8 minute read

Linguistics Language and Literacy

Spread Of Writing And Literacy

Other early scripts were equally large and unwieldy, and their structures give some clues to their origins. The Egyptians appear to have gotten the idea that one could write with pictograms and rebuses from the Mesopotamians around 3100 B.C.E., almost as soon as the Mesopotamians invented true writing, and then made up their script themselves, basing some signs on traditional proprietary marks and drawing pictures for others. So far we lack evidence showing the Egyptians working up step by step to the abstract notion of writing, and we know they borrowed a number of other cultural ideas from Mesopotamia at exactly this period, so this hypothesis of borrowing is the best one we have to date. The Egyptian push to write, unlike that in Mesopotamia, seems to have been chiefly religious rather than economic, especially the desire to preserve personal names for an eternal afterlife. The very earliest Egyptian inscriptions that have come down to us are names of kings and pharaohs.

Egyptian writing maintained its predominantly religious character to the very end, even though faster cursive forms of the script were eventually devised for writing mundane secular documents. But the Egyptian script never became simpler, retaining its many hundreds of signs until it fell out of use in Roman times.

The Chinese script, which began to blossom during the first great dynasty of China, the Shang (1500–1100 B.C.E.), appears so much later than cuneiform or Egyptian hieroglyphics, in a period when Chinese already contained loan words from Iranian and possibly other Indo-European languages from the West, that probably the script was jump-started like Egyptian, by diffusion of at least the idea that one could write. The signs themselves seem to have been created indigenously, but the writing system closely resembles the Near Eastern scripts in being composed of several hundred pictograms, rebuses, and semantic determinatives. On the other hand, archaic Chinese (like Sumerian) contained mostly words of one syllable, so the Chinese were in a convenient position to (re)invent for themselves the notion of rebuses.

When a script contains hundreds of signs and considerable ambiguity, an individual must devote enormous time and energy to becoming literate. In early societies this had two major consequences: (1) scribes/writers were specialists (fully supported by the rest of society with food, etc.), and (2) there were very few of them. In other words, literacy was not something that many could attain, and, with so few writers, only the most important things got written down. For the Mesopotamians the important topic initially was economic transactions, for the Egyptians, religious matters pertaining to eternity, and, for the Chinese, oracles about future events. Gradually other matters—both religious and secular—came to be recorded, but the cost of educating scribes was always a bottleneck, while the past investment by each of these cultures in their systems made throwing them out unthinkable.

Such was not the case for neighboring cultures. Over and over neighbors restructured these systems as they borrowed them, usually recasting them in such a way as to make the writing more efficient. Living with the Sumerians in Mesopotamia were speakers of various Semitic dialects, such as Akkadian. When Sargon of Akkad took over Mesopotamia soon after 2400 B.C.E., his scribes took the Sumerian pictograms at their phonetic value alone (no meaning whatsoever implied) in order to spell out their native Akkadian syllable by syllable (syllabic signs). Conceptually, this was a big step forward because there are so few sounds in a language compared to the huge number of words. Unfortunately, the scribes only went halfway, retaining many Sumerian pictograms as a shorthand for Akkadian words, since a Sumerian word required only one sign, in general, whereas Akkadian words, which typically contained two to five syllables, required many more. So, although the Semitic scribes had made a major conceptual breakthrough (one that the Chinese never made), it remained for others to benefit from this simplification.

Hieroglyphs from the Book of the Dead, in the Tomb of Ramses VI, Valley of the Kings, Thebes, Egypt. First deciphered by Jean François Champollion in 1822, hieroglyphs represent one of the earliest types of true linguistically structured forms of writing. Hieroglyphs are descended from Coptic, an ancient religious language. © GIANNI DAGLI ORTI /CORBIS

The Hittites, an Indo-European group in Anatolia (modern Turkey), attempted to simplify the Sumerian system. When they borrowed cuneiform they dropped most of the duplicate ways of writing a given syllable, whittling down the syllabary to just over one hundred basic signs. But these scribes, too, found it handy to keep the Sumerian pictograms as shorthand for many of their vocabulary words, which on average were even longer than Akkadian words. (If you had to write out absolutely everything by hand, with no word processor, photocopier, or even typewriter, you, too, would look for faster ways to write, even if the system ended up more complex.)

The people of the Aegean, however, when they borrowed the idea that one could write, eliminated everything except the notion of signs for syllables, creating their own sign-shapes from scratch. They also simplified the notion of "syllable" from the four sorts used in cuneiform (V, CV, VC, CVC, where V vowel, C consonant) to two (V, CV), which meant they could manage with a mere eighty or so signs. (Well, almost: for economic accounts, they also used a roster of single signs—pictograms or ideograms—for each different commodity, but these signs were not mixed together with syllabic signs to form a sentence.) This sort of system took much less time to learn and made it possible, at least theoretically, for more people to become literate in their spare time. The people of Minoan Crete, who used this system for a short time in the mid-second millennium B.C.E., left us elegant inscriptions on jewelry and stone, economic accounts on clay, and graffiti on walls and pottery, suggesting widespread literacy. Unfortunately, they wrote most of their texts on perishable materials that have not survived.

A similar reinterpretation, leading to an even more radical simplification, occurred in the Sinai peninsula, around 1900 B.C.E., where Semites from the north encountered Egyptians from the south at the local copper and turquoise mines. The Semites apparently saw the Egyptian writing system and learned something of its structure, but concluded, "There must be a simpler way." The Egyptian script, unlike cuneiform, did not specify the vowel that a syllabic sign was to convey, only the consonant(s). So when the Semites, like the Minoans, pared away all the duplicate ways of writing syllables, they found themselves with a mere twenty-some signs, specifying that many different consonants.

This new script, the so-called Sinitic consonantal syllabary, was clearly based on Egyptian sign-shapes at first, and it had a tremendous advantage: anyone could learn this tiny number of signs in a few hours. Spelling consisted simply of sounding out the words as one wrote, so spelling did not need to be learned as such. The drawback, of course, was the ambiguity for readers. The writer knew what spoken vowels were intended, but th rdr hd t gss thm, leaving much potential ambiguity, unless writers wrote only for their own use. This may have been the dominant use, however, because variants of this simple script quickly spread up the coast all the way to Syria. Along the way it generated what became the Hebrew, Phoenician, Ugaritic, Aramaic, and Arabic scripts (and more), all of which are/were consonantal syllabaries, and generated a much wider range of uses, implying wider literacy.

We know all these scripts are related because they all use(d) the same canonical order of signs for teaching the script, an order ancestral to our modern alphabetical order. One clear and early document of this sort is a tablet from a schoolroom in the city of Ugarit, on the coast of Syria, in which the signs have been modeled for the pupil in this standard order. Because Syria was heavily influenced by Mesopotamian culture, the letters are written with wedge-shapes on clay, but those shapes have nothing to do with the shapes of signs in mainstream cuneiform. Only the cheap clay medium was borrowed.

The final step in developing the most efficient possible writing system was to add separate signs for vowels, eliminating the guesswork without adding many more signs. Remarkably, this step was first taken around 1400 B.C.E. in Ugarit, six centuries before the Greeks produced their alphabet. The structure of Hamito-Semitic languages is such that vowels are not so important for determining the basic semantic contents of a message as they are in virtually all other languages. (It is surely no accident, therefore, that it was Semites who made the big step in simplification to the consonantal syllabary.) But Ugarit had two main linguistic populations: Western Semites and Hurrians. The Hurrian language belonged to yet another family, centered in the Caucasus to the north. The Hurrian merchants, searching for a better way, reused a sign here and added a sign there to obtain the vowel signs they needed to write their language readably.

As they did so, however, the system cracked into two entirely new types of signs—signs for single vowels and signs for single consonants—such that the latter were no longer signs for entire syllables (of a consonant plus an implied vowel). Each sound in the language now had a sign of its own, and each sign represented a single sound (the definition of a true alphabet). Now readers could read unambiguously what the writer wrote, and for only the cost of learning a couple of dozen symbols.

Unfortunately, this brilliant idea was almost immediately lost in the massive destructions curtailing the Bronze Age (1200 B.C.E.), and it remained for the Greeks to reinvent the same step around 800 B.C.E. as they pondered the ambiguous consonantal syllabary still used by Phoenician traders. The canonical order of the Sinitic script thus passed to the Greeks and is still visible despite the reuse of some unneeded consonantal signs as vowels, the addition of a few letters, and the retention of some unnecessary signs. The Greeks passed one version of their alphabet to the Etruscans, who passed it to the Romans—each time with minor modifications. With a few more changes in medieval times, it came down to us today as the "Roman" alphabet. (The Cyrillic alphabet used in Eastern Greek funerary stele. Limestone, fourth-third century B.C.E. The Roman alphabet used in North and South American countries and those of Western Europe is based on one version of an ancient Greek alphabet that was passed through the Etruscans to the Romans. © ARCHIVO ICONOGRAFICO, S.A./CORBIS Europe branched off in medieval times directly from the Greek alphabet.)

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Kabbalah Mysticism - Types Of Kabbalah to LarynxLinguistics Language and Literacy - Language, Linguistics, Writing, Origin Of Writing, Spread Of Writing And Literacy, Alphabetic Literacy