The Origin and Development of Writing
The first indisputable examples of writing appear on clay tablets and were found at the site of Uruk in lower Mesopotamia. These mark the transition from “prehistoric” to “historic” civilization and are roughly contemporaneous with the onset of the Early Bronze Age (i.e. 3200 BC). The content of these early texts has proved for the most part to be undecipherable. However, scholars are generally agreed that the Uruk texts constitute an early written form of the Sumerian language. Shortly after the appearance of this cuneiform (i.e. “wedge-shaped”) writing in Mesopotamia, writing also appeared in Egypt in the form of hieroglyphics (i.e. “sacred-carvings”)1. Mesopotamia and Egypt, therefore, are our earliest sources for the study of the written history of humankind.
From this point of origin, writing went through several stages of historic development in the ancient Near East2. This development is important to bear in mind since it is easy to fall into the misconception that ancient languages were written with letters, as in our western alphabet. Sumerian and Egyptian, however, were not written with letters and did not have an alphabet. In an alphabet, letters consist of symbols written to represent simple sounds, such as, the letters “a” or “b”. In Sumerian and Egyptian, words were written with symbols representing either whole words, which are called logograms, or whole syllables, which are called syllabograms. Thus, for example, a single symbol stands for the Sumerian word “dinger” (god), while another symbol stands for the syllable “nig” (which could be used to form any number of words). This manner of writing is referred to as logo-syllabic writing and is the earliest system known to have been used in the world. Of the two forms of logo-syllabary just mentioned, cuneiform became the dominant one used throughout the ancient Near East, while the use of hieroglyphics remained almost exclusively within the province of Egypt.
From this brief introduction, it is easy to see how cumbersome such a system of writing could become. While modern English writers are able to represent every word in their vocabulary with a 26 letter alphabet, the earliest logo-syllabaries of the Sumerians could contain up to 2000 different symbols, all with different meanings. To complicate matters more, the meanings of most of the symbols varied across time and space so that, eventually, signs could acquire up to five or six possible meanings all of which would have to be determined by the context of their usage. Hence, literacy in the ancient world was a rare privilege enjoyed only by professional scribes and the elite, well-educated few. After the conquest of the Sumerians by the Akkadians, logograms began to gradually disappear from regular usage except in a few idiomatic expressions, while written language came to be represented almost entirely in syllabograms. This manner of writing is referred to as syllabic writing and persisted throughout the latter part of the Early Bronze Age and all of the Middle Bronze Age (i.e. 2000-1550 BC).
The earliest examples of consonantal writing begin to appear in Palestine sometime around the beginning of the Late Bronze Age (i.e. 1550 B.C.)3. Next to the invention of writing itself, this is easily the most significant historic development in the history of writing. The transition to consonantal writing began with the insight that syllables (such as, for example, “nig”) could be broken down into a relatively small group of sounds called consonants (e.g., “n” and “g”) which could be rearranged in various ways to formulate words. Thus, the Palestinian consonantary, as it is called, could now represent the full range of human language with only 22 symbols, each representing a consonant—an unimaginably efficient system of writing when compared to the 2000 symbols used in the logo-syllabary of the Sumerians! Archaeologists have uncovered numerous attempts at developing this consonantary in Palestine and Sinai in the Late Bronze Age, but the one that eventually caught on and was disseminated to the rest of the Mediterranean world was that of the coastal Phoenicians. From this point on, literacy and writing grew in proportion to the facility with which it could be carried out.
The last and most familiar development in ancient Near Eastern writing is the advent of the alphabet, which appeared sometime around 800 BC in Greece. The Greek alphabet, named after its first two letters “alpha” and “beta”, incorporated all the advantages of the Palestinian consonantary, but it also included within its scope the representation of vowels. This innovation required that a few additional letters be used in the formulation of words, but also overcame a certain amount of ambiguity inherent in the consonantal system due to the absence of vowels. (For example, in a consonantal system of writing, the symbol “blck” could be interpreted as either “black” or “block”.) The Greek system was passed on to the Romans and preserved in Latin, which is the basis of modern western language.
1 The long-standing debate about whether writing first developed in Mesopotamia or Egypt seems, at present, to be resolved in favor of the former on the basis of the clay tablets discovered at Uruk. Fresh evidence, however, could easily open this debate again.
2 Traditionally, archaeologists and linguists only recognized three basic systems of writing. The most recent analyses, however, suggest six systems, four of which are treated here (i.e. logo-syllabic, syllabic, consonantal, and alphabetic). For a fuller treatment of these four systems as well as abugida and hangul, cf. Peter T. Daniels, “Writing and Writing Systems” Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Neat East, ed. E. Meyers (New York: Oxford University, 1997) 5.352-358.
3 Possibly the earliest example of consonantal writing in ancient Palestine is a fragmentary potsherd from Gezer dated to approximately 1650 BC. The potsherd is inscribed with only three symbols, the interpretation of which is a matter of debate.