The Origins of Writing
Message From A Temple
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
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 signs were formed by pressing a stylus on wet clay, each time producing a wedge shape. Cuneiform means 'wedge-shaped' in Latin.
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.
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
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?
© 2013 James Kenny