Essays academic service

The development of ancient systems of writing in iraq and egypt

The cuneiform script, created in Mesopotamia, present-day Iraq, ca. It is also the only writing system which can be traced to its earliest prehistoric origin. This antecedent of the cuneiform script was a system of counting and recording goods with clay tokens. The evolution of writing from tokens to pictography, syllabary and alphabet illustrates the development of information processing to deal with larger amounts of data in ever greater abstraction.

Introduction The three writing systems that developed independently in the Near East, China and Mesoamerica, shared a remarkable stability.

Each preserved over millennia features characteristic of their original prototypes. The Mesopotamian cuneiform script can be traced furthest back into prehistory to an eighth millennium BC counting system using clay tokens of multiple shapes.

The development from tokens to script reveals that writing emerged from counting and accounting. Writing was used exclusively for accounting until the third millennium BC, when the Sumerian concern for the afterlife paved the way to literature by using writing for funerary inscriptions. The evolution from tokens to script also documents a steady progression in abstracting data, from one-to-one correspondence with three-dimensional tangible tokens, to two-dimensional pictures, the invention of abstract numbers and phonetic syllabic signs and finally, in the second millennium BC, the ultimate abstraction of sound and meaning with the representation of phonemes by the letters of the alphabet.

Writing may have been invented independently three times in different parts of the world: In what concerns this last script, it is still obscure how symbols and glyphs used by the Olmecs, whose culture flourished along the Gulf of Mexico ca 600 to 500 BC, reappeared in the classical Maya art and writing of 250-900 AD as well as in other Mesoamerican cultures Marcus 1992.

The earliest Chinese inscriptions, dated to the Shang Dynasty, c. The highly abstract and standardized signs suggest prior developments, which are presently undocumented. Of these three writing systems, therefore, only the earliest, the Mesopotamian cuneiform script, invented in Sumer, present-day Iraq, c.

A History of Time and Ancient Calendars

Its evolution is divided into four phases: After ideography, logography and syllabaries, the alphabet represents a further segmentation of meaning. Tokens as 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, mostly of geometric forms such as cones, spheres, disks, cylinders and ovoids, are recovered in archaeological sites dating 8000—3000 BC Fig. 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 represented 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. 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. Therefore, the goods they represented were expressed in multiple languages. 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: 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 development of ancient systems of writing in iraq and egypt envelope before enclosing them inside, so that the shape and number of counters held inside could be verified at all times Fig.

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. 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. They were ideograms—signs representing one concept.

  • This was a significant change for an oral society, where knowledge was transmitted by word of mouth from one individual to another, face to face;
  • This antecedent of the cuneiform script was a system of counting and recording goods with clay tokens;
  • The alphabet brought data handling to a final double-stepped abstraction;
  • Besides them, numerals—signs representing plurality—indicated the quantity of units recorded;
  • A character in the form of a picture representing either the sound of the word it evokes or the object represented;
  • 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.

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. 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. 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. Cuyler Young, Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto 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 and Heine 2009. In all these instances, the medium changed in form but not in content.

  • The system underwent drastic changes in form, gradually transcribed spoken language more accurately, and handled data in more abstract terms;
  • Third, it streamlined the system to 22 signs, instead of several hundred;
  • After ideography, logography and syllabaries, the alphabet represents a further segmentation of meaning;
  • Unlike speech, tokens were restricted to one type of information only, namely, real goods;
  • The alphabet did not subsequently undergo any fundamental change;
  • The Mesopotamian script, however, offers a well-documented evolution over a continuous period of 10,000 years.

The only major departure from the token system consisted in the creation of two distinct types of signs: This combination of signs initiated the semantic division between the item counted and number.

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. The personal names were transcribed by the mean of logograms—signs representing a word in a particular tongue. 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.

The verb was not transcribed, but inferred, which was easy because the name was common. Phonetic signs allowed writing to break away from accounting. Presumably, these funerary texts were meant to immortalize the name of the deceased, thereby, according to Sumerian creed, ensuring them of eternal life.

Other funerary inscriptions further advanced 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, and in some cases, a plea for life after death, including a verb.

These inscriptions introduced syntax, thus bringing writing yet one step closer to speech. The resulting syllabary—system of phonetic signs expressing syllables—further modeled writing on to spoken language Rogers 2005.


With a repertory of about 400 signs, the script could express any topic of human endeavor. Some of the earliest syllabic texts were royal inscriptions, and religious, magic and the development of ancient systems of writing in iraq and egypt 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 spreading out of Sumer to neighboring regions.

The first Egyptian inscriptions, dated to the late fourth millennium BC, belonged to royal tombs Baines 2007. 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 explains 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 that evoked sounds in their own tongue.

The phonetic transcription of personal names also played an important role in the dissemination of writing to the Indus Valley where, during a period of increased contact with Mesopotamia, c. 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.

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 Sass 2005. 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 countless ways, allowed for an unprecedented flexibility for transcribing speech Powell 2009.

This earliest alphabet was a complete departure from the previous syllabaries. 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. 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.

About the author

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. The alphabet did not subsequently undergo any fundamental change. The Latin alphabet used in the western world is the direct descendant of the Etruscan alphabet Bonfante 2002.

The Etruscans, who occupied the present province of Tuscany in Italy, adopted the Greek alphabet, slightly modifying the shape of letters. 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. 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.