Ancient Civilizations Writing Systems

It’s generally assumed that human beings have kept written records since the last Ice Age some 20,000 years ago. Bones and horns have been found with sets of regular incisions that could be calendars according to some archaeologists. It’s possible that they were used to trace migratory animals, which Paleolithic hunters depended on. However, writing itself wasn’t invented until much later.

A true writing system’s distinguishing feature is written symbols representing a language’s words and sounds, not just its ideas. This means that a drawing of a horse in its own isn’t writing as it can be “read” in any language. While such drawings express the same idea, writing reproduces the sounds of different languages.

Writing systems are different to languages. Writing systems, like the modern Latin alphabet that’s used to write Spanish for example, is used to write a number of European languages. In the same way, the Arabic script has been used to write Turkish and Persian as well as Arabic.

Ancient Civilizations and Early Writing

Writing in ancient civilizations
Writing in ancient civilizations

Writing evolved independently in various regions, such as the Near East, China, the Indus Valley and Central America. The writing systems that emerged in each of these regions are different and did not influence each other. The earliest known writing system was cuneiform in Mesopotamia, which dates back to 3,100 BC.

Why was writing invented? Perhaps the answer can be found in the first written messages. In most places where writing developed independently, the oldest documents that remain are labels and lists, or the names of rulers. In general, some were much richer than others in the societies that produced these documents, and power was concentrated in the hands of small groups. Therefore, writing is assumed to have been invented as the members of these groups had to organize the distribution of goods and people in order to maintain control over both.

In many societies, writing was also invented for other purposes. For example, in ancient Mesopotamia contracts and other commercial documents, letters, laws, religious rituals and even literary works were written down. On the other hand, in Central America writing was limited for a long time to inscriptions on monuments relating to the monarchy. In these societies where writing was restricted to a small dominant group, there were actually very few people who could read and write.

Logographic Writing

Depending on how they work, writing systems are classified as logographic, syllabic or alphabetic. On occasion, some systems use more than one of these at the same time. For example, the ancient Egyptians used all three systems simultaneously. In logographic writing systems, each symbol represents a word. In many of these systems, grammatical determiners are added to basic symbols; these are special symbols indicating semantic or grammatical changes, such as compound or plural forms of words. The most obvious difficulty of this writing system is the enormous number of symbols needed to express every word. The Chinese writing system uses around 50,000 characters, although not all of them are commonly used. This explains why it’s not surprising that very few people could read and write in Imperial China. Even in modern times, it took several decades to create a Chinese language typewriter.

Syllabic Writing

Syllabic writing systems use symbols to represent syllables. Many early writing systems were syllabic: Assyrian and Babylonian cuneiform in the Near East, the two writing systems of pre-classical Greece, Japanese kana, and the ancient Mayan writing of Central America.

Babylonian cuneiform is a good example of how syllabic writing was used and developed. It first developed from Sumerian logographic writing, and both were written by imprinting wedge-shaped marks on wet clay tablets. They would put syllabic signs one after the other to form words.

Cuneiform syllabic writing was used for a long time in the ancient Near East, where it was in use between the years 3,100 and 100 BC. It was used to write other languages as well as Akkadian, such as Hittite and Elamite.

Babylonian cuneiform has around 600 symbols, although many of them are used for their different syllabic values.

Alphabetic Writing

Ancient alphabet
Ancient alphabet

Most modern languages use alphabetic writing systems where each symbol represents a basic sound. Spanish and most modern European languages are written with alphabets that come from the Latin alphabet. The great advantage of alphabetical systems is that far fewer symbols need to be learned than in logographic or syllabic systems, as most alphabets feature fewer than 30 characters.

It’s rather ironic, but it’s possible that the invention of the first alphabet was inspired by the ancient Egyptian script, one of the most complex writing systems ever invented. Egyptian hieroglyphs combined logographic, syllabic, and alphabetic symbols. In the middle of the second millennium BC, communities living in the Sinai Peninsula discovered that all of the sounds of their language could be expressed using a small number of alphabetic symbols.

It’s likely that the alphabetic systems descended from the original Sinai script were widely used throughout the Levant until 1150 BC. However, as this type of script was mostly written on perishable materials like parchment and papyrus, very few original materials remain. However, papyrus has been preserved in Egypt due to of the dryness of the desert and the absence of bacteria.

The earliest examples of alphabetic writing, which date from 1450 to 1150 BC, were found at the site of the ancient Canaanite city of Ugarit. A writing system consisting of 30 cuneiform symbols was invented to write in Ugaritic. Ugaritic written documents were engraved on clay tablets that are almost indestructible when baked. However, the few remaining documents suggest that the inhabitants of Ugarit were more accustomed to the usual Semitic alphabetic writing tradition of writing on perishable materials.

A very late, and particularly special, example of a surviving original Semitic parchment is the so-called Dead Sea Scrolls. Dating from about 100 BC to 68 AD, these mysterious religious texts written in Aramaic and Hebrew were found between 1947 and 1956 in clay pots in an Israeli desert cave. It’s easier to trace the evolution of the Levantine alphabets used in Semitic languages like Phoenician, Hebrew, and Aramaic after 1200 BC, as there are a few inscriptions carved in stone.

These alphabetic scripts differ from how modern European alphabetic writing is used in two important respects. Firstly, in Semitic writing texts are normally written right to left, instead of left to right. Secondly, vowel sounds and diphthongs in languages that use Semitic scripts (a, e, i, o, u, o, ai, oo, etc.) are not written, and only consonants are recorded (b, k, d, f, g, etc.).

It seems that the writing of vowel sounds occurred by accident, and it wasn’t some sort of brilliant invention. The Greeks were aware of the Levantine alphabets by having established regular contact with the Phoenicians and other peoples of the region between 950 and 850 BC, when they both, among others, established markets throughout the Mediterranean. Some letters that represent consonants in the Semitic sense sounded like vowels to the Greeks.

The Greeks also took their alphabet to Italy, where it was adapted for use in Etruscan, Latin, and other languages. The Roman Empire helped to spread their alphabet throughout much of Western Europe, although the Greek alphabet was still used in the Eastern Empire. By the time the Western Roman Empire fell in the 5th century, it was already a Christian empire. Writing (in Latin) had become essential in ecclesiastical administration. Both the Latin writing system and Christianity survived the empire that gave birth to them. During the early medieval period, the Latin alphabet was adapted to transcribe various languages, such as Gothic, Old Irish, French and Old English. Meanwhile, in the East, the Greek Orthodox Church expanded to the north, Russia and the Balkans, taking the Greek alphabet with them. It’s said that two Orthodox clerics, St. Cyril and St. Methodius, adapted the Greek alphabet to write Slavic languages. This is why the alphabet currently used in Russia, Bulgaria and other parts of Eastern Europe is called Cyrillic, in honor of St. Cyril. In this way, the Semitic, Greek, and Latin alphabets served as the basis of most of the alphabets currently used in modern Europe, the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent.

Overview of Ancient Cultures and Writing Systems:

1- The Mayans

Ancient Mayan writings
Ancient Mayan writings

Mayan languages, having evolved over 26 centuries, are still spoken in southern Mexico and Central America. However, its written form has undergone a tragic and radical change: the old hieroglyphs have been completely abandoned and the Latin alphabet has been adopted instead. Although increasing knowledge of Mayan languages over the last four centuries has provided valuable clues regarding the concepts represented by hieroglyphs, many of the symbols in Mayan writing remain untranslated. There are approximately 350 principal symbols that can be combined with an equally large number of secondary symbols to form additional highly complex symbols. Another significant difficulty in deciphering it is the shortage of written documents; the Spanish conquistadors destroyed almost all documents when they arrived in Mexico in the 16th century. Only three almanacs survive, which make daily predictions regarding crops, fishing or the weather, or describe the movements of the sun, the moon, and Venus.

2- The Phoenicians

The Phoenicians, as many will know, invented the alphabet. This Phoenician alphabet, which gave birth to so many others, consisted of 22 characters. It was a modern alphabet in all respects but one: it had no vowels. The simplicity of the alphabet made writing more accessible to the average person and allowed most social classes to learn how to write. An alphabet is a writing system that is written as it is pronounced, with a symbol for each sound produced. Alphabets spread widely and are now the writing system used by almost all of the world’s languages.

3- The Greeks

The Greeks adopted the Phoenicians’ writing system but added five letters: vowels. However, the Greeks themselves attributed the invention of the alphabet to the Phoenicians, and called it “Phoenician writing”. On Crete, a Mediterranean island to the south of Greece, a similar civilization to the Greeks was discovered. The Cretans had developed a script, called Linear B. Michael Ventris, an architect with an aptitude for linguistics, discovered this Linear B script and found that it consisted of 88 signs. After constructing a table of this writing system’s phonetic values, he realized that it was an archaic form of Greek. A year later, an American archaeologist compared the Linear B tablet with the Greek script and managed to translate it.

4- The Etruscans

The writing of the Etruscans – a people who inhabited the area between the Tiber and Arno rivers before the Romans dominated Italy – might appear easy to decipher as they were written using Greek characters. However, the language used in these texts is a true mystery; no clear relationship between Etruscan and any other language has been found. Over 10,000 Etruscan inscriptions have been found, but most are funeral epitaphs that only indicate the deceased’s name, title, age, and relations. However, since the end of the last century specialists have managed to reconstruct an Etruscan vocabulary of around 200 words, while there are many who are dedicated to trying to increase this number. The Etruscan language is just one of many that have still not been deciphered.

Ancient Etruscan civilization
Ancient Etruscan civilization

4- The Hittites

The Hittite hieroglyphs were written in alternating directions. This system consisted of 419 symbols, most of them pictographs. After decades of work, the Hittite script was deciphered in the 60s. While they used hieroglyphs for important records, they used a system that they’d taken from Mesopotamia and had adapted to their own language for daily affairs.

5- The Sumerians

1,500 years after the invention of their writing system, cuneiform, the Sumerians had about 2,000 word-symbols. 500 years later they succeeded in transforming them into abstract symbols, which in some cases represented the sounds of words.

6- The Egyptians

The Egyptians developed three types of writing: hieroglyphic, hieratic and demotic. Hieroglyphic writing is a set of signs and shapes that express a sentence. Words are represented through symbols or shapes, having no phonetic relation to how the word is pronounced. Hieratic writing was a cursive script that emerged after hieroglyphics. It was used for around 3,000 years. Jean-François Champollion deciphered this writing system. Demotic writing was deciphered using the Rosetta Stone (see Appendix 1), which contained a message to Ptolemy VI in three different writing systems: hieroglyphics, demotic and Greek. Champollion deciphered the Greek script, making it easy for him to then decipher the other two.

7- The Chinese

Chinese writing, which is among the oldest in the world, has retained its basic characteristics for over 3,500 years. Primitive pictograms evolved into increasingly abstract and complex symbols. However, partly because the Chinese resisted foreign influences for a long time, their writing did not become an alphabetic system. Since primitive images couldn’t represent abstract thoughts, new characters were created to increase the scope of written communication. In this way, the number of characters used by the Chinese increased from 2,500 to over 50,000 today.

8- The Inca

The Inca were the only civilization to reach a high level of development despite having no knowledge of the wheel nor animal traction. One explanation for the success of the Inca – who’d achieved success without knowledge of writing – lies in their ability to keep meticulous records through an apparatus that used a complicated system of knotted ropes.

9- The Persians

Persian script
Persian script

The Persian language went through two basic phases: a cuneiform script phase and an alphabetical phase. The ancient Persian Empire adopted the Mesopotamian cuneiform script, which was the most modern and simplest of the four cuneiform varieties. The other three were Elamite, Babylonian and another that’s not been discovered yet. They adopted an alphabetical system a little before the end of the empire, so in Iran the two writing systems have likely been mixed.

10- The Assyrians

They developed a cuneiform script, copying it from the Sumerians and adapting it to suit their language. They established a large library with notable Sumerian-Babylonian dictionaries.

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