early Greeks introduced this Phoenician alphabet to Europe in 1000 BC, adding vowels for the first time. Until then, only the consonants had been represented. This increased the demands on our ability to combine visual and auditory sequential processing in order to read and write; but would have made it easier to ensure that the reader interpreted the word correctly. It would have allowed greater flexibility to the writer’s vocabulary, as words would look more distinct from each other.
Early reading had to be done aloud. It was very difficult to read silently because there were no spaces between words and no punctuation; the sounds were simply put on the paper as they would have flowed from speech. This meant that in order to work out what was being said, one needed to vocalize. Aristophanes (200BC) is thought to be one of the first to introduce punctuation, using it to help the actors of his plays say their lines correctly. Still, reading silently was very difficult indeed and considered extremely unusual. In 384AD, St Augustine was so amazed at seeing St Ambrose (then Bishop of Milan) reading silently that he noted in his Confessions: “When he read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud." Manguel tells us that this is the first definite instance of someone reading silently that has been recorded in Western literature[v]. And this was only 1631 years ago!
It was the Celtic monks of the 7th and 8th centuries whose prolific writings introduced the use of large letters at the beginning of important words and sentences, using them for emphasis. They also used a less stylised, rigid way of writing than the purely capital letter writing, favouring the easier, more well-known script that the Roman legionnaires used[vi]. Writing on parchment allowed easier, more flowing letters. Early writing became more similar to cursive script as the scribes began to avoid lifting their pens between letters to speed up writing. This finally led to the appearance of spaces between words as late as 900AD.[vii]
Silent reading is therefore a very recent development in humans. While it may be true that even baboons can recognise which 4-letter combinations are words and which are not, this is only a part of what reading actually entails. To read, we need to be able to recognise visual cues which are a coded representation for sounds and link those sounds together into combinations that create the sound of spoken words. When we look at the evolution of writing and therefore of rANSFIELDeading, we see that we have not had much time to evolve the neural “highway” connecting the parts of the brain which have to interact when we read. Understanding this helps us to see Dyslexia, not as a disorder in which something is broken or damaged but as a disability resulting from neural pathways which are still developing. We see that we need to understand the development of these processes and pathways to help young dyslexics learn to read.
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[i] Orthographic Processing in Baboons (Papio papio) Grainger J, Dufau S, Montant M, Ziegler JC & Fagot J; as discussed in: Baboons and 4-Letter words point to origins of reading. Marshall M. New Scientist April 2012 http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn21697-baboons-and-4letter-words-point-to-origins-of-reading.html#.VMTPvNKUf4Y
[ii] Origin of Speech MacNeilage, P, 2008. Oxford: Oxford University Press http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Origin_of_speech#cite_note-21 As discussed on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Origin_of_speech#Could_the_Neanderthals_speak.3F
[iii] Language Evolution: Christianson M & Kirby S The Hardest Problem in Science?
[iv] The Last Two Million Years Readers Digest 1974 (302-305)
[v] The Silent Readers Manguel A, A History of Reading Chapter 2 (New York; Viking, 1996) http://web.stanford.edu/class/history34q/readings/Manguel/Silent_Readers.html
[vi] History of Writing Gascoigne, Bamber. HistoryWorld. From 2001, ongoing. http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/PlainTextHistories.asp?groupid=1592&HistoryID=ab33>rack=pthc
[vii] A Brief History of Reading. Live Ink http://www.liveink.com/whatis/history.htm