How Writing Has Spread Across the World, from 3000 BC to This Year: An Animated Map

The oldest known writing systems first emerged in Mesopotamia, between 3400 and 3100 BC, and Egypt, around 3250 BC. The Latin alphabet, which I’m using to write this post and you’re using to read it, gradually took the shape we know between the seventh century BC and the Middle Ages. Over the eras since, it has spread outward from Europe to become the most widely used script in the world. These are important developments in the history of writing, but hardly the only ones. It is with all known writing systems that historical map animator Ollie Bye deals in the video above: not just those used today, but over the whole of the past five millennia.

The conquests of Alexander the Great; the Gallic Wars; the colonization of Latin America; the “scramble for Africa”: these and other major historical events are vividly reflected in the spread of certain writing systems.

Up until 1492 — after the expiration of eight and a half of the video’s eleven minutes — the map concerns itself only with Europe, Asia, and the northern three-quarters of Africa (as well as an inlaid section depicting the civilizations of what is now Central America). Thereafter it zooms out to include the New World, and indeed the whole world, though centuries pass before most of its blank spaces fill up with the colors that indicate the adoption of a dominant script.

Arabic and Persian appear in lime green, simplified Chinese in red, and Cyrillic in light blue. Before Bye’s animation reaches the middle twentieth century, most of the world has turned medium blue, which represents the now-mighty Latin alphabet. The use of these very letters for all written communication by such a wide variety of cultures merits a volumes-long history by itself. But perhaps most intriguing here is the persistence of relatively minor scripts: Cree, used among the natives of northern Canada; hiraganakatakana, and kanji in Japan; and also hangul in Korea — which I read and write myself every day of my life in Seoul, and to whose continued dominance here I can confidently attest.

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You Could Soon Be Able to Text with 2,000 Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

What It’s Like to Work in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Iconic Office Building

Frank Lloyd Wright, who drew so much inspiration from the wide open spaces of middle America, designed just two high-rise buildings. The second, completed late in his long career, was 1956’s Price Tower in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. The first opened six years before that, as an addition to one of his already-famous projects. That was the headquarters of S. C. Johnson & Son, better known as Johnson Wax, in Racine, Wisconsin. Seen at a distance, the Research Tower stands out as the signal feature of the complex, but it’s the earlier Administration Building that offered the world a glimpse of the future of work.

The Administration Building’s construction finished in 1939. Back then, says Vox’s Phil Edwards (himself an established Wright fan) in the video above, “offices were small and cramped, or private. This building had a spacious central room instead, meant to encourage the spread of ideas.” Such a concept may sound familiar — perhaps all too familiar — to anyone who’s ever worked in what we now call an “open-plan office.” But it was daring at the time, and it seems that no architect has ever implemented it quite as strikingly again. What other office makes you “feel like you’re underwater, that you’re in, maybe, a lily pond”?

That description comes from architect and Wright scholar Jonathan Lipman, one of the experts Edwards consults on his own pilgrimage to Johnson Wax Headquarters. He wanted to spend some time working there himself, something easily arranged since S. C. Johnson has by now moved most of its operations into other facilities. But however satisfying it feels to sit in the shade of Wright’s “dendriform columns” sprouting throughout the Great Workroom, the experience proves unsatisfying. “It wasn’t a real thing without any people around,” Edwards says, “without the energy of being in that office.”

Wright spoke of his intentions to create “as inspiring a place to work in as any cathedral ever was to worship in.” Today, amid the silent absence of typists on the ground floor and managers on the mezzanine, the Administration Building must feel holier than ever. The space exudes a magnificent loneliness, and opening a MacBook to log into Slack surely intensifies the loneliness rather than the magnificence. “In 1939, this was the future of work,” Edwards says. “These big corporate campuses, the Googles and Metas and Amazons: they owe a debt to this campus here.” But for the increasingly many living the remote-work life, even those twenty-first-century big-tech headquarters have begun to seem like temples from a passing era.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Behold the Medieval Wound Man: The Poor Soul Who Illustrated the Injuries a Person Might Receive Through War, Accident or Disease

Do you swoon at the sight of blood?

Suffer paper cuts as major trauma?

Cover your eyes when the knife comes out in the horror movie?

If so, and also if not, fall to your knees and give thanks that you’re not the Wound Man, above.

A staple of medieval medical history, he’s a grisly compendium of the injuries and external afflictions that might befall a mortal of the period- insect and animal bites, spilled entrails, abscesses, boils, infections, plague-swollen glands, piercings and cuts, both accidental and deliberately inflicted.

Any one of these troubles should be enough to fell him, yet he remains upright, displaying every last one of them simultaneously, his expression stoic.

He’s hard to look at, but as art historian Jack Hartnell , author of Medieval Bodies: Life, Death and Art in the Middle Ages writes in British Art Studies:

The Wound Man was not a figure designed to inspire fear or to menace. On the contrary, he represented something more hopeful: an imaginative and arresting herald of the powerful knowledge that could be channelled and dispensed through the practice of medieval medicine.

A valuable educational resource for surgeons for some three centuries, he began cropping up in southern Germany in the early 1400s. In an essay for the Public Domain Review, Hartnell notes how these early specimens served “as a human table of contents”, directing interested parties to the specific passages in the various medical texts where information on existing treatments could be found.

The protocol for injuries to the intestines or stomach called for stitching the wound up with a fine thread and sprinkling it with an antihemorrhagic powder made from wine, hematite, nutmeg, white frankincense, gum arabic, bright red sap from the Dracaena cinnabari tree and a restorative quantity of mummy.

The Wound Man evolved along with medical knowledge, weapons of warfare and art world trends.

The woodcut Wound Man in Hans von Gersdorff’s 1517 landmark Fieldbook of Surgery introduces cannonballs to the ghastly mix.

And the engraver Robert White’s Wound Man in British surgeon John Browne’s 1678 Compleat Discourse of Wounds loses the loincloth and grows his hair, morphing into a neoclassical beauty in the Saint Sebastian mold.

Surgical knowledge eventually outpaced the Wound Man’s usefulness, but popular culture is far from ready for him to lay down and die, as evidenced by recent cameos in episodes of Hannibal and the British comedy quiz show, QI.

Delve into the history of the Wound Man in Jack Hartnell’s British Art Studies article “Wording the Wound Man.”

via Public Domain Review

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Meet the Hyperpolyglots, the People Who Can Mysteriously Speak Up to 32 Different Languages

Polyglot, as its Greek roots take no great pains to conceal, means the speaking of multiple languages. Somewhat less obvious is the meaning of the associated term hyperpolylot. “Coined two decades ago, by a British linguist, Richard Hudson, who was launching an Internet search for the world’s greatest language learner,” the New Yorker’s Judith Thurman writes, it refers not just to the speaking of multiple languages but the speaking of many languages. How many is “many”? “The accepted threshold is eleven,” which disqualifies even most of us avid language connoisseurs. But Vaughn Smith easily makes the cut.

You can meet this formidable hyperpolyglot in the Washington Post video above, which complements Jessica Contrera’s story in the paper. Smith grew up in D.C. speaking not just English but Spanish, his mother’s native language. On his father’s side of the family, distant cousins from Belgium expanded Smith’s linguistic worldview further still.

At 46 years of age, he now speaks just about as many languages, “with at least 24 he speaks well enough to carry on lengthy conversations. He can read and write in eight alphabets and scripts. He can tell stories in Italian and Finnish and American Sign Language. He’s teaching himself Indigenous languages, from Mexico’s Nahuatl. to Montana’s Salish. The quality of his accents in Dutch and Catalan dazzle people from the Netherlands and Spain.”

Unlike his fellow hyperpolyglot Ioannis Ikonomou, profiled in the Great Big Story video above, Smith is not a translator. Nor does he work as a linguist, a diplomat, or anything else you’d expect. “Vaughn has been a painter, a bouncer, a punk rock roadie and a Kombucha delivery man,” writes Contrera. “He was once a dog walker for the Czech art collector Meda Mládková, the widow of an International Monetary Fund governor,” which was “the closest he ever came to having a career that utilized his languages.” Having brought him most recently to the profession of carpet cleaning, Smith’s life resembles a beloved genre of American story: that of the undiscovered working-class genius, most popularly told by movies like Good Will Hunting. Contrera’s investigation adds a chapter in line with a major 21st-century trend in reportage: the brain activity-revealing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scan.

Under the fMRI scanner, “Vaughn works through a series of tests, reading English words, watching blue squares move around and listening to languages, some he knows and some he doesn’t.” The results were surprising: “the parts of Vaughn’s brain used to comprehend language are far smaller and quieter than mine,” writes the monoglot Contrera. “Even when we are reading the same words in English, I am using more of my brain and working harder than he ever has to.” Perhaps “Vaughn was born with his language areas being smaller and more efficient”; perhaps “his brain started out like mine, but because he learned so many languages while it was still developing, his dedication transformed his anatomy.” Smith himself seems to have enjoyed the experience — not that it took his mind off a matter of great importance even to the less intensive language-learners: keeping his Duolingo streak intact.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Why Predator — A Discussion of the Film Franchise on Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast #133


Thanks to the new film Prey by Dan Trachtenberg and Patrick Aison, we now have six films (starting with 1987’s Predator) featuring the dreadlocked, camouflaged, infrared-seeing race of alien hunters who have apparently been flying around collecting our skulls for 300 years.

Thankfully, the new film is good, and adds to the recent spate of Indigenous-centered media, with its young, female Comanche protagonist taking on evil French bison-killers, her sexist peers, and a mountain lion, in addition to a relatively low-tech version of what many comic books have called a Yautja.

We talk about what makes for a good Predator film, the appeal of the monster (and when in the films it gets revealed), the pacing of the films, the music, direction, effects, humor, social commentary, and more.

A few of the articles we consulted included:

This marks the first episode of Pretty Much Pop season three, where Mark Linsenmayer’s recurring co-hosts will by default tentatively be those you will hear today: Philosophy prof/entertainment writer Lawrence Ware, novelist/writing prof Sarahlyn Bruck, and ex-musician, ex-philosophy grad student, and now ex-research manager Al Baker. The various convocations of musicians, comedians, et al, will still happen too, but will at least alternate with some permutation of that core group.

Hear more Pretty Much Pop. Support the show and hear bonus talking for this and nearly every other episode at or by choosing a paid subscription through Apple Podcasts. This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts.

When Marlon Brando Refused the Oscar for His Role in The Godfather to Support the Rights of Native Americans (1973)

At the 45th Academy Awards, Marlon Brando won the Best Actor award for his performance in The Godfather — but sent a Native American civil rights activist named Sacheen Littlefeather to decline it on his behalf. “The twenty-six-year-old activist took the stage in a fringed buckskin dress and moccasins,” writes the New Yorker‘s Michael Schulman. “When she explained that Brando’s reasons for refusing the award were Hollywood’s mistreatment of Native Americans and the standoff in Wounded Knee, South Dakota, there were loud boos and scattered cheers.”

More seventies things have happened, but surely not many. With time, Schulman writes, “the whole thing cemented into a pop-culture punch line: preening actor, fake Indian” — the “crying Indian” environmental PSA had aired just a few years before — “kitschy Hollywood freak show. But what if it wasn’t that at all?”

Almost half a century later, this notable chapter in Oscars history has come back into the news in the wake of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ official apology to Littlefeather. It’s now more widely understood who Littlefeather is, and what Brando was going for when he made her his emissary that night in 1973.

Brando wasn’t especially hesitant to explain his actions even at the time: less than three months after the event, he laid out all his reasons on The Dick Cavett Show. “I don’t think that people generally realize what the motion picture industry has done to the American Indian,” he tells Cavett. “As a matter of fact, all ethnic groups.” He then runs down the “silly renditions of human behavior” delivered nightly on television, highlighting the phenomenon of “Indian children seeing Indians represented as savage, as ugly, as nasty, vicious, treacherous, drunken.”

Such clichéd portrayals were what Brando meant to address by speaking through Littlefeather. But the public’s immediate reaction, as Cavett puts it, went along the lines of, “There’s Brando jumping on a social-cause bandwagon now, getting in on the Indians.” They’d forgotten that the actor’s connection with Native American causes went back at least to 1964, when he was arrested at a Pacific Northwest “fish-in” by the Puyallup tribe protesting the denial of their treaty rights. And as Littlefeather’s fêting by the Academy shows, that connection has long survived even Brando himself.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Most Distant Places Visited by the Romans: Africa, Scandinavia, China, India, Arabia & Other Far-Flung Lands

As we still say today, all roads lead to Rome. Or at least they did at the height of its power, which historians tend to place in the second century. It was in that century that the Greco-Egyptian polymath Ptolemy wrote his book Geography, whose description of all known lands inspired an unprecedentedly detailed world map. As Ptolemy’s map illustrates, “the Romans, for all their rhetoric about universal empire, were aware that the world was much larger than their domains.” So says ancient-history Youtuber Garrett Ryan in “The Most Distant Places Visited by the Romans,” a video essay from his channel Told in Stone.

Ryan explains what history has recorded of “the vast range and reach of Roman merchants and adventurers,” who made it to Africa, Scandinavia, India, and even China. Some may have been motivated by pure wanderlust (the ancient Roman equivalent of Eurail-hopping college graduates, perhaps) but surely most of them would have set out on such long, arduous, and even dangerous journeys with glory and wealth in mind.

It was the promise of spices, frankincense, and myrrh, for instance, that drew Roman traders to Arabia Felix (or modern-day Yemen), despite the region’s reputation for being “overrun by flying snakes.”

However impressive ancient Rome’s geographical knowledge, they clearly had yet to get the details straight. But they knew enough to bring back from a variety of far-flung lands not just tall tales but treasures unavailable elsewhere, turning the metropole into a reflection of the world. Few such items would have been as visible in Rome as silk, “an indispensable luxury used in everything from legionary standards to the robes of the emperors.” That material came from China, most often purchased through dealers in Central Asia and India. But some particularly adventurous Romans made it not just to the Middle Kingdom but into the very palace of the Chinese emperor. All those roads to Rome were, after all, two-way streets.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Enter an Archive of 7,000 Historical Children’s Books, All Digitized & Free to Read Online

5 Little PIgs

We can learn much about how a historical period viewed the abilities of its children by studying its children’s literature. Occupying a space somewhere between the purely didactic and the nonsensical, most children’s books published in the past few hundred years have attempted to find a line between the two poles, seeking a balance between entertainment and instruction. However, that line seems to move closer to one pole or another depending on the prevailing cultural sentiments of the time. And the very fact that children’s books were hardly published at all before the early 18th century tells us a lot about when and how modern ideas of childhood as a separate category of existence began.


“By the end of the 18th century,” writes Newcastle University professor M.O. Grenby, “children’s literature was a flourishing, separate and secure part of the publishing industry in Britain.” The trend accelerated rapidly and has never ceased—children’s and young adult books now drive sales in publishing (with 80% of YA books bought by grown-ups for themselves).

Grenby notes that “the reasons for this sudden rise of children’s literature” and its rapid expansion into a booming market by the early 1800s “have never been fully explained.” We are free to speculate about the social and pedagogical winds that pushed this historical change.

Afloat with Nelson

Or we might do so, at least, by examining the children’s literature of the Victorian era, perhaps the most innovative and diverse period for children’s literature thus far by the standards of the time. And we can do so most thoroughly by surveying the thousands of mid- to late 19th century titles at the University of Florida’s Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature. Their digitized collection currently holds over 7,000 books free to read online from cover to cover, allowing you to get a sense of what adults in Britain and the U.S. wanted children to know and believe.

Zig Zag

Several genres flourished at the time: religious instruction, naturally, but also language and spelling books, fairy tales, codes of conduct, and, especially, adventure stories—pre-Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew examples of what we would call young adult fiction, these published principally for boys. Adventure stories offered a (very colonialist) view of the wide world; in series like the Boston-published Zig Zag and English books like Afloat with Nelson, both from the 1890s, fact mingled with fiction, natural history and science with battle and travel accounts. But there is another distinctive strain in the children’s literature of the time, one which to us—but not necessarily to the Victorians—would seem contrary to the imperialist young adult novel.

Bible Picture Book

For most Victorian students and readers, poetry was a daily part of life, and it was a central instructional and storytelling form in children’s lit. The A.L.O.E.’s Bible Picture Book from 1871, above, presents “Stories from the Life of Our Lord in Verse,” written “simply for the Lord’s lambs, rhymes more readily than prose attracting the attention of children, and fastening themselves on their memories.” Children and adults regularly memorized poetry, after all. Yet after the explosion in children’s publishing the former readers were often given inferior examples of it. The author of the Bible Picture Book admits as much, begging the indulgence of older readers in the preface for “defects in my work,” given that “the verses were made for the pictures, not the pictures for the verses.”

Elfin Rhymes

This is not an author, or perhaps a type of literature, one might suspect, that thinks highly of children’s aesthetic sensibilities.  We find precisely the opposite to be the case in the wonderful Elfin Rhymes from 1900, written by the mysterious “Norman” with “40 drawings by Carton Moorepark.” Whoever “Norman” may be (or why his one-word name appears in quotation marks), he gives his readers poems that might be mistaken at first glance for unpublished Christina Rossetti verses; and Mr. Moorepark’s illustrations rival those of the finest book illustrators of the time, presaging the high quality of Caldecott Medal-winning books of later decades. Elfin Rhymes seems like a rare oddity, likely published in a small print run; the care and attention of its layout and design shows a very high opinion of its readers’ imaginative capabilities.

Elfin Rhymes 2

This title is representative of an emerging genre of late Victorian children’s literature, which still tended on the whole, as it does now, to fall into the trite and formulaic. Elfin Rhymes sits astride the fantasy boom at the turn of the century, heralded by hugely popular books like Frank L. Baum’s Wizard of Oz series and J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. These, the Harry Potters of their day, made millions of young people passionate readers of modern fairy tales, representing a slide even further away from the once quite narrow, “remorselessly instructional… or deeply pious” categories available in early writing for children, as Grenby points out.

All Around the Moon

Where the boundaries for kids’ literature had once been narrowly fixed by Latin grammar books and Pilgrim’s Progress, by the end of the 19th century, the influence of science fiction like Jules Verne’s, and of popular supernatural tales and poems, prepared the ground for comic books, YA dystopias, magician fiction, and dozens of other children’s literature genres we now take for granted, or—in increasingly large numbers—we buy to read for ourselves. Enter the Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature here, where you can browse several categories, search for subjects, authors, titles, etc, see full-screen, zoomable images of book covers, download XML versions, and read all of the over 7,000 books in the collection with comfortable reader views. Find more classics in our collection, 800 Free eBooks for iPad, Kindle & Other Devices.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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