2017/11/17

A Short History of Writing


Writing, a Brief History

Many people have speculated about when and people started writing.  The most popular thought is that of permanently recording grain and animals, recipes for beer etc, many of these things were an important part of ancient societies and used around temples and palaces.

Archaeologists have discovered many clay tokens of different shapes and sizes in and around Middle-Eastern sites from as early as 8000 BC.  Many historians suppose that these tokens were used for counting items for trade.  It has also been discovered that the Inca Empire used quipu, a group of strings of various colours that were knotted at intervals to record their taxes and census statistics.



From these tokens came a system of symbols to symbolise words and ideas.  These earlier writings would have been pictographic and can be found in many cave paintings all around the earth.  Pictogram's are still used today to convey simple message - such road signs or even public toilet signs.

Cuneiform script was to assign a phonetic (sound) to a symbol and radically transformed how people communicated.  Many think the Sumerians used this around about 3300 BC and can be found in southern Iraq.  Scripts were found in Egypt (3100 BC), Indus Valley (2500 BC), Crete (1900 BC), China (1200 BC) and Central America (600 BC).

No one culture has been found to wholly influence the advancement of writing, many systems have been found around the world and all sound unique, but all play a key part in enabling us to communicate through writing.

Figuring Out Ancient Texts

Sadly the ability to read ancient manuscripts has been lost.  In some cases the ability has been regained through the process of studying archaeological treasures.

The Rosetta Stone, discovered by French soldiers in 1799 during Napoleon's invasion, has helped decipher many Egyptian hieroglyphs.  Discovered in the small village of Rashid Egypt this relatively small stone slab as carved an inscription in three different languages and scripts - demoic script, hieroglyphs and ancient Greek.  Inscribed is a decree given in three different languages passed by the general council of priests throughout Egypt on the first anniversary of the accession of Ptolemy V Epiphanes King of Egypt 27 March 196 BC.

With comparisons to other monuments, scholars such as Thomas Young and French Physicist Jean-Francois Champollion could easily identify the names found in the hieroglyphs.

Alphabets and Syllabaries Revealed

Many early scripts were found to be syllabaries (such as cuneiform or Linear B).  Simply put these manuscripts were written in syllables.  This kind of writing required lots of signs and very few consonants.

The Egyptians used a lot of pictogram's showing a lot of complicated consonants, but weren't able to cope with writing any vowels.

A script was developed in Phoenicia using a handful of signs and was used from 1400-1200 BC.  In the first millennium the Israelites, Phoenicians and Canaanites used 22 signs.  All of these were consonant scripts with very little vowels being used.

The Greek alphabet was invented as early as 10th or 11th century BC, having signs for each consonant and each vowel, with about 25 signs in all.  This enabled them to write a lot more clearly and very much like we write today.

Read more about writing: The Printing Press, A Brief HistoryHieroglyphs, A Brief HistoryWhat is Cuneiform Script?A Short History of Writing.

Comment