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Throughout history, writing has played a significant role in the generation of knowledge, the advancement of ideas, and the growth of societies. While many of the details concerning the development of writing remain a mystery, there is sufficient evidence to trace some of the major stages in the evolution of writing and to examine the great variety of writing systems and materials that have been, and continue to be, developed.
Some have argued that the very earliest evidence of written communication comes in the form of paintings of animals on cave walls found in southern France and dated to the Ice Age some twenty thousand years ago. Such artistic representations may have been used to convey ideas about both the mysteries and rhythms of the natural world or to provide a narrative—in visual form—describing the relationship of humans to their immediate environment. Several of these paintings bear very distinctive markings, such as dots, signs resembling body parts (e.g., the human hand), and symbols reminiscent of the letter P in the English alphabet. Indeed, a variety of unusual prehistoric symbols have been found that may well support the claim that some form of written communication has long been an essential feature of the larger human experience.
Many credit the Sumerians of ancient Iraq with the creation of the first formal system of writing circa 3500 BCE. In its very earliest stages, it consisted of numerical symbols and pictographs—that is, simple visual representations of objects in the natural world—etched on clay tablets, which were then dried or baked for the purposes of preservation. At first, a pointed reed stylus appears to have been used by Sumerian scribes. Later, three significant developments in written Sumerian would occur. The first was the rotation of the original pictograms ninety degrees in a counterclockwise direction; it has been suggested that this modification facilitated ease in writing. The second, a shift to an angled (or wedge-tipped) stylus, can be classified as a technological change. The reason for this change is not known; however, it enabled the original pictograms to be rendered with a series of wedge-shaped, or cuneiform, impressions made on the usual soft clay medium. The third was the radical simplification of these cuneiform signs so that in time they bore little resemblance to their pictographic progenitors. Initially, these signs were baroque in detail, and the intent seems to have been to reproduce, to the extent possible, a cuneiform version of the original pictogram. In time, this no doubt proved to be untenable and unnecessary as the administrative demands on scribes—and their familiarity with the writing system itself—increased. This change may have accompanied a concomitant development in which the original pictograms came to stand for Sumerian lexemes (whole words), morphemes (distinct parts of speech used to form words and delimit syntactic relationships), and phonemes (distinct sounds used to form morphemes and lexemes). Furthermore, this move toward simplification and abbreviation may be related to another phenomenon—the minimalist tendency in Sumerian writing.
Scholars have noted that Sumerian texts are sometimes written in a very terse style in which certain parts of speech are excluded. It has been suggested that this might be an indication that the written text itself was intended to serve as a mnemonic device to jog the memory of the reader, who would possess the ability to fill in the existing gaps. Some feel that the ancient Near Eastern antecedent to the Sumerian writing system consisted of inscribed clay tokens and bullae (clay envelopes) into which the aforementioned tokens were inserted. The earliest of these have been dated to 8000 BCE and may have been used as media of economic exchange and for record-keeping purposes. The shapes and etchings that these tokens and bullae bear may have served as the foundation upon which the Sumerian writing system was built.
Hieroglyphic writing, which also began as pictographic and later gave rise to several alternative forms (including Hieratic, Demotic, and Coptic), was developed in Egypt also during the fourth millennium BCE (c. 3000 BCE). Harappan civilization in the Indus Valley also spawned a distinct writing system of its own circa 2500 BCE consisting of a combination of pictographs and symbols. In addition to these very ancient exemplars, many additional writing systems were created in early antiquity. These include: Proto-Elamite (c. 3050–2900 BCE, Iran); the Phaistos Disc script, Linear A, and Linear B (nineteenth, eighteenth, and fourteenth centuries BCE respectively, Crete); Proto-Sinaitic (early second millennium BCE, Egypt); Cretan Hieroglyphic (c. 2100–1700 BCE); Ugaritic (fourteenth century BCE, Syria); Oracle-Bone Script (c. 1300 BCE, China); Hebrew (c. tenth century BCE, Israel); Brahmi and Karosthi (c. 300 BCE, India); Etruscan (eighth century BCE, Italy); Zapotec (sixth century BCE, Mexico); Epi-Olmec/Isthmian (second century BCE, Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Mexico); Mayan (c. 500 BCE, Mexico); Meroitic (c. fourth century BCE, Sudan); Phoenician (tenth century BCE, Lebanon); and Greek (c. eighth century BCE).
Others could be added to this list, but this selection is sufficiently representative to give an idea of the antiquity and tremendous diversity of the world’s writing systems.
From a historical perspective, it would not be an exaggeration to say that written communication has been an essential part of human interaction and a major factor in the development of complex societies. Writing remains a vital part of twenty-first-century life, and new systems, media, and technologies continue to be developed. One recent encyclopedia lists some four hundred distinct writing systems (past and present) from around the world, a clear attestation that writing is a global rather than an isolated human phenomenon.
Analyzing Writing Systems
A number of different typologies are used in the classification of writing systems, each of which is based on theoretical assumptions about the manner in which they function, their relationship to spoken languages, and the particularities a given categorization scheme is designed to highlight. For some, a distinction is made between semasiographic and glottographic systems. The former uses visual images to indicate ideas directly, while the latter employs signs as representations of actual spoken sounds. Others make a distinction between protowriting (e.g., systems using pictograms) and full writing, the latter of which can be further subdivided into syllabic and consonantal systems. Still others make a distinction between pleremic and cenemic writing. Pleremic systems use written signs to denote morphological essence and lexical meaning. The cuneiform writing system of ancient Sumer would be one example of this type of writing. Cenemic systems use signs to represent distinct phonological units only. The Phoenician, Greek, Latin, and English alphabetic scripts are cenemic in nature.
Surfaces used for written communication have been and continue to be determined in part by the raw materials available in a given geographical location, the genre and purpose of that which is to be written, and the cultural conventions governing the art of writing. There is evidence from around the world for the use of the following: bone, skin (human and animal), shell, rock, clay, textiles, bamboo, bark, cut stone, metal (precious and base), ceramic fragments (i.e., broken pottery), leather, papyrus, parchment, paper, and electromagnetic storage devices. Methods of writing include carving, stamping, painting, engraving, chiseling, burning, sewing, weaving, spraying, incising, and tattooing. Implements used in writing have varied widely and continue to do so. Some of the more important are rocks, reeds, rushes, brushes, quills, pens (with an assortment of metal and fiber tips), graphite pencils, chalk, wax crayons, and electronic data entry devices (e.g., computer keyboards or microphones used in conjunction with voice-recognition software that transforms spoken words into electronic text). Technological advances, the emergence of new forms of writing, and the adaptation of norms in written expression are just a few of the factors contributing to such change.
Close examination of the world’s many writing systems reinforces the importance of three general maxims. Those seeking to understand the development of writing within a global context should keep them in mind. The first is that writing systems are as varied as the societies in which they are produced. The second is that written communication is governed by the same social, political, religious, and artistic conventions that influence the creation of other cultural artifacts. The third is that while there are historical data that enable one to trace the diffusion of writing systems in geographically contiguous areas or propose theories that account for their spread through trade, colonization, and other forms of cultural contact, there remain many unanswered questions about the development of writing. Following are a few of the more important. Are there psychological factors that elicit written communication? Is there a communicative impulse in humanity that can only be given full expression in writing? What is the relationship between pictographic writing and other forms of visual artistic expression? To what extent have social elites been responsible for creating systems of written communication, and in what ways have such systems contributed to the establishment of political and religious institutions?
Furthermore, there are some equally challenging questions that remain about contemporary writing systems, many of which are the offspring of the ancient precursors noted above. These deserve additional attention. Are alphabetic writing systems limited in their capacity to convey certain concepts and ideas? Do pictographic systems increase or decrease overall literacy rates? In light of global socioeconomic and political trends, and in the absence of an international lingua franca, do pictographic writing systems offer a more accessible and effective means for communication across cultural and linguistic barriers?
There are, of course, no simple answers to these questions. In addressing them, however, one can shape an agenda for the study of writing in the future that is methodologically sound and open to contributions from the social sciences and the humanities. It is clear that writing will figure prominently in twenty-first-century communication. It may be that the future will witness the creation of new and experimental writing systems aimed at promoting justice, egalitarianism, mutuality, and other values needed to sustain our global community.
- Coulmas, F. (2002). The Blackwell encyclopedia of writing systems. Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell Publishing.
- Guthrie, S. (1993). Faces in the clouds: A new theory of religion. New York and Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.
- Nakanishi, A. (2003). Writing systems of the world: Alphabets, syllabaries, pictograms. Boston: Tuttle Publishing.
- Robinson, A. (1995). The story of writing. London: Thames & Hudson.
- Robinson, A. (2002). Lost languages: The enigma of the world’s undeciphered scripts. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Sampson, G. (1985). Writing systems: A linguistic introduction. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
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