The ancient Near East boasts the oldest, and some of the longest-lived, writing systems known. Writing was invented in southern Mesopotamia (Sumer) in about 3200 BCE to express the Sumerian language. Recent finds from Abydos, in Upper Egypt, have pushed back the date of the Egyptian system, making it contemporaneous, or nearly so, with the Mesopotamian invention. Together with the Chinese writing system and the Mayan invention in Mesoamerica, they comprise the four pristine writing systems — instances of the invention of writing when there was no previous exposure to, or knowledge of, writing.
Mesopotamia offers some of the clearest evidence for the non-linguistic communicative systems that were precursors to true writing. The first writing, which we may define as the unambiguous representation of speech, borrowed symbols from existing artistic and administrative traditions, added many new elements, and codified and integrated the whole into a system that was quite different from the ones in which the individual symbols originated. When writing was created, it was not a simple evolutionary development since many of these same devices persevered alongside writing.
The invention of writing was closely related to the rapid development of Mesopotamian civilization, an expansion that is particularly well attested at the city-state of Uruk. The earliest written documents were found at Uruk, and writing was, in all likelihood, invented there. Uruk writing can be convincingly connected with rapid urbanization and population growth, and coupled to this, a dramatic increase in social, political, and economic complexity. The result was a pressing need to maintain records of production, goods, and labor and the corresponding rise of a complex administration. The vast majority of the earliest Mesopotamian texts are administrative or economic texts, which suggests that the invention of writing was a response to practical social pressures.
At the root of the Mesopotamian writing system was the logogram, or word sign, which represents a single word or group of semantically related words. Many of these logograms had a clear pictographic relationship with their referents; such as the picture of a reed for the Sumerian word for ‘reed’, that is, gi. Many other logograms, however, had an arbitrary relationship to their referents, such as the sign for ‘sheep’, which consisted of a cross inscribed in a circle. Through the use of the rebus principle, whereby a sign for one word could be used to express a homonym, a second class of signs that possessed sound but not meaning — phonograms— was generated. For instance, the sign for gi ‘reed’ could be used to write the (near) homonym gi(n) ‘to establish’, a concept that is difficult to express pictographically. Finally, there is a third, smaller set of signs, which are referred to as determinatives, which were not read, but which merely served as aides in reading by indicating the semantic class to which certain words belonged; wooden objects, for instance, were often preceded by the logogram for ‘wood’.
These broad characteristics also define Egyptian writing, although it must be stressed that there is no genetic relationship between the two writing systems. The basis of Egyptian writing is, likewise, the logogram, and the system also possesses semantic determinatives and phonograms. However, owing to the different structures of the respective languages, Egyptian and Sumerian phonograms displayed an important difference, namely, the Egyptian signs only expressed consonants, while Sumerian signs consisted of syllables. Indeed, an important feature of Egyptian writing, generally, is that it provided no indication for the vowels that were part of the spoken language.
The script used to express Sumerian is called cuneiform (from Latin cuneus ‘wedge’), a term that refers to the triangular, wedge-like appearance of the script. The basic (but not the only) material for writing the script was clay, which ancient scribes would shape into tablets and inscribe with reed styluses. The act of punching signs into the clay gave the script its characteristic ‘wedge’ appearance. The cuneiform script invented to express Sumerian at the end of the fourth millennium was adapted to write a wide variety of unrelated languages throughout the ancient Near East. These include Akkadian (a Semitic group of languages, which includes Babylonian and Assyrian), Eblaite, Elamite, Hittite, Hurrian, and Urartian. Cuneiform texts were written as late as the first century CE, three thousand years after the script’s invention.
The primary Egyptian script, Hieroglyphic, was fundamentally pictographic and closely bound, in both origin and throughout its history, to the native Egyptian artistic tradition. The formal hieroglyphic script gave rise to several cursive scripts, specifically: 1. Hieratic, a simplified cursive form of the complex hieroglyphic pictograms; 2. Demotic, a relatively late script developed in the mid-first millennium BCE, used originally for administrative and clerical purposes, and, finally and more tangentially; 3. Coptic, the last phase of Egyptian language and writing, which is attested primarily in the first century CE, but is still in some limited liturgical use today. Coptic replaces the pictograms, which originate with Hieroglyphic, with Greek letters and so the script is only indirectly related to the traditional Egyptian scripts. In all, Egyptian writing spans a period of four thousand years. Egyptian hieroglyphic writing likely provided the inspiration for the consonantal script devised to write Old Canaanite, which is the ancestor of the Phoenician script. The Phoenician writing system, in turn, is the source of not only the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic scripts, but also the Greek and Latin alphabets. And so the ancestry of our own alphabet can be traced, ultimately, back to Egyptian writing (see Framing the Issues #1).
Associate Professor of Sumerology, University of Chicago
1. Why do you think writing evolved from early hieroglyphic script to the later Coptic form?
2. Why did early writers incorporate literature into their work?
3. How does the invention of writing impact us today?