The evolution of writing

The Evolution of Writing

Long before true writing — signs represented speech — people recorded ideas and information in other ways. For instance, they drew pictures to depict events or used tallies to keep count of recurrent affairs. And today, long after the emergence of true writing, there are alternative systems like musical notation, mathematical symbols.

The evolution of writing is truly one of history’s interesting evolutions.

Tokens as a precursor of writing

The Mesopotamia cuneiform script, invented in present-day Iraq, c. 3200 BC, can be traced without any discontinuity over a period of 10, 000 years.

The direct antecedent of this script was a recording device made up of clay tokens of multiple shapes. These tokens, used as counters for goods’ tracking, were the earliest code— a system of signs for information transmission. Semantics was evident in each token shape in that a particular one referred to a particular unit of merchandise; a cone and a sphere stood respectively for a small and a large measure of grain, and ovoids represented jars of oil.

Although this token system had little in common with spoken language, what made it similar to spoken language is that, like a word, a token stood for one concept.

Unlike spoken language, that system made use of neither Syntax nor Phonetics. With Syntax, the meaning was not dependent on their placement order; three cones and three ovoids would be translated as ‘three baskets of grain, three jars of oil.’ In the case of Phonetics, the same token shapes were used in a large area of the Near East, where many dialects would have been spoken therefore, the goods they represented were expressed in multiple languages.

Pictography: Writing as accounting device

The token system led to writing after four millennia, this transition occurred when tokens, probably representing a debt, were stored in envelopes until payment. The envelopes were made of clay which was in the shape of a hollow ball, they had the disadvantage of hiding the tokens held inside. Therefore, some accountants impressed the tokens on the surface of the envelope before enclosing them inside, this helped to verify the shape and number of counters held inside.

Once the system of impressed sign was introduced, clay tablets replaced the envelopes filled with tokens; the impression of a cone and a sphere token, representing measures of grain, resulted respectively in a wedge and a circular marking which bore the same meaning as the signified tokens. These were ideograms, they represented one concept.

About 3100 BC, signs representing tokens traced with a stylus rather than impressed appeared, these were known as Pictographs. Because they were never repeated in one-to-one correspondence to express numerosity, pictographs mark an important step in the evolution of writing.

Logography: shift from visual to aural

New regulations required that the names of individuals who generated or received registered merchandise were entered on the tablets as a result of state formation. Logograms were used to transcribe the personal names; these were easily drawn pictures of words with a sound close to that desired (for example in English the name Neil could be written with a sign showing bent knees ‘kneel’).

Because Sumerian was mostly a monosyllabic language, the logograms had a syllabic value. Phonetic signs allowed writing to break away from accounting.

The alphabet: the segmentation of sounds

Originating in the region of present-day Lebanon, the first so-called Proto-Sinaitic or Proto-Canaanite alphabet consisted of a set of 22 letters, each standing for a single sound of voice. This system was based on acrophony- signs to represent the first letter of the word they stood for—for example an ox head (alpu) was ‘a,’ a house (betu) was b, it was also consonantal and it streamlined the system to 22 signs.

The Greeks perfected the Semitic alphabet by adding letters for vowels. As a result, the 27-letter Greek alphabet improved the transcription of the spoken word, since all sounds were indicated.

The modern alphabets

All the many alphabets of the world, including Latin derive from Proto-Sinaitic. The Latin alphabet used in the western world is the direct descendant of the Etruscan alphabet. The Etruscans adopted the Greek alphabet, slightly modifying the shape of letters.

Charlemagne (800 AD) had a profound influence on the development of the Latin script by establishing standards. In particular, a clear and legible minuscule cursive script was devised, from which our modern day lower case derives. The printing press invented in 1450 dramatically multiplied the dissemination of texts, introducing a new regularity in lettering and layout. The Internet catapults the alphabet into cyberspace, while preserving its integrity.

Writing: handling data in abstraction

Phonetics allowed writing to shift from a representational to a conceptual linguistic system. That is to say it enabled writing to leave the realm of real goods in order to enter the world of words and the ideas they stand for. Finally, the process that started with ideograms expressing concepts and phonetic signs referring to the sound of monosyllabic words reached the ultimate segmentation of meaning with letters. As Marshall McLuhan (1997) defined it, the alphabet consists of semantically meaningless letters corresponding to semantically meaningless sounds. The alphabet brought data handling to a final double-stepped abstraction.

This evolution of writing explains what we have come to use as the alphabet for 3500 years.