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The term ‘writing system’ speciﬁcally denotes a set of symbols which is used for the graphic (written) recording of language. Its use is commonly synonymous with that of the term ‘script,’ and the two are used interchangeably; however, the notion ‘writing system’ may additionally include the conventions (or spelling practices) which dictate how the symbols of such a system can be used. Forms of graphic expression which may have some semantic content— such as cave drawings, petroglyphs, icons, and even sophisticated picture messages—but which do not or could not record a linguistic utterance directly, are thus excluded from the realm of writing. This is not to suggest that all writing systems are capable of recording language with equal precision, but that by deﬁnition writing systems are fundamentally linguistic.
1. Types Of Writing System
Writing systems are of three fundamental types. Logographic systems consist of symbols, called logograms, which represent entire words. In opposition to the two remaining types, a logographic system is said to be nonphonetic to the extent that its minimal elements record the pronunciation of an entire word, rather than representing the individual phonetic components (consonants and vowels) which make up the word. The reality of the phonetic opacity of a logographic system becomes obvious when, for example, one works with an ancient language written with logograms. It may be possible to identify the meaning of a logogram by its context and other clues, but if the word which it represents is not also attested by a more revealing, phonetic writing system, its pronunciation will remain uncertain or unknown.
In contrast to logographic scripts, syllabic and segmental writing systems are said to be phonetic. A syllabic system consists of symbols, syllabograms, which have the value of a single syllable (although the syllables of a word spelled with a syllabic script may not actually line up with the syllabograms used in a one-to-one fashion). Syllabaries most commonly possess symbols of the value V (vowel) and CV (consonant + vowel); CCV, CVC, VC, among still other permutations, also occur, though less frequently.
Segmental writing systems are those which are composed of symbols representing individual sounds, and are themselves of two types. Consonantal scripts (or alephbeths) have symbols for consonants only. Alphabets are characterized by both consonant and vowel symbols.
The relationship of the three types of writing system to one another is in large measure of a historical, developmental nature. Consequently, the ensuing discussion will roughly follow a chronological scheme. As will be seen, most writing systems are not purely logographic or phonetic, but display some degree of hybridization.
2. The Birth Of Writing
On the basis of presently available evidence, it is clear that human beings ﬁrst began to record language in the ancient Near East. Until quite recently, the very earliest examples of writing were to be found among the archaeological remains of ancient Mesopotamia. However, recent discoveries may place the appearance of writing in Egypt at approximately the same time as its ﬁrst attestations in the Fertile Crescent.
2.1 Mesopotamian Writing
Writing appears among the Sumerians of southern Mesopotamia in the late fourth millennium BC, and it is the Sumerians who are usually credited with the invention of writing, although it appears to be attested not much later in Syria (at Tell Brak) and in Iran (in texts preserving the poorly understood language of Proto-Elamite). The events which led to the advent of Sumerian writing are of course unknown, although there are various theories regarding its appearance. In the view of some scholars, the Sumerian invention of writing was a deliberate act, probably occasioned by the needs of palace administrators, and most likely in the city of Uruk where it is ﬁrst attested. Others would see the process as being more of an evolutionary, in effect accidental, nature.
Regardless of the nature of the crucial step which led to the appearance of a system of writing on the Sumerian Plain, it seems undeniable that a precursor of the script is to be found in the clay tokens which had been in use for record keeping in Mesopotamia since at least 8000 BC. Some of these tokens actually resemble the commodity which they depict; others are of an arbitrary shape. By the latter half of the fourth millennium BC, some tokens had begun to be used as stamps, being impressed into moist clay tablets to produce administrative ledgers. Other tokens, those of more complex design, began to be etched freehand in the clay using a stylus. Schmandt-Besserat (1996) has argued that the appearance of Sumerian logographic writing was a natural evolutionary step following from the practice of inscribing token images (a process linked, she argues, to the development of symbols for abstract numerals).
As suggested by their conjectured association with tokens, the earliest Sumerian symbols are pictographic; in other words, the symbols have a picture-like appearance. The curved lines of the pictographic characters began, however, to give way to more angular, conventionalized shapes. Such conventionalization of symbols is a common process in the evolution of writing systems, but in this instance that process and the direction of development were dictated by the medium and instruments of writing. The chief medium used throughout the history of Sumerian writing was clay. Sumerian scribes incised their pictographic characters in wet clay tablets using pointed styli. These, however, were replaced by a stylus with a triangular-shaped head which was simply pressed down into the clay, allowing for more efficient production of the symbols. Characters produced in this way have a characteristic wedge-shape (quite pronounced by the middle of the third millennium BC), and are hence called cuneiform (from the Latin cuneus, meaning ‘wedge’).
The value of early Sumerian symbols is logographic: each symbol represents an entire word. This logographic system is characterized by extensive homophony and polyphony. Homophony refers to the existence of multiple logograms having the same pronunciation, as they spell phonetically identical but semantically different words (homophones). Polyphony is, in a sense, the very opposite; the term denotes the practice of using a single logogram to spell two or more conceptually related but phonetically different words. For example, a single logogram is used to spell both DINGIR ‘god’ and AN ‘heaven’ (by Sumerological convention, Sumerian words are transcribed using capital letters).
A subset of the Sumerian logograms did double duty as semantic markers, called determinatives. These were written in conjunction with another logogram and were used, in effect, to provide the reader with a clue as to the meaning of that logogram, although their use is both conventionalized and optional. For example, the logogram GIS, ‘wood,’ is used as a determinative with logograms denoting items made of wood and tree names, such as gisERIN, ‘cedar’ (determinatives are commonly transcribed as superscript). Similar devices also occur in the logographic Egyptian and Maya scripts, and in a somewhat different form in Chinese writing as well.
Sumerian is an agglutinating language with complex word structure involving the joining of multiple affixes in sequence. Logographic spelling thus obscures much word-internal morphology. Perhaps it was chieﬂy this inherent shortcoming which led to a signiﬁcant typological alteration in the Sumerian logographic writing system—the introduction of syllabic symbols (by about 3000 BC). The method employed in devising such symbols was that of a rebus. Just as in an English rebus, a picture of the sun, for example, could be used to ‘spell’ the word ‘son,’ so Sumerian logograms began to be used to represent syllables having the same sound. Sumerian scribes used the syllabic symbols not only for representing grammatical elements but also as phonetic complements, syllabic characters used to distinguish between polyphonous logograms. For example, the logogram KA was used to spell ‘mouth’ as well as related notions such as ‘word,’ ‘speak,’ ‘voice,’ and still others; attaching the phonetic complement -ma (i.e., KA-ma) signals that the logogram is being used to spell INIM ‘word.’
Late in the third millennium BC, texts begin to appear in the Mesopotamian archaeological world which are written in the cuneiform script of the Sumerians, but which are composed in a completely different language, the Semitic language Akkadian. The Assyrians and Babylonians, speakers of Akkadian, greatly extended the use of syllabic symbols, but continued to utilize Sumerian logograms and determinatives as well. The Akkadian cuneiform script was transmitted to other peoples of the Near East, providing writing systems for the Hittites and Luvians, the Hurrians and Urartians, the Elamites, and, in a signiﬁcantly streamlined form, the Persians. The latest known Akkadian cuneiform texts were produced in the ﬁrst century AD.
2.2 Egyptian Writing
While the pictographic symbols of the Egyptian hieroglyphic script are clearly graphically distinct from those of Sumerian, and the internal operation of the two scripts shows appreciable differences, similarities are undeniable. Both possess a logographic component; both have a phonetic component, which is commonly used for phonetic complementation; both expand the use of symbols through the rebus principle; both use a subset of logograms as determinatives. As it has appeared that the Egyptian script is ﬁrst attested a bit later than the Sumerian (about 3100–3000 BC), as there is evidence for a precursor to the Sumerian logograms, and as Egypt was otherwise being inﬂuenced by Mesopotamia at the end of the fourth millennium BC, it has been commonly conjectured that at least the idea of writing, if not a writing system itself, came to the Egyptians from Mesopotamia. One possible difficulty with this scenario is that the Egyptian writing system appears well developed at its earliest attestation, perhaps suggesting some earlier, undocumented period of use.
Quite recently, moreover, small tags of bone and ivory, about postage-stamp size, have been discovered on which are carved symbols that, in some cases, bear similarity to later-known hieroglyphs. These have been dated to around 3400–3200 BC by the German archaeologist, Gunter Dreyer, who discovered them, and the symbols have been interpreted by Dreyer as writing. The dating of the tags and, perhaps more crucially, the interpretation of their markings as writing requires further investigation.
The most striking difference between the Egyptian and Sumerian systems is the nature of the phonetic component. In Egyptian writing the phonetic symbols do not have syllabic value, but represent consonants—either single consonants or sequences (although not necessarily phonetically contiguous strings) of two or three consonants. Twenty-six monoconsonantal symbols occur (including two variant forms), representing the individual consonants of the language; there are almost 100 biconsonantal symbols, and somewhat fewer triconsonantal. Biconsonantal and triconsonantal phonetic symbols are often themselves accompanied by one or more monoconsonantal phonetic complements. For example, the triconsonantal symbol nfr, spelling the Egyptian word meaning ‘good,’ is commonly used in conjunction with one or two monoconsonantal complements, as in the spelling sequence nfr f r.
3. Consonantal Writing Systems
During the early second millennium BC, a Semitic people living and laboring in Egypt developed a script for their own language by exploiting a single component of the Egyptian writing system. With the inspiration provided by the monoconsonantal Egyptian symbols, these people designed a fully phonetic and greatly simpliﬁed writing system which consists entirely of symbols for individual consonants. The ﬁrst evidence of the script, called Proto-Sinaitic, came to light in the early twentieth century with Sir Flinders Petrie’s excavations of Egyptian turquoise mines at Serabit el-Khadim in the Sinai; hence the name. Quite recently, additional examples of Proto-Sinaitic writing have been discovered near the ancient city of Thebes, at Wadi el-Hol, perhaps dating back to as early as 1900 BC.
The method which the adapters employed in turning the Egyptian script to their own use was dubbed the acrophonic principle by the British Egyptologist Sir Alan Gardiner. The values assigned to the phonetic characters of this earliest Semitic script—characters of pictographic form—were determined by the initial consonant of the Semitic word for the symbol depicted, rather than by any phonetic value associated with a corresponding Egyptian symbol. For example, the Egyptian hieroglyphic symbol resembling waves of water and used in the Egyptian system as a monoconsonantal symbol with the value /n/ was assigned the value /m/ in the Proto-Sinaitic script, as the word for ‘water’ in the Semitic language of that script began with /m/ . The Proto-Sinaitic character for /n/, on the other hand, was based on the Egyptian symbol representing /dZ/, a hieroglyph depicting a serpent, and received its Semitic value from the initial consonant in the Proto-Sinaitic word for ‘snake.’
Proto-Sinaitic is one particular form (the earliest by the interpretation of an origin within Egypt) of a more broadly, if meagerly, attested consonantal script called Proto-Canaanite, found at several sites in SyriaPalestine. This Proto-Canaanite script is the immediate ancestor of the Phoenician script (appearing in the eleventh century BC), which is in turn the source of the ancient Hebrew (ca. ninth century) and Aramaic (ca. eighth century) writing systems (the Hebrew language began to be written with the Aramaic script during the sixth century BC, although the Samaritan sect continued to use the old Hebrew letters, and continues its liturgical use to the present day). The Aramaic script gave rise to the writing system of Syriac (ca. ﬁrst century AD, and late enough to be inﬂuenced by the Greek alphabet) and, through the particular Aramaic script used by the Arab Nabateans, to the Arabic writing system (ca. fourth century AD).
Proto-Canaanite writing also served as the inspiration and model for the script of the ancient Levantine city of Ugarit. The Ugaritic writing system, however, departs markedly from the other Canaanite scripts in that its symbols are of cuneiform shape. It thus represents something of a hybrid writing system, combining the consonantal nature of Proto-Canaanite with the graphic form of the Mesopotamian scripts, although some scholars have argued that the shapes of the Ugaritic consonantal characters were themselves modeled on the Proto-Canaanite symbols but executed with the cuneiform stylus. The Ugaritic writing system also differs from other Canaanite scripts to the extent that it does not consist wholly of consonantal characters, but includes in its graphemic inventory three CV syllabic symbols, representing a glottal stop followed by the vowels /a/ , /i/, and /u/.
Yet a different Semitic writing tradition would descend from the Proto-Canaanite script. In the south of the Arabian peninsula a distinct consonantal script had appeared by at least the sixth century BC, and certainly had begun to develop several hundred years earlier. An interesting feature of the Old South Arabian script is that the order of its letters departs from that of Phoenician and the consonantal script of Ugarit. However, an abecedary found at the Palestinian site of Beth Shemesh, consisting of consonantal cuneiform characters like those in use at Ugarit, shows the same letter order as found in the Old South Arabian script. The consonantal script of South Arabia spread northward to be adapted for use by early North Arabian languages (distinct from Arabic) and westward to the horn of Africa, where it was employed for writing the Semitic language of Ethiopic. Interestingly, the consonantal script of Ethiopic had undergone a signiﬁcant metamorphosis by the ﬁfth century AD, becoming a syllabary of almost 200 CV symbols.
4. Mediterranean Syllabaries
At about the time a Semitic people resident in Egypt were fashioning a consonantal script out of Egyptian hieroglyphs, three writing systems emerged among the Minoans of Crete. Probably the ﬁrst to appear was the pictographic script called Cretan Hieroglyphic. Dating back to about the eighteenth century BC is a second Minoan script, attested on only a single document, the Phaistos Disk. A third script, also appearing in the eighteenth century and likely to be descended from Cretan Hieroglyphic, is the one that was dubbed Linear A by Sir Arthur Evans, the British archaeologist who excavated the Minoan city of Knossos early in the twentieth century. The name refers to the linear nature of this script’s symbols in contrast to the pictographic quality of symbols in the other two Minoan scripts. None of these ancient Minoan scripts has yet been deciphered by modern investigators, although recent work on Linear A may suggest that it records an Indo–European language of the Anatolian subfamily (an idea ﬁrst proposed in the mid-twentieth century by the British classicist and linguist L. R. Palmer). Cretan Hieroglyphic is possibly a syllabic script, as is probably that of the Phaistos Disk; Linear A is certainly a syllabary.
In his excavations at Knossos, Evans unearthed documents written in yet a different script. Bearing an obvious similarity to Linear A, this writing system was labeled Linear B. In 1952 the Linear B script was successfully deciphered by Michael Ventris, a British architect working in collaboration with the classicist John Chadwick. The language of the Linear B documents turned out to be Greek—that dialect used by the Mycenaean Greek culture of the second-half of the second millennium BC. The identiﬁcation of the language of the Linear B script was made particularly difficult by the seeming unsuitability of the script for spelling that language. The great majority of the symbols of this syllabic writing system are of the type CV. As Greek has many word-internal CC sequences and word-ﬁnal consonants, spelling practices were devised which in some cases required the use of CV symbols for spelling consonants only (with no following vowel), and in some cases resulted in a consonant not being spelled at all. The basic strategy for spelling consonant sequences is one which coopts a phonological property of the Greek language, namely the relative sonority of consonants. It is the general case that a consonant is written when it precedes a consonant of greater sonority (such as a stop occurring before a fricative), utilizing the CV symbol whose vocalic component is identical with the vowel which follows the consonant sequence, but is not written if the ensuing consonant is of less sonority (such as a fricative before a stop). In either case, the second consonant is written (with the appropriate CV symbol). Word-ﬁnal consonants are not written and this practice appears to be a further expression of the sonority-based strategy.
There is evidence for writing on the eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus as early as the middle of the second millennium BC. The writing system in use is preserved in distinct forms called Archaic CyproMinoan, and Cypro-Minoan I, II, and III (although the last type is actually attested in the documentary remains of the city of Ugarit, on the neighboring Levantine coast, and not on Cyprus itself ). In spite of the fact that none of the three has yet been deciphered, the formal similarities between these scripts and those of Minoan Crete clearly suggest that the Bronze Age Cypriot writing system had its origin in the Cretan scripts.
Cyprus was a key locale lying along the trade routes which stretched from Greece to the east, and certainly for this reason there had been a Greek presence in Cyprus during the Mycenaean era; however, the Greek population of Cyprus increased dramatically as refugees ﬂed the conﬂagration which brought an end to the Mycenaean civilization in the Greek homeland. The earliest remains of Greek writing in Cyprus come from the middle of the eleventh century BC, and the system of writing used was that of the Cypriot Syllabary. This syllabary, while probably based graphically upon Cypro-Minoan 1, is obviously closely affiliated with the Mycenaean script. Like Linear B, the Cypriot Syllabary is composed predominantly of symbols having the value CV. The same problems of representing word-internal consonant sequences and wordﬁnal consonants which Linear B scribes faced also plague the Cypriot Greek writing system; and the solutions to these problems are virtually identical to those utilized by the Mycenaeans, being based upon the relative sonority of Greek consonants. The notable difference between the two systems in this regard is that the Cypriot writing system makes much more limited use of the CV-deletion strategy than does Linear B. In most instances in which the ﬁrst of two consonants is of greater sonority, the Cypriot strategy is to write that consonant (and not to refrain from writing it, as in Linear B) using a CV symbol whose vocalic component is identical to the vowel which precedes the consonant sequence.
5. The Alphabet
5.1 The Greek Origin
It was the Greeks who created the ﬁrst segmental writing system to represent not only consonants but vowels as well. The raw material for the Greek alphabet was provided by the consonantal script of the Phoenicians. As there was both a signiﬁcant Phoenician presence on the island of Cyprus, and a vibrant tradition of Greek literacy, Cyprus is a de facto likely candidate for the place at which the Greek alphabet came into existence, probably in the early eighth (or possibly late ninth) century BC. There are, moreover, particular features of the early Greek alphabet which are not motivated within that segmental script, but which are motivated within the Cypriot Syllabary. For example, the biconsonantal symbol xi, representing the sequence of /k/ + /s/, is unnecessary within a segmental script that has both a k-symbol (kappa) and an s-symbol (sigma). Within the Cypriot Syllabary, however, ksV symbols are idiosyncratically required by the strategy of consonant cluster spelling which is based upon the relative sonority of consonants. Cypriot Greeks appeared to have transferred this and other features from their syllabic script to the newly devised alphabet.
For vowel symbols, the Greeks utilized Phoenician consonantal characters which were not required for writing Greek. Thus, Phoenician aleph, symbol for a glottal stop (which sound Greek did not possess phonemically) was assigned the Greek value /a/ (the Greek letter alpha). Phoenician he, spelling the glottal fricative /h/ , was used by the Greek adapters to record mid front (e) vowels (epsilon; for writing Greek /h/ , Phoenician het was employed, the symbol for a voiceless pharyngeal fricative /h/ ). To write mid back (o) vowels (omicron), the Greeks tapped Phoenician ayin, which represented a voiced pharyngeal fricative /?/ . Phoenician yod, spelling the palatal glide /y/ , and waw, representing /w/, were assigned the Greek values /i/ (iota) and u/ (upsilon) respectively.
5.2 The Etruscan Alphabet
Following rapidly upon its creation, the alphabet was widely disseminated throughout the Greek world, developing many local varieties. In the south of Italy, Greek colonists passed their western Greek alphabet on to a non-Indo-European people of Italy, the Etruscans, in the seventh century BC. As the Etruscan language lacked voiced stops, the Greek letters representing such sounds, beta (/b/), delta (/d/), and gamma (/g/), were not needed for that purpose. The ﬁrst two letters would disappear from the Etruscan alphabet, although gamma was retained and used for spelling the voiceless stop /k/ when it occurred before a front vowel. The Etruscans used Greek kappa for /k/ before /a/ and Greek qoppa for /k/ before the high back vowel /u/. In turn, the Etruscans transmitted the alphabet to other peoples of Italy.
5.3 The Roman Alphabet
Among those places to which the Etruscan writing system came was the city of Rome—a singly signiﬁcant step in the history of the alphabet. For a time, the Romans continued the Etruscan practice of using three different symbols to represent the velar stop /k/ in its various phonetic contexts. However, C (from Greek gamma) was eventually used regularly for /k/ as well as for /g/ (K, Greek kappa, continued to be used for a very few words and Q, Greek qoppa, was employed before V for spelling /kw/ ). By the third century BC, a variant form of C had been introduced, namely G, for writing the voiced velar stop /g/. However, as G was assigned the alphabetic position held by Greek zeta (spelling the early Greek sequence /zd/, later /z/), which was not required for spelling Latin, it has been argued that zeta, not gamma, provided the raw material for the creation of the new letter G. Later, in the ﬁrst century BC, with the inﬂux of much Greek vocabulary, both Y and Z (for Greek /u/ and /z/ respectively) were appended to the Roman alphabet.
5.4 The Alphabet Abroad
The alphabet would make its presence known, directly and indirectly, throughout the European continent and beyond. The fragmentary remains of Celtic writing from continental Europe are attested in alphabetic scripts—Etruscan, Roman, or Greek (aside from the Hispano-Celtic inscriptions written in a curious script which is part syllabic, part alphabetic). Moreover, the ‘native’ writing systems of both the ancient Celts of Britain and Ireland, and of the Germanic peoples of Europe are alphabetic traditions, although formally distinct from both the Greek and Roman scripts, and strikingly so in the case of Celtic Ogham, with its characters of oblique and right-angle lines. Nevertheless, it is undoubtedly the case that both Ogham and the Germanic runes found their inspiration and model in the Mediterranean alphabets. When in the fourth century AD the Gothic Bishop Wulﬁla translated portions of the Bible into his Germanic language, he used an alphabetic script of his own design, based chieﬂy on the Greek alphabet.
The spreading of the Christian faith and the effort to ground believers in the biblical texts were—far beyond Wulﬁla—fundamental factors in the evolution of alphabetic writing systems. The Roman Catholic Church played a key role in the introduction and eventual establishment of the Roman alphabet across much of the European continent. Carried by the colonizing European nations, this writing system would be transported around the world, being utilized for writing European languages on all six of the populated continents, and adapted for spelling indigenous languages of Asia and Africa, as well as providing raw material for the symbols of the Cherokee syllabary of North America.
In the ninth century AD, Greek missionaries led by Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius developed writing systems, based on their own Greek alphabet, for translating the Bible into the language of south Slavic converts. One of these scripts, the Cyrillic alphabet, thrived and is the predecessor of the alphabetic scripts of various modern Slavic languages, most notably Russian.
The alphabets of both Armenian and Georgian are traditionally attributed to the ﬁfth-century cleric, Saint Mesrop. These writing systems were based at least partially on the Greek alphabet, but their creator may have also drawn upon a Semitic consonantal script.
6. Writing In South And East Asia
6.1 The Indian Syllabaries
The earliest attested writing system of India is the script of the Indus Valley civilization, dating back to ca. 2500 BC. Many of the symbols are of a pictographic nature, and the number of symbols identiﬁed suggests that this writing system is logographic, possibly partially syllabic. It is, however, presently poorly understood and does not appear to have been the source of the Indian syllabaries which appear in the third century BC. These scripts, Kharoshthi and Brahmi, probably developed from the Aramaic consonantal writing system. Of the two, only Brahmi appears to have survived late antiquity; its perhaps best-known form being Devanagari, the writing system of Sanskrit, as well as that of Hindi and other modern Indo-Aryan languages.
Devanagari differs notably from the Mediterranean and Mesopotamian syllabic writing systems in that rather than having a distinct symbol for each possible consonant + vowel combination, Devanagari consists of a basic set of CV symbols having the vowel value -a (i.e., Ca symbols). These CV symbols can be assigned different vowel values (Ci, Cu, etc.) by the addition of diacritic strokes (this is essentially the same strategy utilized by the Ethiopic syllabary, which traces its origins to a Semitic consonantal writing system, as apparently do the Indic scripts). Devanagari also has the capacity to transform basic CV symbols into ones representing more complex consonantal components (CCV, CCCV, etc.) through the use of conventionalized ligatures. Such ligatures consist essentially of a Ca symbol (representing the ﬁnal member of the consonant cluster) to which a form, often highly abbreviated, of one or more other Ca symbols is attached. Word-ﬁnal consonants are spelled utilizing the appropriate Ca symbol beneath which a diacritic mark, called virama, is placed, revealing to the reader that the symbol is to be read with no vowel component.
The Indian syllabaries were spread through much of Central and Southeast Asia, giving rise to writing systems for numerous languages. Not only does the Tibetan script trace its roots to India, but also the writing systems of Javanese, Thai, Burmese, Lao, and Khmer.
6.2 Chinese Writing
The earliest evidence for writing in China is provided by the Shang-dynasty oracle-bone inscriptions of ca. 1200 BC. There is no clear evidence that writing developed in China under the inﬂuence of any then existing writing system; as in Mesopotamia (and perhaps in Egypt), writing seems to have appeared de no o. Like the earliest Mesopotamian writing system, the early Chinese script is pictographic with each symbol representing an entire word. Moreover, as in both Mesopotamia and Egypt, the Chinese writing system is one which multiplies the value of its characters utilizing the rebus principle; and one which utilizes semantic markers to minimize graphic ambiguity. In China, however, these markers were commonly combined with the associated characters to produce compound symbols of two components—one signaling pronunciation, the other meaning. The fundamental logographic nature of Chinese writing has been preserved to the present day, and the inventory of logographic characters has steadily increased. While approximately 60,000 distinct characters are currently identiﬁed, about 2,500 occur in common use.
6.3 Japanese Writing
The modern Japanese writing system is quite complex, probably the most so of modern scripts. The earliest attested examples of Japanese writing (ca. eighth century AD) are executed in Chinese script. However, by the end of the ninth century, two Japanese syllabaries had appeared, evolving out of the practice of using certain Chinese characters as phonetic symbols. Both of these syllabaries remain in use alongside kanji, essentially logographic symbols originating in Chinese characters; in the contemporary script, a single such symbol can have multiple values. The syllabary called katakana is utilized for scientiﬁc terms, for foreign loans, for indicating emphasis, among still other uses. Modern hiragana is used for spelling grammatical particles and affixes associated with kanji.
6.4 Korean Writing
As in the case of Japanese, the Korean language was ﬁrst written with Chinese characters. It was in the ﬁfteenth century AD, according to Korean tradition, that the Korean alphabetic writing system of Han’gul was invented. Credit for this script—the world’s only alphabetic writing system which may not trace its roots to the Greek alphabet—is given to Sejong, a Korean king. Han’gul is a highly efficient and phonetically transparent script. Its various consonantal symbols are purported to have been designed to represent schematically the articulatory position of the tongue in producing the consonant sounds of Korean. While Han’gul is alphabetic, consonant and vowel characters are written together in such a way as to form orthographic blocks corresponding to phonetic syllables.
7. Writing In Mesoamerica
There is at least a third region of the world, in addition to China and the Near East, where human beings appear to have designed a means of writing without prior knowledge of any such thing, namely Mesoamerica. While the study of ancient Mesoamerican writing is still at an early stage, signiﬁcant strides have been made since the 1970s. Of the several Mesoamerican scripts currently known, the best attested and best understood is that of the Maya, who were writing by at least the third century AD. In its fundamental characteristics, the Maya writing system is much like those of the Sumerians and Egyptians. The script’s pictographic symbols, or glyphs, are logographic and syllabic in value. The latter type is used both in conjunction with logograms as well as for the phonetic spelling of words. In addition, the Maya system makes use of determinatives, like the Sumerian and Egyptian systems, to provide semantic guidance to the reader.
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