A Brief History of Writing

Or why all roads lead to Mesopotamia


If you’re ever asked where something originated, always say Mesopotamia 5,000 years ago, that’s what I always do. And today is no different. Even if someone asks about the history of writing.

Writing began in Mesopotamia 5,000 years ago.

In fact, the whole of civilisation seems to zoom in on those clever people from the city of Sumer around 3,100 BC. They transformed a system of clay tokens for counting sheep into a fully operational language.

Cuneiform Script

Cuneiform was made up of pictographs and wedge-shaped impressions pressed into soft clay tokens. It started simply, being able to tell if livestock were coming or going to the temple, or whether they were dead, was all that was needed.

Since there’s only so many novels you can write about a sheep dying on its return from a temple, the language expanded. At one point, there were up to 1,000 characters available. Fortunately for the Sumerians, the symbols were simplified over the years as the language evolved.

The Egyptians weren’t far behind.

Egyptian Hieroglyphs

Scholars like to argue but, one affable day, they agreed that Egyptian hieroglyphs came into existence a little after the Sumerian language. The language is very different but the idea of writing, it is suggested, came from Sumer.

The language comprised of phonetic glyphs representing the alphabet, characters that represented whole words and other symbols that alternated the meaning of the first two.

It was a sophisticated writing system.

Chinese Writing

The earliest recorded evidence of Chinese writing was in the Shang dynasty, which (as you know) was 1,200–1,050 BC.

There have been carvings found dating back to 6,000 BC. But scholars, one not so affable day, disagree on whether these symbols are sophisticated enough to be called a language – exactly the words my teacher used after my GSCE Spanish exam.

But language really took off when the Phoenicians started trading about 1,000 BC.

The Phoenician Alphabet

The Phoenicians traded all around the Mediterranean and spread their Phoenician alphabet wherever they went. It was based on Egyptian hieroglyphs but had 22 letters, all consonants – you made up whatever vowel sounds you liked, which they still do in Liverpool today.

It was an easy language to write so the language spread rapidly.

The Phoenician alphabet spawned the Greek alphabet, the Aramaic alphabet, Persian, Arabic, Hebrew and a load of others. It was slow start, but for the next 1,000 years writing prospered.

It was the Greeks who got things going in Europe.

European Writing

Greek is the starting point for all modern European writing. From this, Latin developed and the Romans forced it down the throats, or more correctly, out of the throats of most western civilisations.

Here in Britain, when the Romans got sick of the drizzle and left, we were immediately over run by the Jutes, Angles and Saxons. They brought with them futhorc. Not a sneeze, a simple language based on Old Latin and Greek. 24 runes were used to create the language. This was massaged using the Latin alphabet and Celtic into the beginnings of English.

Modern English started with Caxton’s printing press in 1,476. At the time, the English language had lots of different spellings and dialects, so Caxton thought to hell with this and picked an East Midland/London variety of English and printed that out. That was the beginning of English writing standardisation.

The Future of Writing

Thank you Sumerians of Mesopotamia for starting things off. You created the idea of written language and that changed the world. But it’s not over yet. Languages are continually changing to suit the needs of the population, and they will continue to change, whether we want them to or not, lol.

With thanks to Linda Firth from LoveMyVouchers.co.uk for this brief look at the history of writing.

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