But these varied idiolects were capable of being assembled, within definite limits, into print-languages far fewer in number. The very arbitrariness of any system of signs for sounds facilitated the assembling process. (At the same time, the more ideographic the signs, the vaster the potential assembling zone. One can detect a sort of descending hierarchy here from algebra through Chinese and English, to the regular syllabaries of French or Indonesian.)
Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, 2nd ed. (London: Verso, 2006), pp. 43-44
I’ve been rereading Anderson for the first time in at least a dozen years, and found this little gem which has bearing on much of the work I do (which requires that one replace ‘algebra’ – a technique – with ‘numerals’ – a representational system). Here he’s asserting that the process of standardization that accompanies the rise of capitalism and printing is most invasive where the script being printed is more ideographic rather than more phonetic. Numerals, being thoroughly trans-linguistic, should spread as widely as possible. One central argument of my forthcoming book holds that the present domination of Hindu-Arabic (Western) numerals is largely not a product of technological ‘natural selection’ but is dependent on a set of social processes accompanying the rise of the world-system in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
But I’m still dissatisfied with Anderson’s proposition, because it goes beyond his detailed consideration of early modern social, economic and technological processes (which he calls ‘print-capitalism’) and postulates a generalization (dare I say ‘law’) about the role of script type (and orthographic-phonetic correspondence) generally correlates with the tendency of script traditions to become standards across wide regions. This may be intuitive, and invites evidentiary justification, but is, as it stands, ‘not proven’ in the Scottish legal sense. As far as I know, no one has actually attempted to demonstrate Anderson’s proposition (which is, if not central to his thesis, certainly not incidental), but it is this sort of empirical work, unifying the technical study of writing systems with the sociopolitical interests near and dear to Anderson’s heart, and mine.