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a bit about writing and reading origins

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We’ll perhaps never know – but I should never say never. We’re still a long way from knowing when we first developed language. After all, what exactly is language? How do we define it? Chimps and bonobos, and other apes and monkeys, not to mention cetaceans and perhaps other species, perhaps in the class of cephalopods, have more or less sophisticated ways of communicating which at least partially resemble language…

But that’s not what I wanted to focus on in this essay. I want to focus on the origin of writing, and its corollary, reading. I’m reading Maryanne Wolf’s 2010 book Proust and the squid for the second time, this time perhaps a little more carefully, while thinking on what constitutes a writing system and how writing and reading changed the human world. Terms such as logogram, syllabary, cuneiform, abecedary and hieroglyph, as well as peoples – the Sumerians, the Egyptians, the Akkadians and the Ugaritic people of the northern Levant – these are all floating around in my head like so much flotsam and jetsam at present, and I’m hoping that some writing of my own might make sense of it all.

There are questions, of course, about the first writing system. For example, when we find impressions on clay, or daubs on walls which appear to have some structure that we can’t decode, how can we know if it is writing? There appears to be some agreement – though it’s contested by some Egyptologists – that the first writing was Sumerian, from the lower Mesopotamian, which evolved into something called cuneiform about 5400 years ago. But it’s also generally agreed that writing was invented independently as many as four times. And there may yet be more early forms to discover. And there should be no reason to believe that these independently-created writing systems would resemble each other.

So let’s have a look at some of them. First, cuneiform, shown above:

The word ‘cuneiform derives from the Latin word cuneus, ‘nail’, which refers to the script’s wedge-like appearance. Using a pointed reed stylus on soft clay, our ancestors created a script that looks, to the untutored eye, a lot like bird tracks.

Maryanne Wolf, Proust and the squid, p32

Around 5000 of these clay tablets have been found, in temples and palaces but also in ancient warehouses, used mostly for accounting. What’s most important to note with these figures is that a sufficient number of people would need to know how to interpret – ‘read’ – them to make the process worthwhile. And that this writing-reading system would require new neurological connections, or the adaptation of existing ones. This would require time, a gradualism from a more painstaking pictorial representation to more abstract, easily constructed and comprehended forms. It’s been argued that many written languages retain the vestiges of pictorial forms, though clearly some more than others. Wolf makes this observation:

Soon after it originated, Sumerian cuneiform, mysteriously and rather astonishingly, became sophisticated. Symbols rapidly became less pictographic and more logographic and abstract. A logographic writing system directly conveys the concepts in the oral language, rather than the sounds in the words. Over time many of the Sumerian characters also began to represent some of the syllables in oral Sumerian. This double function in a writing system is classified by linguists as a logosyllabary, and it makes a great many more demands on the brain.

Ibid, pp33-34

It’s a difficult passage, for me at least. How do we know today the ‘syllables in oral Sumerian’, a language nobody has spoken for millennia? I understand that a logographic writing system, like Chinese, is conceptual, but a concept can also be pictorial in some sense. A website called WikiDiff puts it this way:

Strictly speaking, a “pictogram” represents by illustration, an ”ideogram” represents an idea, and a ”logogram” represents a word: Chinese characters are all logograms, but few are pictograms or ideograms. Casually, ”pictogram” is used to represent all of these: it is a picture representing some concept.

So, to put it, mildly, it’s complex. I’m not sure if there’s anything ‘strict’ about it – a piece of writing, in the alphabet I’m now using, is read as sounds, images and/or ideas, or none of these (if we don’t know the word). Do we think of ‘the’ and ‘and’ as sounds when we read them (as opposed to hearing them)? Perhaps, but so fleetingly… The word ‘and’ surely conveys an idea of continuation or plurality depending on context, and ‘the’ conveys the concept of definiteness as opposed to ‘a’ or ‘any’. But all of these are composed of sounds, or ‘sound representations’, of course, barely noticed due to their familiarity.

My own brain, and the brains of virtually all my acquaintance, is wired for the alphabet, derived from Ancient Greek. A Chinese reading brain is apparently quite different. Quoting Wolf again:

Unlike other writing systems (such as alphabets), Sumerian and Chinese show considerable involvement of the right hemisphere areas, known to contribute to the many spatial analysis requirements in logographic symbols and also to more global types of processing. The numerous, visually demanding logographic characters require much of both visual areas, as well as an important occipital-temporal region called area 37, which is involved in object recognition and which [the French cognitive neuroscientist Stanislaus Dehaene] hypothesises is the major seat of  ‘neuronal recycling’ in literacy.

Ibid, pp35-36

I have no memory whatever of leaning to read. It’s as if I could always do so, and grammar and spelling came very easily to me. I was never read to as far as I can recall, though our home, in one of Australia’s most working-class neighbourhoods, was always full of books. The Sumerians, of course, didn’t have books in our sense, and their writing systems, and those of today’s Chinese, took years to learn. The Sumerians – those of the upper class – learned their symbols off clay tablets, which they would copy on the reverse side. It took years of self-discipline, and harsh discipline from above, to learn long lists of words and how to convey them, phonetically and conceptually, in symbols.

I’m trying to understand this, to get it under my skin. What the Sumerians were doing wasn’t just learning a handed-down alphabetical, phonemic system, they were creating such a system – not alphabetic in our sense, but based on phonemic and morphological symbols that needed to be agreed upon and bedded down. Morphemes being those essential additives that indicate plurality or tense. And this, according to Wolf and many others, was a decisive breakthrough in our intellectual history:

For the first Sumerian teachers this resulted in a long-lasting set of linguistic principles that facilitated teaching and learning and also accelerated the development of cognitive and linguistic skills in literate Sumerians. Thus, with the Sumerians’ contribution to teaching our species to read and write, the story began of how the reading brain changed the way we all think. All of us…

Ibid, p39

But Sumerian died out, as languages do. By 1600 BCE no-one was left to speak it. By that time the Akkadian language was in the ascendant in Mesopotamia. The Sumerian writing system and teaching methods, though, had been incorporated in various forms by the early Persian and Hittite civilisations, among others, and the Akkadians continued the tradition, helping to  preserve something of that system over the next millennium.

Akkadian script, however, became increasingly syllabic, retaining only a few significant logographic (pictorial) elements. We have managed to uncover a lot of Akkadian texts, including the first great adventure story in literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh, which seems to have refined and greatly elaborated upon earlier Sumerian and Old Babylonian tales. It’s likely that it had a stylistic influence on the later Homeric tales – looking forward to reading it.

As to how different reading and writing systems affect the brain, and associated thought processes, I recall when I obtained my first computer in the 1990s. I’d been writing regularly, in diaries, since the late 70s, crabbed non-cursive writing in foolscap books, about 14 in all. Changing to a computer slowed things down as I’d never learned to type and I still can’t touch-type. It’s hard to say how this change affected the content and style of my writing, but I know it did. Editing, of course, became much easier, though I sometimes felt guilty, or a cheat, for so easily erasing my first thoughts for more ‘improved’ ones.

But that’s another story. How did the alphabet we use today come about? One of the first alphabetic or proto-alphabetic systems was the north Semitic alphabet from the region of what is now northern Syria. The term ‘Semitic’, often these days associated with Jewishness, actually refers more accurately to a language group widespread throughout Western Asia and Northern Africa. The north Semitic alphabet is the first known alphabetic writing system, ancestral to the Phoenician and later Greek alphabets. The term ‘north Semitic’ now seems questionable, as the oldest inscriptions in the language were recently found at Wadi el-Hol, a site near the Nile in Egypt. The topic of early or earliest alphabetical scripts anyhow seems very tangled and contested, and no doubt mixed up with national and regional pride as well as scholarly reputation. Still, I might have a go at at in a future post…


Maryanne Wolf, Proust and the squid, 2010


Written by stewart henderson

March 2, 2023 at 4:21 pm

where does our alphabet come from?

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Etruscan ink-holder, with alphabet, from the early 7th century BCE

Etruscan ink-holder, with alphabet, from the early 7th century BCE

I’m currently reading Lost languages: the enigma of the world’s undeciphered scripts, by Andrew Robinson, a pretty demanding work in parts, though designed for the general reader. It’s looking at the difficulty of scripts of which we have too few examples, and too few connected languages – either descended from or ancestral to these extant fragments – to be able to get a handle on them. However it also looks at famous decipherings of the past – of the Egyptian and the Mayan hieroglyphs, and of Linear B (Mycenean, the earliest form of Greek), as well as at written languages in general, which inevitably makes a fellow think of his own taken-for-granted language, its origins and its ‘type’, among all the types of writing we have.

Robinson informs us of a consensus among scholars, arrived at though much struggle – that all written languages contain phonemic and semantic, or logographic, elements. A dummy’s way of presenting this is that they contain both sounds and signs. Our alphabet is, of course, largely phonemic, but in writing we also use signs, such as full stops, question marks, apostrophes, quotation marks, etc. We also use capitals. For example B represents the same sound as b, but it also signifies the beginning of a sentence or (the beginning of) a name of something. It follows that b also has a sign value, in contrast to the sign value of B. Apparently Finnish is the most purely phonemic language we have these days, while Chinese and Japanese are very heavily sign based.

So what about the English language, or more strictly, the alphabet we share with many other European languages. It’s generally known as the Latin alphabet, and it was introduced to England by Christian missionaries in about the 7th century, replacing Anglo-Saxon runes that date back at least another couple of hundred years. These runes may also be traced back to the Latin alphabet – we don’t have enough extant examples to be sure.

The alphabet has evolved over the years. Wikipedia tells us that back in the year 1011 a polymath named Byrhtferth set down the alphabet as it was understood at the time. It comprised 23 of our modern letters (J, U and W had not yet emerged), the ampersand & and five other letter/symbols no longer recognised, or at least formally recognised, as alphabetical. One was the ligature æ, called ash. In the fourteenth century the letters uu, often used together, were merged to make w, still called ‘double u’ today. The alphabet became fixed in the sixteenth century, when j and u emerged as distinct from i and v.

So it would seem that the Latin alphabet evolved, much like humans evolved from earlier forms, with little mutations along the way, so that if you go back far enough it’ll be barely recognisable. What is called the classical Latin or Roman alphabet derived from a western variant of the Greek alphabet, used in southern Italian colonies such as Cumae in modern-day Campania. This was in turn modified by the Etruscans (800-100BCE) before being taken up and modified further by the Romans.

It’s an enormously complicated story of interaction and modification. The English alphabet isn’t exactly the Latin alphabet, which itself changed as the Romans developed and advanced their civilization, incorporating more territories and their cultural influences. It’s not something you can trace in an obvious linear way. The Romans were influenced linguistically by both the southern colonies and the northern Etruscans. After the Roman conquest of Greece in the first century BCE, the Greek letters Y and Z were added to their alphabet, giving them 23 letters during the ‘classical’ period (the period of the late republic and the empire). Our number system – obviously a part of our written language, but I won’t get too much into mathematical symbology here – is often described as Arabic, but the Arabs and Persians adopted it from the Hindus, who apparently developed the place-value notation in the fifth century, adding zero a century later.

If we want to go back to the origin of writing systems and writing itself, it seems not to have had a single origin. I’ve mentioned the  ancestor of Latin, the Greek alphabet, which has been around since the eighth century BCE and is still in use. It consists of 24 letters from alpha to omega, and of course many of its symbols, including pi, are used in mathematical notation. The Greek alphabet in turn derives from the Phoenician. There is some dispute or at least conjecture as to how far back the Phoenician alphabet can be dated – a bit like putting a date on the first humans, who after all had parents who were much the same as they were. Scholars generally put the date back to 1050 BCE, and inscriptions with Phoenician elements before that date are attributed to ‘parent scripts’. To quote the Wikipedia article:

The oldest known inscription that goes by the name of Phoenician is the Ahiram epitaph, engraved on the sarcophagus of King Ahiram from c. 1200 BCE.[5]

However, the immediate predecessor to Phoenician is conventionally referred to as Proto-Canaanite. Ancestral to this was the Proto-Sinaite script, used by Canaanites in the Sinai region from about 1850 BCE. We don’t have too many examples of it, but it’s claimed by some to be the first ever alphabetic writing system. Most of the inscriptions using this language, generally accepted as Semitic, were found among Egyptian hieratic and hieroglyphic inscriptions, and there are graphic similarities to the hieratic script, which is less elaborate than hieroglyphics, but little headway has been made in deriving the Semitic script from Egyptian hieratic.

Egyptian hieroglyphics can be dated back to 2700 BCE. They’re complex beasties that can be used as phonograms, logograms or determinatives; in other words as sounds or sound sequences, as pictorial representations, or as clues to meaning neither clearly pictorial nor phonological (in earlier times hieroglyphics were doggedly construed as almost entirely logographic, and this hindered a full decoding). It’s quite possible, apparently, that the Proto-Sinaite script was influenced by the phonological (hence alphabetical) elements of hieroglyphics.

The Meroitic script, again probably derived from hieroglyphics, is an alphabetic script used in the Nubian Kingdom of Meroe in what is now northern Sudan. It first appeared in the second century BCE and flourished at the height of Nubian power (750 to 300 BCE). It appears to have developed independently of the Greek alphabet, though some scholars claim a connection.

One of the earliest known writing systems, Cuneiform, emerged in Sumer in the late 4th millennium BCE . The term ‘cuneiform’ means wedge-shaped, and was so named by its wedge-shaped markings left on clay tablets. The earliest Cuneiform was pictorial, but over time it became more stylized, simplified and abstract. The Cuneiform of the early bronze age contained about 1000 characters, but this was down to 400 by the late bronze age, some 1500 years later. Sumerian is not really recognised as a fully fledged language by scholars until about the 31st century BCE.

So is there an earlier form of writing than Cuneiform? I suspect that there were innumerable forms of proto-writing, symbols used with a shared, tribal meaning indecipherable to outsiders, and that this could have gone on for millennia. It just happened that with early Sumerian civilization we had a larger clot of people together than ever before, and with that, language took a further step towards codification and regularisation.

So I’ve gone a bit further back than our alphabet, but I’ve barely scratched the surface of language development. Tracing all the connections is an endless and ongoing task, and we’re continuing to make headway, but the key to all this is human ingenuity in finding such a variety of more or less efficient systems to communicate and preserve increasingly complex ideas, which whole regions of our developing brains are devoted to. There’s so much more to say on this subject.

Written by stewart henderson

September 24, 2013 at 11:06 pm