The printed word
he urban living that gathered pace during Industria encouraged shared forms of communication. Only around 100 languages are used across the world for education and administration in the total of 195 (2020) countries.
The meticulously researched Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary contains 171,476 words (this is omitting inflexions, most obsolete words, archaisms, technical and regional vocabularies, coinages, and neologisms – including 47,156 obsolete words). This we can regard as the upper number for English words in current use. Adults have a vocabulary of 20,000 to 35,000 (average educated adult) words and they learn around 1 new word a day until middle age when vocabulary growth has ceased. Most (95%) English word usage engages around 3,000 of the potential 171,476 words, less than 2% of the available vocabulary, while 1,000 words cover 89% of everyday writing, and the commonest 25 words are used in 33% of everyday writing. In most languages you are regarded as fluent if you use around 10,000+ words – all that is needed to talk about almost any topic in some detail.
The most widely spoken language is Mandarin Chinese which is spoken by nearly three times more people than speak English (the second most widely spoken language). Mandarin, the language pronounced and spoken as in Beijing, consists of 240 linguistic elements called radicals. However, its major components are the approximately 4,000 monosyllabic characters that encompass over 90% of the language encountered by an educated Chinese speaker, although these characters combine into over 80,000 ‘words’.
Creating impressions on surfaces, as used to authenticate a particular trader’s goods, was achieved in Mesopotamia using cylinder seals. However, the world’s earliest known printing was woodblock printing, invented in China before 220 CE, applied to cloth, then used on paper in the 7th century CE.
The world’s oldest printed book is the Diamond Sutra, a Buddhist text dating back to the year 868 CE. The world’s first movable type, used to print paper books, was made out of porcelain and was invented by Bi Sheng (990–1051) around 1040 in China. The oldest existing book printed using metal movable type (Jikji) was printed in Korea in 1377.
The first printed books in Europe were produced in Germany by the Gutenberg printing press in 1439, and the first printing press introduced to England by William Caxton in 1476 who was also the pioneer retailer of England’s first printed books. Mechanical printing facilitated the mass-production of information in Industria, for news sheets and the books that encouraged people to learn how to read and write.
Newspapers kept entire cities in touch with what was going on in the world while also being a source of political ideas and entertainment. Knowledge was less the preserve of a privileged and educated few as it had the potential to be accessed by all those who could read.
However, in 1800 and most countries of the world, the majority of citizens were still illiterate. So in Europe, for example, the possession of reading and writing skills, an education, and the accent of a ‘gentlemen’ was sufficient to command a respected place in society.
The development of printing technology meant that the printed word was generated in ever more efficient ways. It lasted for about 500 years until the advent of electronic media that exploded onto the world after World War II with the advent of the computer.