Stick to the Script

It’s pretty difficult to imagine the modern world without the one invention most dear to linguists: writing.  It’s been around for 5,600 years now, and it’s easy to take it for granted as something which has always been there, but where did it come from?

Although today we think of writing as pretty mundane and ordinary, used in everything from religious texts to road signs, it has often been revered as a kind of miracle, with cultures like the Vikings regarding their alphabet as having special powers in itself.  In these societies, spells were not merely written down – the writing itself had power.  In cultures where writing arrived fully developed, usually through trade, this is no surprise – the technological leap would have been like handing a tape recorder to an ancient Roman.

The origin of written language as we now know it was also religious – although it may not have seemed miraculous to the Sumerians who invented it.  Using pictures like cave paintings to represent objects or even ideas in the real world dated back as long as homo sapiens, but it was these priests in Sumer who altered these pictograms into more abstract symbols, representing not only things, but the sounds themselves.

This innovation was helped by the fact that the Sumerian language was made up largely of monosyllables – single sounds which could be compounded to communicate more complex ideas.  The fact they wrote on clay tablets – easily smeared by hands moving across them – also led to our modern practice of writing left to right, and top to bottom.  Sumerian writing eventually developed into cuneiform, unrecognisably abstract compared to the original pictograms.

When the bronze age civilisations collapsed, writing died out for centuries.  Cuneiform and alphabets which had a symbol for every syllable – running into the hundreds – was too complex to survive.  Yet in Egypt, some single sound syllabic characters existed, which were co-opted by migratory tribes.  These tribes eventually settled and became Phoenicians, a people who traded widely around the Mediterranean, including Greece – where, with the addition of vowels, an alphabet which is almost recognisable to us evolved.

Writing evolved independently elsewhere in the world – including Mesoamerica, China, and possibly the Indus valley.  Unlike western alphabets, Chinese script is based on both sound and meaning, with homophones distinguished by contextual markers.  Elsewhere, the line between writing and decoration remained blurred, such as the Incan civilisation which used different lengths, colours and knots of string to record detailed abstract thoughts.

With the advent of TV, audio, film, and smart phones, writing is no longer the cutting edge of technology it once was; some people think that books and magazines could even die out.  But there’s no sign of it yet – and we still think that writing, in its various forms, is remarkable, and in its own way, a kind of magic!

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