Prompted by this book
, which I personally did not know about, as well as the “Writing Revolution: Cuneiform to the Internet
”, which I’ll too read soon, Joe Marshall brings us an entertaining and short thoughts on the evolution of writing. As my knowledge on this keeps getting fuzzy and it’s hard to pin down, I sure appreciated the brevity of this article.
Language is not an invention. As best we can tell it is an evolved feature of the human brain. There have been almost countless languages humans have spoken. But they all follow certain rules that grow out of the wiring of the human brain and human cognition. Critically, it is something that is hardwired into us. Writing is an altogether different and artificial thing.
Since we live in a highly literate culture, it can be a bit hard not to think of writing as just a different version of language – there’s the sound version and the written version.
The origin of Cuneiform
(arguably the most influential writing which shaped our current methods), in now Southern Iraq, as well as Chinese characters and hieroglyphics in the Nile Valley, are only a few of the many independent originations of writing in human history. It is hard to be certain which originations are entirely from scratch versus at least some influence from the idea of another writing system if not directly an adaptation of it.
From looking at the chart:
Historians of writing believe that our current alphabet originated as a sort of quick-and-dirty adaptation of Egyptian hieroglyphics into a simpler and more flexible way of writing.
You take a small number of hieroglyphic characters representing specific things, decide to use them not for their meaning but for their sound and then use this as a way to encode the sound of words in almost any language.
What’s really truly fascinating is that:
…most historians of writing believe that this invention – the alphabet, designed by and for sub-literate Semites living on the borderlands of Egypt about 4,000 years ago – is likely the origin point of all modern alphabets.