The historical record is often divided into two parts: before and after written records (and therefore, writing at all). So, what are the first records of writing?
It all starts with the desire to share information visually. This idea can be traced all the way back to ancient cave paintings in France. It can be said, then, that pictograms were the precursors of writing. A pictogram represents an image of an object, like the silhouette of an ox or grains of wheat, but abstracted. But these sorts of things don’t convey sound— it’s simply memetic.
In Ancient Mesopotamia, archaeologists have studied clay tokens used for accounting purposes. These are the two most notable examples. However, the first real writing occurs around 5,000 years ago with the advent of cuneiform— writing on clay tablets. Though writing in clay seems awful and unwieldy, it’s actually quite lucky that the Mesopotamians wrote this way since it ensures preservation. If writing emerged earlier than cuneiform, but using a different material, it’s very likely such an artifact succumbed to time and was destroyed before historians could recover it. As such, cuneiform is the world’s first writing system that we have a record of.
Cuneiform is logographic, but it started out as pictograms that were rotated and moved around for the ease of scribes and scholars at the time.
A drawing of a grain would get simpler and therefore more abstract over time in order to speed up the writing process. Priests, who used the records to run massive stockpiles in ancient temples, learned to read from top to bottom— like a scroll.
But scribes preferred writing from left to right instead of top to bottom because the chance of pressing your hand down on the wet clay and destroying the tally marks was reduced. So, the scribes compromised and rotated the characters 90 degrees, so priests could just turn the tablet to read, further abstracting the characters for writers.
Phonographic writing comes after, made possible by the rebus principle. The rebus principle allows a sign to be used for anything with the same pronunciation as it was originally intended. For example, because they were pronounced the same, the symbol for ‘reed’ could also mean ‘reimburse.’ Humans are able to cope with this ambiguity and can normally make out what the writer’s intention was with some context.
Given all that, the Sumerians were able to vastly shrink their set of symbols, making learning how to write much easier. The Sumerians also were able to record things that can’t be directly depicted by a pictogram or a logogram— concepts like love and life, given they were pronounced the same as something already concrete.
Meanwhile, the Egyptians were working on hieroglyphics. Similar to early Sumerian, they were first pictograms— but the writing system eventually became a mixed bag of phonographic and logographic symbols. The Egyptians also took advantage of the rebus principle in a way similar to the Sumerians, but they took a step further: symbols could represent individual consonants! Linguists call this acrophony.
Building off of this mixed bag that is hieroglyphics, the Phoenicians created the letters and symbols that the Greeks later built off of. They developed it into the very first actual alphabet. Fun fact, the first Greek originally written boustrophedon (‘as the ox turns’), meaning the lines alternated from which direction they were written. For instance, if the first line was written from left to right, the next line would be written from right to left, as the ox turns!
After the Greeks, the Romans acquired their alphabet and made changes, spreading the writing system all across the empire. When the empire collapsed, it isolated many language communities which then developed apart from each other, much like how new species of animals evolve when geographically separated. While these languages may have modified sounds or gotten more or less complex, the writing system is much slower to change thanks to education.
If you liked this post and want to learn more, we highly recommend you read Contemporary Linguistics: An Introduction by William O’Grady. It’s a great textbook on linguistics in general and would make a great addition to any scientists library. Also, check out some of these related posts!