We are so accustomed to reading and writing that it’s hard to imagine that once no one was able to read. We may think of reading as being hardwired into our brains, but it’s not. Reading and writing is nothing more than an elaborate social convention used to transcribe speech, and this had to be invented. At one time in history the choice of notation was arbitrary, and the conventions evolved over time as people discovered ways of writing that were easier for scribes, and others that were more effective when read.

At first, the scholars, priests, and scribes who shaped the invention of writing were a relatively small and select group. Reading didn’t become common in Western cultures until the Industrial Revolution, when printed texts could be cheaply reproduced. Once reading material became commonly available, reading became useful enough to be widely taught. It was at this time that people noticed some individuals found it difficult to make use of the established conventions for reading. These people were described as handicapped, and thus, along with the printing press, a “disability” that didn’t exist earlier was invented, a disability we today call dyslexia.

We now know that people with dyslexia have neurological wiring that is different from typical readers. Dyslexia is estimated to occur in the general population at rates of at most 10% to 20%. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to assume that very few people with dyslexia were among the original scholars, priests, and scribes who first invented the conventions for writing. But, what if they were?

What if all of the people responsible for the creation of writing had dyslexia? What if writing evolved to match the capabilities of brains with dyslexia, instead of those who are typical readers? Would the system of speech notation these people would invent be completely different from the one we use today? What might writing invented by people with dyslexia look like?

Submitted by Matthew H. Schneps, Founding Director of the Laboratory for Visual Learning at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

About the Author
Schneps is a scientist with dyslexia, and the founding director of the Laboratory for Visual Learning at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, where he and his team conduct research on how dyslexia affects learning science.  (Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the personal views



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  • I have thought about this from time to time. My as-then-unidentified dyslexic son came home in fourth grade with a sheet covered in hieroglyphs which he had learned in school. The boy who could not write two sentences in under an hour proceeded to read me the rather elaborate story he’d drawn. It broke my heart. I could literally see on that piece of paper how much he wanted to be able to share his thinking in writing, but couldn’t.

  • Might writing perhaps look more like some variant of traditional Chinese characters. I don’t speak or read Mandarin, but if I understand correctly from the little I know, the characters tell a pictoral story. And that within a character is a “build up” of various sub-parts or component characters that, taken together, create the whole? I know in many ways it’s far more complex than our system of transcribing sounds to symbols and putting those together. But it sounds much more visual. And perhaps if dyslexics had created Western-style writing, it would be more visually-inspired.

  • I have dyslexia and have studied the Chinese language. I certainly struggled with the written language, but so did my non-dyslexic peers. A quick Google search gave me several links to articles on a study about the differences between Chinese language dyslexia and English language dyslexia. It seem that the brain images of Chisese students with dyslexia had abnormalities that were differant than those that appear in English language readers. http://www.chinapost.com.tw/life/discover/2008/04/08/150981/Dyslexia-different.htm Interesting stuff!

  • Karen’s son, who is attempting to communicate in “gibberish” may be onto something. I think written language invented by people with dyslexia would look like gibberish to most. We are very good at making up symbols or words to stand for things we don’t know how to say or spell, and perhaps our written language would take advantage of this. In responding to Kent’s point, I grew up in Japan, and although my parents tried to have me taught to read in Japanese, I wasn’t able to master written Japanese any better than English (although I can speak Japanese fluently). The Japanese system of language I was taught was largely phonetic. This leads me to believe that language invented by people with dyslexia would bypass phonetic representations, and be entirely symbolic. Written Chinese does symbolic aspects to their language, but as Kent points out, there are Chinese forms of dyslexia as well (that may be different from our dyslexia)! If people with dyslexia invented written language we might just end up replacing one” disability” for another, and shift the burden of this onto a different group of people.

  • I have read in several places that Italian is a great language for dyslexics. It is completely phonetic (letters are always spoken in the same way – no silent letters, etc). I am dyslexic, and struggled with English and French in school, but on a vacation to Italy a few years ago discovered that it is a language that made complete sense to me!

    • Bob — I’m with you here. French is probably worse than English. Spanish and Japanese are also relatively transparent in this way (there’s a one-to-one correspondence between spelling and sound). What’s interesting is that even in these transparent languages there are people with dyslexia! Matt

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