The History of Writing: A Timeline
The history of writing is a timeline, but not a straight line. The invention of writing has occurred in different places at different times. While there is no precise date for the first writing system, or even for the unified invention of writing, we can narrow down approximate dates for the emergence of written language.
Writing has been invented and used by many ancient cultures. In fact, it’s probably fair to say that people have always had some need to pass information from one person to another quickly and efficiently. But how did these early cultures record their history? And how did they do so in such a way that we could still read their writings hundreds or thousands of years later? To answer these questions, we must look at the timeline of the history of writing as a whole.
The first primitive writing system we can be sure of was developed in Sumer, Mesopotamia, in the late 4th millennium BC. Known as Sumerian cuneiform, it was an entirely new writing system. Cuneiform was in use for nearly 2,000 years, until the Babylonians invented their own writing system around the same time that the Greeks were writing.
The earliest known true writing system is believed to be the Sumerian script. This was around 3300 BC, and was used to write a very early form of modern-day Semitic languages. The script is named after the Sumerian city of Ur, where it was used. Sumerian inscriptions were found in modern-day Iraq, and are now mostly kept at the University of Babel.
Sumerian writing used a system of pictographs, which are symbols used to represent the object they represent. For example, the image of a boat might be used to represent the word ‘boat’.
The Phoenicians are credited with inventing an abjad, a system of writing that is still used today in the Arab world. The abjad is largely a phonetic system; it uses letters to represent spoken words. Although the script is similar to the alphabet, it’s written from right to left; it’s notated similarly to the way we write English.
The Phoenicians were a maritime trading culture that lived in the region that is now Lebanon, Syria and Israel. The abjad they invented was used throughout the region by the Aramaic-speaking Babylonia and was eventually adopted by the Greeks.
Phoenician inscriptions can be found all over the region, including Lebanon, Syria and Israel. They usually take the form of painted or carved stones. The inscriptions usually contain historical information or may tell a story, and are often an important record of the language in the region.
The first fully phonetic writing system was devised by the Egyptians. The hieroglyphs were pictographs, just like Sumerian writing, but they had a great deal more flexibility. A simple glyph could be used to represent a word or sound, and even some of the same glyphs could be used to represent different words.
For example, the symbol for a water jug might also be used for a man, or even a woman.
Hieroglyphs were used for nearly 3,000 years, from around 3000 BC to AD 300. They were first carved in stone and later painted on papyrus. Papyrus was a common material for writing and was used during the Egyptian, Greek and Roman periods.
The Egyptians made such careful use of the symbols that the meanings of many signs were widely known and could be used for writing historical information. They were also used for religious purposes, as a form of communication with the gods.
The third major writing system to emerge is Chinese. The Chinese script was invented around 1000 BC, and is a logographic system. Logographic systems use symbols that represent whole words rather than sounds, and they’re usually ideographic as well.
The Chinese script was mostly used to write Chinese, but it was also used to write Japanese and some Korean. The Chinese language is based on the Sino-Tibetan family of languages. Chinese characters are often used for transcribing spoken languages too.
Chinese characters evolved over hundreds of years, and were changed as the Chinese language evolved and was different from the language first used for writing. There are more than 10,000 Chinese characters, and they can be combined in different ways to write a huge range of words.
The Latin alphabet is the alphabet most people think of when they think of writing. It’s used today in the English-speaking world, Europe and South America.
The alphabet was first used in Western Europe during the Middle Ages, and was created by the Romans. It was adapted by the Christian Church to help people remember the letters of the Bible without having to be reminded of the story they’re meant to be telling. By doing this, it was easier for people to quickly pass information from one person to another, and from one generation to the next.
The alphabet is made up of 26 letters, which are taught to children from a young age. They’re not only used for writing, but also for the pronunciation of words.
Middle East: Hebrew, Arabic and Persian
The invention of writing led to an explosion of knowledge throughout the Ancient World. As is often the case, the invention of writing was a step on the path to understanding science, engineering and mathematics.
One of the earliest civilizations to use writing was the Sumerians, who lived in Iraq and used cuneiform. They were followed by the Phoenicians, who created an abjad that was used in the region. The Egyptians invented hieroglyphics, which are semitic and are still used in the region today. Then came the Hebrews, who used the abjad that was adapted from the Phoenicians. The Hebrew alphabet eventually evolved into the square Hebrew alphabet we use today. The Persians developed a variant of the abjad, known as Pahlavi. And later, the Arabs used the alphabet they had adapted from the Hebrews, creating the variant known as Arabic.
Latin and Gothic Scripts
The Latin alphabet we use today is the result of a period of standardization in Europe in the Middle Ages. The alphabet was first adapted from the Greek alphabet, and was then adapted from the Etruscan alphabet, which was adapted from the Latin alphabet. The Gothic alphabet was the final iteration of the alphabet, and it was created around the same time as the Roman Empire was in decline. As the Empire fell, it was adopted by many different groups to help them communicate.
These scripts allowed information to be quickly and efficiently recorded, and they’re still in use today. The Gothic alphabet is still used in some places, including Germany, Poland and Scandinavia.
Renaissance: Printed Text and the Birth of Moveable Type
The popularity of the abjad led to the invention of movable type, which was used to print books. The earliest working printing press was built in China around 1450, but Europe was the first to use it in a commercial setting. In the 15th century, the European printer Johannes Gutenberg was experimenting with ways to make printing faster, and he created the movable type system we still use today. Movable type was a breakthrough, because it allowed information to be printed in a wide variety of different styles and sizes. This allowed books to be designed differently, depending on the audience they were intended for.
The printing press allowed information to be printed rapidly and more cheaply than ever before, and it has changed the course of history. It’s easy to see how it would have changed the history of writing as well.