The pen is mightier than the sword.”
– Edward Bulwer-Lutton, 1839, in his play, Richelieu.

Having both is better

Christopher Columbus was an unlikely explorer and perhaps a clumsy conqueror, but he wasn’t stupid. He was well-read and literate. He kept a journal and wrote something almost every day – and sent letters home to his Queen (Isabella of Spain, if not his queen of parentage, at least of patronage. She paid for it all).

“I have found the Indies or something like it, not sure, but here are a couple of birds and some monkeys we found. More to come.”

And at that, his Queen wrote back: “Birds are very loud. One of the monkeys died. Have you found any gold?”

The other Spaniards who followed Columbus also wrote it all down. And the ones who came after them wrote it all down.

From the earliest historical beginnings, the Americas were founded, explored, and conquered as much with written words as with those guns, germs, and steel. More than 400 years of history, taken down in letters, journals, poems, manifests, treaties, contracts, right up to the words of our country’s founding documents. I have spent some time in both the National Archives and the Library of Congress, looking at the originals of our Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, hundreds of letters, and maps. Books are so important, the Library is in the process of re-creating Thomas Jefferson’s original library – I say in the process since a fire or two destroyed a lot of books and they are always seeking copies. The Library also has one of the better museums, IMHO, with original maps and such of the Americas.

The written word is a tricky thing. After all, millions have died for centuries fighting over the words in the Bible. Or the Koran. A visitor from another planet might surmise that humans are more than willing to lay down their lives for words on a piece of paper, even if those words aren’t worth the piece of paper they’re written on.

And it took so long for those pieces of paper to get from one place to another. By horseback, by boat, by foot, by coach, those precious letters, tomes, poems, bibles, books, journals and more made their way across Europe, across rivers, lakes and oceans, taking weeks if not months to reach a grateful destination. How much has been lost thru the centuries to war, shipwrecks, fire, flood, theft, or simple carelessness?

I’ve spent a lot of time wondering about this, and others have, too. Jack Weatherford, in his superb book, Indian Givers: How Native Americans Transformed the World wrote about his own wonderings in the final pages describing the death of a Yuqui woman of the southern Amazon region:

“This dying woman contrasted painfully with the image of the Indians as the world’s greatest farmers and pharmacists, as the noble savage of Rousseau or the practical administrators who inspired Benjamin Franklin. I could not help but wonder why, if these people were really so great, they had fallen so low and been so oppressed. If they could build great cities and roads, why couldn’t they defend themselves from the waves of Europeans who washed across their land?”

With respect, I offer this explanation to Weatherford: PALL.

PALL stands for Portable, Available, and Living Language.

Language, the thing the English call English, the Chinese call Chinese, Spaniards call Spanish, you get the picture.

Which is how language began, we believe: pictures. On cave walls or rocks, to explain something or just to show off. Who knows when the first Homo E’s or S’s or whatever began to speak in a coherent, communicative way? But long before early folks gathered in the Fertile Crescent or crossed the land bridge betwixt Siberia and North America, we were chatting up a storm with bright colors on rocks.

There are a myriad of theories as to when and why early man began to talk, from human physiology to simply the notion you just need to yell something in an emergency or crisis. “Look out! Avalanche! Stampeding Big Animals! Fire! But it may have been obvious from an early time that rock art wasn’t very effective. “Oh, there’s a BUNCH of mastodons in the valley, gotta tell the others…now, where is my paint brush?”

But with all of that chatting, within just a few thousand years differences emerged that had profound implications for all humans on earth. Some anthropology types have touched on this, or have come close.

Some years ago, my husband and I were having breakfast in a diner outside of Washington D.C. In the next booth were a college professor and two of his students, it was obvious who was whom within just a few seconds after they say down. I was not trying to overhear the impromptu lecture, but the prof’s voice carried and the subject interested me. He was talking about language and the role it has played in the history of countries throughout the world. But he wasn’t talking about the spoken word, he was talking about the written word, how writing has changed the history of countries, has changed, in fact, people – but only because others were able to read it – the power, he was saying, of literacy. A well-read citizenry is the key to everything good about our kind.

That is what got me to thinking about PALL. The written word. What was the clear difference between the Europeans in the 14th and 15th centuries invading and conquering the New World? What was the clear difference between Europeans invading Africa in that same time period? How about Australia (later), the South Pacific (also later), and a host of other regions and land masses?

P = Portability. On pieces of leather, paper or papyrus, in books, in journals. Something with words that can be stashed in a saddle bag, wrapped in a cloth, put in a pocket. Taken across the square, across town, from town to town, from country to country, across an ocean.

Then, handed to someone…

…And that someone understands it, leading to:

A = Available. Taught to people in a wide-spread manner, not just a chosen few, but to tradesmen, captains, lords, ladies, parishioners  – and their kids. Taught by a parent, a teacher, a scribe, taught in classes, in alleys, on a sand dune, in a forest, using a stylus, a quill, a piece of lead.

L = Living. A living language, sharing and borrowing words and phrases from other languages, evolving, as it were, changing with the times. English has regularly stole, er, borrowed, words and phrases from other languages, and continues to morph, inventing its own vernacular. Steven Colbert’s “truthiness” is the perfect example.

L = Lasting. It’s got to stand the Test  of Time. Latin, for example, is commonly referred to as a dead language. For those of us who spent a lot of time in Latin Class (me: four years, it was one of my best subjects), that hurts but we really don’t know how, exactly, Latin was spoken – what consonants were stressed, which vowels might have been silent. Accents? Anybody’s guess. The Catholic Church’s pronunciations are hand-me-downs, nobody knows its authenticity. So a language has to last not only in its written version, but also in its pronounced version.

What does PALL do? To use a well-worn saying, you don’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been. While we love to romanticize the idea of the wise old dude gathering the youngins around the campfire to pass down lore and poems, it’s a lousy way to teach wisdom or what happened a few generations ago. To wit: Wise old dude dies before he teaches all of the stories. Wise old dude gets kidnapped by another tribe and is never heard from again. Wise old dude gets paid off with a haunch of mammoth to not tell stories about you know who doing you know what. Wise old dude gets hit on head and forgets all of it.

So, how do you learn about the mistakes and triumphs of mom and dad, your shaman, your chief warrior, let alone what somebody did a hundred years ago?

Many ancient cultures started out the PALL way, but went astray. The Egyptians, for example. Man, look at all of the work that went into getting those hieroglyphs on stone or on papyrus, but only a handful of priests and their scribes knew what the heck it all meant.

Even Ptolomy, the Greek general under Alexander the Great who took over Egypt about 323 B.C. didn’t think enough of it to demand that all of those the ‘glyphs be translated onto papyrus to, oh, I don’t know, say, GREEK. So all of those millions of characters that were all over the place became meaningless, until about 1799 when a French general under Napoleon found a heavy rock – the Rosetta Stone, which had a translation of hieroglyphics in – (wait for it) – Greek. The Stone was created a goodly 150 years after Ptolomy, by one of his ancestors – but still no papyrus? What was up with that? The Library of Alexandria was already in existence with hundreds, perhaps thousands of scrolls, so why no translation. Now, to be fair, that library went up in smoke thanks to a certain Roman, but still, you have to shake your head that a 2,000-year-old civilization’s only form of written communication was never, it seems, put on paper.

But back to the Europeans and the New World.

We know how fanatical all of Europe was about documenting everything. Dozens of scribes were employed, or enslaved, to copy, copy, copy, letters, treaties, manuscripts, sermons, essays, etc. The demand and recognized benefits of literate members of societies were becoming firmly established. This may have been a result of the Dark Ages – roughly the centuries between the 5th and the 9th. Reading and writing were almost completely lost to huge parts of Europe. Europe had PALL before the 5th century, but lost it for the next 400 years. So there were lots of lessons coming out of the Dark Ages: mainly, let’s don’t do THAT again.

And then, about 1430 or so, the best invention ever, was, well, invented. Johannes Gutenberg built the first printing press using movable type in Germany. You think the IPad is big? Just read a history of the printing press! That single invention made both the “P” and ‘A” parts of PALL what they are today. Within just a few years, there were hundreds of these printing presses throughout Europe, churning out Bibles, music, philosophies and the first novel, probably Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur.*

But in the American continents, pre-Columbus, PALL was non-existent. The Incas didn’t have it, the Mayans didn’t have it. ‘Glyphs carved into big blocks of stone aren’t portable.

The Aztecs didn’t have PALL either, despite the thousands of Codei on thick papyrus-like material destroyed by the invading Spanish priests. Sorry, Aztecs, but while you may have codified your language, only a chosen few could read or understand it. And you didn’t make lots and lots of copies; when the Catholic priests showed up it was fairly easy to gather up armloads and toss them into the pyres. So it became an endangered language. In all fairness, however, it’s important to remember that the Aztec empire didn’t really get its start until about 1350 or so – less than 200 years before the Spaniards showed up. If that hadn’t happened, who knows? Those Codei might have been developed on a more mass-distribution basis, and that’s sad to think about.

None of the North American tribes had PALL, either.**

You wonder why this is important? The knowledge of thousands of years was unavailable to these folks, except thru that precarious word-of-mouth. Wars fought, won or lost; the causes of famine or drought; bad people, good people.

“Is that smoke I see? How long ago did that volcano erupt?”

“How did grandma die? From pains on her right side? I think I have whatever that was…”

“Dude, you still believe that an eclipse can eat your babies? Read this, see if this makes more sense.”

When the first Europeans landed on the eastern shores and islands of the New World over the next 150 years, they had the advantage of guns, germs, and steel. But they also had the ingrained knowledge of past generations and lessons learned not only from their own country, but also from dozens of other countries and peoples for lots of generations, hundreds of years.

I do not throw PALL into the discussion to make a racist point, or to suggest that Europeans were superior to New World cultures. They weren’t – just look at The Muck or Europe.

We have no idea why, sometime after the exodus from the Fertile Crescent years ago, the folks who went north and west eventually decided to start writing stuff down, and why the folks who went south and continued east across the Bering land bridge didn’t.

Ideas and thoughts, like facts, are funny things (mangling a quote from John Adams). When you write them down you have a better shot at claiming them, sharing them. If you don’t they can be stolen. And that’s what happened time and time again when Europeans landed and began to pirate what Native Americans had been doing for the past 12,000 years.

*What was the first “machine” to be brought over from Europe to the Americas? It was a printing press, about 1530. Not by the English, mind you…by the Spaniards, to Mexico City. The building that housed the press is still standing. Printing presses were so important for the New World, I’ll mention them again.

** Purists will want to mention Sequoyah, who in 1821 created a Cherokee dictionary. He should be credited because he recognized the importance of the written language. Note the date: more than 200 years post-Columbus.