A short history of writing

03/05/2019 | Rebecca Twose

Writing is an integral part of any language and may just be one of the most valuable skills humans ever developed. If you’re a linguist, writing will be integral to your work, whether you are translating a novel or writing notes to take with you to an interpreting session.

Were it not for writing, we wouldn’t still be enjoying the works of Shakespeare exactly as he wrote them, or learning philosophy from the Ancient Greeks. We would also have a much more limited understanding of the eras preceding our own as our only evidence would be verbal accounts passed like Chinese Whispers from one generation to another, rather than a written account made at the time.

Cave paintings
Cave paintings

Early roots

So important is writing to human beings that it is believed to have been one of the very first skills we developed. Cave paintings made tens of thousands of years ago are the earliest examples of man’s desire to make a permanent record of his life.

Spoken language is believed to have evolved tens of thousands of years before the written form. Evidence of the earliest roots of writing comes from around 3000BC, in the Egyptian and Mesopotamian eras, and separately around the same time in China. It may not surprise you to learn that written numbers came before an alphabet. Humans lived for generations as hunter-gatherers until they realised that by growing their own food they didn’t have to stay on the move anymore. Instead, people settled in one place and communities grew around them.

Being able to own more than what you can carry on your back meant that people’s property grew, and, of course, so did their desire to mark it out as their own. Symbols were carved on to stones that were used to count and keep a record of possessions, and soon people started to inscribe images into clay for the same purpose.

Pictogram
Pictogram

Pictures for words

Before modern writing systems developed came pictograms. These were very simple images that represented something. They were built up to create a phrase, so a drawing of a man followed by a drawing of a blade or spear followed by a picture of a mammoth would represent the sentence: “The man uses a spear to hunt the mammoth.”

Pictograms have problems as a writing system, though. For one they are not adaptable and for another, it is hard to use them to go into any detail. As societies developed their own cultures and customs, it was necessary for them to develop their own systems for recording this as well.

Hieroglyphics

The first writing systems

Cuneiform is a writing style that developed in the Middle East among the Sumerian and Babylonian people and used symbols to represent sounds rather than the things they were describing. There are still examples of this script today, one of which was found to feature a tale remarkably similar to that of Noah and the Ark in the Bible. George Smith, who translated the Flood Tablet and its story of Utnapishtim – who survived a great flood by building a huge boat – was so excited when he realised what it said he ran screaming out of the building, peeling his clothes off as he went.

Other early writing systems included Egyptian hieroglyphics, which were only translated following the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. Elsewhere, a stone tablet covered in script discovered in Mexico is estimated to date back 3,000 years.

Greek alphabet

A, B, C

The first evidence of an alphabet like the one we know today being used was the Phoenician alphabet. The system used symbols to represent consonants and was spread across the Mediterranean by the travelling merchants who used it to keep records. From this alphabet came the Aramaic script and the Greek alphabet, which led to the Latin one we use today that features symbols for both consonants and vowels.

Perhaps the next great development in the history of writing was technological. The invention of pencils and pens, starting with reeds dipped in ink, meant people could move away from imprinting text in clay tablets or carving it in stone, and so made writing far more efficient.

Printing machine

Spread the word

Next came the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1450, which allowed the mass publication of writing. This meant that through regular newsletters people were able to stay connected with what was going on in their community or the country they lived in.

Of course, today it has never been easier to keep in touch with people as the internet allows us to do business or talk to friends based all over the world, by tapping messages on our keyboards using an alphabet that has survived centuries. Something to think about the next time you send a text!

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