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The Origins Of Writing

Updated on December 9, 2013

Message From A Temple

This clay tablet was written in a temple of Mesopotamia in 3100-2900 BC. The script is a kind of proto-cuneiform- an early, pictorial stage in Mesopotamian writing development. This tablet probably describes grain distributed by a temple.
This clay tablet was written in a temple of Mesopotamia in 3100-2900 BC. The script is a kind of proto-cuneiform- an early, pictorial stage in Mesopotamian writing development. This tablet probably describes grain distributed by a temple. | Source

Before The Written Word

For thousands of years, long before the invention of the true written word, people used symbols to keep essential records. The earliest form of note-taking known in the Middle East, the tally bone dates back at least 30,000 years. The bones recorded lunar months, which governed the ritual cycles observed by hunter gatherers.

From 9000-3000 BC, people in the Middle East used clay tokens to record commercial transactions, sealing them into clay envelopes called bullae. A token’s shape symbolised either goods (animals, grain) or specific large numbers. At around the same time, the seal (a detail engraved image which identified the sender of the message) was developed. The seal was pressed on wet clay by stamping, or rolling in the case of cylinder seals.

The Rosetta Stone

The famous stone that unravelled the mystery of the Egyptian written language.
The famous stone that unravelled the mystery of the Egyptian written language. | Source

How We Do Know: The Rosetta Stone

Hieroglyphs were deciphered in 1822-24 by French Egyptologist and linguist Jean Francois Champollion. He used the Rosetta Stone- a stele of Ptolemy V bearing the same inscription in three scripts: hieroglyphic Egyptian (top), demotic Egyptian (middle) and Greek (bottom). He deciphered the Egyptian scripts by comparing identifiable words, such as names, in all three scripts, allowing him to work out the sound of each Egyptian sign from the Greek.

What Is Cuneiform?

A writing technique widely used in the Middle East between 2500-330 BC. Scribes used symbols built from wedge-shaped impressions pressed into clay or carved into stone. Many languages and civilisations used cuneiform, from Sumerian to Persian.

How It's Done

Cuneiform Stylus

Cuneiform signs were formed by pressing a stylus on wet clay, each time producing a wedge shape. Cuneiform means 'wedge-shaped' in Latin.

The Invention

According to ancient tradition, writing was either invented by an individual or handed down to humanity by the gods. The Sumerian poem Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta describes how King Enmerkar invented writing instantly to record a message too complicated for his messengers to memorise. We now know, however, that the development of writing was a gradual process, taking centuries. Our knowledge depends on surviving examples of ancient writing. Degradable materials, such as papyrus, bamboo, and parchment, have not endured, so the earliest surviving inscriptions tend to be found on monuments. These texts, such as the hieroglyphs on Egyptian tombs, are too sophisticated to be the first use of writing. In Mesopotamia, however, people wrote on durable clay tablets that survive in huge numbers, so the progression of their earliest writing can be traced. At early stages, writing was made up of pictures of the things it records. Over time, these pictures were simplified and made abstract to make writing quicker and easier. In Mesopotamia, this process resulted in wedge-based cuneiform writing. Many early scripts were logographic, meaning that each symbol represented an entire word of idea. A logographic system may use thousands of signs. Modern Chinese writing remains logographic, using around 12,000 symbols that allow written communication between the many different dialects of Chinese, Cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphic scripts, meanwhile, mixed logograms with symbols representing sounds. Such sound signs were combined to form words, which reduced the total number of signs to around a hundred in scripts such as Akkadian cuneiform. Egyptian and Maya hieroglyphs remained pictorial for decorative use in religious writing and inscriptions on monuments. For everyday use, however, the Egyptians developed a more efficient, abstract system called hieratic. It was written with fragile reed pens, which restricted the shapes the scribe could form. When written on papyrus, hieroglyphs were painted with brushes, allowing the scribe a freer hand.

Chinese writing also diverged, with different styles of calligraphy being developed for different uses. In most Chinese scripts, the meaning of signs was simplified as well.

The earliest writing records only objects (usually goods) and numbers (quantities of goods and measurements of time). Grammar was absent, so this kind of writing cannot be read as language, but it aided the memories of people who knew its meaning already. It seems likely that others could have understood it with a little training. Writing was soon taken up by the rulers of ancient societies, however, and adapted to reproduce spoken language, allowing them to write literary, religious, and scholarly texts. From this point, special training was needed.

Egyptian Hieroglyphs

Formal writing in Egypt retained the use of pictorial symbols-hieroglyphs-for more than 3000 years. This example differs little in style from the earliest surviving inscriptions made in 3200 BC.
Formal writing in Egypt retained the use of pictorial symbols-hieroglyphs-for more than 3000 years. This example differs little in style from the earliest surviving inscriptions made in 3200 BC. | Source

Egyptian Scribe

Education of scribes began in childhood, lasting at least 10 years, and included mathematics and accountancy. The scribal profession usually ran in families.
Education of scribes began in childhood, lasting at least 10 years, and included mathematics and accountancy. The scribal profession usually ran in families. | Source

Spread Of The Written Word

Cultures in the 3rd and 2nd millennia BC were not really literate societies. Once writing became abstract, rather than pictorial, only a small number of merchants, administrators, and elites would have had enough schooling to read and write. It is thought that only one per cent of Egyptians were literate.

Ancient rulers used writing to manage the information on which their states ran, not to disseminate it. Royal political inscriptions might be combined with imagery, and it seems that the masses would have read only the images, while their writing was aimed at fellow elites and at posterity. Assyrian kings, for instance, buried inscriptions in the foundations of temples, recording their exploits so that future kings rebuilding those temples would read them.

The Development Of Alphabets

The Phoenician alphabetic script, one of the oldest alphabets in the world.
The Phoenician alphabetic script, one of the oldest alphabets in the world. | Source

The Invention Of The Printing Press

From Alphabets To Printing

Gradually writing systems became simpler and more sophisticated, but the spread of written communication was slow until the invention of printing during the European Renaissance.

At first, written symbols represented a variety of words, syllables, ideas, or sounds. The concept that every symbol should denote a sound was an innovation in the Middle East and led to the alphabet. The first alphabetic writing, with each sign representing a consonant but with no vowels, appeared in the 2nd millennium BC, using adapted Egyptian hieroglyphs. The people of Ugarit in Syria developed a cuneiform alphabet, but the need for clay prevented its spread. Alphabets became important in 1000-700 BC, being used for Hebrew, Aramaic and Phoenician writing. The Phoenicians used separate signs for vowels, influencing both Greek and Latin writing.

The earliest surviving American writing is on 600 BC Zapotec monuments in Mexico and records the names of sacrificed captives. Later inscriptions on Maya monuments record conflicts between city states. The cultures of the Andes developed quipu- a system that recorded numerical information with patterns of knots on webs of colour-coded string.

The spread of written material was hampered by the need to copy by hand. But with the invention of the Gutenberg printing press in 1454, it now became possible to produce books quickly and cheaply on a large scale.

A Simple Question

Do you love writing?

See results

© 2013 James Kenny

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    • rebeccamealey profile image

      Rebecca Mealey 3 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      Fasinating information. Such great research! Stuff that those who love writing should be aware of. Thanks for sharing this!

    • srsddn profile image

      srsddn 3 years ago from Dehra Dun, India

      jkenny, Quite interesting. Such Hubs motivate to learn more about topics not much known. Thanks for motivating. Quite useful and informative. Voted up.

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 3 years ago from New York

      Nicely done. Interesting about the earlier writing being used for lists...we're still writing lists today!

      Up, useful, and interesting.

    • davenmidtown profile image

      David Stillwell 3 years ago from Sacramento, California

      Not only well written... thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish... As with most of your work, a job well done. Thank you for the time and effort needed to write this hub.

    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 3 years ago from Taos, NM

      Fascinating article. The history of writing is so interesting and each culture or era came up with their own way of doing it. To think the beginnings of writing was on clay tablets and now we are using electronic tablets and computers to write is something. This is well written and well researched. Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us.

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England

      No problem Suzette, it seems quite ironic to me, that writing over 6000 years old has survived intact into the modern era, whereas the majority of our printed literature would disappear within a few years, should we disappear of course.

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you Dave.

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Yep, well we needed to keep a record of harvests and taxes, so it's understandable that earliest writing appeared in the form of lists.

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Why thank you. I am pleased that my article has had that affect on you. Hope you manage to maintain it.

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you very much Rebecca, glad you liked it.

    • NateB11 profile image

      Nathan Bernardo 3 years ago from California, United States of America

      Very fascinating. It's intriguing how writing developed from essentially pictures that represent words and ideas and representations of sounds and on to an alphabet. It is also interesting it's utilitarian quality and how that determined who knew how to read and write. Kind of amazing how far back the seal goes.

    • Imogen French profile image

      Imogen French 3 years ago from Southwest England

      Both writing and language have come such a long way since those early pictorial scripts. I worry that we may now be going backwards and could lose this amazing skill with the advent of computing, text-speak, and so on - I have noticed a marked deterioration in hand-writing and spelling amongst the general population in recent years.

      At least the art of writing is alive and well here on HubPages :-) Interesting hub.

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England

      I know what you mean Imogen, but maybe it's best to look at in terms of evolution. Perhaps text will simplify further over time. After all, when you look at Shakespearean plays, you wonder how on earth people were able to understand each other haha!

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Well yes Nate, it's also interesting when you look at ancient cave art, you often see abstract symbols appearing among the detailed animal paintings. This for me, is where the true origins of writing are. So not only did hunter gatherers invent art, but they also sort of invented writing, or at least its precursor.

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

      Just think that if writing wasn't developed, we wouldn't be connecting here on HubPages! :) Fabulous hub!

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Very true Heidi, that's the one of the reasons why I wrote the article. ;)

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 3 years ago from SW England

      The development of the written form of language is fascinating; we can see a clear progression here. The graphics, the sounds, the linguistics, the literary objects of each civilisation is such a wonderful study of life and human achievement.

      Great hub! Ann

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks Ann, I personally find it amazing how a human being can say the same thing in so many ways. Plus writing is constantly evolving, just look at text speak.

    • Tom Schumacher profile image

      Tom Schumacher 3 years ago from Huntington Beach, CA

      Interesting hub. Until reading your article I had never thought to question where the Rosetta Stone originated from. After digesting this information I have to admit I am thankful for the English language, which by many accounts seems much easier to learn and use than various ancient alternatives. ~ Thanks for sharing. Voted up.

    • informationshelte profile image

      informationshelte 3 years ago

      Hi JKenny,

      This is a great synopsis on the evolution of writing. I like the fact that you also included the American link (Zapotec) into the picture, since most linguists tend to focus only on cultural developments in the early civilization of the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

      The Latin letter A (Alpha in Greek and Aleph in Phoenician) is derived, according to Wikipedia, from an hieroglyph showing an ox's head. So actually we keep using some of the ancient hieroglyphs nowadays, without even realizing it, and under a totally different meaning.

      Another issue is that, perhaps our prehistoric and historic ancestors chose to write on clay, marble, rock and other durable materials because they knew that, stuff like paper could not defy time.

      The Rosetta stone is a fine example of an early multi-lingual sign, and perhaps it was intended to be read by foreigners visiting Egypt.

      According to the story of the Tower of Babel, all humans spoke a single language before God decided to change this in order to punish human vanity, and since then all different languages spread throughout the world.

      Esperanto was a significant, though not so successful effort to produce a single artificial language spoken across the globe. It lost the war against other more dominant international languages.

    • ajwrites57 profile image

      AJ 3 years ago from Pennsylvania

      JKenny interesting Hub. I think it would be profitable to trace the rise of literacy in a population and its relationship to the development of writing. Also, how science influences both, through study and the development of writing materials. I once did a study on the rise of literacy in Greece. I'll have to dig that up! Thanks so much for an interesting Hub!

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you very much AJ.

    • torrilynn profile image

      torrilynn 3 years ago

      Interesting article. I like how you include facts and history behind the origins of writing. Thanks for the read. Voted up.

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks very much, glad you liked it.

    • Kathleen Cochran profile image

      Kathleen Cochran 3 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Must SHARE this one. So much fascinating information.

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you very much Kathleen. Have a nice day.

    • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

      Chitrangada Sharan 3 years ago from New Delhi, India

      Very interesting and informative hub about how writing originated! You in fact refreshed my history lessons of school.

      Very well researched and so well done. Thanks and voted up!

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England

      No problem, glad you liked it. Thanks for popping by.

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Well, I remember talking to a Spanish lady in the garden centre where I work, and she told me that she found English exceptionally hard to learn, so, the difficulty of acquiring a language is relative. Anyway, thanks for popping by.

    • tirelesstraveler profile image

      Judy Specht 3 years ago from California

      Splendid hub, nicely researched.

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you very much.

    • Anne Harrison profile image

      Anne Harrison 3 years ago from Australia

      What an interesting article, with great use of info. in side boxes. Amazing to think that the written word has been around for so long, yet too many in the world remain illiterate. Voted up

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you very much Anne.

    • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

      Chitrangada Sharan 3 years ago from New Delhi, India

      Great article, so informative and well researched!

      I came to learn a lot of interesting facts about the origins of writing.

      Thanks and congrats for HOTD!

    • sanjay-sonawani profile image

      Sanjay Sonawani 3 years ago from Pune, India.

      An excellent piece of writing on "writing'!

    • stuff4kids profile image

      Amanda Littlejohn 3 years ago

      What a great read and a very admirable summary of the history and development of written languages.

      I am also interested in the interplay between written and spoken forms of language in influencing each other's development. There is also a fascinating study to be made regarding the way in which the development of written language has altered the way we think and perceive the world.

      If you are not already familiar with it, you might enjoy 'The Spell of the Sensuous' by David Abram. It's an extraordinarily original and convincing philosophical study of the relationship between humans and wider nature and the part that the development of both oral and written language have played in molding that relationship.

      Thanks for another great hub, James! x

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you for all the lovely comments guys and for awarding me another Hub of the Day. I am truly humbled by you all. Thank you again. :)

    • melpor profile image

      Melvin Porter 3 years ago from New Jersey, USA

      Jkenny, you did a very good job researching and putting this great hub together. I see why it made "Hub of the day". Congratulations and keep up the good work. Voted up and interesting.

    • kittythedreamer profile image

      Nicole Canfield 3 years ago from the Ether

      ROCK ON. Loved this hub! I love writing and history, so put them together and I'm super happy! Much of the Egyptian writing on temples and such was a highly sacred spiritual act.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Once again, thank you for all the lovely comments guys. I'm really touched. :)

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

      Loved this hub when it first was published and it's so deserving of Hub of the Day! Congrats!

    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 3 years ago from Taos, NM

      Congratulations on HOTD! I read this article a while back and I remember how interesting and informative it is. It is fascinating how writing began and you relate this history in an interesting and informative manner. Great write!

    • theBAT profile image

      theBAT 3 years ago

      While reading your hub, I was reminded of the oldest writing in the Philippines found in Angono, Rizal. Thanks for sharing this very informative hub.

    • Ruby H Rose profile image

      Maree Michael Martin 21 months ago from Northwest Washington on an Island

      Such a rich history, this love of writing. Thoughts into images, then to words. How amazing will the generations after us find these internet cyber pages? May the writing obsessions continue a lifetime beyond. Well done story on writing history, love it.

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