The History of Writing
Imagine for just a moment what life would be like without writing. There would be no love letters, no newspapers, no email messages—everything would have to be verbal or signified with pictures which could have a multitude of meanings. Writing is truly one of the world’s greatest inventions.
Now, consider why writing came into existence to begin with. Most scholars agree we have an expanding economy to thank. Once people began conducting business, they needed a way to track inventory, prove a sale had occurred, etc. Writing provided the needed history and evidence. As to how writing began, there are many theories.
Most believe writing originate with pictographs—pictures representing some object or concept. But did it spring from one innovative merchant, or was there some concerted scholarly effort? What is known is that, at some point, writing graduated from being merely pictorial symbols to phonetic ones. Thus the Egyptian hieroglyphic hand symbol can represent a t sound; and in an English rebus puzzle, a picture of an eye and a couple of drinking glasses could represent the word eyeglasses.
Where it began
While the question of how writing began is still argued, it’s assumed that it sprouted in ancient Mesopotamia. Cave dwellers were known to paint symbols and drawings on cave walls, but there apparently wasn’t a uniform system of writing. Instead, these cave paintings are referred to as proto-writing. Beginning in about 8000 BC, clay tokens were used for commerce in the Middle East. Again, these weren’t an actual system of writing. While their true purpose isn’t known for sure, it’s assumed these were used as counting units in accountancy. Numerical Sumerian clay tablets, which most likely date back to approximately 3300 BC, came about thanks to commerce. While still not a writing system, these tablets were much more complex than the earlier clay tokens.
What follows is a breakdown of organized writing systems from throughout the world, listed from the oldest onward:
Cuneiform began in Mesopotamia about the same time as Egyptian hieroglyphs—around 3100 BC. While most people are familiar with the picture-style hieroglyphs, cuneiform "letters" are unique. To the uneducated eye, they look somewhat like bird tracks—most symbols were an elongated wedge shape rotated or combined with others. As with hieroglyphs, scholars originally thought cuneiform characters were merely ornamental. Not until the late 1700s did scholars realize cuneiform was an actual writing system and began to decipher its hidden meaning. The famous law code of Hammurabi, king of Babylon, was written in cuneiform.
In our last topic (on the Rosetta Stone), we discussed how Egyptian hieroglyphs were finally discovered to be a unique system of writing. While much more pictographic in nature, the beautiful symbols represented both phonetic sounds and conceptual ideas.
Dating back to 18th century BC is Linear A, the script of the Minoan civilization. It was followed by Linear B in Knossos, beginning about 1450 BC. The two scripts are clearly related, but scholars have had much greater success deciphering Linear B. Both pre-date ancient Greek, which first appeared approximately 730 BC.
The earliest know records of Chinese writing come from around 1200 BC. Since its inception the numbers of Chinese characters has increased dramatically— from 4,500 during the Shang period to almost 49,000 by the 18th century. Japanese borrowed many Chinese characters, but also added a small set of supplementary symbols. Japanese is considered the most difficult writing system to learn today.
Phoenician script dates back to 11th century BC and continued to be found throughout the Mediterranean for another thousand years. This alphabet became the basis for both ancient Greek and Aramaic. Aramaic, in turn, was the forerunner to Arabic, which appeared during the first half of the first millennium AD.
There are two versions of Hebrew. The first, derived from the Phoenician script, began about the 9th century BC and was used in religious literature. The second, sometimes called "square Hebrew" evolved from Aramaic in the late 3rd century AD.
Most scholars agree modern Indian scripts also derived from Aramaic. One of the earliest examples is a script called Brahmi, dating from 3rd century BC. Nearly all (about 200) modern Indian scripts are offshoots from Brahmi.
In Central America, ancient Mayan glyphs began around 600 BC. It took many years and a wide range of scholars to finally decipher this mixed writing system. It wasn’t until modern day (1950s) that it was correctly deciphered, thanks in part to Russian scholar Yuri Knorosov. It was first thought to be purely symbolic images but we’ve since learned it was a true writing system. The Mayan alphabet contains more than one sign for some letters, as well as some syllabic signs.
The runes of northern Europe date back to the 2nd century AD and were used by many different tribes. The runic alphabet contains 24 letters and some are similar in appearance to letters in the Roman alphabet, which scholars believe came into use in 114 AD.
The Cyrillic alphabet came into use in the 9th century, having been adapted from the earlier Greek alphabet. While at one time containing 43 letters, modern Cyrillic scripts today usually have about 30 letters.
Today, with our global economy, we are finding ourselves coming full circle—once again using pictographs to communicate. There are now international symbols to represent all sorts of things. In the mid-1970s, the United States Department of Transportation commissioned the American Institute of Graphic Arts to create a set of symbols for use in airports. They came up with a set of 34 symbols to communicate to non-English speaking travelers.
Attend an Olympics and you’ll find a symbol to represent each of the events, as well as signs representing such things as restroom, first aid station, eatery, bus stop, etc. Many countries have also adopted universal symbols for traffic signs.
Even laundry instructions printed on the tag inside your clothing may now have a universal symbol, such as a picture of an iron with an x across it instead of the words "do not iron."
Will modern pictographs replace alphabetic writing? Not likely. While it’s a helpful shorthand for those who speak another language, symbols can’t fully communicate all we want to say. The written word will always have a place in our society.
Most of the information for this month’s topic was pulled from a fantastic book for anyone interested in writing over the ages. It’s The Story of Writing by Andrew Robinson (© 1995 Thames and Hudson Ltd., London)