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The first writing

Writing has its origins in the strip of fertile land stretching from the Nile up into the area often referred to as the Fertile Crescent. This name was given, in the early 20th century, to the inverted U-shape of territory that stretches up the east Mediterranean coast and then curves east through northern Syria and down the Euphrates and the Tigris to the Persian Gulf.

The first known writing derives from the lower reaches of the two greatest rivers in this extended region, the Nile and the Tigris. So the two civilizations separately responsible for this totally transforming human development are the Egyptian and the Sumerian (in what is now Iraq). It has been conventional to give priority, by a short margin, to Sumer dating the Sumerian script to about 3100 BC and the Egyptian version a century or so later.

However, in 1988 a German archaeologist, Günter Dreyer, unearths at Abydos, on the Nile in central Egypt, small bone and ivory tablets recording in early hieroglyphic form the items delivered to a temple mainly linen and oil.

These fragments have been carbon-dated to between 3300 and 3200 BC. Meanwhile the dating of the earliest cuneiform tablets from Sumeria has been pushed further back, also to around 3200 BC. So any claim to priority by either side is at present too speculative to carry conviction.

Evolution of a script

Most early writing systems begin with small images used as words, literally depicting the thing in question. But pictograms of this kind are limited. Some physical objects are too difficult to depict. And many words are concepts rather than objects.

There are several ways in which early writing evolves beyond the pictorial stage. One is by combining pictures to suggest a concept. Another is by a form of pun, in which a pictorial version of one object is modified to suggest another quite different object which sounds the same when spoken.

An example of both developments could begin with a simple symbol representing a roof - a shallow inverted V. This would be a valid character to mean 'house'. If one places under this roof a similar symbol for a woman, the resulting character could well stand for some such idea as 'home' or 'family'. (In fact, in Chinese, a woman under a roof is one of the characters which can be used to mean 'peace').

This is a conceptual character. The punning kind might put under the same roof a sloping symbol representing the bank of a river. The combined character, roof and bank, would then stand for a financial institution - the type of 'house' which is a 'bank'.

Cuneiform in Mesopotamia: from 3100 BC

In about 3200 BC temple officials in Sumer develop a reliable and lasting method of keeping track of the animals and other goods which are the temple's wealth. On lumps of wet clay the scribes draw a simpified picture of the item in question. They then make a similar mark in the clay for the number counted and recorded. When allowed to bake hard in the sun, the clay tablet becomes a permanent document. .

Significantly the chief official of many Sumerian temples is known by a word, sangu, which seems to mean 'accountant'. But however non-literary the purpose, these practical jottings in Sumer are the first steps in writing.

As writing develops, a standardized method of doing it begins to emerge. This is essential to the very purpose of writing, making it capable of carrying a message over unlimited distances of space or time. Doing so depends on the second scribe, in a faraway place or the distant future, being able to read what the first scribe has written

In Mesopotamia clay remains the most common writing surface, and the standard writing implement becomes the end of a sharply cut reed. These two ingredients define this early human script. Characters are formed from the wedge-shaped marks which the reed makes when pressed into the damp clay, so the style of writing becomes known as cuneiform (from the Latin cuneus, meaning wedge).

Hieroglyphs and papyrus in Egypt: from 3000 BC

The second civilization to develop writing, shortly after the Sumerians, is Egypt. The Egyptian characters are much more directly pictorial in kind than the Sumerian, but the system of suggesting objects and concepts is similar. The Egyptian characters are called hieroglyphs by the Greeks in about 500 BC, because by that time this form of writing is reserved for holy texts; hieros and glypho mean 'sacred' and 'engrave' in Greek.

Because of the importance of hieroglyphic inscriptions in temples and tombs, much of the creation of these beautiful characters is by painters, sculptors in relief and craftsmen modelling in plaster. But with the introduction of papyrus, the Egyptian script is also the business of scribes.

The Egyptian scribe uses a fine reed pen to write on the smooth surface of the papyrus scroll. Inevitably the act of writing causes the hieroglyphs to become more fluid than the strictly formal versions carved and painted in tombs.

Even so, the professional dignity of the scribes ensures that standards do not slip. There gradually emerge three official versions of the script (known technically as hieratic) which is used by the scribes. There is one, the most formal, for religious documents; one for literature and official documents; and one for private letters.

In about 700 BC the pressure of business causes the Egyptian scribes to develop a more abbreviated version of the hieratic script. Its constituent parts are still the same Egyptian hieroglyphs, established more than 2000 years previously, but they are now so elided that the result looks like an entirely new script. Known as demotic ('for the people'), it is harder to read than the earlier written versions of Egyptian.

Both hieroglyphs and demotic continue to be used until about 400 AD. Thereafter their secret is forgotten, until the chance discovery of the Rosetta stone makes it possible for the hieroglyphic code to be cracked in the 19th century.

The seals of the Indus valley: from 2500 BC

As in the other great early civilizations, the bureaucrats of the Indus valley have the benefit of writing to help them in their administration. The Indus script, which has not yet been deciphered, is known from thousands of seals, carved in steatite or soapstone.

Usually the centre of each seal is occupied by a realistic depiction of an animal, with above it a short line of formal symbols. The lack of longer inscriptions or texts suggests that this script is probably limited to trading and accountancy purposes, with the signs establishing quantities and ownership of a commodity.

Chinese characters: from 1600 BC

The last of the early civilizations to develop writing is China, in about 1600 BC. But China outdoes the others in devising a system which has evolved, as a working script, from that day to this. Chinese characters are profoundly ill-suited to such labour-saving innovations as printing, typewriting or word-processing. Yet they have survived. They have even provided the script for an entirely different language, Japanese.

The Non-phonetic Chinese script has been a crucial binding agent in China's vast empire. Officials from far-flung places, often unable to speak each other's language, have been able to communicate fluently in writing.

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