The Development of Writing

Term Paper, 2021

14 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Cuneiform

3. Egyptian Hieroglyphic Writing

4. The Alphabet

5. Pinyin and Romaji

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

According to Wallace L. Chafe (1971: 15), language can be defined as “a system which mediates, in a highly complex way, between the universe of meaning and the universe of sound”. The technology required to record the sounds of a language, however, was invented quite recently in comparison to the long history of mankind. Therefore, in order to document thoughts, ideas or experiences, humans had to fall back to other means, that is to say writing, in an attempt to record otherwise transient utterances. Nevertheless, devising as well as using a system to document language is by no means an easy task and, thus, analysing the process behind this development deserves special attention. It is, therefore, the aim of this paper to describe the various systems employed to convey meaning in written form, their development and possible advantages or disadvantages they might imply.

2. Cuneiform

The most important branch of linguistics for the present paper is graphology, as it “is the study of the systems of symbols that have been devised to communicate language in written form” (Crystal 1997: 196). These systems can be broadly classified into two major categories. David Crystal distinguishes between systems where there is a direct correspondence between the phonemes of a language and its symbolic representations, in other words, “phonological systems”, and those systems where this system does not exist, namely “non-phonological systems” (1997: 199). Since researchers agree that the latter appears to be the older one, it will function as a starting point. Several sources agree that the first instances of “proto-writing” (Nawar 2018: 285) emerged in the Middle East around approximately 3500 BC (Crystal 1997; Gnanadesikan 2009). The prefix proto is necessary as these representations of real objects are used to “preserve information, not language” (Gnanadesikan 2009: 14) and can be understood regardless of one’s own language (Hughes 1998: 707). Strictly speaking, they are not yet writing but rather quite ambiguous “pictogram[s]” (Crystal 1997: 199). Even today, pictograms are being employed regularly. Modern road signs are, for example, essentially pictures “that represent an object or a concept” (Nawar 2018: 287), which is the basic definition of a pictographic system. Nevertheless, these signs can be misinterpreted quite easily without sufficient context and world knowledge. A sign that is supposed to warn drivers that the road ahead will be uneven could be interpreted as the information that the road will lead to a valley between two mountains.

The reason behind the origin of the “earliest examples of conventional use of written symbols” (Crystal 1997: 198) appears to be the necessity of administrative records for a growing population of the city Uruk in Sumer, modern Iraq (Gnanadesikan 2009: 13f.). These clay tokens were intended to be used for accounting purposes, such as to “record trade transactions, crop yields, and taxes” (Gnanadesikan 2009: 14). Gong Yushu points out that a Sumerian poem attributes the idea of inscribing on a tablet made of clay to an ancient ruler of Uruk called Enmerkar. He demanded tribute from another city called Aratta. His messenger, however, kept being refused by the ruler of Aratta. On arrival at Uruk, the messenger repeatedly received new orders, which lead to him being unable to memorize them. Therefore, Enmerkar decided to write down his demands on a clay tablet (2010: 7446 ff.). The script used for these Sumerian recordings was “proto-cuneiform” (Yushu 2010: 7448), which contained more than 700 signs (Gnanadesikan 2009: 15).

According to Gnanadesikan it developed around 3000 BC into “true cuneiform”, which is characterized by straight strokes as opposed to the curved lines of proto-cuneiform (2009: 19). Hence the term, which “derives from […] Latin, ‘meaning wedge-form’” (Crystal 1997: 200). This however made it more difficult to understand the pictograms which, essentially, implied the development of the cuneiform from a pictographic into an “ideographic writing system” (Crystal 1997: 200). This means that the grapheme’s connection to a certain object can no longer be easily recognized and now “represent[s] an idea or a concept” (Nawar 2018: 287). Furthermore, the sound quality of the logograms grew increasingly important, leading to a kind of “rebus writing” (Gnadadesikan 2009: 19). In rebus writing, the ideographic or “pictographic icon incorporated a phonetic sound associated with the icon” (Nawar 2018: 286), which is the first step towards a syllabic writing system (Hughes 1998: 711) and can also be observed in the writing systems of other civilization, such as Egyptian hieroglyphs (Crystal 1997: 201). In the case of the Sumerian cuneiform, it developed into what Gnanadesikan calls a “logosyllabary, a mixed system in which some signs were logograms, and some were syllabograms” (2009: 21). This, for example made it easier to spell foreign names using this writing system (Gnanadesikan 2009: 20) but does not change, as Hughes rightly pointed out, the ambiguous nature of “unlimited syllabic writing” as “there are almost always two or more ways to say the same thing” and also two or more ways of interpreting the same graphemes (1998: 711). Ambiguity in cuneiform was attempted to be dealt with by means of “phonetic complements” which accompanied the logogram to specify the correct pronunciation (Gnanadesikan 2009: 21).

Since these changes entail that linguistic information is being represented in writing, one can no longer describe these symbols as merely ideographic. They do not only represent concepts and ideas anymore, but the “core morphemes of words” (Gnanadesikan 2009: 20), which explains why scholars refer to them as logograms instead of ideograms when discussing later stages of cuneiform. The Sumerian way of writing even spread to the North of Syria and Turkey and came to be used for other languages, like the Hittite language (Gnanadesikan 2009: 26). There even seems to be evidence that characters that resemble cuneiform were used to transliterate the ancient Semitic alphabet in Ugarit, located in modern day Syria (Gnanadesikan 2009: 26f.).

3. Egyptian Hieroglyphic Writing

While the Sumerians seem to have been the first to record information using a conventional writing system, researchers agree that the Egyptians followed shortly after. Hughes even goes as far as to claim that they might have been the very first to discover the principles of alphabetic writing (1998: 714). Although he does not deliver prove for this claim, it is important to acknowledge that the Egyptian language has seen many developments during its lifetime of more than four thousand years (Gnanadesikan 2009: 50). The basic characteristics of the script and its threefold nature, however, appear to be evident from the very start (Gnanadesikan 2009: 35). While Crystal splits these parts into ideograms, “phonograms” and “determinatives” (1997: 201), Gnanadesikan prefers to call the first unit logograms (2009: 35). The latter seems to be more fitting since Crystal himself points out that logograms “refer to linguistic units” (1997: 202), which means “representing only one word” (Daniels 2017: 86). Ideograms, as discussed before, do not include linguistic information but directly refer to extralinguistic ideas, which is why they are highly useful for modern signs intended to be understood by everyone. Regardless of one’s native language, a sign depicting a cigarette that is crossed out is difficult to misinterpret. The Egyptian signs, however, are tightly connected to the phonetic values they possess, which is why they can also serve as phonograms. Furthermore, the “pictorial value” (Gnanadesikan 2009: 43) was never lost in Egyptian writing. This pictorial value is particularly apparent in the oldest form of writing Egyptian, which is called “hieroglyphic (from the Greek ‘sacred carving’)” (Crystal 1997: 201). Nevertheless, these signs did not constitute the majority of Egyptian writing (Gnanadesikan 2009: 47). They were mostly used for funerary stone carvings. The more common script, called “cursive hieroglyphs” (Gnanadesikan 2009: 35) or “hieratic” (Gnanadesikan 2009: 46) was applied when dealing with more mundane affairs, such as administration or record keeping and were written on papyrus. The aforementioned pictorial value of the hieroglyphs was less apparent in hieratic writing since scribes using this style focused more on increasing writing speed and efficiency (Gnanadesikan 2009: 46 f.). These differences can also be found when regarding the style of language used in each writing form, respectively. Due to the funerary domain it belonged to, hieroglyphs were written in a more archaic style to emphasise the eternal nature of the soul in the Egyptian belief system, while hieratic scripts reflected the changes that occurred in the language more clearly (Gnanadesikan 2009: 47). According to Gnanadesikan, this hieratic script eventually developd two branches depending on the purpose of writing, which differentiated between more official matters and those concerning the context of commerce (2009: 47). The latter came to be known as “demotic script” (Crystal 1997: 201) and was largely based on the writing conventions of Northern Egypt and did not possess any pictorial qualities anymore as opposed to hieratic (Gnanadesikan 2009: 47 f.). It is also worth mentioning, that Demotic appeared alongside hieroglyphic, and Greek on the Rosetta Stone, which was key to understanding Egyptian writing (Crystal 1997: 201).

Regardless of this lengthy development, in its latest stage the Egyptian language was written in neither one of its inherent scripts, which ceased to be attested after 452 AD (Gnanadesikan 2009: 49). The successor of Demotic, the most persistent of the Egyptian scripts, was “Coptic, which means merely ‘Egyptian’” (Gnanadesikan 2009: 49). It is worth noting that texts written in Coptic script were the first to contain the vowels of the Egyptian language, as it was an adaption of the Greek alphabet to which six demotic symbols were added (Gnanadesikan 2009: 49). Before, vowels were deduced by taking the context or determinatives into consideration (Gnanadesikan 2009: 42).

Although not clearly indicated in the Egyptian scripts, vowels and their position were key to inflection in the language, operating similarly to the affixes other languages, such as English, (Gnanadesikan 2009: 37). Unlike English, however, the core morphemes represented by the logograms were not pronounceable syllables, but rather an “unpronounceable sequence of discontinuous consonants”, mostly consisting of two or three consonants (Gnanadesikan 2009: 37). This system seems less complicated when comparing it to the grammatical forms of the English verb sing. In order to form the past tenses, one needs to alter the vowels. Thus, arriving at the forms “sing, sang, sung” (Hughes 1998: 714). The three consonants /s/, /n/, and /g/ stay the same, while the quality of the vowels determines the form of the verb (Hughes 1998: 714). These alternations, in quality, which are “characteristic of Semitic languages” (Hughes 1998: 714), were not reflected in Egyptian spelling. Hence, Gnanadesikan refers to it as “logoconsonantal” (2009: 41). If a symbol was meant to be read as the word itself rather than merely referring to the core consonants it possessed, it had to be marked with a stroke underneath or on one of its sides (Gnanadesikan 2009: 38 f.). The hieroglyph “” | with the stroke would therefore refer to a mouth (Gnanadesikan 2009: 40).


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The Development of Writing
Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg  (Anglistik)
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writin, history of writing, alphabet, linguistics
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Sebastian Mihatsch (Author), 2021, The Development of Writing, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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