Writing Preserves Knowledge and Memory

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Writing Preserves Knowledge and Memory


The development of writing took place more than once, in different places and at different times. The earliest was about 5,500 years ago in Mesopotamia, the ancient Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, home of the first farmers and city builders as well as the first scribes. Writing began as idealized pictures and simple symbolic notations such as slashes and dots. Eventually, alphabets provided the flexibility to represent any sounds in the spoken language, facilitating the transmission of abstract ideas. Writing was arguably humanity's most important invention, because it provided the means to record and pass along knowledge between people separated in time and space.


Before writing could be conceived, humans first needed spoken language. Anthropologists are unsure when our remote ancestors first developed the physiological capability to speak, and the abstract reasoning necessary to use verbal symbols to convey meaning. Whether the Neanderthals of 100,000 years ago had this ability, for example, is still in question. However, it is fairly well established that by 40,000 years ago, Homo sapiens had evolved the ability to express thoughts through language.

It was perhaps natural, then, that about the same time early humans learned to express ideas in words, the first evidence of representational art appeared. The pictures we find on walls of caves, such as the beautiful 22,000-year-old paintings at Lascaux, France, may have been meant to record an event, serve some religious purpose, or simply decorate the neighborhood. Whatever their primary purpose, they were clearly intended to represent the beauty of the animals they depict, and they do that for us still.

Archaeologists specializing in prehistory have found other steps on the path to writing: pieces of bone from as early as 30,000 b.c. that are marked with either groups of slashes or dots. These artifacts have been found all over the world. Some are controversial, with critics arguing that the marks could have been left by the teeth of carnivores. But in other cases, the bones are clearly tally sticks, each keeping count of some quantity important to their makers, perhaps animals killed in a hunt, days in the lunar cycle, or even a score in a game. Similar tally sticks were used by some European farmers until about 100 years ago, and by aboriginal Australians into the second half of the twentieth century. Knotted strings, such as those used by the Inca in South America, also served record-keeping purposes.

While these early numeric records were important precursors to writing, the information they conveyed was still quite limited. They were essentially mnemonic devices. The person who kept the tally stick may have known he hunted antelope, so that all he had to record, if such knowledge was considered necessary, was the number he bagged. To him, five strokes meant five antelopes. To us, they just mean five. Five what? We cannot know for sure. The context is gone, along with the memory of the maker.

A richer variety of information could be conveyed by pictures. In a relatively dense urban civilization such as the ancient Sumerians built in the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia, these became simplified into representational symbols called pictograms by about 3500 b.c. The Sumerian pictograms were, as far as we know, the world's first writing.

The earliest Sumerian pictograms, carved onto clay tablets, represented concrete, easily recognizable, familiar objects that were the common currency of daily life. The first known inscriptions are agricultural records, listing sacks of grain and heads of cattle. Over time, the signs were combined to signify more complex ideas. Most signs had more than one possible meaning. For example, the sign for the human foot could also mean "walk" or "stand up." About 600 signs were regularly used.

The ancient Egyptians began using pictograms called hieroglyphs in about 3000 b.c. They viewed writing as a gift of the god Thoth, although they may actually have gotten the idea from the Sumerians. In any case, their script appears to be an independent invention. They developed their own symbols, rather than adopting those of the Sumerians, and they did not press them into clay tablets. Instead, they carved their hieroglyphs in stone, and painted or drew them on pottery. They also had papyrus, which resembled paper. Made from fibers of plants that flourished along the Nile, papyrus could be rolled into scrolls for easy transportation and storage. Parchment, made from animal skins, was similarly portable. However, these writing materials were expensive to process, and so they did not replace stone and pottery for everyday use.

The next key step was the use of rebus writing. The rebus, a construction familiar to puzzle enthusiasts, consists of a series of simple pictures, each denoting not the object it represents, but the sound of its name. The result is a type of visual pun. For example, a picture of an eye followed by one of a can would represent "I can." In this example, you can see how pictures of concrete objects are used to represent concepts that would otherwise be more difficult to express in a pictogram, that of the "self," and of "being able to do something." Thus writing, in taking a step from the pictographic toward the phonetic (based on sounds) gained the ability to express more abstract ideas.

In Sumer, by about 2800 b.c., pictographic script had been simplified into cuneiform (wedge-shaped) symbols incised in clay with the edge of a stylus. At the same time, some of the symbols were being pressed into double duty. Words that sounded alike in the Sumerian language, such as the words for "water" and "in," began to be expressed by the same sign. Special symbols called determinatives were sometimes used to resolve ambiguity about whether a sign was to be understood phonetically or as a pictogram.

This rebus writing concept made the cuneiform script very powerful, and it propagated across the Middle East, remaining in use for more than 2,000 years. The Elamites, for example, who lived about 200 miles (322 km) east of the Sumerians in what is now Iran, had independently invented a pictographic script that still puzzles scholars, but adopted cuneiform instead.

Waves of Semitic tribes, nomads from the Arabian desert who spoke languages related to today's Hebrew and Arabic, were spreading across the region at about this time. In Mesopotamia, Semitic kingdoms including Assyria and Babylonia arose and supplanted the Sumerians, ruling for about 1,800 years. In these kingdoms, the cuneiform script was adapted to the different words and sounds of the Semitic languages.

Further west in Asia Minor, the area that is now Turkey was ruled between the twentieth and thirteenth centuries b.c. by the Hittites. They spoke an Indo-European language and had independently developed their own hieroglyphic writing that was used mainly for ceremonial purposes. The Hittites adopted the cuneiform script for ordinary activities, proving that the Sumerian script was adapted to handle the sounds, vocabulary, and structure of yet another language family.

Writing arose in several areas outside the Middle East as well, perhaps as early as 3000 b.c. The peoples of the Indus Valley, in present-day Pakistan, had some contact with Sumer, but their script used different symbols. Unfortunately, they seem to have written mainly on perishable materials like wood or leather. Only a few inscriptions have survived on seals and monuments.

Around the same time, writing was also invented in the Yellow River Valley of China. Unlike the various civilizations in and around the Middle East and the Mediterranean who seem to have developed their own systems of writing after learning about it from their neighbors, the development of writing in China was probably truly independent. It is not impossible that there was some contact with the earlier literate societies of the Middle East, located in the western fringe of Asia, but the 4,500-mile (7,242 km) distance across mountains and desert makes it unlikely. Chinese writing materials, mainly bamboo and silk, were indigenous. Their characters were unique, and have remained essentially unaltered since their inception. Thus the Chinese script, with its approximately 1,000 basic signs, is the oldest in continuous use.

The inhabitants of Crete may have gotten the idea of writing from their trading partners, particularly the Egyptians. However, the script they devised, written from left to right and based on individual syllables, was unique. A form of it, called Linear B, was adopted by the Mycenaean Greeks in about 1600 b.c. and used to keep palace records and inventories.

It was back in the Middle East, though, with its long history of writing and its trend toward phonetic representations, that the alphabet arose. It emerged among the Semitic groups who had settled near the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, in today's Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria. This region was called "Canaan" in the Semitic languages, and its people were later called "Phoenicians" by the Greeks.

While many of the Canaanites were farmers, their territory was not endowed with the rich soil of the Nile Delta or the Fertile Crescent. However, they did have olive and cedar trees, wool from their sheep, and a marine mollusk called the murex snail that provided a coveted purple dye. They also had a number of sheltered harbors, and a location at the crossroads of civilization. As a result, they became traders and merchants, and built a string of important cities.

Among these was the trading port of Ugarit, in what is now northwestern Syria. There, scholars have found both typical cuneiform inscriptions and also the earliest known alphabetic script, dating from the fourteenth century b.c. The 30 characters, which resemble cuneiform symbols, correspond to sounds in the Semitic languages. Among the inscriptions were stories with striking resemblances to Biblical themes.

Something even more important was found at Ugarit: the first known alphabetical listing. This consisted of a table of the symbols in a standard order, along with cuneiform signs for the syllables a, be, ga...in essentially the same order they would appear in the Phoenician and later Semitic alphabets. The Ugaritic script, however, is unlike others used by the Canaanites, and does not appear again after the city was sacked and burned in about 1200 b.c.

A syllabic script was used in the Phoenician city of Byblos between about 2100 and 1300 b.c. It had about 80 characters based loosely on Egyptian hieroglyphics. In the Sinai peninsula, another group of Semites, workers in Egyptian copper and turquoise mines, used a script with about 27 characters, some resembling hieroglyphs, in about the fifteenth century b.c. It seems likely that the Semites in each case were using reduced sets of Egyptian symbols to represent the sounds of their own language. Scholars theorize that the Sinaitic Semites gave these symbols the names of some of the most common objects in their world, such as ox, house, camel and door: alef, beth, gimel, and daleth. These names are still used in the Hebrew alphabet today.

Whether it descended directly from the Ugaritic script, the script of the Sinaitic Semites, the Byblos pseudohieroglyphs, or some other Semitic script, the Phoenician alphabet, with its 22 letters, appeared in about 1200 b.c. In the Middle East, it evolved into Aramaic script, from which is derived square Hebrew, the alphabet adopted by the Jewish people. Aramaic essentially supplanted a script called early Hebrew, although the older script continued to be used by the Samaritans, a people closely related to the Jews. The earliest known Hebrew texts date from around 1000 b.c. The Arabic, Persian, and Indian scripts are all later descendants of Aramaic.

The Phoenician alphabet accompanied traders around the Mediterranean from the port of Byblos, from which came the Greek word for book, biblios, and the word bible. By about 800 b.c., the alphabet had been adopted by the Greeks. They wrote it from left to right like the old Linear B, added vowels (which are generally omitted from Semitic scripts), and made other changes in order to accommodate their Indo-European language. However, they kept the names of many of the letters, and their alpha, beta, gamma, and delta are clear reminders of their alphabet's Semitic roots.

The Greek alphabet was the forerunner of the Cyrillic alphabet now used in Slavic countries; it was carried there by Christian missionaries from Constantinople. Another descendant of the Greek script was Etruscan, used by the early inhabitants of Rome. The Etruscans were evicted by conquerors from the plain of Latium, and the Etruscan script disappeared.

Scholars differ as to whether the Latin alphabet used by the ancient Romans was adapted from the Etruscan or directly from the Greek. The earliest known Latin inscription, "Manius made me for Numerius," was found on a cloak pin dating from the seventh century b.c. As the Roman Empire spread across Western Europe, so did the Latin script. Today it is the most widely used alphabet in the world, and it is the alphabet in which this article is written.


Pictographic forms of writing are relatively difficult to learn, because of the number and complexity of their symbols. By contrast, alphabetic systems use only a few dozen symbols. Since these symbols are strung together to represent sounds, even new or unfamiliar words could be spelled, and even a word that was spelled incorrectly was usually recognizable.

These characteristics encouraged the rapid geographic spread of literacy along with knowledge of the Phoenician alphabet and its derivative scripts. While hieroglyphs and cuneiform script held sway, say around 1600 b.c., literacy was concentrated in the Nile Delta, the Fertile Crescent, and the Indus and Yellow River Valleys. By 400 b.c., the entire Middle East and the Mediterranean basin were literate. In addition, an alphabetic system made writing more accessible to the general population within each society, although the overall literacy rate was still low.

Since the alphabet made writing easier, it was used more often. Hieroglyphs and cuneiform were often used for ceremonial purposes, such as monuments and for praising the deeds of the kings who employed the scribes. They were also employed for practical functions such as keeping inventories and other records. Less frequently, scholars find snippets of poetry, stories, and letters between family members and friends.

One important piece of literature preserved in cuneiform fragments is the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh. It includes an account of an ancient flood similar to the one that appears in the Bible, and other legends resembling some of the Greek myths. The Book of the Dead is probably the best-known ancient Egyptian literary work. These types of texts are extremely valuable in helping us to understand the civilizations and world-views of the people who came before us. With the alphabet, such texts increased in number.

Some material that had been passed down orally for generation upon generation began to be recorded in writing. In about 1000 b.c., Jewish scribes began writing down a collection of creation stories, religious laws, and oral history. These became the five earliest books of the Hebrew scriptures, called the Torah, and were followed by collections of prophetic teachings, proverbs, and other texts. Together they comprise what Jews call the Tanach (a Hebrew acronym for "Torah, Prophets and Writings"), known to Christians as the Old Testament.

The New Testament was written in Greek within a few hundred years of the life of Jesus. It includes the four gospels (accounts of the life, teachings, and death of Jesus) and Paul's letters to fledging Christian communities around the Mediterranean. Clearly the spread of the new religion would have been much slower without the benefit of writing.

Writing was also important in the spread of Islam. Its central text, the Koran, is revered by Muslims as "the writing of Allah," just as devout Jews and Christians regard their Scriptures as divinely authored or inspired. Since Muslim law forbids the depiction of God or the prophet Mohammed, and some sects prohibit picturing any living being, Arabic calligraphy has evolved into a highly decorative art form.

Although these "founding texts" of important civilizations were religious in nature, writing is not important simply to propagate religions, but to exchange ideas of all kinds. Learning from someone once required proximity: a seat around a campfire, in a market square, or in a school-room. With writing, a person's words and thoughts can be transmitted to others far away.

Written words retain their power even after the writer is long gone, thus conferring a sort of immortality. A twenty-first century reader can go to any library and be in the company of Plato, Shakespeare, Jefferson, or Einstein. But not only the words of the famous have been preserved. Writing enables us to hear the voice of an Egyptian scribe from 4,000 years ago:

A man has perished and his body has become earth. All his relatives have crumbled to dust. It is writing that makes him remembered.


Further Reading

Claiborne, Robert. The Birth of Writing. New York: Time-Life Books, 1974.

Illich, Ivan, and Barry Sanders. ABC: The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1988.

Jackson, Donald. The Story of Writing. New York: Taplinger, 1981.

Jean, Georges. Writing: the Story of Alphabets and Scripts. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1992.