Educational History

A brief history of the written word.

Have you ever thought about writing? No, me neither, it’s just one of those things you do, isn’t it? You learn how to do it as a small child, and then it just sort of flows from there.

But if you did want to think about it…which I hope you do, so you read on a bit further… there are actually some interesting things to consider. Where did it all begin? Who ‘invented’ the written word? When did the first pen scratch words on the first paper? Why should I care?

All great questions, why don’t we find out?

Everything we know about the past is thanks to the written word. Without it, it would all just be verbal stories passed from person to person – we all know how that can turn out – missing the context that helps us piece together what happened 50, 500 and 5,000 years ago. It may sound a little bit melodramatic, but without writing, there would be no history. Not literally of course, but we certainly wouldn’t know what naughty deeds our ancestors were getting up to in ye olden times if it had never appeared.

Cave paintings, pictograms if you will, were the first instance of people recording their day to day life, the sort of ‘ah, my horse is so pretty, I’m going to smudge his likeness onto this wall’ or ‘mmm that bison was so delicious I’m going to draw it in this cave’. We’re talking the ancient hunter-gatherers here, between 40,000 and 14,000 years ago, drawn with crude ‘crayons’ made of natural rocks and charcoal. Not so much writing, but the first step on the path to the word.

When humans stopped roaming the land and began to cultivate it instead, growing crops, living in dwellings and being able to own more than just what they could carry, a counting system was needed. How else would you keep track of how many ears of corn you’d harvested, or whether there was actually an oxen missing or you’d just imagined you had four? The Sumerians of Mesopotamia came up with the counting token about 9,000 years ago, each of which was stamped with a picture that represented the item to be counted, and bingo, you’d always know if that pesky fourth bison had done a runner again. 

Fast forward to about 3,500 BCE and we’ve reached the rough time that what is considered the earliest form of writing came into being. Those busy Sumerians had developed counting tokens into ‘cuneiform’, what is catchily known as a logo-syllabic script. It’s probably not a big surprise to anyone that some of the earliest records that used this method were to do with beer and its sale. It’s good to know that the ancient people knew how to party. A ‘stylus’ made of reed was used to make marks that initially represented objects, a pictogram, but developed to represent sounds, phonograms, much closer to what we know as words today. This had a great many benefits for trading, as rather than four little stamped tokens that simply represented four cows, they could now convey what was happening to the cows – where they were going, what they were for and so on.  

Around the same time the Egyptians were using hieroglyphs (everyone’s favourite ancient writing of course) marked on papyrus. With over 1,000 distinct symbols, it was a formal writing system; each symbol representing a sound, a word or a concept, depending on the context. Further east in China, another distinct script was emerging with its roots in the art of divination (not just a subject at Hogwarts!). Oracle bones and shells were etched with marks and thrown in the fire until they cracked. The diviner would then ‘read’ them. Feels like a reach to me, but then these ancients were pretty smart. 

As symbols began to represent sounds, they were better able to capture the precise meaning of what people were saying. It was at this point that literature became possible.

The first known writer was a Mesopotamian priestess called Enheduanna (2,285 – 2,250 BCE) who wrote down hymns to the goddess Inanna. At the same time, the first epic tale, The Epic of Gilgamesh, a classic quest for the meaning of life, was also written in Mesopotamia. As writing became more prolific across the region, the Assyrian (Asssyria was a kingdom within the Mesopotamian region) King Ashurbanipal, collected as many works as he could into a great library in his capital Nineveh. It was the remains of this library, discovered by archaeologists in 1849, that has given us so much information about this time period. The tablets they found can be seen at the British Museum today.

The epic poetry of the likes of Homer and Virgil, the philosophical writings of Plato and Socrates and the fact that we know the Romans hung phalluses everywhere for good luck is all thanks to the Greek and Roman phonetic writing systems that built on what had been achieved in Egypt and Mesopotamia, and an alphabet that was developed by the Phonecians (ancient Mediteranean civilization, big into sailing and conquering). And from the Romans we got Latin, the root of many European languages. The rest they say, is history…

So next time you go to write something, especially if it’s something that records your thoughts and feelings, remember that thanks to the development of the written word, over thousands of years people just like you have done the same thing. That is what has given us such an epic and fascinating collective history of civilisation. Pretty cool huh?

Like what you’ve read? Excellent. I offer a range of copywriting services, so why not drop me a line to say ‘hello!’ and have a chat about things I can write for you and your business.

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