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  • Crafting Marks Into Meanings
  • Joseph S. Catalano

In his fascinating book about the Mayan Code, Michael D. Coe writes, “I challenge any native English speaker to avoid thinking of the word ‘twelve’ when looking at ‘12,’ or an Italian to avoid the utterance ‘dodici’ when going through the same performance.” 1 I accept the challenge, and claim that I have done just that. What shall the reply be—“I should not have done so?” One suspects that linguists confuse theoretical problems about writing and reading with the experience itself.

The nature of reading and writing is difficult to understand because on the one hand it seems to involve a complex of conventional marks, but on the other hand these marks seem capable of being understood independently of their relationship to speech or to things. One can claim, of course, that the competent reader works under an illusion: meaning comes to a script through spoken language, through a deep-structured language, through concepts, or through the way the neurons work in the brain. Without denying that the written word enters into many relations, I want to make a case that the history of writing shows that we have crafted marks into meanings and, therefore, that a text is meaningful on the level of the script itself.

Before proceeding, I want both to clarify my use of the term “script,” and to give the basic outline of this essay. Studies on writing frequently distinguish among writing systems, scripts, and orthographies. Writing system is the most general of these terms. For example, the alphabet forms one writing system, and Chinese characters another. A script is a particular form of writing system; examples are the Roman alphabetic script and the Greek alphabetic script. An orthography is the way a particular language uses a script; for example, the way the English or [End Page 47] French languages use the Roman alphabetic script. In the concrete, however, there are only orthographies, and without wishing to challenge the traditional distinction, I will frequently interchange script and orthography.

The first part of the essay is a discussion of my perspective on writing. My perspective is a substantive part of my case about writing, and I will clarify it at some length. Then I will examine some of the steps that led to our ability to read and write fluently. I will be recommending that in reading histories about writing, we view speech merely as a mediation through which written marks are crafted into meanings. My claim is that every artifact, indeed, every thing, needs to be correctly “read” in order to be used, and that the invention of an elegant system of writing lifts this readability from its specific materiality. For example, to use a fork properly one must be able to read this use in the fork. Language lifts this readability from the matter of the fork, the silver or stainless steel, and makes the readability itself an object.


Recall the last time you were engrossed while reading a novel. Most likely, you were not concerned with questions about the meaning of meaning or the difference between meaning and signification. But did your engaged reading and writing involve an inner speech and, if it did, how did you recognize homonyms, for example the difference between there and their? I suspect that only a small part of our vocabulary is acquired by vocalization. But more importantly, I want to question whether writing must be related to speech to be understood.

Frank Smith has persistently questioned the belief that reading must involve vocalizations, and he has criticized the notion that the best way to proceed with reading instruction is by mapping speech onto print. In Understanding Reading, he writes: “Phonics is complicated. . . . We now know that if we really expect to give children a mastery of phonetics, that we are not talking about a dozen or so rules. We are talking about 166 rules, which will still not account for hundreds of the words they might expect to meet in their early reading.” 2

In Reading, he notes: “How is it possible to recognize written words without sounding them out? The answer is that we recognize words in...

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