Evolution of Writing Research Paper

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Writing is mankind’s principal technology for collecting, manipulating, storing, retrieving, communicating and  disseminating   information.  Writing  may  have been invented  independently three  times in different parts of the world: in the Near East, China and Mesoamerica. In what  concerns  this last script,  it is still  obscure   how  and   when  the  Olmec  symbolic system, first attested from 600 to 500 BC, was transmitted to  the  Mayas  and  other  Mesoamerican cultures  (Marcus  1992). The earliest Chinese inscriptions dated  of the Shang Dynasty,  c. 1400–1200 BC, consist of oracle texts engraved on animal bones and turtle shells (Keightley 1985). The highly abstract and standardized signs suggest  prior  developments   presently undocumented.

Of these three writing systems, therefore,  only the earliest, the Mesopotamian cuneiform script, invented in Sumer, present-day  Iraq, c. 3200 BC, can be traced without  any  discontinuity over  a  period  of  10,000 years, from a prehistoric antecedent to the present-day alphabet. Its evolution is divided into four phases: (a) clay tokens representing  units of goods were used for accounting (8000–3500 BC); (b) the three dimensional tokens  were transformed into  two-dimensional  pictographic signs.  Like  the  former  tokens,  the  pictographic script served exclusively for accounting (3500–3000  BC);  (c)  phonetic   signs,  introduced to transcribe the name of individuals, marked the turning point when writing started emulating spoken language and,  as  a  result,  became  applicable  to  all  fields  of human   experience  (3000–1500  BC);  (d)  with  two dozen letters, each standing for a single sound of voice, the alphabet perfected  the rendition  of speech. After ideography,  logography  and syllabaries, the alphabet represents a further  segmentation of meaning.

1.    Tokens Precursor Of Writing

The direct antecedent  of the Mesopotamian script was a recording device consisting of clay tokens of multiple shapes  (Schmandt-Besserat 1996).  The  artifacts,   of mostly geometric forms such as cones, spheres, disks, cylinders and ovoids, are recovered in archaeological sites  dating   8000–3000  BC  (Fig.  1).  The  tokens, used  as  counters  to  keep  track  of  goods,  were  the earliest code—a system of signs for transmitting information. Each  token  shape  was semantic,  referring to a particular unit of merchandise. For example, a  cone  and  a  sphere  stood  respectively  for  a  small and a large measure of grain, and ovoids corresponded to  jars of oil. The repertory  of some three  hundred types of counters  made it feasible to manipulate and store  information on  multiple  categories  of  goods (Schmandt-Besserat 1992).

The token system had little in common with spoken language  except that,  like a word,  a token  stood  for one concept. Unlike speech, tokens were restricted  to one  type  of  information only,  namely,  real  goods. Unlike  spoken  language,  the token  system made  no use of syntax. That is to say, their meaning was independent of their placement order. Three cones and three   ovoids,   scattered   in  any   way,  were  to   be translated ‘three baskets  of grain,  three  jars  of oil.’ Furthermore, the fact that the same token shapes were used  in a large area  of the  Near  East,  where many dialects  would  have  been  spoken,   shows  that   the counters  were not based on phonetics.  Evidently,  the goods   they   represented    were   expressed   in   any language.  The  token  system  showed  the  number  of units of merchandize in one-to-one correspondence, in other   words,   the  number   of  tokens   matched   the number of units counted: x jars of oil were represented by x ovoids. Repeating  ‘jar of oil’ x times in order to express plurality  is unlike spoken language.

Evolution of Writing Research Paper

2.    Pictography: Writing As Accounting Device

After four millennia, the token system led to writing. The  transition from  counters   to  script  took  place simultaneously in Sumer and Elam, present-day  western  Iran  when,  around 3500 BC,  Elam  was  under Sumerian domination. It occurred when tokens, probably representing a debt, were stored in envelopes until payment. These envelopes made of clay in the shape of a  hollow  ball  had  the  disadvantage  of  hiding  the tokens  held inside. Some accountants, therefore,  impressed  the  tokens  on  the  surface  of  the  envelope before  enclosing  them  inside, so that  the shape  and number of counters held inside could be verified at all times (Fig. 1). These markings  were the first signs of writing.  The metamorphosis from  three-dimensional artifacts  to two-dimensional markings  did not  affect the semantic principle of the system. The significance of the markings  on the outside  of the envelopes was identical to that of the tokens held inside.

Evolution of Writing Research Paper

About 3200 BC, once the system of impressed signs was  understood, clay tablets—solid  cushion-shaped clay artifacts bearing the impressions of tokens— replaced the envelopes filled with tokens. The impression  of a cone and  a sphere  token,  representing measures of grain, resulted respectively in a wedge and a circular marking which bore the same meaning as the tokens   they   signified   (Fig.   2).   They   were   ideograms—signs representing one concept. The impressed tablets continued  to be used exclusively to record quantities  of goods  received or disbursed.  They still expressed plurality  in one-to-one correspondence.

Evolution of Writing Research Paper

Pictographs—signs representing  tokens traced with a stylus rather  than impressed—appeared about  3100 BC.  These  pictographs referring  to  goods  mark  an important step in the evolution of writing because they were never repeated  in one-to-one correspondence to express numerosity.  Besides them, numerals—signs representing plurality—indicated the quantity  of units recorded.  For example, ‘33 jars of oil’ were shown by the incised pictographic sign ‘jar of oil, ‘preceded by three impressed circles and three wedges, the numerals standing  respectively  for  ‘10’ and  ‘1’ (Fig.  3).  The symbols  for numerals  were not  new. They  were the impressions   of  cones  and  spheres  formerly   representing measures of grain, which then had acquired  a second, abstract, numerical meaning. The invention of numerals meant a considerable economy of signs since 33 jars of oil could be written  with 7 rather  then  33 markings.

In sum, in its first phase, writing remained mostly a mere extension of the former token system. Although the  tokens  underwent   formal  transformations from three-to two-dimensional and from impressed markings to signs traced with a stylus, the symbolism remained  fundamentally the  same.  Like  the  archaic counters,  the tablets were used exclusively for accounting  (Nissen et al. 1993). This was also the case when a stylus, made of a reed with a triangular end, gave to  the  signs the  wedge-shaped  ‘cuneiform’  appearance  (Fig. 4). In all these instances,  the medium changed  in form but not in content.  The only major departure  from  the  token  system  consisted  in  the creation  of two distinct  types of signs: incised pictographs and impressed numerals.  This combination of signs initiated the semantic division between merchandise and numerosity.

Evolution of Writing Research Paper

3.    Logography: Shift From Visual To Aural

About 3000 BC, the creation of phonetic  signs—signs representing  the sounds of speech—marks  the second phase  in  the  evolution   of  Mesopotamian  writing, when, finally, the medium parted from its token antecedent  in order to emulate spoken language. As a result, writing shifted from a conceptual framework of real goods  to the world  of speech sounds.  It shifted from the visual to the aural world.

With state formation, new regulations required that the names of the individuals who generated or received the registered merchandise were entered on the tablets. The personal  names were transcribed by the mean of logograms—signs  representing  a word in a particular tongue.   Logograms   were  easily  drawn   pictures   of words with a sound close to that desired (for example in English the name Neil could be written with a sign showing  bent  knees ‘kneel’). Because Sumerian  was mostly a monosyllabic  language, the logograms had a syllabic value. A syllable is a unit of spoken language consisting of one or more vowel sounds, alone, or with one  or  more  consonants.  When  a  name  required several phonetic units, they were assembled in a rebus fashion. A typical Sumerian name ‘An Gives Life’ combined a star, the logogram for An, god of heaven, and an arrow, because the words for ‘arrow’ and ‘life’ were homonyms.  The verb was not  transcribed, but inferred,   which  was  easy  because   the   name   was common.

Evolution of Writing Research Paper

Phonetic   signs  allowed   writing   to  break   away, finally, from accounting. Inscriptions on stone seals or metal vessels deposited  in tombs  of the ‘Royal Cemetery’ of Ur, c. 2700–2600 BC, are among the first texts that  did not  deal with merchandise,  did not  include numerals and were entirely phonetic.  The inscriptions consisted merely of a personal name: ‘Meskalamdug,’ or a name and a title: ‘Puabi, Queen’ (Fig. 5). Presumably,  these funerary texts were meant to immortalize  the  name  of the  deceased,  thereby,  according  to Sumerian  creed, insuring  them  of eternal life. Other funerary  inscriptions  fostered even further the  emancipation of  writing.  For  example,  statues depicting   the   features   of  an   individual   bore   increasingly longer inscriptions. After the name and title of the deceased, followed patronymics, the name of a temple or a god to whom the statue was dedicated (in a dative form), and, in some cases, a plea for life after death, including a verb. These inscriptions  introduced syntax  and,  therefore,  brought writing  yet one  step closer to speech.

After 2600–2500 BC, the Sumerian  script became a complex system of ideograms  mixed more and  more frequently with phonetic signs. The resulting syllabary—system of phonetic  signs expressing syllables— further  modeled writing on to spoken language. With a repertory  of about  400 signs, it could  express any topic of human endeavor. Some of the earliest syllabic texts were royal inscriptions,  and religious, magic and literary texts.

The  second  phase  in the  evolution  of  the  Mesopotamian script, characterized by the creation  of phonetic  signs,  not  only  resulted  in  the  parting  of writing from accounting, but also its venturing out of Sumer to neighboring regions. The first Egyptian inscriptions,  dated  to the late fourth  millennium  BC, belonged to royal tombs (Bard 1992). They consisted of ivory labels and ceremonial artifacts  such as maces and palettes bearing personal names, written phonetically  as  a  rebus,   visibly  imitating   Sumer.   For example, the Palette of Narmer bears hieroglyphs identifying the name and title of the Pharaoh, his attendants and the smitten enemies. Phonetic signs to transcribe  personal  names,  therefore,  created  an avenue for writing  to spread  outside  of Mesopotamia. This elucidates  why the Egyptian  script  was instantaneously phonetic. It also explains why the Egyptians never borrowed  Sumerian  signs. Their repertory  consisted of hieroglyphs representing items familiar in the Egyptian   culture  and  that  evoked  sounds  in  their tongue.

The   phonetic   transcription  of   personal   names clearly played an important role for the dissemination of writing to the Indus Valley where, during a period of increased contact  with Mesopotamia, c. 2500 BC, writing appears  on seals featuring  individuals’ names and titles (Possehl 1996). In turn, the Sumerian cuneiform  syllabic script was adopted  by many Near Eastern   cultures  who  adapted it  to  their  different linguistic  families and  in particular, Semitic (Akkadians and Eblaites); Indo-European (Mitanni, Hittites, and  Persians);  Caucasian  (Hurrians and  Urartians); and finally, Elamite and Kassite. It is likely that Linear A and B, the phonetic  scripts of Crete and mainland Greece, c. 1400–1200 BC, were influenced also by the Near East (Chadwick  1990).

Evolution of Writing Research Paper

4.    The Alphabet: The Segmentation  Of Sounds

The invention of the alphabet about  1500 BC ushered in the third  phase  in the evolution  of writing  in the ancient  Near  East.  The first, so-called Proto-Sinaitic or Proto-Canaanite alphabet, which originated  in the region of present-day Lebanon, took advantage of the fact  that   the  sounds   of  any  language  are  few.  It consisted  of a set of 22 letters,  each  standing  for  a single sound of voice, which, combined in innumerable ways,  brought an  unprecedented flexibility to  transcribe speech (Healey 1991). This earliest alphabet was a complete  departure from  the  previous  syllabaries. First,  the system was based on acrophony—signs to represent the first letter of the word they stood for—for example an ox head (alpu) was ‘a,’ a house (betu) was b (Fig. 6). Second, it was consonantal—it dealt only with speech sounds  characterized by constriction or closure at one or more points  in the breath  channel, like b, d, l, m, n, p, etc. Third, it streamlined the system to 22 signs, instead of several hundred.

The  transition from  cuneiform  writing  to  the  alphabet   in  the  ancient  Near   East  took   place  over several  centuries.   In  the  seventh   century   BC  the Assyrian kings still dictated their edicts to two scribes. The  first  wrote  Akkadian in  cuneiform  on  a  clay tablet;  the  second  Aramaic  in  a  cursive  alphabetic script traced on a papyrus scroll. The Phoenician merchants   established  on  the  coast  of  present  day Syria and  Lebanon, played an important role in the diffusion of the alphabet. In particular, they brought their  consonantal alphabetic  system to  Greece,  perhaps as early as, or even before 800 BC. The Greeks perfected  the  Semitic alphabet by adding  letters  for vowels—speech sounds  in the  articulation of which the breath  channel is not blocked, like a, e, i, o, u. As a  result  the  27-letter  Greek  alphabet improved  the transcription of  the  spoken  word,  since  all  sounds were indicated.  For example, words sharing the same consonants like  ‘bad,’  ‘bed,’ ‘bid,’ ‘bud,’  could  be clearly distinguished.  The alphabet did not subsequently undergo  any fundamental change.

5.    The Modern Alphabets

Because the alphabet was invented only once, all the many alphabets of the world, including Latin, Arabic, Hebrew, Amharic, Brahmani and Cyrillic, derive from Proto-Sinaitic. The Latin alphabet used in the western world  is the  direct  descendant   of  the  Etruscan  alphabet.  The Etruscans, who occupied the present province of Tuscany in Italy, adopted the Greek alphabet, slightly modifying  the  shape  of letters.  In turn,   the   Etruscan  alphabet  became   that   of  the Romans, when Rome  conquered  Etruria in the first century BC. The alphabet followed the Roman armies. All the nations  that  fell under the rule of the Roman Empire became literate in the first centuries of our era. This  was  the  case  for  the  Gauls,  Angles,  Saxons, Franks   and   Germans   who   inhabited   present-day France,  England  and Germany.

Charlemagne (800 AD) had a profound influence on the  development  of the  Latin  script  by establishing standards. In particular a clear and legible minuscule cursive script  was devised,  from  which our  modern day lower case derives. The printing press invented in 1450  dramatically  multiplied   the  dissemination  of texts,  introducing a  new regularity  in  lettering  and layout. The Internet  catapults  the alphabet into cyberspace, while preserving its integrity.

6.    Writing: Handling Data In Abstraction

Beyond the formal and structural changes undergone by writing in the course of millennia, its evolution also involved strides in the ability to handle data in abstraction. At the first stage, the token system antecedent  of writing, already abstracted information in  several  ways.  First,  it  translated daily-life  commodities  into  arbitrary, often  geometric  forms.  Second, the counters  abstracted the items counted  from their context. For example, sheep could be accounted for  by  an  administration, independently from  their actual location. Third, the token system separated the data from the knower. That is to say, a group of tokens communicated directly specific information to anyone initiated  in the system. This was a significant change for an oral society, where knowledge was transmitted by word of mouth from an individual to another, face to face. Otherwise, the token system represented plurality concretely, in one-to-one correspondence. Three jars of oil were shown by three tokens, as it is in reality. At the same time, the fact that the token system used  specific counters  to  count  different  items  was concrete—it   did  not   abstract  the  notion   of  item counted  from  that  of number.  (Certain  English  numerical expressions  such as twin, triplet,  quadruplet and  duo,  trio,  quartet, to refer to particular sets are comparable to concrete numbers.)

When  tokens  were impressed  on the envelopes  to indicate the counters enclosed inside, the resulting markings could no longer be manipulated by hand. In other  words, the transmutation of three-dimensional counters   into  two-dimensional  signs  constituted a second step in abstraction. By doing away with tokens, the  clay tablets  marked  a third  level of abstraction since the impressed markings no longer replicated a set of actual counters.  The invention  of numerals,  which separated the notion  of numerosity  from that  of the item counted,  was a crucial fourth step in abstraction. The signs expressing the concept of oneness, twoness, etc., allowed plurality to be dealt with in fully abstract terms. In turn, the phonetic units marked a fifth step of abstraction, since the signs no longer referred  to the objects pictured, but rather the sound of the word they evoked.

Phonetics  allowed writing to shift from a representational  to a conceptual  linguistic system. That  it to say it enabled writing to leave the realm of real goods in order to enter the world of words and the ideas they stand   for.   Finally,   the  process   that   started   with ideograms   expressing  concepts  and  phonetic   signs referring to the sound of monosyllabic  words reached the ultimate segmentation of meaning with letters. As Marshall   McLuhan (1997)  defined  it,  the  alphabet consisted of semantically meaningless letters corresponding  to semantically  meaningless  sounds.  The alphabet brought data  handling  to  a  final  double-stepped abstraction.

7.    Conclusion: The Stability  Of Writing Systems

The origin of the Chinese script and the development of Mesoamerican writing are still obscure. The Mesopotamian script,  however,  offers a well-documented evolution  over a continuous period  of 10,000 years. The system underwent  drastic changes in form; gradually transcribed spoken language more accurately, and handled data in more abstract terms. The most striking universal  feature  of all writing  systems,  however,  is their  uncanny  endurance, unmatched among  human creations. The Chinese script never needed to be deciphered because the signs have changed little during the 3400 years of its recorded existence. It also always remained ideographic, merely inserting rebus-like phonetic complements  in some characters. The Mesoamerican  Maya  phonetic  glyphs preserved  the  symbolism initiated  by the Olmecs over one millennium. Finally,  when the last clay tablet  was written  in the Near East, c. 300 AD, the cuneiform script had been in use for three millennia.  It replaced  an age-old token system that had preceded it for over 5000 years; it was replaced  by the alphabet that  has prevailed  for 3500 years.


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