The history of writing traces the development of expressing language by letters or other marksPeter T. Daniels, "The Study of Writing Systems", in The World's Writing Systems, ed. Bright and Daniels, p.3 and also the studies and descriptions of these developments.
In the history of how writing systems have evolved in different human civilizations, more complete writing systems were preceded by proto-writing, systems of ideographic or early mnemonic symbols. True writing, in which the content of a linguistic utterance is encoded so that another reader can reconstruct, with a fair degree of accuracy, the exact utterance written down, is a later development. It is distinguished from proto-writing, which typically avoids encoding grammatical words and affixes, making it more difficult or impossible to reconstruct the exact meaning intended by the writer unless a great deal of context is already known in advance. One of the earliest forms of written expression is cuneiform. Empires of the Plain: Henry Rawlinson and the Lost Languages of Babylon, New York, St. Martin's Press (2003)
Writing numbers for the purpose of record keeping began long before the writing of language. See History of writing ancient numbers for how the writing of numbers began.
It is generally agreed that true writing of language (not only numbers) was independently conceived and developed in at least two ancient civilizations and possibly more. The two places where it is most certain that the concept of writing was both conceived and developed independently are in ancient Sumer (in Mesopotamia), around 3100 BC, and in Mesoamerica by 300 BC,
Independent writing systems also arose in Ancient Egypt around 3100 BC and in China around 1200 BC,William G. Boltz, "Early Chinese Writing", in The World's Writing Systems, ed. Bright and Daniels, p.191 but historians debate whether these writing systems were developed completely independently of Sumerian writing or whether either or both were inspired by Sumerian writing via a process of cultural diffusion. That is, it is possible that the concept of representing language by using writing, though not necessarily the specifics of how such a system worked, was passed on by traders or merchants traveling between the two regions.
Ancient Chinese characters are considered by many to be an independent invention because there is no evidence of contact between ancient China and the literate civilizations of the Near East,David N. Keightley, Noel Barnard. The Origins of Chinese civilization Page 415-416 and because of the distinct differences between the Mesopotamian and Chinese approaches to logogram and phonetic representation. Sex and Eroticism in Mesopotamian Literature. By Dr Gwendolyn Leick. Pg 3. Egyptian script is dissimilar from Mesopotamian cuneiform, but similarities in concepts and in earliest attestation suggest that the idea of writing may have come to Egypt from Mesopotamia.Peter T. Daniels, "The First Civilizations", in The World's Writing Systems, ed. Bright and Daniels, p.24 In 1999, Archaeology Magazine reported that the earliest Egyptian glyphs date back to 3400 BC, which "challenge the commonly held belief that early logographs, pictographic symbols representing a specific place, object, or quantity, first evolved into more complex phonetic symbols in Mesopotamia."
Similar debate surrounds the Indus script of the Bronze Age Indus Valley civilization in Ancient India (2600 BC). In addition, the script is still undeciphered, and there is debate about whether the script is true writing at all or, instead, some kind of proto-writing or nonlinguistic sign system.
An additional possibility is the undeciphered Rongorongo script of Easter Island. It is debated whether this is true writing and, if it is, whether it is another case of cultural diffusion of writing. The oldest example is from 1851, 139 years after their first contact with Europeans. One explanation is that the script was inspired by Spain's written annexation proclamation in 1770.Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel, page 231
Various other known cases of cultural diffusion of writing exist, where the general concept of writing was transmitted from one culture to another, but the specifics of the system were independently developed. Recent examples are the Cherokee syllabary, invented by Sequoyah, and the Pahawh Hmong system for writing the Hmong language.
The emergence of writing in a given area is usually followed by several centuries of fragmentary inscriptions. Historians mark the "historicity" of a culture by the presence of coherent texts in the culture's writing system(s).
The first writing systems of the Early Bronze Age were not a sudden invention. Rather, they were a development based on earlier traditions of symbol systems that cannot be classified as proper writing but have many of the characteristics of writing. These systems may be described as "proto-writing." They used ideogram or early mnemonic symbols to convey information, but it probably directly contained no natural language. These systems emerged in the early Neolithic period, as early as the 7th millennium BC evidenced by the Jiahu symbols in China.
In 2003, tortoise shells were found in 24 Neolithic graves excavated at Jiahu, Henan province, northern China, with from the 7th millennium BC. According to some archaeologists, the Jiahu symbols carved on the shells had similarities to the late 2nd millennium BC oracle bone script.. Most archaeologists have dismissed this claim as insufficiently substantiated, claiming that simple geometric designs, such as those found on the Jiahu shells, cannot be linked to early writing.
The Vinča signs show an evolution of simple symbols, beginning in the 7th millennium BC, gradually increasing in complexity throughout the 6th millennium and culminating in the Tărtăria tablets of c. 5300 BC with their rows of symbols carefully aligned, evoking the impression of a text.
The Dispilio Tablet of the late 6th millennium is similar. The hieroglyphic scripts of the Ancient Near East (Egyptian, Sumerian proto-Cuneiform, and Cretan) seamlessly emerge from such symbol systems so that it is difficult to say at what exact time writing developed from proto-writing. Further, very little is known about the symbols' meanings.
Even after the Neolithic, several cultures went through an intermediate stage of proto-writing before they used proper writing. The "Slavic runes" from the 7th and 8th centuries AD, mentioned by a few medieval authors, may have been such a system. The quipu of the Incas (15th century AD), sometimes called "talking knots," may have been of a similar nature. Another example is the pictographs invented by Uyaquk before the development of the Yugtun script (c. 1900).
The original Sumerian writing system derives from a system of clay tokens used to represent commodities. By the end of the 4th millennium BC, this had evolved into a method of keeping accounts, using a round-shaped stylus impressed into soft clay at different angles for recording numbers. This was gradually augmented with pictographic writing by using a sharp stylus to indicate what was being counted. Round-stylus and sharp-stylus writing were gradually replaced around 2700–2500 BC by writing using a wedge-shaped stylus (hence the term cuneiform script), at first only for , but developed to include phonetic elements by the 29th century BC. About 2600 BC, cuneiform began to represent syllables of the Sumerian language. Finally, cuneiform writing became a general purpose writing system for logograms, syllables, and numbers. From the 26th century BC, this script was adapted to the Akkadian language, and from there to others, such as Hurrian language and Hittite language. Scripts similar in appearance to this writing system include those for Ugaritic and Old Persian.
Geoffrey Sampson believes that most scholars hold that Egyptian hieroglyphs "came into existence a little after Sumerian script, and ... probably were invented under the influence of the latter ..."Geoffrey Sampson, Writing Systems: a Linguistic Introduction, Stanford University Press, 1990, p. 78. This view, however, is strongly contested by other scholars. Dreyer's findings at Tomb UJ at Abydos in Upper Egypt clearly show place names written in hieroglyphs (up to four in number) recognizable as signs, which persisted and were employed during later periods and which are written and read phonetically. The tomb is dated to c. 3250 BC and demonstrates that such writing (on bone and ivory labels) is a more advanced form of writing than was evident in Sumer at that date. It is argued, therefore, that the Egyptian writing system, which is in any case very different from the Mesopotamian, could not have been the result of influence from a less-developed system existing at that date in Sumer.Gunther Dreyer. A Hundred Years at Abydos.
There have recently been discoveries of tortoise-shell carvings dating back to c. 6000 BC, like Jiahu Script, Banpo Script, but whether or not the carvings are complex enough to qualify as writing is under debate. At Damaidi in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, 3,172 cliff carvings dating to 6000–5000 BC have been discovered, featuring 8,453 individual characters, such as the sun, moon, stars, gods, and scenes of hunting or grazing. These pictographs are reputed to be similar to the earliest characters confirmed to be written Chinese. If it is deemed to be a written language, writing in China will predate Mesopotamian cuneiform, long acknowledged as the first appearance of writing, by some 2,000 years; however it is more likely that the inscriptions are rather a form of proto-writing, similar to the contemporary European Vinca script.
|Cretan Hieroglyphic||Crete||c. 1625−1500 BC|
|Linear A||Aegean islands (Kea, Kythera, Melos, Santorini), and Greek mainland (Laconia)||c. 18th century−1450 BC|
|Linear B||Crete (Knossos), and mainland (Pylos, Mycenae, Thebes, Tiryns)||c. 1375−1200 BC|
Of several pre-Columbian scripts in Mesoamerica, the one that appears to have been best developed, and has been fully deciphered, is the Maya script. The earliest inscriptions which are identifiably Maya date to the 3rd century BC, and writing was in continuous use until shortly after the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores in the 16th century AD. Maya writing used logograms complemented by a set of syllabic glyphs: a combination somewhat similar to modern Japanese writing.
The Phoenician alphabet is simply the Proto-Canaanite alphabet as it was continued into the Iron Age (conventionally taken from a cut-off date of 1050 BC). This alphabet gave rise to the Aramaic alphabet and Greek alphabet alphabets. These in turn led to the writing systems used throughout regions ranging from Western Asia to Africa and Europe. For its part the Greek alphabet introduced for the first time explicit symbols for vowel sounds. The Greek and Latin alphabets in the early centuries of the Common Era gave rise to several European scripts such as the Runes and the Gothic alphabet and Cyrillic script alphabets while the Aramaic alphabet evolved into the Hebrew alphabet, Syriac alphabet and Arabic alphabet abjads and the South Arabian alphabet gave rise to the Ge'ez abugida. The Brahmic family of India is believed by some scholars to have derived from the Aramaic alphabet as well.
The history of the Greek alphabet started when the Greeks borrowed the Phoenician alphabet and adapted it to their own language.McCarter, P. Kyle. "The Early Diffusion of the Alphabet", The Biblical Archaeologist 37, No. 3 (Sep., 1974): 54-68. page 62. The letters of the Greek alphabet are more or less the same as those of the Phoenician alphabet, and in modern times both alphabets are arranged in the same order. The adapter(s) of the Phoenician system added three letters to the end of the series, called the "supplementals". Several varieties of the Greek alphabet developed. One, known as Cumae alphabet, was used west of Athens and in southern Italy. The other variation, known as Eastern Greek, was used in present-day Turkey and by the Athenians, and eventually the rest of the world that spoke Greek adopted this variation. After first writing right to left, like the Phoenicians, the Greeks eventually chose to write from left to right.
Greek is in turn the source for all the modern scripts of Europe. The most widespread descendent of Greek is the Latin script, named for the Latins, a central Italian people who came to dominate Europe with the rise of Rome. The Romans learned writing in about the 5th century BC from the Etruscan civilization, who used one of a number of Italic scripts derived from the western Greeks. Due to the cultural dominance of the Roman state, the other Italic scripts have not survived in any great quantity, and the Etruscan language is mostly lost.
The rise of Islam in the 7th century led to the rapid rise of Arabic language as a major literary language in the region. Arabic and Persian quickly began to overshadow Greek's role as a language of scholarship. Arabic script was adopted as the primary script of the Persian language and the Turkish language. This script also heavily influenced the development of the cursive scripts of Greek, the Slavic languages, Latin language, and other languages. The Arabic language also served to spread the Hindu–Arabic numeral system throughout Europe. By the beginning of the second millennium the city of Cordoba in modern Spain, had become one of the foremost intellectual centers of the world and contained the world's largest library at the time. Its position as a crossroads between the Islamic and Western Christian worlds helped fuel intellectual development and written communication between both cultures.
The nature of writing has been constantly evolving, particularly due to the development of new technologies over the centuries. The pen, the printing press, the computer and the mobile phone are all technological developments which have altered what is written, and the medium through which the written word is produced. Particularly with the advent of digital technologies, namely the computer and the mobile phone, characters can be formed by the press of a button, rather than making a physical motion with the hand.
The nature of the written word has recently evolved to include an informal, colloquial written style, in which an everyday conversation can occur through writing rather than speaking. Written communication can also be delivered with minimal time delay (e-mail, SMS), and in some cases, with an imperceptible time delay (instant messaging). Writing is a preservable means of communication. Some people regard the growth of multimedia literacy as the first step towards a postliterate society.
The common materials of writing were the tablet and the roll, the former probably having a Chaldean origin, the latter an Egyptian. The tablets of the Chaldeans are among the most remarkable of their remains. There are small pieces of clay, somewhat rudely shaped into a form resembling a pillow, and thickly inscribed with cuneiform characters.These documents have been in general enveloped, after they were baked, in a cover of moist clay, upon which their contents have been again inscribed, so as to present externally a duplicate of the writing within; and the tablet in its cover has then been baked afresh. The same material was largely used by the Assyrians, and many of their clay tablets still remain. They are of various sizes, ranging from nine inches long by six and a half wide, to an inch and a half by an inch wide, and even less. Some thousands of these have been recovered; many are historical, some linguistic, some geographical, some astronomical. Similar use has been seen in hollow cylinders, or prisms of six or eight sides, formed of fine terra cotta, sometimes glazed, on which the characters were traced with a small stylus, in some specimens so minutely as to be capable of decipherment only with the aid of a magnifying-glass.
In Egypt the principal writing material was of quite a different sort. Wooden tablets are found pictured on the monuments; but the material which was in common use, even from very ancient times, was the papyrus. This reed, found chiefly in Lower Egypt, had various economic means for writing, the pith was taken out, and divided by a pointed instrument into the thin pieces of which it is composed; it was then flattened by pressure, and the strips glued together, other strips being placed at right angles to them, so that a roll of any length might be manufactured. Writing seems to have become more widespread with the invention of papyrus in Egypt. That this material was in use in Egypt from a very early period is evidenced by still existing papyrus of the earliest Theban dynasties. As the papyrus, being in great demand, and exported to all parts of the world, became very costly, other materials were often used instead of it, among which is mentioned leather, a few leather mills of an early period having been found in the tombs. Parchment, using sheepskins left after the wool was removed for cloth, was sometimes cheaper than papyrus, which had to be imported outside Egypt. With the invention of wood-pulp paper, the cost of writing material began a steady decline.