Communication Media Research Paper

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Humans may have developed language as many as 100,000 years ago, fostering complex communication that far surpassed that of any other species. Since the invention of writing systems roughly 5,000 years ago, improvements in communication have been closely tied to changes in technology, from simple artifacts to elaborate equipment and complex networks that allow humans to transfer information over time and distance.

The term “communication” includes all the ways in which living beings convey information to one another. Plants and animals communicate by smell, sight, and sound. Human beings, with a limited sense of smell, communicate by sight and sound in far more complex ways than any other creatures. Not only have humans developed elaborate languages and gestures for face-to-face communication, they have also invented media such as writing and mechanical or electrical systems that transcend the constraints of time and space.

Human communication systems have had profound implications for world history. Language is the most important way in which humans have overcome their bodies’ limitations through culture, allowing them to spread into all the Earth’s environments. But language, writing, and other media have divided humans into rival groups and led to conflicts and the exercise of power by some people over others. For the past 5,000 years, improvements in communication have been closely tied to changes in technology, from simple artifacts to elaborate equipment and complex networks. Advances in technology have increased the efficiency of communication in fundamental ways. Language has allowed humans to express complex ideas. Writing permitted communication at a distance and through time. Paper and printing diffused information widely, while the mass media has combined widespread with instantaneous diffusion. The Internet seems destined to offer the advantages of all earlier media, with the potential for transforming civilization in unforeseen ways.


Speech is the original and only universal means of communication. All children learn to talk—except the deaf, who learn to sign—for language ability is innate in human beings. The six thousand languages spoken in the world today carry culture and provide identity, uniting people who understand each other and dividing them from those who speak another language. Yet anyone can learn any language, for there is no genetic predisposition for specific languages.

For centuries, people have known that some languages resemble one another: French, Spanish, and Italian are Romance languages, while Russian, Polish, and Czech are Slavic. It was also known that languages change over time, and that the Romance languages, for instance, all evolved from Latin. Beyond these obvious resemblances are more subtle affinities that only trained linguists can identify. In 1786 Sir William Jones, a judge in India, described the resemblances between Sanskrit, the ancient language of India, on the one hand, and Greek and Latin, on the other. He even asserted: “no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists” (Ruhlen 1994, 27). Linguists later proved Jones right by identifying Indo-European as the ancestor of most languages of Europe and India. Identifying affinities between seemingly distant languages and trying to reconstruct their common ancestors is the ongoing task of historical linguistics.

For over a century, linguists concentrated on demonstrating that the languages of Europe, Persia, and India form a great family called Indo-European. They also identified Semitic (Arabic and Hebrew), Bantu (the languages of central and southern Africa), Altaic (in central and northern Asia), Austronesian (in Southeast Asia and Polynesia), and other language families. Using painstaking techniques, they reconstructed the vocabulary of the long-vanished languages. Beyond that, they dared not go, for there seemed to be no resemblances between different language families.

Recently, however, bolder linguists have advanced the hypothesis that entire language families that seem unrelated actually belong to superfamilies and descend from a common ancestral tongue spoken tens of thousands of years ago. The boldest of all have advanced the idea that all the languages spoken in the world descend from a single original language— the “Mother Tongue”—spoken in Africa about 100,000 years ago.

Meanwhile, anthropologists studying ancient bones found that the first Homo sapiens, unlike earlier hominids, had vocal cords capable of articulating words and minds able to carve sculptures and draw pictures: tantalizing clues to the complex thinking such as language requires. From the evidence of the bones, they deduced that Homo sapiens originated in Africa some 100,000 years ago and then migrated to other continents.

At the same time, geneticists were identifying the resemblances between the DNA of people on different continents. By doing so, they could determine the approximate length of time since two groups separated and where their ancestors came from. What they found is that Homo sapiens originated in Africa well over 100,000 years ago; some migrated to the Middle East around 100,000 years ago; they reached Southeast Asia about 80,000 years ago; New Guinea and Australia 50,000 years ago; Europe some 40,000 years ago; and the Americas 15,000 years ago (all figures give or take a few thousand years).

The findings of these three sciences, arrived at quite independently, are amazingly similar. What they tell us is that the language ability is unique to Homo sapiens; that the first language was probably spoken in Africa over 100,000 years ago; that humans dispersed throughout the world; and that as groups split up, their languages changed in different ways, producing the incredible variety that exists in the world today. Yet beneath that variety, the ability to learn and use language is the same all over the world, and all languages are equally capable of expressing the same range of ideas.

What caused the great variety of languages is separation. For millennia, as human groups dispersed, the differences between their languages increased. Before 10,000 years ago, when all people were gatherers and hunters who lived in small bands that rarely interacted, they must have spoken hundreds of thousands of different languages. Since the advent of agriculture and civilization, the trend has been reversed. Kingdoms and empires relied on communication and imposed a common language, if not on everyone, then at least on the educated. Several western European peoples speak languages derived from the language of the Roman Empire. Arabic is spoken from Iraq to Morocco, lands conquered by the Arabs in the seventh and eighth centuries. Most Latin Americans speak Spanish, most North Americans speak English, and many Africans learned the languages of their former colonial masters.

Though colonial empires have vanished, the spread of imperial languages continues. In fact, thanks to radio, television, business, and the press, it has accelerated. In Africa, schools teach children French or English or Portuguese. To prosper in a globalizing world, increasing numbers of people know they must speak not only their mother tongue but also a national or global language, and sometimes several.

The spread of national and global languages threatens linguistic minorities. Languages spoken by small numbers of people, such as indigenous tribes in the Americas, India, or Southeast Asia, are disappearing as young people turn increasingly to the languages of television, the press, the schools, and government, and see no reason to retain the language of the older generation. By the end of the twenty-first century, only half the languages spoken today will still be used. When languages vanish, so does much of the oral culture that they carry, such as tales, myths, and religious beliefs. Linguists are trying to record and transcribe as many of the endangered languages as they can before they disappear forever, but it is an uphill battle. Often the only people still fluent in an endangered language are old and cannot recall all they once knew. As communication improves, the diversity of cultures in the world shrinks.

Visual Communication

Even before writing was invented, speech was only one of several means that humans used to communicate. People of the foraging era painted on the walls of caves or carved pictures on rocks. Such rock art is found in many places, the earliest in Namibia dating back 28,000 years, followed by the 16,000-year-old cave paintings of southern France, and many others, from the Sahara to Hawaii. Some archaeologists even speculate that Australian rock art may date back as far as 75,000 years ago. Neolithic people erected large stone monuments, such as Stonehenge in England or temples in Malta. The Olmecs of southern Mexico and the people of Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean carved gigantic stone sculptures. Such creations were works of art that served as ways of communicating ideas, as reminders of events, or as part of religious rituals.

Even more common than the artistic creations of prehistoric people are their mnemonic devices. Our world today is full of symbols that communicate and remind without the need for words: the silhouette of a person in pants and another one in a skirt indicate men’s and women’s toilets; a cigarette with a bar through it means “no smoking”; traffic signs can be grasped at a glance even by those who cannot read words. Mnemonic devices were among the earliest means of communication devised by Homo sapiens. Tally sticks with notches, found in the caves of Cro-Magnon peoples in France dating back 30,000 years, may have corresponded to the phases of the moon. Polynesian navigators made maps out of sticks and strings to help them remember the location of islands and to instruct their disciples. The Incas of South America kept records of taxes and other transactions with quipus, or knotted strings. And in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) and nearby regions, long before writing, people kept records of goods produced and exchanged with the help of tokens, bits of clay fashioned into different shapes that corresponded to the items they represented (sheep, bushels of grain, jars of oil, and so on).

These are the physical objects that have survived or left traces for scientists to analyze. But like all people today, prehistoric people also must also have engaged in more ephemeral means of visual communication, such as gestures, facial expressions, songs, body movements, and dance. It is likely that they combined words, gestures, and music in religious rituals, storytelling, and dramas. The variety of ways in which humans could communicate with one another, even in prehistoric times, was almost limitless.


Writing is a means of inscribing words on a physical medium that can be preserved through time or transmitted from person to person. Full writing systems, capable of conveying any word in a language, appeared in several regions of the world at the beginning of their urban civilizations. The first was Sumer, in lower Mesopotamia, between 3300 and 3000 BCE. The script that the Sumerians created is called cuneiform, or wedge-shaped, because it was inscribed on clay tablets with the wedge-shaped end of a reed. Cuneiform writing and clay tablets were adaptable to many other languages in the Middle East and remained in use for 3,000 years. Tens of thousands of tablets have been found, almost all of them dealing with mundane matters of business, taxes, and administration. By the second millennium BCE, cuneiform was used to write literary texts such as the Epic of Gilgamesh.

The Egyptians, probably inspired by their Mesopotamian neighbors, created three writing systems. The best known is hieroglyphics, a combination of pictures and symbols that were carved on stone monuments and painted inside burial chambers and on important documents. Religious texts were written on papyrus, made from a reed that grew in the Nile delta, in a simpler script called hieratic. Everyday matters, such as business records or lists of words, were written in demotic, a kind of handwriting. Unfortunately, unlike the permanent clay tablets of Mesopotamia, almost all the papyrus documents have long since perished.

The Chinese began writing around 1500 BCE. Their first known writings were on bones used by soothsayers to predict the future. From the start, Chinese writing was logographic, meaning that each character represented a word. Though modern Chinese characters look different, scholars can trace their development from the earliest engravings to the present. It is by far the longest lasting writing system in the world, and suits the Chinese language admirably. Chinese characters were also adopted by Koreans and Japanese.

In the Americas, only the Maya created a full writing system, about 300 BCE. Like Egyptian hieroglyphics, it was pictographic and extremely complex. It was used in conjunction with the ancient world’s most elaborate calendar to inscribe religious texts and the chronologies of kings and battles on temple walls. Mayan writing may have been based on Olmec systems dating back to the mid-second millennium BCE.

Today, most of the world uses alphabetic scripts. The first alphabet was devised by Semitic people in Egypt around 1800 BCE and spread from there to Palestine and beyond. Semitic alphabets such as Hebrew and Arabic include only consonants. Vowels are indicated by marks above the letters, but only in religious texts and in readings for children. When the Greeks adopted alphabetic writing from the Phoenicians in the eighth century BCE, they added vowels, which were necessary to express the Greek language. The Latin and Cyrillic (Russian) alphabets, used by a majority of the world’s people today, are derived from the Greek.

Writing has been used for many different purposes: simple business documents, personal messages, monumental inscriptions, sacred texts like the Bible and the Quran, and works of literature and philosophy. For centuries, only a small minority—upper-class men, specially trained scribes, and a very few women— could read and write. Ancient economies were too limited to need much writing, and writing materials (except for clay) were too costly for most people. More widespread literacy had to await the invention of paper and printing during the second millennium CE.

Postal Systems

Early writing systems were invented or adopted by government officials to keep records and communicate information and orders. Small states used messengers, but larger kingdoms and empires needed more reliable means of staying in touch with distant provinces. The Persians built the Royal Road from Susa, their capital in western Iran, to Ephesus on the Black Sea. Along it they established relay posts with fresh horses for royal messengers. The Romans built many roads and created an imperial messenger service, the cursus publicus. The Chinese, the Inca, and other empires found the same solution to the problem of administration at a distance.

Members of the public, however, had to find a traveler willing to take a letter to its destination. Only in the seventeenth century were postal services open to the public, at a very high cost. It was railroads, introduced in Britain in the 1830s and spreading to the rest of the world during the nineteenth century, that transformed postal systems from the exclusive privilege of the wealthy and powerful to the rapid, reliable, and cheap means of communication we are familiar with today.

Paper and Printing

Writing needed only simple artifacts and touched only a minority of people. To reach more people, communication had to be mediated by technology. The first in a series of ever more powerful communications media were paper and printing. Both were Chinese inventions. The earliest paper, made from hemp and ramie fibers, dates to the first century BCE. China was an extensive empire with a large literate elite that valued ancient texts and the art of calligraphy, and therefore used a great deal of paper. By the Song dynasty (960–1279 CE) there was an active trade in how-to manuals, novels, religious texts, and other books. The craft of papermaking spread from China to the Middle East in the eighth century and to Europe after the twelfth century.

What made paper truly useful was the invention of printing. Woodblock printing, in which a text was carved into a block of wood, originated in China in the eighth century CE and was used to print tracts, engravings, and paper money. Movable type made of ceramic appeared in the eleventh century, followed by metal type in the thirteenth. It was more widely used in Korea than in China, where woodblock predominated until the nineteenth century. In Europe Johannes Gutenberg (c. 1390–1468) reinvented movable metal type and printed a Bible in 1453; soon after the printing of all sorts of books, pamphlets, maps, posters, newspapers, playing cards, and much else contributed greatly to the expansion of literacy in the West as well as in East Asia.

Among the means of communication that printing permitted, the press became the most popular and influential, especially after the invention of steam-powered rotary presses in the early nineteenth century and the appearance of cheap tabloids a few decades later. Newspapers provided not only local news and useful information, but also stories from foreign countries slanted so as to inflame nationalistic passions. Far from bringing about greater international understanding, the press raised popular enthusiasm for imperial conquests in the late nineteenth century and world wars in the early twentieth century.

Optical and Aural Signaling

The human voice only carries a short distance, and communicating in writing means transporting a physical object. In many parts of the world, people sought means of conveying information more rapidly over longer distances. Native Americans used smoke signals; tom-toms or drums were known in the Americas and in Africa; the Romans and medieval Europeans built towers on which fires were lit to warn of danger; ships used flags; and in 1775, Paul Revere hung lanterns in a church tower in Boston to warn of approaching British troops. All such signals had a weakness, however; they could only convey a few prearranged signals in one direction.

This changed during the wars of the French Revolution with the invention of two open-ended bidirectional visual communication systems: the optical telegraph and naval flag telegraphs. The optical telegraph, invented by the Frenchman Claude Chappe (1763–1805), consisted of articulated boards that could be moved into different positions to indicate either a code number or a letter of the alphabet. Starting in 1794, the French government placed such devices on towers throughout France and Napoleon’s empire. Employees watched for signals from one neighboring tower and relayed it to another. On clear days, a message could travel from Paris to Toulon, 760 kilometers and 120 towers away, in twelve minutes. In night and fog, however, the system stopped.

At the same time and for the same reason— war—British naval officers transformed naval flag signaling from an occasional one-way message to a method of conveying any information between any two ships within sight of each other. At night, ships used lanterns with shutters. When the Napoleonic wars ended in 1815, these methods were quickly adopted by merchant ships and spread around the world.

Electrical Telecommunication

The telegraph and telephone are treated in detail in a separate research paper, so here we can give a very brief summary. The electric telegraph was developed in Britain in the 1830s and in the United States in the early 1840s. The American system, using a single wire and the code devised by Samuel Morse (1791–1872), was gradually adopted worldwide. An electric telegraph line cost less to build than its optical predecessor, could operate at night and in any weather, and sent messages much faster. So great was its capacity that it was opened to all users: railroads, governments, the press, and the general public. By the 1850s, telegraph networks covered Europe and the eastern United States. During the following decades, colonial powers erected telegraph lines in India and parts of Africa, as did independent nations in Latin America. The Chinese resisted for several decades, seeing it as an instrument of western penetration and espionage.

Meanwhile, engineers and entrepreneurs experimented with submarine telegraph cables to connect islands and continents into a global network. The first successful transatlantic cable began operating in 1866, followed in quick succession by cables to India, Australia, and China in the 1870s, and around Africa in the 1880s. On the North Atlantic, competition reigned, but elsewhere, the cable business was monopolized by a few British firms. International and intercontinental telecommunication facilitated the expansion of trade and the flow of information around the world. It did not, however, lower the desire or reduce the opportunities for war as its pioneers had expected.

Unlike telegraphy, which had its greatest impact on long-distance communications, telephony was largely a local matter restricted, until well into the twentieth century, to businesses and wealthy people. The telephone was invented in 1876 in the United States by Alexander Graham Bell (1847–1922) and soon installed in all the major cities of North America and Europe. A transcontinental connection from New York to San Francisco was delayed for technical reasons until 1915. Only since World War II have telephone lines, and more recently cellular phones, spread to rural areas and developing countries.

Guglielmo Marconi (1874–1937) demonstrated the first wireless communication system in 1895. For the first twenty years, its use was restricted to sending telegrams in Morse code, while engineers concentrated on building ever larger transmitters to communicate over ever longer distances with ships at sea and across continents and oceans.

Electronic Mass Communication

The nature of wireless communication changed radically when newer equipment began transmitting voices and music as well as dots and dashes. Broadcasting began with station KDKA in Pittsburgh in 1920. Two years later the United States had 564 commercial stations supported by advertisements. In most other countries, broadcasting was monopolized from the start by governments that used the new medium for cultural “uplift” and political propaganda. By the 1930s, shortwave radio broadcast political messages to foreign countries.

Television was technically feasible by the late 1930s, but its use in mass communication was delayed by World War II. It became a common consumer item in the United States during the 1950s and in Europe and Japan in the 1960s and 1970s. Though signals could only be broadcast locally, stations were connected by cables and the industry was dominated by three networks in the United States and one or two national networks in other countries. To prevent their citizens from watching foreign broadcasts, governments imposed mutually incompatible technical standards. In the 1970s and after, two new technologies— satellites and cables—challenged the entire system of national or commercial centralization, encouraging the proliferation of alternative information and entertainment media.

Motion Pictures and Sound Recording

During the nineteenth century, photography developed as a new art medium. At the end of the century, inventors in the United States and France found ways of projecting images in sequence so rapidly that the eye saw motion. Entrepreneurs soon found ways of presenting entire dramas on film, creating an industry that grew even more popular with the advent of talking pictures in the late 1920s and color films in the late 1930s.

Sound recording began in 1877 when Thomas Edison (1847–1931) recorded a voice on a cylinder. Ten years later, flat disks not only permitted the recording of music, but could be mass produced. After World War II, records were gradually edged out by magnetic tape and, since the 1980s, by compact disks and other digital media derived from computer technology.

Computers and the Internet

Until the 1980s, the mass media were unidirectional, with the public in the role of passive recipients. Computers made mass communication interactive on a global scale. This became possible when personal computers became affordable consumer items and even more when a gigantic decentralized network, the Internet, permitted the connection of any computer to any other. At first, the Internet operated like a free text-messaging service, but by the 1990s, the World Wide Web transmitted pictures, voice, and music as well as text. Businesses quickly seized upon the Web as a cheap means of advertising and selling their goods and services. Unlike radio and television broadcasting, however, neither business nor governments have been able to monopolize or censor the Internet. Individuals and organizations can transmit any kind of message or information to any interested party with access to a computer. What is emerging is a combination of personal and mass communication linking all parts of the world.

Although the price of computers and Internet service keeps coming down, this technology still benefits disproportionately the organizations and citizens of the wealthier countries. As of this writing, there are more computers and telephone lines in Manhattan than in all of Africa, and the gap is widening. Like their predecessors, the new communication technologies favor the elites, both locally and globally.

The Future of Communication

In the twenty-first century, communication systems will continue to expand and deepen their penetration around the world. Cellular telephone and Internet access will reach even the most remote village. Newer media, such as wireless video-on-demand and virtual reality will supplement the media we know today. In the process, they will homogenize the world’s cultures. Local languages will disappear, replaced by a few global ones. Tastes in clothing, music, and entertainment will converge. Yet, if past experience is a guide, better communications will not bring about better understanding between the peoples of the world or reduce the likelihood of wars. While technology gives us the power to send information across time and space at ever lower cost, it cannot prevent the abuse of such power by those who control the media.


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