Many people wonder where writing is believed to be invented; much as with other facts and figures concerning human communication, there are actually different variations and even opinions. This is mostly because the term “writing” means different things to different people. In fact, early writing may not have been what we now consider writing at all.

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In 4000 BCE, roughly 6000 years ago, there was some type of writing found in Mesopotamia, which is modern-day Iraq. In 6000 BCE, some 2000 years earlier, tortoise-shell carvings were found in China. They consisted of different types of markings, but it has not been agreed upon that these markings were complex enough to be considered real writing. This is why most experts consider the findings in Mesopotamia to be the first actual writing.

How the Mesopotamians Did It

The writing found in Mesopotamia was developed when they took a reed stylus and pressed it into a soft type of clay. After the clay dried, the writing was made permanent and could be shared. This type of writing is now known as cuneiform, and most archaeologists, historians, and even linguists agree that this is likely the first type of writing as we know it today. Cuneiform began in southern Mesopotamia by the Sumerians, whose inscriptions and markings were usually made in stone or clay tablets.

Although not as common as clay or stone, the Sumerians also used tablets made of ivory, wax, metal, and even glass. They also occasionally used animal skins that had been tanned or bark from various trees. Contrary to popular belief, papyrus was rarely, if ever, used during this timeframe because the materials that are needed to make papyrus were difficult to find.

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Scientist studying the ancient type of writing known as cuneiform

Nowadays, few people are able to decipher cuneiform, especially because there are so many forms of it. Cuneiform has been found on artifacts that include obelisks and statues; since they are so old and valuable, these artifacts are usually only found in museums. The Louvre in Paris is a perfect example.

Even Before Mesopotamia

Although cuneiform is considered by many to be the first written language, many archaeologists point to cave drawings as an example of very early writing. However, cave drawings, which are thought to be roughly 20,000 years old, are usually representations of certain events. This is different than actual words that can be put together to make writing, which is why most scholars do not consider cave drawings to be actual writing.

There is another major difference between early forms of writing such as cuneiform and cave drawings. With all forms of writing from both long ago and today, some type of decoding has to take place in order for someone to understand it.

Pre-historic human cave painting

A non-French-speaking person will not understand something that is written in French, and so on. This person has to have it translated into his or her language in order to understand what it says. This is the opposite of cave drawings, which contain drawings that tell a story. This is usually a story that anyone can understand, regardless of which language he or she speaks.

Back to Mesopotamia

Now back to Mesopotamia and their cuneiform. This type of writing began when the writers used logograms, which are symbols that correspond to an entire word instead of to a specific sound. Some of the forms of Chinese writing used today are good examples of this practice. Back in Mesopotamian days, this early form of writing was a closely guarded secret. In fact, for the most part, it was used only by priests and scribes. They used cuneiform mostly in accounting functions such as keeping track of the number of slaves working on a certain job.

As you can likely guess, it didn’t take long for written words to quickly be accompanied by numbers, thanks to this practice. Since this early writing was only used by certain people and closely associated with various accounting functions, it is no surprise that the development of specific numbers came close on the heels of the development of writing and words.

The Creation of Hieroglyphics

Of course, cuneiform didn’t take long to start spreading among other lands. Roughly 900 years after the invention of cuneiform, the oldest form of Egyptian hieroglyphics appeared. Much the same as cuneiform, hieroglyphics uses logograms instead of an actual alphabet. In addition to the Egyptians, the Mayans also used hieroglyphics. Once they were finally deciphered, they allowed later peoples to get a glimpse into these cultures’ lifestyles.

Today, many forms of hieroglyphics have survived, and they can be found on scrolls, in tombs, and, of course, in paper artifacts and even stone tablets. Much the same as the Mayans and Egyptians, other peoples used hieroglyphics, including those in areas such as the Mediterranean and Crete. Some people assume that they know where writing is believed to be invented and consider it to be the Egyptian region and their use of hieroglyphics; however, this is incorrect.

Just how did hieroglyphics work? Hieroglyphics represented language in several ways, including:

  • Ideograms, or pictograms, which utilize a symbol or picture instead of a letter or word
  • Phonograms, which use a written character to represent a speech sound
  • Logograms, which are symbols used to indicate an entire word

Some examples of each of these include:

  • Ideogram: using a picture to indicate an idea or suggestion (e.g., a drawing of a man rowing a boat to indicate that rowing is allowed on that body of water)
  • Phonogram: using “igh” to indicate the hard “I” sound (e.g., the word “high”)
  • Logogram: using a symbol to indicate a word (e.g., the # sign to indicate the word “pound”)

The Rosetta Stone

In 1799, the Rosetta Stone was discovered. It contained one message in three different languages — Coptic, hieroglyphics, and ancient Greek. It took until the mid-1800s to complete translation of the stone, but it proved invaluable for those wanting to know more about the Egyptian way of life, including their language. Moreover, it fascinated those who lived in the West, especially because all of the languages were so different than their own. This is especially true of hieroglyphics because it doesn’t use an alphabet to write and tell stories as most languages used in the West do.

Just what was the Rosetta Stone? Found near the town of Rosetta in Egypt, it was a piece of black basalt that had been carved into; according to historians, this was likely around 196 BCE. A linguist named Jean Francois Champollion transcribed the stone’s messages, and he even published a book with his findings in 1822. Thanks to this significant discovery, other hieroglyphics around the world were able to be transcribed, which opened up a new world for those interested in Egyptian culture and language.

Jean Francois Champollion transcribed the Rosetta stone’s messages

Since the Rosetta Stone taught the world much more about hieroglyphics than they already knew, it was a turning point when it comes to language and writing. Even earlier, after the discovery of hieroglyphics, other cultures jumped on the bandwagon and decided to create their own type of writing. In fact, the Indus Valley civilization began to write their own scripts around 3000 BCE but they were so mysterious that even today, they have not been translated by anyone.

Writing’s Continuation and the Alphabet

The development of cuneiform around 4000 BCE led to even more advancements when it came to writing. Around 2900 BCE, the Mesopotamians started including sounds in addition to their logograms. By 2600 BCE, the Sumerians started using written syllables in their cuneiform writings. They wrote most of them on clay, which is very brittle and therefore has left us with very few examples of this type of writing. Indeed, most of them have been destroyed due to the weakness of the clay.

This leads us to the next major development, which is the development of the first alphabet. Of course, it wasn’t the Mesopotamians who created this alphabet; it was the Egyptians, and it happened around 2000 BCE. Some historians, however, put it around 1800-1700 BCE. The alphabet spread to the Levant next and then to the rest of the world.

Based on Egyptian hieroglyphics, the first alphabet was developed as a way to assign sounds to the language. In this system, only consonants were invented, and they used a unique symbol for each of the consonants. Also called the Phoenician alphabet, it was written from right to left, and one of the first people to use it were maritime merchants who used it to learn to communicate and therefore trade better.

The merchants, who occupied and worked in modern-day Israel, Lebanon, and Syria, took advantage of this alphabet because it was simple to learn. There was a total of 22 consonants and no vowels. Because the merchants came from all over the world, the alphabet spread quickly. Soon, it was widespread and accessible to almost anyone.

By the eighth century BCE, the Phoenician alphabet had reached Greece and was updated a little. The Greeks kept some of the consonants and got rid of others, and they also made one significant change — they added vowels. With the addition of vowels, language was now easier to understand and to write. Because of this, many scholars consider the Greek revised alphabet to be the real “first” alphabet instead of the original Phoenician alphabet.

Although the original alphabet was written from right to left, the Greeks had a system that changed the direction with each line, which must have been confusing. Nevertheless, by the fifth century BCE, the writing looked similar to what we see today, meaning that it was written from left to right instead. After a while, the Greek alphabet contributed greatly to the development of other languages, including Latin and even the modern Russian language.

Types of Early Writing

Early forms of writing usually consisted of two major types:

  1. Proto-writing: systems that used mnemonic or ideographic symbols
  2. True writing: systems whose content can be encoded to accommodate another person or culture

As you can see, cuneiform is a perfect example of the first type of early writing while true writing came much later. Learning where writing is believed to be invented exposes you to various cultures and peoples. Today’s writing as we know it is a development of all of those cultures over time, which you can tell by reading about the history of writing.

Communication systems using symbols are always distinguished from systems that use writing to communicate. Why is this? Symbols can be recognized by people regardless of where they live while writing cannot. If you go to any country in Europe and travel the roads, you can recognize the road signs in use. This is true regardless of the language you speak. However, if you try to read a newspaper in a certain country, you may or may not be able to understand what it means.

Most scholars identify different parts of the history of writing as the pre-history and the history of early writing, although there is no consensus etched in stone, so to speak. Neither is there consensus as to when proto-writing developed into true writing. Most of these definitions are, in fact, subjective.

What is known about writing is that the transition from verbal communication to written communication was a gradual process and not one that happened overnight. The history of writing did, however, go through certain stages, which include the following:

  • Picture writing, whereby pictures called glyphs represent concepts and objects; this includes ideographic symbols, pictographic symbols, and mnemonic symbols
  • Transition systems, whereby graphemes refer to both an idea or object and its name
  • Phonetic systems, whereby graphemes refer to spoken symbols or sounds; this includes syllabic, verbal, and alphabetic graphemes

Again, the way a scholar defines actual writing directly affects his or her opinion as to when it started. Around 1200 BCE, with some saying 1050 BCE, the Chinese placed inscriptions on oracle bones. This was during the late Shang dynasty and they also utilized bronze items for these inscriptions. Tortoise-shell writings from around 6000 BCE were found in China but scholars disagree on whether they are complex enough to be considered actual writing.

If the Chinese type of “writing” is ever agreed upon to be the first type of writing, that means that Mesopotamia did not originate the art of writing. However, most experts agree that the tortoise-shell writings devised by the Chinese were actually a type of proto-writing and not true writing. This means that Mesopotamia really did invent the first type of writing.

Many Cultures Contributed to Modern-Day Writing Systems

As you can see, there are many cultures throughout the centuries that have contributed to developing our modern-day writing systems. These include:

  • The Bronze Age: examples include cuneiform script, Egyptian hieroglyphics, Elamite script, Indus script, early-Semitic alphabets, Anatolian hieroglyphics, Chinese writing, Greek and Cretan scripts, and Mesoamerican scripts
  • The Iron Age: examples include the Phoenician alphabet, Gothic and Cyrillic alphabets, Aramaic alphabet, and the Greek alphabet
  • The Middle Ages: examples include Arabic scripts, which led to the development of the Turkish and Persian languages.

The Latin language, for instance, declined in importance after the Roman authority in Western Europe collapsed. During the Renaissance period, the Greek, and to some extent, the Latin language saw a surge in popularity. Literary development also grew in this time period, which resulted in the alphabet becoming more diverse. This, in turn, meant that different languages were codified and therefore became more familiar to other cultures.

In other words, writing was an actual process, not something that wasn’t there one day and was discovered the next. Technological advances also contributed to the evolution of writing. Things such as pens, the printing press, and even computers and mobile phones have all contributed to what language means and how people write.

One of the reasons the Mesopotamian form of writing, including cuneiform, is believed to be the first type of writing is that there is no discontinuity in the history of its writing. In other words, for thousands of years, you can see the evolution of writing in that area of the world. The Mesopotamians consistently developed newer and better methods of communication, including the final result of a confirmed writing system.

How Did People Write?

As mentioned earlier, a type of writing system in Mesopotamia began as a way to perform accounting tasks such as counting slaves on a particular project. From 8000 to 3500 BCE, clay tokens were used to represent units of goods. Later, these three-dimensional tokens became two-dimensional and included pictographic signs. When this happened, the pictographic tokens became the only form of “writing” used in those accounting duties mentioned earlier.

Eventually, phonetic signs were used to transcribe individual names. When this occurred, writing began to emulate the spoken, or oral, word. This meant that the spoken language was now applicable to all parts of the human experience and it happened around 3000-1500 BCE. Finally, a group of several dozen letters, each describing a single voice sound, eventually led to the development of the alphabet and more improved speech.

In reality, the 22-consonant Phoenician alphabet, even though it was revised by the Greeks, is the alphabet from which all other alphabets have derived. The Latin, Arabic, Hebrew, Cyrillic, Brahmani, and Amharic alphabets all started with the Phoenician alphabet. When a certain country fell to another country, the former began using the latter’s language. As more cultures merged, so did their languages until everyone was using an alphabet that derived from the original Phoenician one.

What Did People Write on/ Write With?

The materials people used to write on had a direct effect on what they wrote with. As mentioned earlier, reeds were once used to press into soft clay tablets and when the tablets dried, it became a form of writing. The reeds usually had a squared-off end so that the user could make short straight lines and triangle marks into the clay. Since curves could not be handled with the reeds they used, most of the writing consisted only of these lines and marks.

In Asia, where mostly leaves and wood were used for writing, writing was usually performed by brushing on marks with paint or by using a knife if the writing was conducted on bamboo, wood, or flat animal bone. Some of the more clever users even filled in the etchings with ink in order to make the final product more visible and permanent.

By the seventh century CE, one of the most common writing implements was the palm leaf. They used a bronze stylus that had a sharp point at one end and a flat blade on the other end. The blade was used to smooth out the leaf’s surface by scraping it. Similarly to the Chinese, they filled in the etchings with ink to make it more legible.

Roman scribes often used tablets made of wood and filled with wax. Since the Roman alphabet consisted of straight lines only, it didn’t matter that they didn’t know how to make curvy lines and marks. They too used a stylus with one pointed end and one broad, flat end, which they used to smooth out the wax before beginning to write.

The Egyptians eventually invented papyrus, which was made of thin layers of reeds. They even used reeds to write on the papyrus; these reeds had a pointed end and were dipped in ink to do the actual writing. They had to continually dip the reeds into the ink but it worked well for them because it was more advanced than previous forms of writing.

A sealed papyrus scroll and a pen made of feather

After papyrus came scrolls and eventually paper. By this time, thick brushes tapered to a fine point were used to do the writing and their strokes of thick and thin lines eventually became known as calligraphy.

In Europe, where paper wasn’t widely used, animal skin began to be used. Known as vellum or parchment, writers used various types of writing implements to write on it. These include a thin piece of lead called a plummet, a tipped bone stylus, and pens that were made from the flight feathers of very large birds. The latter is commonly known as quill pens.

When metalworking became more professional and exact, metal was used for the pen nibs. Of course, they had to be dipped in ink frequently but they did not need to be sharpened as quill pens did. Difficult to write with, the pens made with metal nibs were often stiff but they were satisfactory until real wooden pencils were developed.

Many of the pens and pencils we still use today actually have origins from hundreds of years ago. These include:

  • Mechanical pencils, which were developed in 1822
  • Fountain pens, which were first developed in 1702
  • Ballpoint pens, which were developed in 1888

In addition, early pencils were not made of lead as many people think. Instead, they were made by inserting graphite into wood. Of course, there are other types of pens and pencils in addition to the ones mentioned but these represent the most significant advancements in the art of writing.

Some Final Thoughts

The history of writing is an evolutionary process and happened over time since anything that was invented always took time to reach other cultures. These other cultures usually improved upon the invention and made it their own. Eventually, a single alphabet became accepted throughout the cultures of the globe, which led to the sometimes complex but very efficient writing system that we have today.

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