Skip to content

A Brief History of Meaning In Text

Text has never been simply a record of an objective truth – there has always been a bias of what to write and how to write it and how to ‘read’ what is written.

The very earliest cave paintings were not naturalistic, they were line drawings which needed further interpretation to understand. 

The very notion of authority and authorship is intertwined with the act of reading and it predates writing by quite a long stretch of human experience. We have been ‘reading’ our environment in the broadest sense of the word for as long as we have had vision something. It has not been enough to ‘read’ the surface meaning of a scene, we have long needed imagination to see beyond the surface, to interpret a scene for what might be dinner and what make make us dinner; are there footsteps of a predator which look fresh? 

This internal interpretation of the visual scene has become mystical to us, since the act of reading is an act of creation and of imagination. A poetic evocation of this can be seen during the Shang dynasty (circa 1763 to 1123 BCE) where there have found thousands of tortoise shells or bones with. People would write not to each other but to shamans for interpretations who would heat a bronze tool which was used to cause the bones to crack and the shamans would then interpret these cracks. (Kurlansky, 2017) 

Bibles, Glosses

Even within the fixedness of non-interactive substrates the shape of the ‘screen’, the page, would influence the way meaning was expected to be extracted. “Large manuscripts in which small islands of text floated on vast oceans of commentary in much smaller script, they often occupied stately positions in libraries and individuals’ studies, propped up on massive reading stands, as if awaiting reverent readers who would spend long periods on every page or set up to impress clients who came to consult a learned lawyer.” (S Pollock, B Elman, K Chang, 2015) The name of the game was text as display, much like ancient hieroglyphics on temples meant to impress more than to provide information. The original text was meant to serve as an anchor to give ‘authority’ to the commentary, which was the more accessible, and hence used component of the text. 

The publication of the King James Bible in 1611 was an attempt to unify the English people and language and to put an end to the arguments among the various factions. “Bibles were battlefields; their left and right margins were the trenches from which scriptural annotations and citations were lobbed at previous Bibles’ misinterpretations.; Catholics against Lutherans, Lutherans against Calvinists, Calvinists against the Church of England, and the Church of England against everyone else, and against the noise, the confusion, the lack of decorum.” (Zerby, 2001) Henry the Eighth lost patience and in 1538 ordered the creation of a Bible ‘in the English tongue’ which should speak for itself without any annotations in the margyn 


By the 16th century dictionaries started to appear in vernacular, not just in Latin. (Lynch, 2016) This coincided with the rise of national identities, identities largely based on shared language. 

Published inPhDThoughts