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  • The Script Rose
  • Joseph S. Catalano

Learning to read words, musical notes or numbers is a process by which we attach sounds, pictures and meanings to marks. Looked at in this way, the English script “rose” is a sign of a sound, a picture or a meaning. But when we read fluently is the word “rose” a sign? I think not; and I shall try to make a case that, to the properly disposed reader, the script “rose” (hereafter written rose) is a rose.


To have the perspective I require on reading, a quasi-Davidsonian distinction between causes and reasons may be useful. Early training in matching marks with sounds and pictures, surface irritations of light on the eye, stimulation and fixing of our entire neurological complex are all part of the causal network of our ability to read. But none of these causes are the reasons for our ability to be absorbed in reading a text.

Of course, a distinction between causes and reasons does not, of itself, explain how the written page can be a world in which we find things such as roses. In order to see how the script rose got to be a rose, it is useful to suspend the usual questions that we ask about written language. Thus, we must not concern ourselves about the ambiguity that might arise because the word rose can be taken to mean a flower, a hue or a person, nor about what happens when we translate from one language to another, nor about the distinction between a sign, whether natural or artificial, and what is signified, nor whether written language [End Page 85] corresponds to something other than itself, nor the question of the meaning of meaning.


We created better than we knew, when we invented writing. We intended to represent the spoken word; but we made roses, dreams and lives exist as marks on a page. If this seems mysterious, it is a mystery that is present in every artifact, and what I seek is a perspective on written language precisely as an artifact.

Of course, scripts are artifacts, but what I am after is the workmanship. The workmanship is both obvious and hidden. It is there for us to see; it is what we read. But we do not see it as forged over a long period of time just to serve its function as marks that are readable.

In general, certain aspects of written language are similar to ordinary artifacts, others are not so. The difference is more obvious than the similarity: Scripts differ from ordinary artifacts, because we first approach them as signs of sounds, pictures or meanings: A child does not learn about sitting by looking at a chair as a sign of a chair; for example, the child does not squat on the floor, when it sees a chair. More importantly, the craftsmanship that gave us written language, especially alphabetic writing, was directed toward forging “arbitrary” marks, and a chair is certainly not an arbitrary representation of something to sit upon. In Quiddities, in the section “A” for “Alphabet,” W. V. Quine neatly summarizes the remarkable feat of discovering meaningless marks to represent sounds.

. . . the full power of writing awaited the convergence of writing with speech, and this reached its early stages five thousand years ago. Depictions of visible objects came to be pressed into phonetic duty on the rebus principle, as if in English we were to write melancholy by depicting a melon and a collie. This expedient was rendered more flexible and powerful, if less picturesque, by devoting the phonetic representations to brief sounds—single consonants or syllables. The sound was represented by a hieroglyph depicting something whose name merely began with that sound. The rebus principle thus gave way to an acrophonic one.

It was a notable step of abstraction. Finding a melon and collie in melancholy is a matter of punning with familiar words; extracting a meaningless me-, on the other hand, and meaningless lan-, and so on, calls for appreciating fugitive sounds that are not words and name nothing.

(pp. 1–2)

[End Page 86]

Quine is right to follow the traditional claim that writing...

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