The written language has been one of the most important inventions in human history. It has allowed us to record our thoughts, ideas, and experiences, and to share them with others across time and space. The development of writing systems has played a crucial role in the growth of human civilization, from the earliest forms of writing in ancient Mesopotamia to the digital age of today.
Writing is the visual manifestation of spoken language, and cave paintings dating back to the Cro-Magnon period (approximately 50,000-30,000 BC) suggest that language was developed around 35,000 BC. These paintings show daily life concepts and convey communication through some images, such as depicting specific events of a hunting expedition, rather than just illustrating animals and people.
Throughout human history, writing systems have been independently invented at least four times. The first occurrence was in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq), where cuneiform was utilized between 3400 and 3300 BC. Shortly after, a fully functional writing system emerged in Egypt around 3200 BC. Late Shang-dynasty China had a fully operational writing system by 1300 BC, and between 900 and 600 BC, writing emerged in Mesoamerican cultures.
Six major historical writing systems. Left to right, top to bottom: Sumerian pictographs, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Chinese syllabograms, Old Persian cuneiform, Roman alphabet, Indian Devanagari.
Although writing may have originated from a central point, the systems seem to be largely independent and distinct from one another, exhibiting their own individual traits.
The Sumerians used a writing system called cuneiform, which was made up of wedge-shaped marks made on clay tablets using a stylus made from a reed plant. The symbols used in cuneiform were initially simple pictograms that evolved into more complex ideograms and phonograms.
The development of cuneiform had a profound impact on Sumerian society. It allowed the Sumerians to record their history and culture, and to keep detailed records of their business transactions. Cuneiform was also used to write legal documents, religious texts, and even letters. Imagine receiving a clay tablet from your best friend, saying “Hey, what’s up? Wanna meet at the ziggurat later?”
But how did it all start? The beginning of it all is a rather complex story. The earliest forms of cuneiform were simple pictograms that gradually evolved into more complex symbols. It was like a game of Pictionary, except it took several centuries to get it right. Let’s dig deeper.
Tablet with proto-cuneiform pictographic characters. End of 4th millennium BCE.
Long before the advent of modern writing, ancient people in Mesopotamia had developed a clever method for tracking goods. This system, known as the token system, involved using clay tokens of different shapes to represent various units of merchandise. These tokens acted as basic symbols, representing singular concepts just like words do. But unlike words, tokens could only convey information about real goods and had no syntax, so the order in which the tokens were placed had no bearing on their meaning.
Despite these limitations, the token system proved incredibly versatile and evolved over time into a more complex form of writing. In fact, it was the precursor to modern writing as we know it today, which is truly remarkable when you consider that it all started over 5,000 years ago.
The transition from the token system to writing occurred around 3500 BC in Sumer, which is in modern-day Iran. At that time, people would use tokens to represent debts and store them in envelopes. However, the envelopes hid the tokens inside, making it difficult to know what was inside. Clever accountants began impressing the tokens on the outside of the envelopes before sealing them, and these markings became the first form of writing!
Pre-cuneiform tags, with drawing of goat or sheep and number (probably "10"), Al-Hasakah, 3300–3100 BC, Uruk culture.
Eventually, people realized that using clay tablets with the impressions of tokens was more practical than using envelopes. For instance, a cone token could represent a measure of grain, and its impression on the clay tablet would look like a wedge. A sphere token, representing another measure of grain, could be represented by a circular marking on the tablet. These were called ideograms, which were signs representing one concept. These tablets were only used for recording quantities of goods received or disbursed and still expressed plurality in one-to-one correspondence.
Evolution of Sumerian writing
Around 3100 BC, people started using signs that looked like the tokens they used before, but instead of pressing them into clay, they drew them with a pointed tool called a stylus. These signs are called pictographs. These pictographs were important because they marked a step forward in the evolution of writing. Instead of being repeated in one-to-one correspondence to express numerosity, the numerals were used to indicate quantity. For instance, if you wanted to say “33 jars of oil,” you’d use the pictographic sign for “jar of oil” followed by three impressed circles and three wedges (which represented the numerals for “10” and “1”). This was a huge improvement because it meant that instead of using 33 markings, you could get away with just using 7.
Contract for the sale of a field and a house in the wedge-shaped cuneiform adapted for clay tablets. Shuruppak (ancient Sumerian city), circa 2600 BC.
All in all, writing was initially just an extension of the token system. Although the tokens evolved from three-dimensional to two-dimensional, and from impressed markings to signs traced with a stylus, the symbolism remained fundamentally the same. The only major change was the creation of two distinct types of signs: incised pictographs and impressed numerals. This combination of signs initiated the semantic division between the item counted and number. And that's how writing was born!
Today, we have more advanced writing systems, like the alphabet, emojis, and memes. But we owe a debt of gratitude to the Sumerians for their invention of cuneiform. Without it, we might still be communicating through grunts and stick figures. So, the next time you send a text message or write an email, remember that you’re standing on the shoulders of giants who made it all possible with a reed stylus and some clay tablets.
“Writing is the great invention of the world.” —Abraham Lincoln
“Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing about.” —Benjamin Franklin.
“You can make anything by writing.” —C.S. Lewis
“Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of magic.” —Carl Sagan
James Wright. The Evolution of Writing. International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioral Sciences
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