The invention of writing

            It is virtually certain that writing developed on the basis of earlier existing pictographs and ideographs.  Modern humans seem to have begun drawing pictures 40,000 years ago (San in SW Africa, Australian Aborigines, Cro Magnon in southwest Europe). True writing is thought to have been invented independently at least twice and perhaps three times in different places and times in human history: in ancient Sumeria by 3200BC--where a type of writing called cuneiform developed; and in ancient Mexico by the Olmecs before 400BC--the precursor to the Maya glyphs (used 200--1500AD). Writing may have been invented a third time independently: North China by 1200BC--the precursor of modern Chinese characters; In each of these three instances, it is believed that pictures began to be used to denote syllables of sound, not meaning alone. Today we will discuss these first syllabic systems in some detail. All of them are mixtures of pictograpic word-symbols and symbols for the sound of syllables.

             Let's look at the development of writing in Sumeria first.  The Sumerians were a people who built a series of city states in the delta of the Tigres and Euphrates rivers after 3500BC.  Their language was not IE or Semitic and is not known to be related to any other language. We do know that the Sumerians developed a writing system known today as cuneiform. It flourished between 3100 and 2000BC. Although it fell into disuse after this time, scholars succeeded in deciphering it last century and today we can read all of the many thousands of surviving cuneiform inscriptions. 

            Writing in Southwest Asia--the earliest anywhere-- seems to have developed out of economic expediency. The earliest uses of pictograms in Mesopotamia--pre-writing-- predated the Sumerians.  Beginning with farming some 9000 years ago, tokens marked with simple pictures began to be used to label basic farm produce.  With the rise of cities and urban centers of manufacture 6000 years ago, more complex pictographic tokens were also devised to label manufactured goods.  Eventually, the tokens were replaced by impressions made on clay tablets.  The simple tokens used to denote farm goods gave rise to the practice of pressing tokens into the clay tablets to produce a raised picture;  the complex tokens used to denote manufactured goods were drawn on the clay tablets with a blunt reed called a stylus.  The impressions left by the stylus were wedge shaped, thus giving rise to the name cuneiform, wedge-writing.  

            The earliest clay tablets in Sumeria were examples of prewriting;  the pictographic impressions did not render the sounds of the Sumerian language, but were used simply as memory aids in recording economic data.  This earliest Sumerian recordkeeping was a way of keeping inventory of merchandise by drawing crude pictures of each item.

            The first proven uses of cuneiform to denote the sounds of the Sumerian language appear in clay tablets dating to about 3100BC. These were found at Jemdet Nasr in present day Iraq.  On one of these tablets, for instance, the Sumerian symbol for  arrow was used to convey the word meaning life.  There is no logical connection between the depiction of an arrow and the concept life.  Only when looking at the sound of the Sumerian language does the reason for using the pictograph in this way become understandable.  The Sumerian word for arrow was ti.  The word for life was a near homonym, til.  Since the concept life was hard to draw, some scribe took advantage of homonymy and used an existing pictograph to denote the SOUND of the syllable ti regardless of the original meaning of the pictograph.  In exactly the same way, the pictogram for reed was used to convey the semantically unrelated concept reimburse: In the Sumerian language, the word for reed and reimburse were both pronounced something like gi.  Pictograms thus began to be used as sound symbols.


            The transition to full writing in Sumeria must have occurred sometime between 3500 and 3000BC, as more and more signs came to be used for their sound value only.  Some of the syllabic units retained their pre-writing pictographic or ideographic shapes, such as the cuneiform sign for arrow or reed;  but even these symbols no longer denoted the concept arrow independent of linguistic expression.  The symbol which resembled an arrow, now denoted the sound syllable ti which could be used to write not only the word for arrow arrow but also life and many other words whose meanings are unrelated.  When the transition from icon to sound symbol was completed, and it became possible to symbolize all the syllables of the Sumerian language regardless of how abstract their meaning, true writing was born. In becoming sound symbols, most pictographs began to be stylized and lost their iconographic form altogether. (See handout.) Numerous examples of true writing in the Sumerian cuneiform syllabary have been found that date after 3000BC.


            Homonymy thus seems to have been one of the vehicles whereby pictures of concrete objects began to be used as abstract symbols representing sound.  The morphological structure of the Sumerian language undoubtedly facilitated the invention of writing: in Sumerian many single syllables are separate words or at least separate morphemes.  This morphemic structure undoubtedly facilitated the transfer of pictograms into sound symbols, or graphemes.  A language like English with a complicated syllable structure could not easily have been written with pictures for each syllable.  Some English words, however, can be written by using pictures for sound.  Such sound pictures are called rebuses.  Modern English can partly be written using the rebus principle: (Give an example of pictographs for eye, can, sea, ewe then use them to denote the sounds of homonyms: I can see you.)  But it would be impossible to write such English words as gratify or reimburse using rebuses.  


            After the Sumerians, the idea of writing seems to have diffused to many peoples of Southwest Asia and adjacent areas developed writing. These include the Egyptians, the Cretans, the Elamites, and the Indus Valley peoples. It is virtually certain that these peoples borrowed the idea of writing syllable of sound by using pictures. This is an example of stimulus diffusion.

            The most famous of these secondary scripts is found in Egypt. The rebus principle of writing seems to have been borrowed by the Egyptians from the Sumerians shortly after 3000BC, when Egyptian writing appears suddenly, as a fully developed phonetic system, without any gradual transition from pictographic writing. Egyptian hieroglyphs, or holy writing, are either syllabic symbols or alphabetic symbols representing single sounds such as [t] or [m]. (See handout.) Also, a pictographic element was often added to the phonetic symbols to clarify the meaning.  Ancient Egyptian was deciphered last century by the Frenchman Champollion thanks to the Rosetta Stone.

            The principle of using symbols for sound seems also to have been borrowed by the peoples of the Indus Valley civilization in present day Pakistan, and various ancient peoples of Crete and present-day Iran.  Clay inscriptions dating back as far a 2500BC have been found in these areas.  As yet none of these inscriptions have been deciphered.

            Maya glyphs were also a syllabic system. Writing seems to have benn first divised by the Olmecs before 400BC, but developed to its full flower under the Maya from 200AD to the time of the Spanish conquest in the early 16th century. The glyphs seem to have been used entirely by the priestly ruling class to record events of royal and religious significance. As in ancient China, no commoners seemed to have used them. Within a century of the Spanish conquest, no one was left who could even read the glyphs, let alone understand them. They have been deciphered only in the last decade.

            Let's leave Southwest Asia for the time being and travel to Northern China.  The origins of Chinese writing are obscure and debated.  Some people believe that the rebus principle was borrowed through the trade routes from Sumeria to China--which would be an example of stimulus diffusion.  There is no direct evidence for this, although there was contact through western China.  Many believe that the ancient Chinese hit upon the writing principle completely independently.  The earliest known form of true writing in China dates from the Shang dynasty, 1200BC-1045BC, dates considerably later than for Sumerian writing.  But it is entirely possible that pictographic signs had begun to be used as sound symbols in China long before that.  Just as in Sumeria, ancient pictograms and ideograms came to be used to denote syllables of sound rather than to depict concepts.  In the case of homonymous syllables, the sound alone was represented and the iconographic aspect of the picture became irrelevant: (Give example from the handout: Picture of wheat lug= to come lug). 

            When signs lost the requirement of resembling what they represented, they gradually became stylized and lost much of their pictographic iconicity. This process took thousands of years.  (See handout on Chinese.)  The earliest, Shang Dynasty examples of true writing, still looked like pictures.  Some of the symbols even preserved an iconic resemblance to their meaning up to the present day.  (compare the Chinese words for child--haize mouth--kou1, eye--mu4, one, two.  But the shape of most symbols no longer physically resembled their meaning.  (See handout)

            Due to the gradual evolution of picture to writing, the correspondence between symbol and sound the earliest syllabaries did not represent sound in a purely regular, predictable way.  They showed a highly irregular relationshiip between sound and symbol.  The meaning of a syllable, as well as its sound, was often a factor in how the syllable was written . This is still true of modern Chinese (See handout).    


            Many people mistakenly assume that--because the earliest syllabaries such as Sumerian, Egyptian, Chinese, and Maya use symbols that resemble pictures--they represent a more primitive form of writing.  But all of these systems represented sound first and concept secondarily--through the medium of specific sounds. To say that they were primitive because they represent sound irregularly--without a strict one to one correspondence between sound and symbol-- is to say that the modern English alphabet is the world's most primitive alphabet because of its irregular correspondence of symbol to sound. The fact that English spelling is irregular and often dependent on semantic factors as well as purely phonetic factors makes it no less of a true writing system.  English clearly is not more "primitive" than Georgian with its completely regular correspondence, which has a highly regular correspondence of symbol to sound.  And French is not more primitive than Spanish. 

            The earliest syllabaries were also true writing systems, but, like English, they represented sound in an irregular way.  However, because they represented sound, Chinese characters, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Sumerian cuneiform, and Maya glyphs are just as great a departure from pictograms as are the modern English and Spanish alphabets.