The History of Writing
G. Carboni, July 2006
Undoubtedly, one of the most important developments of humankind has been writing, but often people are unaware of how long and complicated this path has been. At school teachers do not explain to students the way writing began. Instead, they present writing as something which has always existed. In this way, teachers lose the opportunity to describe a charming history which could enchant children and increase their desire to learn this ancient and refined technique of expression and communication.
Not only children, but also many adults take writing for granted and they do not think about the complex process that brought it into existence. If you are interested in knowing something more on how writing began, follow me in the next paragraphs, where we will go back in time for thousands of years and we will also do some experiments on writing. The birth of writing is a long and very interesting process and I'm convinced that by the end of this article, you will want to know more about this topic.
In ancient times, nobody knew that writing needed to be invented and its invention has been the fruit of continuous advances, through a process which has lasted thousands of years and which has been progressively enriched by further developments. The invention of writing happened in an independent way in different parts of the world and it followed the same fundamental steps. At the beginning, to indicate something people used its picture or a conventional sign. Then they moved on to a phonetic writing system based on the mechanism of the rebus, then they went to a syllabic writing and only at the end did they arrive at alphabetic writing.
During the upper Palaeolithic, 30-40,000 years ago, people started by drawing graffiti and paintings on rocks and walls of caves. It is more or less from the same period that the oldest fragments of bones and pebbles with notches date from. Unfortunately, we do not know with certainty what was the purpose of these beautiful images of animals painted on caves, nor the purpose of repeated signs. The paintings of animals were probably connected to magical rites to foster hunting, while it seems the notches engraved on bones and stones were a way to count something, as for example the days which pass, the lunar months, or the prey captured.
There is not a unique origin of writing; it was independently born in different parts of the world. It seems the first people who wrote were the Sumerians and the Egyptians around 3500-3200 BC. It is not clear which of those two peoples invented writing first, although it seems the Egyptian writing had some Sumerian influence and not vice versa. They were peoples who had known agriculture for some millennia and who felt the need for a system of notation for agricultural products. Usually, sovereigns imposed taxes on their own subjects as agricultural products. They used these resources in order to pay for the construction of palaces and temples, to maintain the army, the court officials, the court, etc. Also in the trade exchanges people felt the need to be allowed to annotate goods. The same is valid for the offers which were brought to the temples. The invention of writing closely followed many other innovations typical of the Neolithic age, such as the construction of cities, the use of bronze, the invention of the wheel, the potter's wheel and the loom for weaving. In this period, agriculture and breeding spread and it was always more important to be able to indicate goods and persons in account documents and in commercial transactions. Let us take some steps backwards.
In Syria, 10,000 years ago, people used clay tokens of different shapes to indicate agricultural products. For example, a token with a shape of a coin and with a cross carved on it indicated a sheep; a conical-shaped token meant a measure of corn, an egg-shaped indicated an amphora of oil, etc. To distinguish among sheep, ram and lamb, the tokens were carved with different marks. To mean 20 sheep, people needed to use 20 tokens. This system continued to be used for some millennia. In 3500 BC, the officials of the token stores used to avoid dispersing the tokens, by placing them inside hollow clay and sealed balls (bulla) on which they later started drawing the token it contained. After 300 years, the token were abolished and the hollow balls were replaced with a flat clay tablet on which they simply carved the shapes of the tokens. These tablets were smaller and handier to use than the heavy mud balls. So, all previous three-dimensional objects were replaced with two-dimensional tablets, more handy to be handled and to be stored.
Anyway, if you wanted to show 43 amphorae, you had to carve 43 drawings of amphora. Somebody thought to simplify things by indicating first the number and then the counted object. In practice, scribes started with indicating the units with lines traced with the tip of a stylus and the tens with circular impressions obtained by pressing the bottom of the stylus on the tablet. After this number, the figure of what was counted followed. In this manner, to indicate 43 amphorae you no longer needed to draw as many amphorae; you simply had to indicate: OOOO III and the figure of only one amphora. This system was much quicker to use than the former one. Moreover, the signs which indicated numbers and those which indicated goods became two different systems of signs: the accounting system and the writing system.
If it was comparatively easy to mean agricultural products with a drawing or with a conventional symbol, it was more difficult to write the name of a person. To solve this problem, somebody thought of using short words, mono or bi-syllabic, and to unite them in the same way we are doing today with the rebus. So, around 3000 BC, other signs were introduced which were not used to mean an object, but rather a sound (phonograms). For example, in Sumerian the head was named "lu" and the mouth "ka". By reading one after the other as phonograms the drawing of the head and that of the mouth, it was possible to obtain the name of "Luka" ("Luke"). With this important innovation, it was also possible to write the name of persons who were involved in the transaction and not just the goods. People were also allowed to write abstract words. Several centuries passed before somebody had the idea to use writing for different uses from the accounting ones. One of the oldest funerary Sumerian scripts dates from 2700/2600 BC and it indicates the name and the title of the dead person. In 2400 BC, a Sumerian sovereign described his own exploits in a long text. In 2000 BC, writing was used for legal purposes, for literature and school texts, etc. Sumerian writing was a mixed system which used conventional symbols, some of which depicted objects and other meant sounds.
The term cuneiform writing comes from the fact it is composed of signs that look like small wedges, in Latin: cuneus. Yet, in the beginning cuneiform writing was not at all composed of wedges and on the clay tablets scribes engraved the shape of the designated objects and the possible numerical signs. Usually, the domestic animals and the agricultural products were represented by conventional signs, while for other objects and wild animals they used drawings that represented their distinctive characteristics. Unfortunately, when scribes were carving clay with a pointed tip they caused chips and detachment of clay fragments. This required continuous cleaning of the drawings while they were carved on the tablets. To avoid this mishap, they began to impress straight marks by mean of a stylus.
As a consequence, the drawings were altered. Curves were replaced with straight marks and the figures lost their realism. Over the centuries, the pictograms used by the Mesopotamians underwent a process of schematization. In the end, the figures were unrecognizable. They became abstract symbols. Their meaning was no longer tied to the original picture which people were no longer able to recognize (figure 3).
As I said, the writing that was born for administrative purposes was enriched by symbols having a phonetic value which allowed writing of words that were not possible to represent with a picture, such as the personal names and abstract concepts. This writing was enriched by figures that depicted natural objects, actions, etc. The writing system which developed was mixed, containing pictograms and phonograms, as well as numeric signs.
Cuneiform writing spread to a good part of the ancient Middle East and was used by many different peoples such as the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians and Assyrians. Most of these peoples spoke Semitic languages, yet the cuneiform system was used also by people who spoke Indo-European languages, such as the Hittites. It was used also by the Egyptians to communicate with the princes of the eastern coasts of the Mediterranean sea. Cuneiform writing lasted millennia until replaced by alphabetic writing, which was much easier to learn and to use. However, cuneiform writing did not disappear as soon as alphabetic writing became available. It survived for many centuries because the scribes considered it superior for expressing shades of thought and of language.
The origin of the hieroglyphic writing was nearly contemporary to the cuneiform one. It did not evolve in the cuneiform structure, but it kept a pictographic representation of the signs. Probably, this was due to the fact the Egyptians did not use clay as a support for writing, but papyrus, wood and rock walls such as those of the temples. During its evolution, the hieroglyphic writing was influenced by the Sumerians, but it developed in a completely original way. Its symbols were derived from objects of the Egyptian world and often they were represented sideways. Unlike the Sumerian writing, which for a long time was used in account documents only, very soon the Egyptian one was used for writing, so the Egyptians started using the sheer writing long before the Sumerians.
As the Sumerians did, the Egyptians used pictograms to indicate objects and other to represent sounds. The Egyptian language was not exactly Semitic, but when they wrote Egyptians used mainly the consonants. According to the number of the consonants they represented, the phonograms have been separated into four-letter, three-letter, two-letter and one-letter. In virtue of the wide use of these phonograms, the hieroglyphic writing was by the most part phonetic. Later on, the phonograms made up of only one letter were called "alphabetic signs". From the beginning, the Egyptians had the letters of the alphabet and they commonly used these signs among the others. They would have been allowed to use a writing purely alphabetic at once, but they did not it because they always preferred to use the rich inventory of hieroglyphs they were provided. By using phonograms, pictograms and determinatives, the hieroglyphic writing too was a mixed writing.
In the fist half of the II millennium BC, the Minoans of Crete used a writing which has not yet been deciphered: the Linear A, of clear Egyptian derivation. When Mycenaean people conquered Crete, they adopted the Linear A to write in their own language, the ancient Greek. This writing, named Linear B, replaced the preceding one. Both these writings were written on clay tablets, but they were not cuneiform. They used syllabic characters and they did not have anything to do with alphabetic writings. The Linear B disappeared because of the destruction of the Mycenaean palaces that happened in the XIII and XII centuries BC. In that period, the great civilizations of the bronze age, of the Aegean sea and of the Near East, suddenly collapsed. Centuries of serious difficulties followed and the population of that area drastically lowered. Greece rediscovered the writing only 4 centuries after, with the arrival of the Phoenician alphabet.
In the Middle East, people found widespread proof of attempts at simpler writing by rapport to the cuneiform and the hieroglyphic ones. In the XIV century BC, in Ugarit, a town on the Syrian northern coast, a cuneiform alphabet was developed. The alphabetic Ugaritic writing was used until the destruction of the town, in 1180 BC. Another cuneiform alphabet was used to write in ancient Persia (modern day Iran) in 500 BC.
Now, imagine that around 1900 and 1800 b.C. you are a miner and you are working in a copper and turquoise mine for the Egyptians. Often you see hieroglyphs and you know they are a form of writing, but you are not able to read them, besides you speak a Semitic language, different to that of Egyptians. You want to draw a votive inscription to the Gods so that they protect you in your dangerous job, but you do not know how to do this. While observing hieroglyphs, you had the idea of using some of them to indicate songs. In order to better remember them, each figure will indicate the first song of its name (acrophony). For example, the ox's or the bull's (in Semitic 'alpu) head to indicate the A letter (now it is oriented with the muzzle upward and the horns downward), the house plant (in Semitic betu) to indicate the b, the palm of the hand (kappu) to indicate the k, the water (mayyuma) to indicate the m and so on (Figure 7).
In this way, you will have a writing system composed of only 22 signs. Because of its simplicity, this writing system can be learnt by anybody and it does not require the years of study needed to learn the complex cuneiform and hieroglyphic writings. The signs employed in this writing system were named letters. The collection of letters was called an alphabet and the writing systems that use signs of this kind (acrophonic) were named alphabetic systems.
This writing was also used by workers occuped in the construction of palaces and temples, by mercenaries in the Pharaoh's pay, and also by merchants. The inscriptions of Wadi el-Hol, which are one of the first example of alphabetic writing from which will come the Phoenician one, was carved between 1900 and 1800 b.C. on a rocky wall along a military and trade road linking Abidos and Thebes in the Kings valley.
This writing, named by the archaeologists Proto-Sinaitic because its first inscriptions were found in copper and turquoise mines of the Sinai Peninsula, was used by people of low social standing in order to write short inscriptions. Little by little this writing, also known as Proto-Canaanite, spread and later it was used by the Phoenicians. By observing Figures 6 and 7, you can see how many signs of that ancient writing are similar to those we use today. In fact, our alphabet just comes from the Proto-Sinaitic one. During the centuries, these letters have been modified and further have been added. We can say that each letter of our alphabet has a history of its own.
The cuneiform and hieroglyphic writings comprised many hundreds of symbols and so they were complex to learn and also difficult to use. They were reserved to a caste of specialists, the scribes. On the contrary, because of its low number of signs the alphabetic writing is much simpler and it can be easily learnt and used by everybody. Unlike the cuneiform writing which had to be engraved on clay tablets, the Sinaitic alphabet and afterwards the Phoenician one, could be written with ink on papyrus, earthenware pieces and wood. Therefore, the alphabetic writing fitted well to the needs of the Phoenician, a people of traders and sailors, by putting at their disposal a writing system simple to learn and quick to use.
Greeks were among the first peoples to obtain the Phoenician alphabet. In fact, Greeks and Phoenicians were geographically close and they were actively trading between themselves, as well as other Mediterranean peoples. Greeks frankly allowed the Phoenician origin of their alphabet and they called its signs Phoinikeia Grammata, Phoenician letters. The first proof of the Phoenician scripts date from the XII and XI centuries BC, but its transmission to the Greeks seems to date from the VIII century BC.
Phoenician language was Semitic and its alphabet was composed by consonants only. In a Semitic language, the use of consonants only is enough to correctly interpret a text. Whilst reading, the context helps to reduce the ambiguities and in some cases people add little signs to indicate vowels. On the contrary, with the ancient Greek language, as well as in all Indo-European languages, it was not possible to write by using consonants only because people would encounter an excessive amount of ambiguities. Also in English, if you write without using vowels you would obtain a very imprecise text. For example the word "rd" could be road, reed, read, raid, etc. Faced with this problem, the Greeks adapted some letters of the Phoenician alphabet with some similar to the Greek vowels to suit their needs. In this way they introduced the use of vowels in the alphabet.
The oldest traces of Chinese scripts date from the Shang dynasty (1500-1028 BC). Chinese writing is composed of signs that in the same time have a semantic and a syllabic value. Its evolution was similar to the cuneiform and hieroglyphic writings, but it never attained the alphabetic stage. Usually, in this writing each ideogram combines a semantic indication with a phonetic one. That is each ideogram does not limit itself to indicate something, but it also suggests the pronunciation. At the beginning, Chinese writing had a religious function, and then it was mainly used for administrative purposes and for literary texts. In order to understand this writing, you need to know around a minimum of 2400 characters but the total amount of ideograms is much higher. In 1716, a dictionary of 47,043 characters was drawn up.
In Mexico, writing appeared around 700 BC. It seems that the Maya derived their writing from an older writing, used by other peoples. The Maya's writing was syllabic and was used to describe the most important events which concerned the aristocratic families. Towards 250 AD, the Mayan writing was already used and it lasted until the XVII century AD. Now, its scripts are actively deciphered.
A lot of other writings have been composed during history and in different parts of the world. Unfortunately, in this introductory article we cannot deal with all of them and with some books indicated in the bibliography you could fulfill any wish to deepen your understanding of the subject. The history of writing is a riveting and much more complex topic than I have described it to you. It is worth reading more about!
When I tell you to write sentences, you can either invent or copy them from
books and magazines.
1 - ACCOUNTING
2 - REBUS
3 - CONSONANT WRITING
4 - HIEROGLYPHIC WRITING
5 - ALPHABETIC WRITINGS
6 - A NEW ALPHABET
7 - LOGICAL PROPOSITIONS
8 - TREASURE HUNT
9 - WRITING EMOTIONS
The idea of writing the emotions is interesting. In some way, it is an innovation in the writing. Besides the exercises I’ve suggested, you could also study the problem of writing emotions and arrange it in a better way. For example, check if the main emotions are present and suggest symbols for those which are lacking. These smiles are not again entered in the conventional writing and who knows if they never will enter in it.
Some examples of smiles:
- Wrote sentences and end them with the expression of emotions by means of
smiles. With some companions, evaluate and discuss how the use of these smiles
changes the meaning of the sentences.
Remember that with the computers it is possible to compose and use personalized characters. You can also draw little images and put them the one after another.
After you have taken a look at the history of the writing, writing is no longer a banal and anonymous fact like it was before; it becomes something of much more interest. You realize that each letter has a history of its own which often dates from thousands of years ago. Now, the letters of the alphabet say hallo to us. The A says us: "Hello, do you remember me? I'm the bull head", the B says us: "And I'm the house", the M says us: "I'm the waves of the sea", the N says: "I'm the snake", etc. By means of all the times and the peoples they have passed, these letters tell us about the ancient Egyptians, about the Semitic people who were working in the King Valley in Egypt, about the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Etruscans and finally about the Romans. The small letter, tell us of the amanuensis monks and, with the cursive writing they talk us of the more recent times, when they developed many different styles.
The history of the writing is much more complex that I have suggested. Unfortunately, I have been obliged to keep myself to the essential things to avoid to turn this article into a book, but in order to exhaustively narrate the history of the writing even a book would not be enough. I hope you obtained the will to know more on this topic. Remember there are many books on this subject. Besides, also the Internet provides many documents on this important venture of mankind.
SOLUTIONS TO THE QUESTIONS OF FIGURE 9: