Linguistics Language and Literacy
Origin Of Writing
Although many nations have claimed to have invented writing from scratch, only one culture in the Eastern Hemisphere, Mesopotamia, can show in its archaeological record the long series of steps needed to develop this significant invention. It is easy to invent a writing system once someone points out that language can be represented in a permanent form by making visible squiggles, each standing for a word or sound. But the notion that one can write at all is far more difficult to conceive the first time, truly one of the world's great ideas. Evidence shows that such an abstraction did not come easily. To trace its origin in the Near East, we must go back another 5,000 years to 8000 B.C.E., to early Neolithic sites in Syria and Iraq.
The Neolithic, or New Stone Age, differs from the Paleolithic, or Old Stone Age, in that people now had domestic plants and animals, permanent open-air settlements, and stone tools ground to a fine edge instead of merely chipped. At a number of Neolithic Near Eastern sites, along with evidence for early experiments in architecture and weaving, we find experiments with clay: hundreds of tiny balls, cones, disks, and other simple geometric shapes, which archaeologists at first took for children's game pieces. We now know they were used for keeping accounts of livestock, grain, and other possessions, each shape denoting a different commodity and each animal or unit of goods tallied by a separate piece of clay. Thus, five disks with crosses might correspond to five sheep, and three balls to three measures of grain.
The developmental history of this accounting system (which soon spread across the Near East and into southeast Europe), together with linguistic reconstructions indicating the lack of abstract number words (for example, six, seven, eight) in any language prior to 3000 B.C.E., indicate that Stone Age peoples did not have an abstract notion of number yet. Lacking number words, they counted simply by matching the animals or jars in question to an equal number of concrete tokens. (Such systems continue to be used in a few societies.) With a simple Neolithic economy, this was sufficient for keeping track of things, although, apparently for security against swindlers, the Mesopotamians added the habit of sealing the little clay tokens of a transaction into a clay ball onto which each token had been impressed once. (This enabled everyone to see what the account was, but no one could snitch or add tokens.) But when, in fourth-millennium Mesopotamia, people began gathering in huge cities and needed to redistribute goods for labor in complex ways, they were forced to devise a more powerful and more flexible system.
The later history of writing systems shows that each new idea for restructuring writing to make it more efficient (such as moving from word writing to syllabic writing, or from syllabic to alphabetic) came from a new group learning the old way of doing things and saying, in effect, "There's got to be a better way." Just as each new generation of children restructures slightly the language data learned from its elders, so systems of writing and notation have been restructured by those with a fresh view. The same presumably happened here.
About 3100 B.C.E., in the Mesopotamian city of Uruk, we suddenly see a new "take" on the meaning of the impressions on the clay envelopes holding tokens. Before, the impression of a small cone meant a small measure of grain and that of a big cone meant a larger measure of grain (which happened to equal sixty of the little measures, just as a gallon happens to equal sixteen cups in our system). But now the small cone was reinterpreted as meaning "1" and the big cone as "60," and another measure in-between (similar to our quart) was reinterpreted as "10" (since it was equal in volume to ten of the smallest unit). With these impressed shapes reinterpreted as designating the number intended, however, the scribe now had to specify separately the object being counted. At that moment, the system developed into two types of signs: one kind for abstract numbers, the other for names of objects. The latter corresponded to the vocabulary words of language. Thus, if we want to speak of four rings, we don't say "ring ring ring ring" (or write "oooo," which is how the Neolithic scribes did it); we use only two words, one for the number (four) and another for the object (rings). To write this as "4 o" would then correspond unit-for-unit to the words we speak.
The only problem with this system was that words for abstract numbers did not exist. Because we see such words hastily cobbled into being at just this time, we know that they must have been forced into existence by the reinterpretation of the impressed tokens. Now humans had two new ideas to expand upon: the notion of abstract numbers (numbers independent of any particular thing being counted), and the notion that the impressed patterns could correspond to the successive words in a spoken phrase or sentence (four rings).
Drawing little pictures to denote words like ring or tree (pictograms) was fine, but what do you do with grammatical words and other unpicturables like the and or ? The easiest way was to use sound-alikes (homonyms or near homonyms), as in the modern game of charades. Thus, if one did this in English, or could be denoted by a picture of an oar, and so on. (This game, called rebus writing, was easier to play in Sumerian than in English because most Sumerian words were only one syllable long.) To tell which word with that sound was meant, scribes began adding extra signs to give clues to the semantic realm. Thus the "oar" pictogram might have a schematic tree beside it when it meant "oar," warning the reader to pick the word sounding that way that denoted something wooden (eliminating or and ore). In this way the script gradually became adequate for representing anything in the language, although it was centuries before grammatical words were consistently written along with the "content" (lexical) words. As this writing system became more adequate, it also became more unwieldy, requiring the student to learn hundreds of signs.
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