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The way we derive meaning from symbols as lines, squiggles, and dots on a piece of paper or computer screen is one of the most remarkable defining features of the human species. Like so many familiar aspects of our daily lives writing evolved slowly and painfully, over millennia, to become the masterpiece of communication and repository of learning that it is today.

We can trace writing back to at least three independent centres of civilization: in the Near East (Fertile Crescent), China, and Mexico. In Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Indus Valley, early writing served mostly as a record of business contracts and commercial transactions: in China it was used for divination. In the ancient civilizations of the South American Andes and West Africa there was no writing.

Human mark-making is called graphetics, while graphology is the study of different graphic forms in different languages as letters, symbols, punctuation marks etc. (cf. phonetics and phonology).

There are three general forms of written word: handwriting (calligraphy), printing (typography), and electronic representation. The combination of capital and small letters is called Carolingian script, named after Charlemagne (742-814). Movable type was used in China from the 7th century, inked wooden blocks being used for The Diamond Sutra of 868, but first used in Europe in the mid fifteent hcentury, attributed to Johannes Gutenberg (1390-1468) and becoming mechanised in the nineteenth century along with the arrival of typewriters. Photocomposition started in the 1950s, and computerized typesetting in the 1960s followed shortly by computerized word processors.

Hieroglyphics & cuneiform

Much of what we achieve as human communities depends on our social organization and social organization depends, in turn, on how efficiently we can transfer not only goods and services but also ideas – the communication of information.

We store and transmit information using a variety of media – like painting or the spoken word. When writing began it was convenient to fragment the world into simple units like table, bird, or cow and representing these units with symbols.

In ancient Egypt the system of symbols (each symbol usually a simple picture of what it represented) was known as hieroglyphics mostly used to communicate about matters of trade, government, and religion. The control and use of these symbols was the preserve of a priestly class and their scribes (writers) because the symbols could not be understood by most of the people.

At first the symbols were of two kinds inscribed on rock, those representing objects and those representing sounds and there were over 1500 (only 140 were sound signs and of these just 33 represented consonants). Later strips of reed stems, Cyperus papyrus, were woven together to form paper used for writing using inks. Now there was a portable source of information available to a wider range of people. To facilitate writing the symbols were simplified and more flowing, creating a cursive script known as hieratic as seen on the Ebers Papyrus, the oldest medicinal text dated to about 1600 BCE. By this time the number of symbols had reduced to about 700 and by about 650 BCE the simplification had continued, resulting in a script now known as demotic which contained a greatly increased number of sound symbols but decrease in number overall making written language much more easyto learn and therefore accessible to a broader sector of society.

In Mesopotamian Sumer the system of writing known as cuneiform, developed between 3500 and 3100 BCE, consisted of wedge-shaped symbols impressed on soft clay tablets that were baked hard if the record was to be kept. As in Egypt cuneiform was first used as a form of contract, recording commercial transactions. About 2000 symbols were used, also divided into word signs and sound signs. Akkadian replaced Sumerian as the spoken language and as early as 2300 BCE there were dictionaries comparing the Sumerian and Akkadian languages, the Akkadians reducing the number of symbols to about 600 achieved by increasing the number of sound signs.

The Sinai inscriptions, dated to about 1700 BCE, are important in the history of writing because they consist entirely of consonant signs. When spoken correctly these symbols would produce words in ancient Semitic. This was a revolution since it created meaning by using only sound signs.

Between 1200 and 1150, within a single generation, civilizations of eastern Europe – Egypt, the Hittites occupying the region of Anatolia, and the palace civilization of Mycenae that occupied Greece and Crete were all had cities raised. This period of civilization disintegration is known as the Bronze Age Collapse. Trade broke down, pottery assumed an earlier simple form, there was no construction of stone buildings and literacy was all but lost. A collapse would also occur in Assyria to the east but 100 years later.

Wandering semitic tribes so much a part of Egyptian civilization built cities in the eastern Mediterranean (the Levant) and when Assyrian civilization collapsed it was these people, known as the Phoenicians that, using papyrus, revived the lost written language, developed a new alphabet, and re-built trade routes

In this way, over several millennia, language evolved into a powerful method for transmitting and storing information. Over time humanity has, perhaps unconsciously, looked for ever more efficient ways of communicating information over ever-wider spaces.
Cuneiform evolved from Sumerian pictograms, the oldest tablets being recovered from the city of Uruk.

The origin of the English alphabet and letters

The shapes of the English letters (as an alphabet) that you see associated into words and sentences have a long and fascinating history. Most of them are clearly recognizable in early Italian printed books of the 15th century. These in turn emulate the finest manuscripts of the 12th and 11th centuries which copied the Carolingian (Emperor Charlemagne who adopted Roman customs, art and government during what we know as the Carolingian Renaissance) in the 9th century, his finest manuscripts produced by the monks of St Martin’s at Tours in France. These monks created small letters from the former capitals with rounded edges that simplified writing (semi-uncials). These, of course were the capital letters used in the writing of the Roman Empire. The use of lower case letters during the Carolingian and Byzantine Empires was a major change affecting today’s writing.

Though we often associate the Roman alphabet with that of the ancient Greeks, the Romans learned their writing skills from the Etruscans, who had themselves learned to write from Greek colonists who had settled near Naples during the 8th century BCE. So, we may view the Roman alphabet as just one form of the Greek alphabet except that the Greeks had adopted a semitic alphabet used by the Phoenicians whose inspiration, it seems, was derived from Egyptian hieroglyphs. Following the Bronze Age Collapse, wandering semitic tribes from Egypt had created a kingdom in the Levant as part of a Mediterranean-wide maritime trading empire. These people, named ‘Phoenicians’ by the ancient Greeks, developed the first consonantal alphabet of 22 letters or symbols as much-reduced and stylized former pictures. By 1000 BCE the Phoenician alphabet, though semitic[1] in origin could be fitted to the different languages of Europe, India and SE Asia, spreading literacy around the world and the source of the Greek and Roman alphabets that we know today. Its development, the Greek alphabet, added vowels thus giving us the word ‘alphabet’ (A + B = alpha + beta = alphabet).

From calligraphy to computers

The word ‘calligraphy’ is derived from the Greek meaning beautiful writing and is epitomised by the formality and elegance of copper plate writing with its thick and thin strokes although more precisely applied to the range of styles used for copper plate engraving by English round hand, an open flowing style with contrast of thick and thin strokes dating to the 1660s and derived from the use of metal pointed nibs in the 16th century. Artistic effects could be achieved using black and white, colour, heavy and light, thick and thin, as patterns and shapes in space – to produce stylised scripts known as ‘Carolingian’, ‘Gothic’, and ‘Italian’.

With the Industrial Revolution in England Birmingham of the 1830s became the international source of long-lasting steel nibs of every kind and shape. The use of steel needed inks that would not corrode the steel, which would flow easily, and which would not fade. These arrived in the 1850s.

Ideally pen and ink also needed to be portable – and ink was messy. In about 1900 the fountain pen was invented with the ink stored in a barrel. Ink could be sucked up from an ink well. Later, ink was bought in disposable cartridges. Pens could now indicate social status being made of silver and gold, designed and ornamented in various ways. In the 20th century the ball-point pen emerged: it was all-purpose and disposable. There followed various elaborations like fibre tips.

Writing with machines

Machines were introduced that would speed up the process of writing. Typewriters, seen in most offices by the 1880s, used letter keys to punch out words on paper using a fabric ribbon impregnated with ink. But later the physical effort was reduced by using electronic machines and various iterations of ribbons and modes of punching out letters.

Dedicated word processors with screens appeared in the 1960s to be replaced by desk-top computers that are now virtually universal in the developed world.

Commentary & sustainability analysis

The significance of writing and literacy for sustainability lie in its connections with social organization because, historically, it is those societies and civilizations with the most efficient communication systems that have exerted the greatest political and economic influence on the world.

It is hardly surprising that one major function of early writing systems was to record economic transactions and contracts of various kinds related to governance. Orderly trade and effective communication between peoples meant access to the resources needed for societies to flourish and increase in complexity by developing new technologies. Population growth facilitated the specialized division of labour and the possibilities of adopting new scales of production as small boats were transformed into ocean-going vessels, raiding bands became huge well-equipped armies, and vast stone buildings and monuments could be constructed.

Above all, the transition from spoken to written word allowed critical examination and correction, and the possibility of improvement and progress. Although there was also the capacity for inflexibilty and stagnation as social customs and traditions became ‘set in stone’. Writing was still a social activity dominated by small numbers of highly respected individuals who controlled the written symbols or words, and if ‘The Word’ came from God then there was nothing further to be said.

So, the development of written language was one major component of the mix of factors that make up what we now call civilization. In the West writing, arose in the great Bronze Age civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt around 3000 to 2000 BCE gradually changing from pictorial symbols to sound symbols before writing and literacy were virtually lost around 1200 BCE at the time of the Late Bronze Age collapse, the unaccountable devastation of the great Mycenean, Hittite, Syrian and Egyptian empires, to create an ancient Dark Age .

The centre of civilization then moved to the eastern Mediterranean (Levant) and the cities of Byblos, Tyre, and Sidon from which seafaring traders known as the Phoenicians set up a coastal trading empire around the Mediterranean from the island of Crete to Carthage in North Africa opposite Sicily to its north, and westward as far as todays straits of Gibraltar at Tingis (Tangiers). It was these people who gave us the phonetic alphabet consisting of 22 consonant sounds that could be transposed into any language.

Up to the mid- 19th to 20th centuries it was possible for a well-educated and widely read individual to survey the landscape of human knowledge. After this time the depth and detail of cumulative knowledge made this impossible as academics withdrew, even struggling to keep in touch with their own specializations.

With access to the synthesised information now available on the internet it is once again possible to view the big picture. Big History has provided a modern framework for human existence and the world’s greatest academics can now be read and viewed as they synthesize the current state of knowledge and controversies in their various disciplines. Today it is possible to access the cutting edge of any subject at the touch of a few buttons.

Clay tablets preserved records better than papyri.

Media gallery

History of the Semitic Languages

Costas Melas – 2020 – 8:49

Evolution of the Alphabet | Earliest Forms to Modern Latin Script

UsefulCharts – 2020 – 16:12

History of the alphabet, the writing systems of Europe

Costas Melas – 2019. – 10:14


First published on the internet – 1 March 2019

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