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A short, incomplete and non-authoritative
History of Writing

Disclaimer: I am not a scholar, I have written this little essay for a friend who was interested in the topic, and she suggested it might be interesting to others, too. I apologize for all my errors, inaccuracies and omissions — if you note any, please tell me.

R. S., June 2014


Proto-writing, that is the use of pictograms and symbols, dates back to the 7th millennium BCE. For all we know, proper writing, as recorded language, has been developed in the 3rd millennium by two civilizations: Sumer and Egypt. Possibly, also by the Indus Valley Civilization (IVC), but their script has not been deciphered, and it is disputed if it is capable, or has been used to, record language.

These civilizations were in contact with each other — at least, Sumer traded both with Egypt and the IVC.

In Egypt, the development of writing may have been inspired by the Sumerian example — the scripts are not related (though both are syllable scripts), but it has been argued, quote, that “it is probable that the general idea of expressing words of a language in writing was brought to Egypt from Sumerian Mesopotamia.” This is not proven, though.

All other writing systems are more recent. The American ones, and probably the Chinese, have been developed independently. The Chinese may have known about the principle of writing from other cultures, but their script (from which, for instance, the Japanese derives) bears no relation to any western script. (Basically it is a syllable script, but for each word all its syllables are compressed into a single symbol.) For all other scripts, we may assume that they developed under the direct or indirect influence of the Sumerian or Egyptian scripts.

The Sumerian script and its development are well known. It started around 3000 BCE, and was originally, of course, a logographic script, in which objects were represented by simplified pictures. Characteristically, due to the writing process on clay, where curves were cumbersome to draw, these pictures were soon reduced to compositions of straight lines, making them more abstract.

(From an early stage on, these straight lines were formed by pressing a blunt stylus into wet clay, giving them a characteristic shape with one triangularly thickened end — thus the name “cuneiform,” or “wedge-shaped,” for this family of scripts.)

A mountain range, for instance, would be represented by an inverted “W,” a woman by a “V” with an additional vertical line in the middle, and a slave girl by a combination of these two signs (most of the slaves were taken from the mountains to the East). This principle was also easily applied to verbs: a foot means “to walk,” a mouth “to eat,” etc. After some time, the glyphs were rotated by 90 degrees counter-clockwise, further adding to their abstraction from realistic depictions.

A fortunate circumstance furthered the transformation from an ideographic and logographic script to a phonetic syllable script: many Sumerian words are monosyllabic. Symbols could not only be used to express the objects they depicted, but to represent their sounds — and with a great number of symbols for syllable sounds readily available, all of the spoken language could now be represented by script. This development was completed in the second half of the 3rd millennium, and from this time we have humanity's oldest recorded literary texts, in the original.

The Sumerian language is not Indogermanic, and does not belong to any known group of laguages. The Assyrian/Babylonian conquerors, who absorbed the Sumerian culture, spoke a Semitic language that we call Akkadian, which was entirely different from Sumerian, but they continued to use the Sumerian script. Symbols could now have three different meanings: the logographic one, that is the original object they represent (for instant, “father”), the phonetic value of the Akkadian word for this logographic meaning (the two syllables “abu”), and, still of central importance, the (usually monosyllabic) original phonetic value of the Sumerian word (here, the syllable “ad”) — here the process of abstraction was completed; this third use of the originally Sumerian symbol, when writing Akkadian, was now entirely free from any traces of its pictographic origins. (In some cases, it got even more complex, with characters standing for different words and their various different Sumerian and Akkadian phonetic values. Surprisingly, though, this system actually worked!)

Akkadian was the dominant international language during the entire 2nd millennium, comparable only to Latin in its time and to English now; during the first half of the 1st millennium it lost its predominance to Aramaic, which too is a Semitic language. Sumerian, as a “dead” language, continued to be used for religious, scientific and literary texts far into the first millennium, much like Latin after the fall of Rome.

During the late 3rd and the 2nd millennium, the Sumerian/Akkadian “cuneiform” syllable script was adopted by many cultures and modified to fit their own languages (among them, for instance, Hittite and Old Persian) — it seems that in Anatolia, the Near and the Middle East, all scripts were based upon this model. Only in the Mediterranean, the 2nd millennium Minoan and Greek scripts were (very probably) based on Egyptian hieroglyphs (Linear B is the name for the script that was used to write Mycenaean Greek, from about 1450 to 1200 BCE, before Greek literacy got lost in the Greek Dark Ages). Other than these two script families, there was only the IVC script — and this, if it even was a fully developed script, may have developed under Sumerian influence.

The cuneiform syllable script had two disadvantages: it was complex and therefore difficult to learn, and, while it was perfectly suited to writing on clay tablets with a stylus and could also be carved in stone, it was ill suited to being written on papyrus or parchment with brush or pen. I do not know whether the various syllable scripts' disadvantages were the only reasons, or whether shifts in political and economic power also played a role, but from the early 1st millennium on, alphabetic scripts with characters that could be written on papyrus and parchment proliferated.

The catalysts of this proliferation, of course, were the Phoenicians.

(For all their obvious disadvantages, syllable scripts do have an important advantage, too: they can easily incorporate logograms, and, with single characters expressing syllables and whole words, the script is usually more compact than an alphabetic script. When writing on clay tablets with their limited available writing space, this might have made an important difference. Maybe, but this is my own unsubstantiated thought, better availability of papyrus and parchment contributed to the rise of alphabets. Papyrus and parchment have two advantages, after all: in the form of scrolls, their storage density and ease of handling are way superior to clay tablets.)

(There has been suggested a different advantage — from a certain POV — of syllable scripts: reading and writing being difficult to learn and therefore largely being the privilege of professional scribes, the powers that are can maintain, to some degree, a monopoly on literacy. Alphabetic scripts would therefore go hand in hand with a democratization of society, whether as its cause, or consequence. I'm not sure if any part of this argument has much truth to it, though.)

Note: Strictly speaking, we are not talking about alphabets so far, but abjads — that is, like the Arabian and Hebrew scripts today, they had no characters for vowels, only for consonants (unlike the Sumerian/Akkadian script, which did include vowels, as part of distinct syllables, but like the Egyptian scripts, which did not). These vowel-less abjads worked (and work) well enough for Semitic languages, but not for Greek — the Greek, when adopting the Phoenician script, added the vowels that they needed (they didn't create new glyphs for them, but re-defined Phoenician characters which represented phonemes that do not occur in Greek). Anyway, for our purpose we will not distinguish between alphabets and abjads, but see them both as alphabetic phonetic scripts.

We have already mentioned the Aramaic language, which replaced Akkadian as the dominant language for international exchange in the 1st millennium, and we have just mentioned Greek. Both languages were written using alphabetic phonetic scripts that derived from the Phoenician alphabet. The Paleo-Hebrew alphabet, which was given up in the 5th century in favor of the Aramaic one, which is still used for writing Hebrew today, was very similar to the Phoenician. The Latin and the Cyrillic alphabets, of course, later derived from the Greek (the Latin via the Etruscan).

The Arabic script, which is also used for Persian, Urdu and other languages, descended from the Syriac alphabet, as does the Mongolian alphabet, and, probably, the Georgian. The Syriac alphabet itself, a relatively late development of the 1st century CE, again derived from the Phoenician via the Aramaic.

Another relatively late development is the Brahmi alphabet (or, to be precise, abjad), used in India and Central Asia from the 3rd century BCE until the 5th century CE — from this alphabet, a large number of scripts derived that are used today in Central, South, East and Southeast Asia. While the origins of the Brahmi script are disputed, it is likely that it derived from, or at least originated under the influence of, the Aramaic alphabet.

In fact, with the possible exception of the Brahmi script and its descendants, and with the exception of some much more recent scripts like the Korean Hangul script (15th century CE), all alphabetic scripts, including long forgotten ones like the Germanic runes, trace back to the Phoenician script. It originated in the middle of the 11th century BCE, and began to spread in the 9th — quote: “its simplicity not only allowed it to be used in multiple languages, but it also allowed the common people to learn how to write” — but where did it come from?

Before the Phoenician alphabet, there had been a cuneiform alphabetic script, the Ugaritic alphabet, in use from 1300 BCE on, for about a century. Ugarit, located in what today is Syria, at that time was, quote, “at the center of the literate world, among Egypt, Anatolia, Cyprus, Crete, and Mesopotamia.” This script was used not only for the Semitic Ugaritic language, but also for the unrelated, non-Semitic Hurrian language. Both languages (as well as the Hittite language and others) became extinct as a consequence of the onslaught of the Sea Peoples, in what is known as the Bronze Age collapse (which also ended the Mycenaean culture), in the first half of the 12th century.

The Ugaritic alphabet can be read, but, though its characters resemble the Sumerian/Akkadian cuneiform script, it is not clear whether they have derived from it — it is also possible that they derived from what is thought to be the ancestor of the Phoenician alphabet, the “Proto-Sinaitic alphabet” — we'll come to it soon. Anyway, the Ugaritic alphabet has left no descendants — whether this is entirely due to the extinction of the Ugaritic and Hurrian cultures, or whether, at the time, the advantages of alphabets didn't yet fully outweigh their disadvantages, with clay tablets being the dominant or only available writing material, I do not know.

The ancestor of the Phoenician alphabet, anyhow, is probably the so-called “Proto-Sinaitic alphabet,” found in the Sinai peninsula, and dating back to the 18th century BCE. Unfortunately, very little of it has been found, very little about it is known, and none of it has been deciphered. The intermediatory forms between it and the Phoenician alphabet, which seems to date back to about 1200, are not established either. (There is a “Proto-Canaanite” script, of which very few and very short samples have been found in Canaan, but the term “Proto-Canaanite” is also used for early versions of the Phoenician script, prior to 1050 — this confusion of terminology just reflects the ongoing confusion about the facts.)

Anyway, the writers of the Proto-Sinaitic alphabet seem to have spoken the (Semitic) Canaanite language, and a few samples of the script were found in Canaan (corresponding to modern-day Israel, Palestinian territories, Lebanon, and the western parts of Jordan and Syria). And, quote, “The Canaanites endured in the northern, coastal portion of their domain, under the name of Phoenicians, after the rest of Canaan was carved up by the Israelites, Philistines, Arameans, perhaps the Tjeker, and others.”

So, even if the link between the Proto-Sinaitic and the Phoenician alphabets themselves is weak, the link between the users of these alphabets seems to be established, and it seems reasonable to assume a tradition that leads from the one to the other. Which leaves us with the next question, what do we know about the Proto-Sinaitic script and its origins?

Quoting Wikipedia:

The Sinai inscriptions are best known from carved graffiti and votive texts from a mountain in the Sinai called Serabit el-Khadim and its temple to the Egyptian goddess Hathor (h.wt-h.r). The mountain contained turquoise mines which were visited by repeated expeditions over 800 years. Many of the workers and officials were from the Nile Delta, and included large numbers of “Asiatics”, speakers of the Canaanite language that was ancestral to Phoenician and Hebrew, who had been allowed to settle the eastern Delta.

Most of the thirty or so inscriptions have been found among much more numerous hieratic and hieroglyphic inscriptions, scratched on rocks near and in the turquoise mines and along the roads leading to the temple. Four inscriptions have been found in the temple, on two small human statues and on either side of a small stone sphinx. They are crudely done, suggesting that the workers who made them were illiterate apart from this script. (snip)

The script has graphic similarities with the Egyptian hieratic script, the less elaborate form of the hieroglyphs. In the 1950s and 60s it was common to show the derivation of the Canaanite alphabet from hieratic (snip). It was generally accepted that the language of the inscriptions was Semitic and that the script had a hieratic prototype. (snip) However, the lack of further progress in decipherment casts doubt over the other suppositions, and the identification of the hieratic prototypes remains speculative.

(end of quote)

So this is where the trail currently ends, as far as the origin of our alphabetic scripts is concerned.

What we still have to look at, are the Egyptian scripts. In the quote above, the hieratic script has been called “the less elaborate form of the hieroglyphs” — this is misleading, if it is taken to mean that the hieratic script was either an earlier version or a simplified derivative of the hieroglyphs. (BTW, the terms “hieratic script” and “hieroglyphs” are more or less synonymous — “holy writing” — and make little sense for either of the two writing systems.)

Hieroglyphs, and the hieratic script, co-existed from the beginning (before 3000 BCE), as two distinct (but related) Egyptian scripts. Stated with much simplification (but I don't know better), hieroglyphs are more imposing — quote: “Hieroglyphs emerged from the preliterate artistic traditions of Egypt.” They look great, for instance, on walls of royal tombs. The hieratic script, though, could be written more quickly, in ink with a reed brush, on a number of surfaces, such as papyrus, wood, stone, ceramics, cloth, or leather. Quote: “In general, hieratic was much more important than hieroglyphs throughout Egypt's history, being the script used in daily life. It was also the writing system first taught to students, knowledge of hieroglyphs being limited to a small minority who were given additional training.”

Beginning with the 7th century BCE, the hieratic script got largely replaced by a simplified version, called Demotic (“popular”), but it stayed in use for religious texts into the 3rd century CE. All three Egyptian scripts, like the Sumerian/Akkadian script, use symbols with both logographic and phonetic meanings, though phonetically Egyptian symbols do not relate to syllables, but to either one, two or three consonants (vowels not being written). To complicate matters, the hieratic script, which is cursive, makes frequent use of ligatures — still, with symbols available that (besides their logographic meaning) phonetically represent single characters, the step to make to exclusively use them in this capacity doesn't seem that large. Maybe it was taken by those Canaanite-speaking workers in the Sinai, ancestors of the Phoenicians, in the 18th century ...


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