1041-1450: Printing Press 🖨


Long before all the tech jobs were outsourced to India, scribes experienced an early instance of creative destruction with the advent of the printing press. In 1041 AD Bi Sheng brought movable type printing technology to China, and by 1450 it had been improved on by Johannes Gutenberg. Hand-lettering was replaced by character serialization, a data format that could be stored and reused, and language was reduced to its most basic components: graphemes, phonemes, and punctuation marks. As mentioned in my emoji prehistory post, a grapheme is the smallest unit that makes up a word. Graphemes are written representations of phonemes (groups of 2, 3 or 4 letters), and phonemes are the smallest units that make up a sound. In the English language, for instance, there are approximately 44 phonemes.


Because English today is based on phonograms, or symbols that represent spoken sound rather than concrete images, it may seem counterintuitive that we find ourselves in the throws of a digital pictographic obsession when the emoji fad has very much ended in its country of origin. So how did the appropriation of Chinese kanji symbols and the phonetic system pave the way for an army of delightful cartoonish symbols? How has emoji grown to supplement our bland English vocabulary?


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