Clerestory

Paper Disintegrates

June 19, 2020

Part of a series on culture.

Nicholas Ostler, in 2005, wrote the impressively ambitious Empires of the Word, and in it sought to trace nothing less than the history of every recorded language. Not the etymological or linguistic history, but the history of the people among whom each language was actually spoken.

This gives fresh insights, because language does not always equate with empire, nation, or ethnicity, and when they diverge the story becomes particularly interesting. In one example, Ostler asks a question that may not have seemed pressing — but he raises it in such a way as to make it so:

What was really happening in Assyria in the seventh century BC? It was a period when the rulers’ ascendancy was assured and new conquests were being made: yet all the while its language was changing from Akkadian, the age-old language of its rulers, to Aramaic, the language of the nomads it was reputedly conquering.

Ostler discusses language prestige at length, which accounts, in different eras, for the communicability or persistence of Sanskrit, Greek, Persian, and Latin. But Aramaic is an intriguing counterexample, in which the language of slaves supplanted that of their oppressors.

The arguments in the book are so numerous, so unexpected and so fascinating — others include the thesis that the Plague of Justinian is the reason England speaks a Germanic rather than a Romance language, and that among major languages, the most similar language to Chinese is English1 — that they entirely defy summary.

Today I’m interested in a point so specific that, in the book’s oceanic scope, it amounts to little more than an aside. The point seems obvious in retrospect, as many good points do, but I had never had cause to think about it before reading this magnum opus of Ostler’s.

In discussing the disappearance of the Punic (Phoenician/Canaanite) languages and literature of North Africa, he writes:

The Punic cultural traditions ceased to be fostered, and the physical record of this once highly literate society did not last much longer.

The universal medium for administrative and literary records had been papyrus, a material that survives long-term only in extremely dry conditions (such as those of the Egyptian desert). Texts that were not inscribed on a durable medium such as stone, ivory or clay would not survive unless they were repeatedly copied—a service that was maintained for seminal texts in Greek and Latin, and indeed Hebrew, throughout late antiquity and the Middle Ages, until the printing press made them safe. There was no tradition to preserve Phoenician or Punic texts, and so they perished with the papyrus on which they had been written.2

As I said in pondering Aristotle’s view of artistic development, it is important to remember that any text we had today had to be copied by hand many times for it to have persisted to the present. The process was manual in the most literal sense. And I think it gives insight into what a unit of culture is.

With the absurd abundance of cheap books today, it may be easy to think of any work as something like a polaroid, an endlessly replicable snapshot of some point in the past. A fixed and mass-produced object, in other words.

But the fact that paper disintegrates means that anything of a certain age which we can read today was copied many, many times by hand for us to be able to read it.3 In that sense, a copy of a book — any book — is like the echo of some long-ago speech, which has been repeated to us through the generations. It is a still ongoing process, not an object.

A book is a process that is going on too slowly for us to see it as such, so we mistake it for an object. And everything we think of as an object represents a mistake of this nature.

That speech was a process would have been completely obvious in oral tradition. It is less so with books, which make the speech seem fixed, and prevent the clerical errors (or emendations, or amendments) which would have occurred in the reproduction of manuscripts.

The situation seems somehow worsened, rather than improved, by the insubstantiality of ebooks.4 In principle they could seem more fluid, but perhaps the analogy with books is so strong that we assume them to be fixed objects as well.

While we’re still, in some loose way, on the subject of Aristotle, it is worth pointing out some facts about his personal corpus (not to be confused with the Corpus Aristotelicum which includes the work of members of his school) as it relates to this point about paper:

Wikipedia lists this litany of subjects to which he either contributed, or himself introduced as an area of study: “physics, biology, zoology, metaphysics, logic, ethics, esthetics, poetry, theatre, music, rhetoric, psychology, linguistics, economics, politics, and government.”

Wikipedia then goes on to note that “only a third of his original output has survived, none of it intended for publication.” In other words, we have in his surviving works not just the instantiation of an insane number of disciplines, but we have that just from his notes. If you doubt whether that would have made much difference, it is worth noting that Cicero called Aristotle’s literary style “a river of gold”. If you’ve read Aristotle you will know that this could not have referred to the paltry extant notes that we have.

Cicero, incidentally, will be the topic of the next post.


  1. These examples demonstrate my own anglophone bias, which the book does not have.

  2. Nicholas Ostler, Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World, 1st ed (London: Harper Perennial, 2006), 78. Emphasis mine

  3. I say “anything of a certain age” because before papyrus, writing on clay was more durable, and some of that we still have. This tendency towards fragility seems to be a general trend in technology, about which more later.

  4. I haven’t quite made up my mind about ephemeral blog posts like this one. On the one hand, it should follow the same principles as any other digital format. On the other, it is more obviously conversational, and more obviously the product of one person on one day (or at least so it seems to me as I write this).


I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.