The Origins and Invention of Writing


Tablet V of the epic of Gilgamesh. The left half of the whole tablet has survived and is composed of 3 fragments. The Sulaymaniyah Museum, Iraq


By Dr. Mark Damen / 07.25.2015
Professor of Ancient Drama, Ancient History, Latin and Greek Languages
Utah State University

Introduction: The Importance of Writing

Denise Schmandt-Besserat, French-American archaeologist and retired professor of art and archaeology of the ancient Near East / Wikimedia Commons

One of the most exciting recent developments in ancient history centers around the work of Denise Schmandt-Besserat, whose theory concerning the origin of writing in Mesopotamia, the earliest known script in Western Civilization, has revolutionized our understanding of not only how writing developed but also how deep it reaches back into history. This chapter will address some of the highlights of her work, especially as it relates to the study of history. The next chapter (17) will carry that story forward through development of the alphabet.

Denise Schmandt-Besserat points out that writing is one of the great achievements of humankind, for at least three reasons. First, it represents a revolution in communication across space and time. That is, the ability to write allows our words to move far beyond the normal range of the voice and thus extends the expression of our thoughts geographically and chronologically. On this ability rests every sort of human inquiry, including history. Second, writing enables record-keeping, allowing us to study a prophet’s words, engrave a tombstone or collect taxes. Crossing this threshold where the voice cannot go, the written word endures, recording the past for later review and consideration. Third, writing give us a means for scrutinizing and editing our ideas which permits us to rewrite our thoughts. As such, it opens the way to revision and greater rigor of thought, essential in logical processes of every sort, including historical investigation.

Thus, the introduction of writing marks an important crux in the history of any civilization, not only because it marks a shift in mentality toward extending communication, keeping records and re-assessing thought but also because it allows a people to live on beyond their own lives and speak to a distant future. On the written word depends every form of learning ever invented, history especially.

Theories of the Origins of Writing

Pictographic tablets from Tell Brak / The McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research

Whether consciously or not, most people today understand how important writing is. We distinguish people as literate or illiterate, and when trying to better others’ lives, one of the first things we do is teach them to read and write. Our ancient ancestors also recognized the significance of writing and many had myths recalling its invention. In Egypt, for example, the god Thoth was said to have created hieroglyphics, along with language, magic and medicine. The Mesopotamians traced the invention of writing back to Nisaba, the goddess of granaries, who they said created it to keep records of the goods coming through her temples.

Perhaps most interesting of all, at least to the modern world, is the tale preserved in Hebrew lore that Moses received the gift of writing from God along with the Ten Commandments. The Bible, after all, says explicitly that the Decalogue was “written with the finger of God” (Ex. 31:18, cf. Deut. 5.22). Israelite scholars in antiquity subsequently reasoned that God had inscribed these commandments because Moses could not write and, thus, the Hebrews must have been illiterate up until then. In this tradition, then, the Ten Commandments serve as a lesson in both morality and literacy. If a rather odd way of interpreting the Bible, this bit of folklore shows how important writing was to the ancient Israelites who made a gift from God.

Sumerian cuneiform tablet / British Museum

The first western scholar known to have proposed a theory in which writing has a human origin was the French scholar Diderot in 1755. Based on an earlier suggestion by William Warburton, the bishop of Gloucester, Diderot suggested that early phonetic symbols developed out of pictographs, pictures representing ideas. A highly successful thesis, this proposition remained the basis for most explanations of the origin of writing in the West, until Schmandt-Besserat introduced her theory of tokens.

Much of this debate has revolved around the earliest known script in Western Civilization, cuneiform, the “wedge-shaped” system of signs used by the ancient Sumerians. Though later carved into stone, this type of writing was first impressed on clay tablets which were later fired, that is, baked so the signs won’t wash away or can’t be rubbed out. Finding it in deposits dating back as early as 3100 BCE, scholars theorized that cuneiform must have derived from a system of primordial pictographs. Indeed, several of its signs could be traced back to aboriginal “pictures” of the things they denoted. For example, cuneiform included a sign for “star” that looked like an asterisk, so it seemed safe to assume that it originated as some sort of depiction of a star and, therefore, all other signs derived from images, too.

But there were two major problems with postulating a pictographic origin for the great array and breadth of cuneiform signs. First, archaeological investigation has failed to produce any evidence of a forerunner for cuneiform. Instead, the physical evidence suggests this writing system arose very abruptly, seemingly out of nowhere, already in a fairly complex state. For instance, it contained right from the start at least nine hundred symbols, perhaps as many as fifteen hundred. If writing first sprang up at this moment, it came to life with a bang, almost impossibly fast.

Second, there were relatively few cuneiform signs which showed a clear lineage from pictures. The vast majority didn’t look at all like what they represented, even where it would have been easy to do so. For instance, the word for “sheep” was a simple “X.” Where are the legs, the wool, the horns? As early as 1928, long before Schmandt-Besserat began her work, the scholar William Mason had recognized this problem:

We must admit, that even in the earliest and most archaic inscriptions discovered, it is not always easy to recognize the original objects.

But he then went on to blame this on the ineptitude of ancient scribes:

Owing to the limitations of primitive culture, the inexperience of scribes and the lack of artistic ability, each scribe drew the characters in his own crude, faulty way, often incorrectly; so that it is quite impossible always definitely to distinguish the character and identify it with the object intended.

“Primitive” scribes with “crude” ways? Or could it be there was something wrong with theory?

Mesopotamian tablet, c.3200 BCE / British Museum

Another way early historians explained these anomalies was by asserting that the Mesopotamians had deployed their now-lost system of pictographs only on biodegradable material, such as bark or animal hides. But this explanation rests on two undocumented phenomena: (1) an unknown pictographic writing system which had been executed exclusively on (2) a medium now lost. Stools with two legs missing don’t make very comfortable seats. Nevertheless, in the absence of any form of writing preceding cuneiform or any better explanation for its aboriginal complexity, the pictographic theory trudged on, in spite its obvious flaws.

Aerial of Urik ruins / Wikimedia Commons

Over time, as more and more tablets came to light and our understanding of cuneiform improved, other issues arose to challenge further the theory of a pictographic origin. When scholars could see more clearly how early cuneiform developed, they realized that those few signs which did, in fact, arise from pictographs had been introduced after the invention of this script. That is, while the cuneiform “star” did indeed look like a star, dating suggested it was a later entry in the registry of Sumerian signs, not an early example of a type of pictography from which all cuneiform stemmed. Other historians pointed out that pictographs do not form the basis of other ancient scripts, like the Eskimo and Indian writing systems.

Another issue concerned geography. In Sumeria, the earliest cuneiform tablets come from Uruk, a major hub of civilization in the Near East and the focus of much early archaeology. But later archaeologists found evidence that cuneiform was also being used in Syria far to the west and Iran to the east at almost the same time as it first appears in Uruk. And this raised a further issue. Uruk was at that time an urbanized community with a large economy and population. Syria and Iran were relatively poor areas, sparsely populated. But cuneiform appears in all these places simultaneously. How did a complex form of writing with many abstract signs used mainly to keep a tally of properties and possessions spread with such uniformity so widely and rapidly across both city and country?

Tigris-Euphrates River system / Wikimedia Commons

Yet another challenge to the pictograph theory came from the material it was most often written on, clay. According to the standard explanation, there’s a good reason for that. There’s much clay to be found in and around the Tigris and Euphrates river beds, and not much wood or animal hides. So, because of its sheer abundance alone, clay was the logical choice for Mesopotamians to use as a writing medium.

But it’s not a logical choice. Clay is, in fact, very difficult to write on. First and foremost, it isn’t naturally flat. It has to be pressed into a workable shape first, which is usually something rounded, something that will fit in the palm of the hand. And circular is indeed the form in which we find many a cuneiform tablet. But it’s still rather difficult to write on clay even when it’s carefully molded into a hand-friendly ball. Yet virtually all early cuneiform is found on clay, as if it were somehow to the ancient people of this area their traditional vehicle for writing.

In sum, the standard theory of how writing arose in Mesopotamia is full of holes and contradictions but until Schmandt-Besserat came along, there wasn’t any better way to piece together the evidence. Looking at the abstract nature of even the earliest cuneiform signs, their widespread use and, most of all, the material on which they were impressed led her to a new theory and a better account of this all-important development.

Denise Schmandt-Besserat’s New Theory of the Origin of Writing

Tokens

Studying Mesopotamian culture in the early 1970’s, Schmandt-Besserat first set out to investigate the uses of clay before the development of pottery in early Near Eastern culture. But as she was searching for bits of clay floors, hearth linings, beads and figurines, she kept running into massive piles of small ceramic pieces found in various shapes and sizes.

Clay Tokens from Mesopotamia, c.3500 BCE / From How Writing Came About, by Denise Schmandt-Besserat

At the time, these were called “enigmatic objects” or “objects of uncertain purpose,” because scholars were utterly bemused about their purpose and meaning. So, for instance, when looking at a group of five cones, one archaeologist, Carleton Coon, remarked famously, “they look like nothing else in the world but suppositories. What they were used for is anyone’s guess.” In the process of cataloguing them as part of her research, Schmandt-Besserat first referred to them as “geometric objects” because of their configurations, until ones resembling animals and tools began to emerge. Realizing they must have stood for things, she started calling them tokens, the name by which they are now known. But still no one had any idea what they stood for, or how they were used.

Schmandt-Besserat noted some important clues, however. Many of these tokens are incised—that is, they have various markings engraved on them—and they come in a wide variety of shapes: spheres, cones, disks, cylinders and so on. Ranging in length from one to five centimeters, though they are clustered in groups of one-to-three and three-to-five centimeters, all are simple to make, in Schmandt-Besserat’s words, “the shapes which emerge spontaneously when doodling with clay.” That they had, in fact, been molded from wet clay, is evident from the fingerprints still preserved on some of them.

Sumerian clay tokens, c.3300 BCE / Susa Museum, Iran

There is also a clear evolution in their design. Those found in earlier layers are plain, few in number and naturalistic in shape, while those dating to the latest times, after 3500 BCE, are more highly incised and decorated. Also there are more shapes and greater complexity among later tokens—at the same time, none required high-level skill in ceramics to create—including naturalistic renditions of beds, fruit and tools. Most intriguing of all, they stop being made after 3000 BCE, just as cuneiform enters the scene. In that final phase of their evolution, tokens revert to fewer and plainer shapes and eventually fall out of use entirely.

There are several other things notable about the nature and disposition of these tokens. For one, they come from all over the Near East: Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Israel. For another, they date to very early times, as far back as 8000 BCE. Furthermore, there is evidence some care went into their creation because many have been fired. Firing signifies a desire to preserve them, which in turn argues that they had value of some sort. They are, in fact, among the earliest fired ceramics known.

Clay writing tokens, c.3300 BCE / Museum of Susa, Iran

Most of this was already evident, if inexplicable, when Schmandt-Besserat began her work. Awareness of the existence of tokens, in fact, went back almost all the way to the beginning of Near Eastern archaeology in the nineteenth century. And as early as 1959, evidence emerged that tokens represented part of a system of enumeration, functioning as counters of some sort. In particular, an envelope-tablet had been found—envelope-tablets are hollow balls of clays with tokens inside—which contained on the exterior a list of sheep and on the interior the exact number of tokens matching that inscribed on the outside. But because this was the only such tablet known, it seemed a stretch to reconstruct a entire system of token-counting based on one single piece of evidence. But, as Schmandt-Besserat later noted, the existence of many tokens having the same shape but in different sizes does, in fact, suggest they once belonged to an accounting system of some sort.

Token material chart / Utah State University, Creative Commons

The decipherment of that system became the hallmark and triumph of her career. She noted initially that several of the designs used on and for tokens resembled later cuneiform signs. From there it was not much of a conceptual leap, though its implications to history were immense, that the tokens had originally functioned as counters representing one unit of a particular item, in much the same way later cuneiform signs denoted items in written form. But the problem wasn’t really the concept, so much as its application. How did this token system of counting work, and what was it used to count? And, most important, why was it necessary?

When tokens first appeared around 8000 BCE, the vast majority of people in the world subsisted as hunter-gatherers, constantly on the move, with little or no need for counting things since nomads don’t usually own much and what little they have is by necessity portable. Thus, it’s surprising to find counters among the remains of civilizations dating to seventh-millennium BCE. What do they have to count? To the contrary, a settled community where goods can be stored is where one expects to find an accounting system develop, but to the first users of tokens urbanization lay far off in a distant future they could hardly have imagined.

Çatalhöyük ruins / Wikimedia Commons

Or so it once seemed. Recent archaeological investigations have been pushing the horizon of urbanized life back further and further in time. Settlements like Çatal Hüyük (pronounced CHAT-ul HOO-yuk) in central Turkey, which is a prehistoric community dating well back into the sixth millennium BCE, give evidence that city sites existed long before the rise of Sumerian civilization (ca. 3000 BCE). This suggests, in fact, that urbanization began at the very brink of agriculture which in some places developed as early as the eighth millennium BCE, and since farming entails a settled lifestyle and the accumulation and storage of goods, it makes sense that a counting system like tokens would also have roots that deep in history. But the need for something doesn’t prove its existence. Fortunately, there’s other evidence that tokens served as counters.

Çatal Hüyük beehive city illustration / Utah State University, Creative Commons

Similar counting systems, for one, can be found even today all over the planet. Of particular interest here, modern shepherds in Iraq still use pebbles in counting sheep. But pebbles are undifferentiated, making it unclear what they represent. That is, if a counting system employs only one type of counter, it’s not possible to discriminate among various commodities. The solution to that problem is obvious and conforms precisely to the archaeological evidence seen in tokens, to differentiate the counters. Seen one way, tokens are exactly that, “differentiated pebbles.”

This makes it easy to understand how tokens would have been deployed in counting, as Schmandt-Besserat argues. Say, for instance, you’re a tribal chieftain and want to hold a feast. You send a runner, a young boy perhaps, off with a handful of tokens that function as a sort of “shopping list.” You could also keep for yourself an identical set as a reminder of what you’d put on your “list.” And you could even change your mind later and send off another boy with more tokens, in other words, a revised list. With all that, tokens clearly serve as a writing system, at least inasmuch as they are a form of communication and record-keeping in which it’s possible to edit one’s “words,” all the hallmarks of writing.

Clay animal tokens / Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The evolution of tokens over time only adds further to the supposition they represent an ancient accounting system of some sort. In terms of their shapes and signs, many tokens remained highly stable, changing remarkably little during their over four millennia of use in prehistory. Others, however, became more complex, especially in their latest incarnation around and after 3500 BCE as the cities of Mesopotamia were in ascendance. Their increasing vocabulary of incisions—that is, inscribed lines used to signify things—was, no doubt, the by-product of mounting urbanization. After all, as larger and more complex cities began to develop, there would have been more and more things to keep track of, necessitating a richer language of incisions to account for all that.

And one final piece of evidence attests to the use of tokens as a system of communication, the fact that many later ones have perforations, doubtlessly designed to allow them to be strung together. But why? As a filing system of some sort? Or, were they threaded on a string—a string, of course, is biodegradable and would not have survived over time—with its loose ends sealed together with a bulla, a stamped clay seal of some sort. That the more complex tokens are the ones most often found with perforations argues in favor of such an interpretation of the evidence.

Envelopes and Impressed Tablets

But the evidence that made Schmandt-Besserat’s theory most compelling came with her study of a particular type of cuneiform document, the envelope-tablet. As noted before, it was common practice in Mesopotamian society after the invention of cuneiform to enclose a contract in a clay envelope, with a copy of the contract on the outside. This ensured no one had tampered with the details.

A Mesopotamian cylinder seal depicting a god sitting behind a sacred tree, facing a woman and a serpent. / British Museum

What Schmandt-Besserat showed was that this tradition extended far back in time, long before cuneiform itself. The envelope-tablet mentioned above in which tokens were deployed as counters had been discovered as early as 1959. Schmandt-Besserat showed this was no fluke. Other and older examples began to appear once it was clear what to look for, particularly “clay balls” with tokens inside and corresponding decorations on the outside.

Even more important, though, some of these clay balls contained the impressions of cylinder seals, long narrow stone tubes with images engraved on them in reverse so that, when they’re rolled over wet clay, they leave behind a picture in relief. Because each cylinder seal is unique, Mesopotamians used them as a way of “signing” documents. Indeed, some ancient Near Eastern contracts have numerous cylinder seal impressions on them, which are, in effect, the signatures of the individuals involved in the contract.

Sumerian cylinder seal and tablet impression / British Museum

Envelope-tablets with the text of a contract and the signatory cylinder seal impressions on the inside offered the advantage of ensuring the validity and integrity of a business transaction. But when the cuneiform document was completed and sealed inside its envelope, it was difficult to know exactly what the contract stipulated since the clay envelope hid the text inside. Archaeology shows, however, that the ancients found a ready solution to that problem. They copied the contract onto the envelope itself.

Schmandt-Besserat’s contribution, arguably one of her greatest, was to show how old this practice really was, that in its earliest manifestation the envelope-tablet didn’t utilize cuneiform writing but tokens themselves pushed into the wet clay of an envelope which left their impression on it. While the clay is still wet, the tokens themselves were sealed inside, and the whole package was left to dry or be fired. The copy of the tokens on the envelope is itself an important conceptual leap, a first step toward representing tokens abstractly as two-dimensional cuneiform signs, not three-dimensional tokens.

The next step was to stop impressing the tokens on the envelope and instead draw their picture on the envelope’s wet clay, an advancement which followed soon thereafter. This was especially necessary for incised tokens, because their marks which are crucial to their meaning do not transfer well onto wet clay. And as incised tokens became more popular in the economic boom starting around 3500 BCE, the need to represent them precisely on envelopes would only have increased.

Finally the ancient Mesopotamians must have realized that, if the tokens inside are represented on the envelope and the tablet is fired making it impossible to alter it in any way, the tokens themselves inside the envelope aren’t necessary. All a contract really needed to ensure its lasting validity was the symbolic signs on the outer envelope, originally an exterior copy of the contract but now the whole contract itself. With this, it makes sense that cuneiform signs derived from the shapes and markings on tokens, which do, indeed, constitute a “picture” of sorts but not the sort of picture expected in the standard view of a pictograph. It’s a picture of a token, not a picture of the thing itself. Schmandt-Besserat sums it up this way:

[T]hese types of symbols, which derived from tokens, were picture signs or “pictographs.” They were not, however, pictographs of the kind anticipated by Warburton. The signs were not pictures of the items they represented but, rather, pictures of the tokens used as counters in the previous accounting system. . . The first tablets were a decisive step in the invention of writing and amounted to a revolution in communication technology.

The last step to a full and independent writing system was the creation of new cuneiform signs not based on an original token design. That must first have happened when the thing being represented wasn’t a commodity of exchange at all in the traditional token economy, no “sheep” or “bar of metal,” but something like “star” or “man.” And this explains why true pictographic cuneiform signs date, for the most part, to later, not earlier times. It also clarifies why many are expressed as a rebus, a “word-picture” in which the elements of the word are written as separate and unrelated pictures, like writing “carpet” by drawing an automobile and a cat or dog.

Cuneiform chart / Utah State University, Creative Commons

From there, it’s no long trek to creating a syllabary, that is, a writing system representing spoken syllables, in which any word can be spelled phonetically. As we’ll see in Chapter 17, the Western alphabet arose from just that. Thus, Denise Schmandt-Besserat’s innovative researches have brilliantly elucidated the origins of writing, which we now know evolved from distinctive clay tokens to envelope-tablets with impressions of tokens on the outside to token-free tablets written in cuneiform, eventually containing its own complex syllabary.

Besides that, it also shed light on two idiosyncrasies of Mesopotamian writing: why the Mesopotamians wrote on clay as opposed to some more convenient—or, at least, naturally flatter—medium, and why many cuneiform tablets are round. Ever since the earliest use of tokens, clay was the traditional medium of accounting transactions in Mesopotamia. And not just because it was convenient to hold clay in a ball did cuneiform tablets tend to come in a rounded form, but because it was also the traditional shape used for early clay envelopes enclosing tokens. Much like changing people’s minds today about writing on paper, “hard copy” that is, or using a size of paper other than eight-and-a-half-by-eleven-inches, cultural traditions can be deeply entrenched, even after technical advancements make them obsolete.

Conclusion: The Origin of Writing in Tokens

Thus, as a system of communication, tokens fulfill the three fundamental purposes which make writing the monumental invention it is. First, the use of tokens allowed ancient peoples to communicate across unprecedented expanses of space and time far exceeding the range of the voice. Second, they constituted a form of record-keeping, permitting the precise determination of how many there were of something, and even to distinguish between different types of item. And finally, the ability to re-send messages, to renegotiate contracts, to string tokens together and then re-string them entails perhaps the most important feature of this writing system, the revision process which admits scrutiny and editing of thought.

Perhaps most important of all to note, the discovery of all this came not from digging up new information but the study of what had already been uncovered and was sitting in museums, and in some cases had been for decades. It took fresh insight, a newcomer’s eyes, to realize all that it represented. Little wonder, then, Schmandt-Besserat’s theory was nominated as among the top one-hundred scientific theories of the twentieth century. It illuminates, after all, one of the top twenty inventions in a hundred centuries.

Pre-Alphabetic Writing

S. Harris, Wikimedia Commons

It’s pervasive. You see it everywhere—you’re looking at it right now, in fact—which makes it hard to remember sometimes that someone somewhere invented the alphabet, that it’s not a natural part of our being, not even as organic as counting to ten on your fingers. It’s also wise to remember that transcribing spoken words is only one way to record thoughts. That is, writing does not have to be alphabetic—it can be pictographic, with symbols representing images, the way men’s and women’s bathrooms are identified with male and female symbols all across the globe. Symbols are just as valid a way of expressing a thought as any word written using a alphabet. After all, who said what you hear or speak is closer to what you think than what you see or draw? Certainly, not Rembrandt!

And so there was a time before the invention of the alphabet, when other systems of writing prevailed in the West. This has always been true in China, for instance, where the writing system has never been tied explicitly to oral communication. In particular, ancient Mesopotamian peoples like the Sumerians and Babylonians wrote using ideograms, graphic symbols representing ideas or objects. Because of that, wherever cuneiform went, so did the supposition that ideograms were the way to write. But what happened to that mode of inscription? If early Western civilizations used a pictorial system to write, why don’t we still today?

There’s an easy answer to that question. Ideograms require an enormous investment of time, especially in the early stages of acquisition. It takes Chinese children, for instance, considerably more effort and usually much longer to learn how to write than their occidental counterparts trained in an alphabetic system. That’s because Asian students must essentially start from scratch and master a whole new way of communicating, whereas Western students with their ABC’s can depend somewhat on the spoken language they’ve already absorbed to help them read and write. “Somewhat” is key here, however, because alphabets are notoriously imprecise in recording the sounds actually articulated in speech. We’ll return to that point at the end of this section.

For now, let’s begin by surveying in brief what’s known about how the alphabet evolved. Its original stimulus seems to have come from Egyptian hieroglyphics, as they spread through Semitic communities in the Sinai and the deserts south of Palestine. From there it moved north across the ancient Near East. The Phoenicians, a sea-faring empire based on trade, carried alphabetic writing west, especially into Greece where it’s first evidenced around 850 BCE.

In Greek hands, the alphabet underwent important transformations, particularly the inclusion of vowels for the first time. Because they had strong ties to Italy, the Greeks handed their version of the alphabet to the Etruscans, an early Italic people, through whom it later passed to the Romans. Both made notable changes to accommodate alphabetic writing to their particular tongues. The Roman ABC’s subsequently formed the basis of both the Medieval and modern alphabets used in the West. Perhaps what’s more important to note is that, for all it’s seen, this type of writing has remained remarkably stable because, once set, an alphabet is hard to change.

Egyptian Hieroglyphics

The earliest predecessor of today’s Western alphabet is evidenced only long after its invention, leaving its origin deep in the mists of historical speculation. But since certain symbols found in ancient Egyptian scripts bear striking resemblance to some later alphabetic forms, scholars have hypothesized that the alphabet evolved out of hieroglyphics, at least in part. This insight stems from our understanding of the nature and evolution of ancient Egyptian writing, and for that we are in debt to the brilliant French linguist, Jean François Champollion, who in 1822 took the first crucial steps toward deciphering hieroglyphics. His principal assumption, that they incorporated at least some phonetic symbols, signs based on sounds—that is, Egyptian writing did not entirely comprised ideograms—broke important, new ground, allowing us not only to hear the Egyptians’ stories and histories in their own terms but also to grasp the contribution they made to modern writing, too.

Even though Mesopotamian cuneiform predates any known Egyptian script by at least a century or so, the Egyptians, it seems, invented hieroglyphics independently. If, instead, they learned from Mesopotamians how to write and didn’t come up with it all on their own, it can only have been written communication in its most rudimentary form, little more than the inspiration itself to write. That’s because there’s all but no apparent similarity between the cuneiform and hieroglyphic scripts.

Far more important than any civilization’s claim to originality, however, are the advancements the Egyptians engineered in the technology of writing. To understand this, it’s necessary to delve briefly into the nature of hieroglyphics itself. In describing a world as complex as theirs, the scribes of ancient Egypt sought ways to expand the possibilities their writing system afforded. So, instead of relying strictly or even primarily on ideographic signs, they explored ways of representing spoken words in a written form. To wit, they began writing down what they heard, not just what they saw.

Hieroglyph chart / Utah State University, Creative Commons

From this evolved a syllabic script which could be used to write virtually any word in their language based on its pronunciation. In other words, the Egyptians developed a series of signs representing the syllables they used in speech, symbols, for instance, which represented the letter b in combination with any vowel: ba, be, bi, bo, bu and so on. With these, they could approximate the sound of any word—or wo-ra-de as they might have written our word “word” back then—and to help people remember the values these sounds portrayed, many of them were invested with mnemonic qualities, meaning their shapes served as aids to the reader’s memory of the consonants they signified. So, for instance, the sign for “r” in hieroglyphics looked like a mouth since r or r’t is the Egyptian word for “mouth.”

Still, having to phrase every word as some sort of wo-ra-de left things open to more than a little confusion. In other words, if you use syllabic signs, how can you tell that wo-ra-de means “word,” not “ward” or “weird”? But instead of doing what seems so obvious to us now, that is, use vowels to distinguish “word” from “weird”—the assignment of vowel qualities to letters like a, e, i, o, and u came only much later, and from a source far outside Egypt—Egyptian scribes devised a different and remarkably ingenious solution to the problem.

Pictograph chart / Utah State University, Creative Commons

They came up with a complex system of determinatives, ideographic signs used in tandem with syllabic figures to represent a word. It’s as if you wanted to write “pen” but had no vowels and could only put down symbols which represented the sounds “pa” and “ne.” Your reader might, then, interpret your pa-ne as not “pen,” but “pin” or “pan” or “pane” or “pine” or “pun.” So, to clarify which pa-ne you meant you drew an ideograph which looked like a pen after the word to show that the pa-ne you meant was “pen.” Such ideographic determinatives are found throughout hieroglyphics, and are part of what made and still makes Egyptian writing a formidable challenge to read.

But that’s also clearly part of the point of hieroglyphics. The scribal profession in Egypt was a highly selective and lucrative vocation, a monopoly of a sort in which scribes had a vested interest in maintaining a complex system which only they and their trained colleagues could decipher. Thus, it wasn’t in the general interest of the literate community in ancient Egypt to simplify or popularize writing, and so, while the Egyptian scriptural tradition had in it all the elements necessary for the creation of an alphabet, no such revolution ever took place in all of ancient Egypt’s long history. Those who could write didn’t want anyone to have an alphabet because it would have put them out of a job.

So, because of their inherently cryptic nature, it took a linguistic genius on the order of Champollion to unravel the secrets of hieroglyphics for the modern age. And it took an even greater genius to see that using only the alphabetic symbols inherent in a scribal system like hieroglyphics could make writing a feature of daily life for everyone. That stroke of brilliance belongs to some person or persons whose identity has been lost amidst the ravaged historical records of the second millennium BCE.

The Invention and Spread of the Alphabet

Ancient Egyptian chronology / Utah State University, Creative Commons

The alphabet, then, was not so much invented as isolated. That much is clear, even if the question is when and where and by whom is not. Hints of an alphabetic script are found as far back as 1700 BCE in evidence left behind by miners in the turquoise quarries of the Sinai (the triangular peninsula between Egypt and the Holy Lands). Soon thereafter, other early alphabetic scripts begin to emerge from texts written in Palestine. So it seems the alphabet escaped Egypt, much like the Hebrews of the Exodus, fleeing east and north across the desert, and wandered like Moses for many years in the wilderness.

Wikimedia Commons

Of this alphabet’s inventors we know nothing certain other than that they spoke a Semitic language, one related to Arabic and Hebrew, because the letters of this early alphabet conform well with the consonants prevalent in Semitic tongues. As such, it includes a number of gutturals, not the same sounds made in the back of the mouth as we saw in Indo-European languages but rasping sounds made deep in the throat and found frequently in Hebrew, Arabic and their linguistic kin. In other words, the early alphabet was designed to suit a Semitic speaker’s natural mode of talking.

It would be more accurate, however, to say alphabets—plural!—since the letters we ultimately ended up with don’t represent the only attempt to craft alphabetic writing in the second millennium BCE. Clearly, the idea of finding a way to simplify and popularize writing was in the air at this time. At Ugarit, for example, a city in northern Syria and a rich cosmopolitan trade center, there evolved an alphabet based not on the letter shapes with which we are familiar but cuneiform symbols, the type of writing popular in Mesopotamia at the time. Thus, this cuneiform alphabet is not a forerunner but an analog of the lettering system we use today. That is, someone faced east and tried doing the same thing with Mesopotamian cuneiform that the inventors of our alphabet did looking southwest to Egypt and hieroglyphics. That this cuneiform alphabet eventually didn’t catch on in the long run is probably little more than a fluke of fate.

The Phoenician Alphabet

All evidence, however, seems to indicate that the letters we use to write didn’t derive from this cuneiform-based script but the syllabic signs employed in Egyptian hieroglyphics. Somehow these letter forms made their way north to Phoenicia (on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea) where they flourished and began to spread widely, as evidenced by an explosion in alphabetic writing toward the end of the second millennium BCE in the lands around Palestine. There for the first time we see names given to the letters themselves: ‘aleph, beth, gimel, daleth, etc. These would later turn into the well-known register of Greek letters: alpha, beta, gamma, delta, ktl., from which comes our word alphabet, an abridged form of this list “alpha-bet(a-gamma, . . .).”

Phoenician to medieval scripts / Utah State University, Creative Commons

Though nonsense to us, it’s easy to see why these particular names were chosen in Phoenician. They signify the letters’ values. ‘Aleph is the Phoenician word for “ox,” beth means “house,” gimel “camel,” daleth “door,” and so on. In other words, the Phoenician alphabet incorporates the same mnemonic device the Egyptians used, that each letter’s shape depicts a common thing, the word for which begins with the sound that letter represents.

But the Phoenicians went further than the Egyptians and named the very letter itself after that thing. When they then used only these letters in writing, that is, no ideographs or determinatives, a fully alphabetic script had at last been born. And in much the same way we teach children the alphabet today by having them recite “A is for apple, B is for boy, C is for cat, . . .,” the Phoenicians memorized their alphabet with similar mnemonics, except that their world was one of oxen and camels.

Script comparisons / Utah State University, Creative Commons

In the shapes of the letters themselves it’s also possible to see their figurative origin as illustrations designed to aid the memory. A is formed the way it is because it looks like an “ox”—turn it upside down and it has horns—B looks like a “house,” originally a rectangle divided in half as if it were an aerial drawing of a two-room home. The curve of C was originally a crude rendition of a camel’s hump, and so on. All this was designed to help Phoenicians recall each letter’s value, a pictographic reminder of the alphabet’s sounds, making it much easier to deploy than the daunting variety of signs required in either cuneiform or hieroglyphic writing.

That clear advantage was, however, offset by the complexity entailed in alphabetic writing as it moved between languages. Many of those problems encountered in transmission stemmed from the wide variety of consonant sounds found in different tongues. For instance, few languages other than English utilize the interdental /th/. Putting your tongue between your teeth as they’re closing is a thing most people instinctually avoid.

Hebrew Gezer “calendar” / Utah State University, Creative Commons

So, exporting the alphabet from Phoenicia wasn’t as easy an affair as simply handing it to foreigners and saying, “Here, use this to write with!” The ‘aleph-beth-gimel alphabet, so clearly tailored to Semitic linguistic structures and especially the Phoenician language, makes an excellent in point. To wit, early alphabetic writing evidences well its innate regionalism in one of its more unusual qualities—unusual to Westerners, at least—its lack of vowels.

Phoenician, and Semitic languages in general—which include modern Hebrew and Arabic—freely alter the internal vowels in a word according to an established schema, thereby changing its function. That is, by inserting different vowels it’s possible to change the way a word works in a sentence, in the same way we turn “write” into “wrote” to create a past-tense form in English. In Semitic languages, however, this system is far more complex and comprehensive, allowing vowel substitutions to make a verb into a noun. KTB, for instance, is the Semitic root for “write,” rendering many words in Arabic: katib “writer,” kitab “book,” katab “wrote,” and so on. To put it simply, consonants in Semitic languages tend to reflect root vocabulary, whereas vowels supply grammatical structures or clarify a word’s function in a sentence.

Because of this, the early Semitic inventors of the alphabet wrote only consonants, those being the principal agents of vocabulary in their language. This is why the name of God given to Moses, JHWH, is a string of consonants only, later rendered variously as Jehovah or Jahweh. Early Hebrews had no way to write vowels with their alphabet and, in fact, saw little need for them because through their native understanding of the Hebrew language they could supply the vowels in words as they read. And that’s where the Greeks come in.

The Greek Alphabet

That the Greeks inherited the alphabet from the Phoenicians is clear in several ways. First, the order of the letters in the Greek alphabet is basically the same as that in the Phoenician. Second, the Phoenician letter-names were carried over into Greek with only minor change —alpha, beta, gamma, delta—even though to the Greeks these names were meaningless terms. Third, the ancient Greeks themselves attested to their alphabet’s Phoenician heritage by calling it Phoinikeia grammata, “Phoenician letters,” and claiming it was brought to Greece by the Phoenician-born hero Cadmus, a figure in Greek mythology.

Wikimedia Commons

The remarkable consistency between the Greek and Phoenician alphabets extends to much more than the names for letters, however. With a stability maintained for millennia, the alphabet underwent very few changes during its translation into Greece, such that even if a Phoenician letter imported a sound the Greeks didn’t use, they retained the letter. That, however, opened the door to other developments.

One can see the problems—or opportunities—which the early alphabet presented the Greeks nowhere better than with ‘aleph, the first Phoenician letter. Before the Greeks recast this as it alpha, it represented a guttural consonant, something that sounds like gargling to us and has no counterpart in either English or Greek. Yet, the Greeks not only kept ‘aleph in their alphabet but retained it in the first position, a remarkably conservative posture.

But this conservatism also presented important opportunities for significant change, two in particular. First, when the Greek felt they needed to add new letters, they put them at the end of the alphabet, even where it made more sense to put them next to related letters. That’s because it’s very difficult to take ABC and turn it into ABWXYZC. Too many parents and teachers have nursed too many young readers on ABC, those letters with those values in that order, to make such a change work.

Thus, the new letters the Greeks needed to add—and they had little choice but to put them in their alphabet, since without them the Greeks couldn’t transcribe all the words of their language alphabetically—they more or less had to include them at the end of the alphabet. These were their phi, chi, psi, omega, the last four letters of the Greek alphabet. This set a trend in alphabetic evolution that new comes last, explaining why our alphabet ends W, X, Y, Z. Every one of this final quarter is a later addition appended onto the alphabet.

Besides that, the Greeks introduced a second major innovation in alphabetic writing, the vowel. Because Indo-European languages didn’t employ vowels as grammatical markers the way Semitic languages did, it wasn’t possible to write Greek or any Indo-European language using only consonants. Wtht vwls ts hrd t knw wht wrds yr rdng. And basic words like English a or I or French eau (“water”) would have been completely impossible to write. To make any use at all of the alphabet, the Greeks had to find some way of representing vowels.

Fortuitously, the solution to this problem worked in concert with the remedy for another. The Greeks needed vowels in order to write their language, and at the same time several of the letters they’d inherited from the Phoenicians represented sounds useless to them. So, with typical Greek confidence-in-rationalism they reassigned the phonetic value of these letters and turned them into vowels, without changing the traditional order of the letters. And so ‘aleph became alpha, the forerunner of our letter a, as did epsilon the ancestor of e, iota i, omicron and omega o, and upsilon u.

This explains why our vowels are all over the alphabet instead of being neatly collected in one place, as logic would dictate. They are, at heart, phonetic substitutions for the wide array of Phoenician gutturals found all across the original lettering system inherited by but useless to Greeks who were bold enough to give these letters new value but not so Philistine as to give them a new position in the alphabet. The addition of vowels entailed monumental consequences in the history of writing in the West, showing that, like politics, writing encompasses the art of the possible.

By endowing alphabetic writing with the possibility of much broader cultural applicability, the Greeks’ invention of vowels proved a turning point in Western Civilization. John Healey sums up neatly the significance of vowels:

The two great pivotal moments in this story (of the alphabet) are the devising of the consonantal alphabet on an acrophonic basis in the early second millennium BC, and the addition of the vowels to the consonantal repertoire in the earlier part of the first millennium BC. The first of these steps forward we owe to some uncertain group of inventors, possibly in a scribal school in Palestine, Phoenicia or Syria. The second we owe to the Greeks. The only other invention in this field which is more important than either of these is the invention of writing itself . . .

So enticing, in fact, were these Greek-devised vowels that ultimately those cultures which had inspired the alphabet but had at first written only in consonants ultimately adopted them, too. Hebrew and Arabic writing today marks vowels, though not with letters but punctuation marks added near a consonant.

The Greeks fostered one other significant development in alphabetic writing, the regular predisposition to write left-to-right. While early Greek lettering could go either left-to-right or right-to-left, and even sometimes both—a script that alternates between left-to-right and right-to-left on every other line is called boustrophedon, literally in Greek “as the ox turns (in plowing a field)”—eventually the Greeks settled on left-to-right as the standard form for writing, part and parcel of the general privileging of right-handedness in Western Civilization. That is, when righthanders put ink on paper, they’re less inclined to smear the letters if they pull their hands away from what they’re writing, and thus Greek scripts eventually settled into a left-to-right disposition, leaving lefties, on the other inky hand, to their own sinister deviances.

The Later History of the Alphabet

In the East, the Hebrews and other Semitic groups including the ancestors of the modern Arabs developed their own alphabet and direction of writing (right to left). These, too, evolved into different types of scripts, especially as time passed and Semitic languages multiplied. In particular, Aramaic, the most widespread of those daughter languages, ultimately replaced Hebrew as the common tongue used by the ancient Israelites, bringing with it its own species of alphabet.

The Roman Alphabet

Meanwhile, letters were spreading westward, too. The first non-Greek peoples we know of who used the Western alphabet in Italy were the Etruscans. This civilization was based in the area north of Rome, around modern Florence and Tuscany, and during the sixth and fifth centuries dominated the inhabitants of central Italy, including the early Romans. Among the many cultural artifacts which Etruscan control left behind in Roman life was the Greek alphabet, though in an adapted form.

Early Roman territory / Wikimedia Commons

For instance, the Greek alphabet which began alpha, beta, gamma, the equivalent of our ABG, evolved under Etruscan management into ABC because the letters C and G are closely related and thus easily confused. In the process of this shift, not only did G end up being removed and replaced by C but later it had to be re-inserted into the alphabet to restore the g-sound. This also left the alphabet with two hard c-sounds represented by C and K, the way it still is today. It would have made sense to eliminate either C or K, if that didn’t entail effecting a fundamental change in the presentation of the alphabet, a structure rarely so liberal as to admit that sort of editing.

Several other changes occurred as a result of the importation of the Greek alphabet into Italy. One entailed the letter Z, a sound which the Romans didn’t use until they came under the influence of the Greek civilization and began borrowing words with zeta in them, the letter that represented that sound in Greek and seen in English words of Greek derivation like zeal, zone and Zeus. In the Greek alphabet zeta comes rather early, immediately after epsilon (the Greek equivalent of E).

While early Italians had inherited zeta along with the rest of the Greek alphabet, they had no words with the z-sound in them and, having no immediate reason to keep the letter, had omitted it from their earlier version of the alphabet. When the later Romans found that they did, in fact, need it, they re-introduced Z into their alphabet, putting it at the end where it wouldn’t disrupt the order of letters which was by then well-established. And that’s why Z comes last in the Roman alphabet and all its descendants, including ours.

Another such change involved the letter which has come down to us as F. Called digamma in Greek, it originally signified not the f-sound but was the equivalent of our /w/. Before the Classical Age, however, it had fallen into disuse because all w-sounds disappeared from the Greek language. Even though not in use, digamma remained for a long time in the Greek alphabet and, as such, was exported wherever the Greek alphabet traveled, to early Rome for instance. And because the Romans needed a letter to represent the f-sound which they had but Greek didn’t, they simply re-assigned digamma the value of /f/, the sound it has signified in Western writing ever since.

The Medieval Alphabet

After the disintegration of the Roman synthesis in the fifth century ending classical antiquity, literacy in the West relapsed into near extinction. This again opened up the possibility for substantive changes to be made in the alphabet—the fewer people who know something, the easier it is to revise it—despite that, however, not many modifications of any real significance actually took place in alphabetic writing during the Middle Ages. And those few that did remained generally true to the inherited letter forms in order, sound and shape. So, even amidst several changes in scripts, ABC and its literal successors still held sway.

One of the few notable changes which took place was the separation of I and J, letters which come from the same original character in the Roman alphabet. Originally, the Phoenician letter yod (“hand”)—a hand held up with fingers closed still resembles the upright form of the letter I—had developed into the Greek iota, one of the vowel-sounds the Greeks introduced into the alphabet. This subsequently passed to the Romans as the letter I, used in Latin to represent both the vowel sound /i/ and the consonant sound /y/.

In the Middle Ages, this caused confusion since the i-sound and y-sound are different, even though closely related. To distinguish them, Medieval writers added a curved tail onto I when it was being used as a consonant, rendering the modern form J. Even though this letter later took on a different value, the sound which begins modern English words like “jar” and “joint,” many modern languages still retain the letter’s original vocal quality, the y-sound. So, for instance, a German word like jung is pronounced “yung.” Thus, the creation of J out of I explains not only why these letters look alike but also the reason they sit next to each other in the alphabet.

In similar fashion, Roman U replicated during the Middle Ages, but into three different letters: U, V and W. Just like I and J, this trio evolved to reflect separate sounds, the vowel (U) and consonants (V, W), all forms of front rounded sounds, that is, what comes out of the mouth when the vocal chords are used and the lips pursed. The similarity of shape U, V and W share shows their common origin, too.

The Alphabet and Spelling

The complexity we’ve just reviewed—though it’s not so complex if you take into account the many centuries the alphabet has been around and all the evolution it might have undergone—the variety of changes in form and value which alphabetic signs have embraced raises the difficult issue of its general usefulness in modern society. That is, it’s supposed to be a simple way of writing, but it’s not. So then is the alphabet really a good idea? After all, if the spelling of words today has become so obtuse that English speakers can hold spelling bees and people need dictionaries just to figure out how to spell a word—and what would the inventors of the alphabet have to say about that?—we’ve definitely lost the sight of the original purpose of the alphabet, to simplify writing and make it easier to learn and do.

But it’s not the alphabet’s fault really. At the heart of modern people’s problems with writing in English is the strange misfortune that our spelling has not been comprehensively revised for centuries. So, we can’t blame the alphabet itself but our own tendency not to reform the way we deploy it, not only the shape and order of its letters but their application in writing as well. Our reluctance to renovate this long-standing tradition in our society is what leaves us in such dyer straights—I mean “dire straits”?

Yet, conservatism is a hallmark of the alphabet’s nature. History certainly documents that much. If that weren’t true and the alphabet didn’t constitute so basic an element of our culture, we could easily eliminate much of the confusion in spelling, for example, taking out either C or K and having only one way of writing the hard c-sound. But it doesn’t seem very likely we’ll ever be able to do that—in fakt, one kould kall it klose to inkonkeivable to akkomplish!—because both the letters and the ways we use them are too deeply entrenched in our civilization today.

The result is a cacophony of sound symbols, a confused writing system chock-full of archaic spellings like “knight,” originally pronounced “kuh-nee-guh-tuh” which might have been fine for Chaucer but not for anyone alive now. To that can be added a long litany of lost consonants—gnat, gnaw, folk, would, aisle, eight—all pronounced at one time but now the fossil imprints of defunct phonemes. Multiply that with foreign borrowings like buffet and chutzpah which bring with them exotic letter clusters (-et = –ay) or foreign sounds (ch– = guttural) and the situation comes close to untenable. All in all, nothing says absurdity quite like garbage: one word, two g’s, and each pronounced differently.

In fact, spelling in English has reached such a pitch of insanity certain sounds are expressed with a ludicrous array of letter configurations. For instance, the /sh/ sound can be represented at least eight different ways in English: shoe, sugar, passion, ambition, ocean, champagne, Confucius, and Sean . The long-o sound shows up in as many manifestations, too: go, beau, boat, stow, sew, doe, though, escargot. Worse yet, even the simplest words aren’t consistent in their spelling. Consider four, fourth, fourteen, twenty-four, but forty. They all sound the same, so what happened to the u in forty?

This astounding and needless confusion has inspired many an attempt at reform. Among those who have attempted to revise English spelling are some of the most notable exponents of our language ever: Noah Webster, Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Darwin, Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, Andrew Carnegie and Brigham Young. But all these influential voices have run up against one impassable obstacle: which pronunciation is one to use in revising the spelling of words?

Take girl, for instance. To which spelling do we “correct” it: gal (American dialect), goil (New York), gull (Irish), gel (London), gill (South African) or gairull (Scottish)? Because alphabets are tied to pronunciation, spelling accordingly fragments as languages break up into dialects. And even if we could come up with a quick and ready solution for our pressing literal woes, changing times would demand revisions in spelling almost as soon as repairs had been effected. That’s the disadvantage of using a writing system based on spoken language, the dark counterpart to its great advantage, how easy it is to learn.

Except, it’s not easy to learn, not any more at least. If we go without revising English spelling much longer, the letter forms will have so little affinity with the sound of words we speak, the alphabet might as well be an ideographic system. We claim, for instance, it’s easier to learn to write alphabetically than memorize all the characters a Chinese student has to but, with a century or two more of disjunction in spelling and sound, it won’t be. And even as it is, most English-speaking adults have yet to master our incomprehensable spelling completely. Or is that incomprehensible?

And how complex is the Chinese writing system really? There, every word is a separate symbol, each based on about 212 fundamental radicals (basic forms). More complicated ideas employ a combination of symbols, such as “eye” + “water” = “teardrop,” or a sign with two symbols for “women” means “quarrel,” and with three it means “gossip.” Though there are around fifty thousand symbols total, only four thousand are in common use because the combination of symbols allows the system to reach out broadly across the continuum of thought.

Chinese

Typing Chinese is, granted, a nightmare. The best typists manage about ten words a minute, and the old mechanical typewriters were comical to observe in use, so long that typists had to run up and down the keyboard, literally. And Chinese dictionaries are hard to organize, too, since how do you alphabetize words when there’s no alphabet? Needless to say, there are no Chinese crossword puzzles, Scrabble® or Morse code.

But in spite of all that, the Chinese system offers some enormous advantages, such as not having to be modified according to changes in dialect or as spoken language evolves. Actually, in some respects Chinese writing hasn’t had to evolve at all, no more at least than our form (“star”) which is represented today by an asterisk (*, literally “little star” in Greek), a symbol which has remained essentially the same since the time of ancient Babylon. Not only that but the ideographic system used in China can be understood any place the system is known, even where spoken language isn’t. Thus, the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius, who would hardly understand a single spoken work today, would be able to read many parts of a modern newspaper. His Western counterpart, Socrates, who lived more than a millennium after Confucius, would be totally at sea in print or conversation.

All this raises the difficult question of whether or not we should perhaps entertain the idea of adopting an ideographic scheme of writing like the one the Chinese employ, and give up on seeking ways to revise the alphabetic system we currently employ. Alphabets inherently bring with them such profound problems—archaisms like “knight,” confrontations between what’s said and what’s written like “girl/gal/goil,” letters with multiple values like the g‘s in garbage, various ways of construing the same sound like /sh/ (ocean, notion, passion, fashion, etc.) and, worst of all, a tendency toward traditionalism which obstructs even the most fundamental and necessary revisions—it seems impossible to come up with a solution that will have any general applicability or appeal. And given the “great men” who have tried, I doubt we ever will. So, in the end, we have to ask: ABC?

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