Pen, Paper & Prose Power

A Brief History of Writing – Part One: From Glyphs to Greek    

by Ashley Williams


‘It is better not to know, and to know that one does not know, than to presumptuously attribute some random meaning to symbols.’ 

Ancient Egyptian proverb inscribed on a temple in Luxor




Not so long ago, Dr Alan Christensen, a professor of Mayan history and language, was walking along a jungle trail in Guatemala. It was getting dark and he was lost so he entered a Mayan village to ask for directions. He introduced himself and they asked him what he was doing in their country. He explained that he was compiling a Mayan dictionary. The villagers were flabbergasted: they had no idea it was possible to write the language they spoke.

However, the villagers were not ignorant, or even out of touch: it was not until the 20th century that the combined brilliance of a Soviet army officer, a British epigrapher, a Russian-American draughtswoman, and an American child prodigy (among others) resulted in the successful decipherment of the extraordinarily ornate Mayan glyphs which make up one of only five phonetic writing systems known to the world.

Dr Christensen ended up spending the night with his new Mayan friends who were all on tenterhooks to hear the messages their ancestors had left for them. Tears ran down their cheeks as this enigmatic stranger read aloud one of the more famous ancient passages of Mayan wisdom. The chief of the village invited him to his hut. The old man wanted to write a letter to his dying son. Dr Christensen obliged before proceeding to scribe other villagers’ messages for them. As they jostled and gesticulated in their eagerness to have their own words committed to paper, Dr Christensen realised he was witnessing an incalculably strong human need and desire to communicate through the written word – one which the rest of the humanity, perhaps, takes for granted.

The history of the written word is as complicated as it is fascinating. And the progression of writing over the centuries has been neither linear nor orderly. One might imagine each culture embracing the written word as a 100m relay-race athlete running down a track, clutching a papyrus scroll, reaching out and passing the ‘baton’ to a new generation. Theoretically, each baton the athlete passes on should be inscribed with a larger number of words – and written in a more advanced script – than the one he or she received. 

However, in reality, this is how the metaphorical race develops: some teams are running much faster than others; some drop their batons and other teams pick them up; some keel over and die; others never even get out of the blocks! At the other end of the scale to the non-starters are the Chinese and Greek teams, who have been running more of a 400m relay-race than a sprint.

The 'Writing Olympics' have been going on for a very long time. The first question is, how long?


What is Writing?

If we were asked this question, the image appearing in our minds might be a book, a sample of the alphabet, a line of electronic text, or a hand-written letter; but mental images are not the same as definitions, and the numerous definitions employed by linguistics professors and historians over the years are certainly not the same. However, here’s a simple one: ‘the visual representation of language through the use of an established selection of markings.’

Marking wood, bone, and stone to keep tallies goes as far back as the Stone Age. In fact, Roman numerals evolved from this primitive accounting system. But cutting notches to keep score is a world away from the actual dissemination of language through a proper writing system. The operative words in the above definition, then, are 'representation of language.' There is no debate as to whether or not Neolithic symbols conveyed information: even Stone Age cave paintings did that. The question is: did they represent 'language' or just convey information? One could say the difference between the two is analogous to road signs and parking-meter instructions. In general, the linguistics community regards meter instructions as ‘writing’ but classes road signs as ‘proto-writing.’ (Proto comes from the Greek, prōtos, meaning ‘first,' ‘before,’ or ‘earliest form of.') Whereas proto-writing may share many characteristics with writing, if it is suggestive of the mere transfer of information through symbols, it will fall into the proto-writing classification category.

Writing or Proto-Writing?

However, once in a while, when archaeologists unearth ‘new’ inscriptions, they are not sure if they are looking at signs or meters. In 2003, inscribed tortoise shells dating back to 6600 B.C.E. were found in 24 Neolithic graves in Jiahu, northern China. What interested researchers most was that some of the symbols (e.g., those for ‘day,’ ‘sun,’ and ‘eye’) were essentially the same as those found inscribed on a much later (1200 B.C.E.) collection of artefacts known as Oracle bones (to be discussed later in this article). However, initial claims that the Jiahu find exhibited direct linguistic content have been largely dismissed as insufficiently substantiated.

Other forms of proto-writing include the Dispilio Tablet, found in Greece in 1993 and dating back to 5300 B.C.E., and the Serbian Vinča Signs, the bulk of which date from 4500-4000 B.C.E. The Vinča cache contains symbols denoting animal-like creatures and abstract signs such as crosses, swastikas, and chevrons. The Tărtăria Tablets, found in Romania in 1961, date back to between 5500 and 5300 B.C.E. As they also contain Vinča signs, some archaeologists claim that having been used presumably continuously for at least 1000 years, the Vinča signs on the Tărtăria Tablets must have been more than just signs.

In addition, similarities between these Balkan/south-eastern European signs and other proto-writing found in Minoa (Crete), Egypt, and even China have created a wide range of speculative theories pertaining to a Neolithic connection between them. But theories are exactly what they must remain for the time being. The wider debate is largely about the extent of cultural diffusion in the ancient world. In other words, was the concept of using markings to represent information and/or language proper passed back and forth by traders coming from already literate civilisations in Europe, China, India, Mesopotamia, and elsewhere? And if so, did they enlighten each other with regard to the linguistic specifics of their proto-writing or even proper writing systems?

As exciting a notion as that may be, marking a definitive time when Neolithic symbols emerged into European scripts, Near Eastern hieroglyphics, or their East Asian or Indian counterparts, is compounded by the fact that very little is known about the proto-writing symbols’ meanings; they appear singly, without any implied context. We cannot do more than speculate upon even much later writing systems from the 3rd millennium B.C.E., such as the Indus script – of which we have thousands of examples – because it has never been deciphered. Indeed the inability to empirically qualify the dynamics or function of many ancient scripts has often led to an intellectual fog, one could say, in which what is or is not ‘real’ writing has become a rather subjective issue.

The Sumerians

That said, with the evidence that is currently available, there seems to be a broad enough consensus that the earliest proper writing system was developed by a people known as the Sumerians, who settled in the fertile stretch of land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (modern-day Iraq) between 4500 and 4000 B.C.E. The Sumerians inscribed their symbols on soft clay using a reed stylus, and gradually evolved a method of making small wedge-shaped marks. The finished tablet was left in the sun to bake. This form of writing is known as 'cuneiform,' from the Latin, cuneus, meaning ‘wedge.’ 

The Sumerians developed far beyond the minimal requirements of agriculture and trade, creating systems of government, learning centres, as well as craft-based industries, and medicine production. It is not surprising, perhaps, that a civilisation which gave us advanced astronomy and mathematics, invented the 360 degree circle, the 24 hour day, the 60 minute hour, and 60 second minute also gave us the first generally recognizable proper writing system.

Dating from the early Bronze Age (3500 B.C.E.) the oldest example of Sumerian writing is a limestone tablet which shows several pictograms (pictorial symbols which directly represent a particular object), including a head, a foot and a hand. However, over time the Sumerians realized that many objects were difficult to draw sufficiently accurately, and they wanted to depict concepts as well as objects.

In addition, as the society developed and grew, those in authority needed to communicate more detailed messages and orders to institutions and individuals in far away places. As a result, the original pictograms developed into ideograms (symbols which depicted an idea). For example, an inverted V could mean ‘roof.’ Then, if the symbol for ‘woman’ was written under the roof, the composite symbol would mean ‘home.’ Sumerian was comprised of around 2000 such symbols, but over time many of them began representing not just one word but a similar sounding word too. They realised that such symbols could be combined to make composite words by reference to syllabic sounds called phonograms. This meant the number of symbols could be reduced and their forms stylized. In effect, they had created the world’s first alphabet.      

Another question often stirs up intellectual debate: when did writing for purposes of basic record-keeping develop into what we might call 'literature?' Of course, though they are connected, writing and literature are certainly not synonymous. In any case, the numerous apocryphal tales and historical events such as royal successions recorded on Sumerian tablets, Egyptian papyrus (from whence the English word ‘paper’ is derived), and Mayan stelae (slabs) tell us that the recording of both official events and more informal storytelling through the written word has existed for many thousands of years.

The Egyptians

The Egyptian civilisation ran almost concurrently with the Sumerians, and from about 3200 B.C.E. – or perhaps even before – the Egyptians began using hieroglyphics, meaning ‘sacred, carved writing’ (though the term was coined by the Greeks). It is still a matter of debate whether Egyptian writing developed independently of Sumerian cuneiform or whether conceptual similarities and early attestations prove a link.

Because of the importance of hieroglyphic inscriptions in temples and tombs, this work was done by professional painters, sculptors in relief, and craftsmen modelling in plaster. Stones were carefully smoothed and their indentations were filled with gypsum or cement in order to create a uniform surface on which to engrave. Coins, gems, seals, and signets were often engraved too.

However, a major development in the written form came with the Egyptians’ use of fine reed pens and liquid ink, in conjunction with their invention of papyrus (made from the pith of the papyrus plant). The smooth surface was not only easy to write on, but could also be rolled for storage, labelled, and kept on shelves, which greatly facilitated the process of logging and referencing. Papyrus was greatly in demand throughout the Mediterranean and was traded widely. Treated animal skins (often sheep) were also used as parchment.

Official state writing was carried out by professional scribes whose craft was greatly admired. These respected men of letters went through a rigorous apprenticeship which often entailed copying out important religious writings, as Sumerian temple chiefs had done before them, and as medieval monks were to do with the Bible and other sacred texts many centuries later. Though it is said that the Egyptians placed great value on literacy and the dissemination of knowledge to a wider audience than merely royalty, nobility, and the intelligentsia, there is also evidence that the language was deliberately made more difficult during certain dynasties in order to make the written word less accessible to the masses.  

Nevertheless, over a 200 year period, a more simplified script known as Hieratic (priestly) became fully developed, but the Egyptians also initiated another less formal writing system later called Demotic (lit. ‘for the people’), a more cursive, practical hand. Ironically, although its constituent parts were essentially the same as earlier hieroglyphics, it looked like a completely new script and was much harder for most people to read. As a result, Demotic never became fully detached from its forbear, often appearing side-by-side on the same document as though to ensure it could be read one way or the other. The secrets of both writing systems were lost after about 400 C.E. Perhaps they would still be unknown to us if a soldier in Napoleon’s forces had not stumbled across an unusual stone slab in 1799.    

The Rosetta Stone enabled ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics to be deciphered because the stele contained the same message in Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, Demotic and Ancient Greek. The inscribed text was a decree issued on behalf of Ptolemy V in 196 B.C.E. Though many, including the Royal Society scholar Thomas Young, made progress in deciphering parts of the text, it was a talented French scholar, Jean-François Champollion, who made the crucial breakthrough in 1822. Despite the fact that it was discovered and translated by Frenchmen, the Rosetta Stone has resided in the British Museum since 1802 where it has consistently been the most visited object. 

The Mayans    

Perhaps the decipherment of Mayan writing would have been even more challenging for Champollion than the Rosetta Stone. Interestingly, when European visitors began pondering the meaning of Mayan writing in the 18th and 19th centuries, they thought it was the Mesoamerican equivalent of hieroglyphics. (Mesoamerica is the area from Central America to Central Mexico within which a number of pre-Colombian civilisations flourished.) The Mayan pyramids provided further mouth-watering hints of a transatlantic link for the awe-struck travellers. Alas no evidence has yet been found for either an architectural or linguistic connection. In actual fact, it has been enough of a challenge to establish a link between Mayan and other Mesoamerican writing systems.

The recent discovery in Mexico of the Cascajal Block – a tablet containing 62 characters – has proved that writing systems developed in Mesoamerica as far back as 900 B.C.E. Others believe that although the earliest Mayan text dates back only to the 3rd century B.C.E., Mayan could still be the oldest writing in Mesoamerica. The logic behind the assumption is that, like the script found inscribed on the Chinese Oracle bones, the complexity of the earliest Mayan text implies a much earlier genesis. However, the limits of archaeological dating methods make it difficult to ascertain which script – Olmec, Zapotec, Mayan, or another – can claim to be the oldest. In any case, classical Mayan script is best known, due not only to its highly aesthetic form, but also because it is the language which has left us around 800 characters and 10,000 writing samples - a veritable treasure trove of literary artefacts written on ceramics, walls, bark-paper codices (early books), carved in wood or stone, and moulded in stucco.

The Mayan writing system was logosyllabic: they used glyphs representing both whole words and parts of words, complemented by syllabic glyphs; sometimes one glyph could represent all three. Mayan epigraphers were amazed to discover that a single glyph block could contain between one and five glyphs, whose reading order baffled them at first. In addition, they did not know in which direction to read the glyph blocks. Many years of head scratching and sleepless nights have eventually paid off: nearly all 800 Mayan glyphs have now been deciphered, and their reading order has been discerned. And academics across the board have reached a consensus: the Mayans were the only Mesoamerican culture known to have possessed a complete writing system – meaning they could write everything they said.

Sophisticated astronomical and mathematical systems enabled the famous Mayan Long Count Calendar to be devised. The arts and architecture, including remarkably advanced pyramid constructions, also flourished under the Mayans. But stone monuments are not the only examples of cultural longevity: forms of the Mayan language were spoken for thousands of years until the arrival of the Spanish in the late 15th century, after which it was forbidden to be spoken or written. In the 16th century, thousands of Mayan books and manuscripts were collected and destroyed by Bishop Diego de Landa Calderón, to the extent that only four codices survived. Poetic justice does, though, grace the conclusion to the tale: the sociocidal bishop included a partial description of spoken and written Mayan in a book which he wrote in 1566, Relación de las cosas de Yucatán. Although rather sketchy and erroneous in places, it has proved to be a vital decipherment source for Mayan epigraphers. Despite the conquistadores’ best efforts, the Mayan oral tradition has continued to this day, and now written Mayan is making a comeback too in schools and universities all over the Americas and beyond.

However, there is one country whose script has never needed to make a comeback: it has been consistently used as a highly developed written language for over 3000 years.

The Chinese

Dating from the Shang Dynasty (1200-1050 B.C.E.), around 150,000 fragments of Oracle bone script have been discovered. They record attempted communications between the Shang rulers and their ancestral spirits; the emperors would tell their forbears about royal news, military victories, ritual sacrifices, and even the weather. It is widely believed that more unofficial writing was done on wood and bamboo, but these less durable vehicles have long since decayed.

The Oracle bones prove that the Chinese had developed a sophisticated writing system by 1200 B.C.E. Some early Oracle bone pictograms can be seen in modern-day Chinese, albeit in a more stylised form. Early pictograms were joined over time by ideograms and compound ideograms (e.g., a dagger-axe and a foot were combined to make the word ‘military’). However, the vast majority (over 90%) of the Chinese written language originated from phono-semantic compounds: characters which had the same - or very similar - pronunciation but two different meanings. For example, the character for ‘wheat’ was the same as the verb ‘to come.' As the latter was used more frequently, it acquired the default semantic status so a new character was devised for ‘wheat.’ Phono-semantic compounds were composed of two parts: a semantic indicator (often graphically simplified) and a phonetic indicator.

The Egyptians and Sumerians used this general grammatical tactic too. In English we can infer the meaning of ‘rose’ (either the flower or the past tense of ‘rise’) from its context, but the Chinese went to extraordinary lengths to disambiguate, resulting in around 56,000 characters today (though ‘only’ around 3000-4000 are needed to acquire standard literacy).

Despite its complexity, Chinese writing (hanzi) has not only stood the test of time in its country of origin, becoming the world’s oldest continuously used script, but it has strongly influenced its neighbours’ languages, notably Japanese (kanji), Korean (hanja), and Vietnamese (chữ nôm), though Vietnamese and Korean no longer resemble their ancient ancestor to any significant degree.

The invention of paper in the 2nd century C.E. dramatically increased the usage of written Chinese throughout the empire, ensuring that even though people in far flung regions may not have spoken Han Chinese (the dominant language), they would have learned the script well enough to obey Beijing’s instructions and laws, thus becoming more integrated into mainstream Han society. As an aside, having lived most of my adult life in Japan, I was able to discern the meaning of many signs when I visited China; their semantic similarity in Japanese meant that I could understand them, even though I could not read them.   

At roughly the same time that the Shang rulers were scratching shells and bones to communicate with their ancestors, Numidians (North Africans), Iberians (Spaniards), Sardinians, Sicilians, Syrians, and others were learning to read and write their own languages and dialects using the phonetic alphabet devised by the remarkable people who either ruled over them or traded with them – usually both. 

The Phoenicians    

Vying for control of Mediterranean commerce with the Pharaohs – and later, with the Greeks too – were a Semitic race of sea-faring traders whose impact on the written word is, perhaps, unsurpassed. From around 1550 to 300 B.C.E., the Phoenicians, who came from the Levantine coast of what is now Lebanon and Syria, dominated trade throughout the Mediterranean and carried out their business as far afield as Britain. And they took their phonetic writing system with them wherever they went. As a result, common people learned to read and write their own languages and dialects using the Phoenician alphabet, upsetting the long-standing norm of literacy domination by members of royal and religious hierarchies all over the Mediterranean, who had traditionally used writing as an instrument of control by restricting access to information.

The oldest known alphabetic inscription of the Phoenician language dates from around 1200 B.C.E. The early 30-symbol system was gradually refined into 22 consonantal sounds over time, and this became the alphabetic standard. There are several unsubstantiated theories about how the Phoenician alphabet came into being. When the Phoenician script was re-discovered by Europeans in the 19th century, scholars were quick to suggest a link with Egyptian hieroglyphics. However, no such connection could be found, primarily due to the fact that the Phoenicians used one abstract symbol for one sound; it was not at all suggestive of the infinitely more complex, numerous and varied pictures or associated ideograms on which hieroglyphics were based. It has even been suggested that the Phoenician writing system was developed independently of all contemporary or historical influences, but it is likely that its true origin will never be reliably discerned.

However, the influence of Phoenician on other scripts is much easier to qualify. In fact, the Aramaic alphabet (the writing system of Judea, Nazereth, and Galilee in the 1st century C.E.), which is also the ancestor of Arabic and Persian writing, and a stylistic variant of the Hebrew script, is a modified form of the Phoenician alphabet. Indeed the Phoenician script is ancestral to almost every other alphabet used today, including Greek, Latin, Cyrillic (Russian) and Coptic (an Egyptian script which uses the Greek alphabet plus several Demotic symbols to represent Egyptian sounds absent in Greek).

The Greeks

The Phoenicians’ cultural and commercial rivals for hundreds of years, the people from Hellás (the original name for Greece), went through a rather stop-start process with the written word. Though the Greeks had inherited a proper writing system (Linear A) from the Minoan Cretans in around 1800 B.C. E., this still un-deciphered language and its Cypriot descendent were replaced by a Mycenaean script (Linear B) - a syllabic system which died with the Mycenaean civilisation at the end of the Bronze Age in 1200 B.C.E. After that they wallowed in the Greek Dark Ages, when writing seems to have disappeared entirely.

The Greeks saw a way out of the darkness by adopting the Phoenician writing system in its entirety at first; over time, though, they altered the symbols’ shapes and added some vowel symbols which were missing from Phoenician but present in Greek. In fact, two particular strains of Greek developed: one, Western Greek or Chalcidian, was the script adopted west of Athens and in southern Italy; the other, Eastern Greek, was used by the Athenians and by the peoples who inhabited the land which comprises modern-day Turkey. Ultimately, it was Eastern Greek which became the dominant variation and spread around the world. Incidentally, the more fluid and cursive lower-case Greek letters were adopted much later by medieval scribes. 

The Greeks also realised that it was easier and less cumbersome for most people (right-handers) to write from left to right and so, although they had kept the Phoenician symbols and placed them in the same alphabetic order, they reversed the direction in which the Phoenicians had traditionally written. In actual fact, at some time in their history, both Greeks and Phoenicians wrote boustrophedonically (lit. ‘as the ox ploughs’): alternate lines were written in the opposite direction to the one before, with each character becoming inverted too. However, between 635 and 575 B.C.E., the Greeks adopted the left-to-right direction as standard. Incidentally, Japanese can be written in a number of ways: vertically (tategaki), top-to-bottom, in columns whose direction can go right-to-left or left-to-right; or horizontally, left-to-right (yokogaki). The book you are reading can begin, therefore, from the front or back page, depending on which system the publisher has employed! 

The historian, Herodotus, recorded his opinion that writing was singularly the most important contribution of the Phoenicians to Greek culture. In turn, the Greek language’s impact on Western literature and civilisation in general has been phenomenal. The epic poems, Iliad and Odyssey, and seminal texts of Western philosophy, such as the Platonic dialogues and the works of Aristotle, have left us with a rich literary legacy. Along with Latin texts and the traditions of the Roman world, the study of Greek works and their historical context are the foundation of the Classical discipline in universities today. Linguistically too, Greek has made its mark: along with Latin, Greek words are the basis of a large percentage of international scientific vocabulary, and over 50,000 English words are derived from Greek. In fact, the word ‘alphabet’ is a combination of the first two Greek letters: Alpha and Beta.

Greek was the first language into which the New Testament was translated, but in the coming centuries it was the Romans who would spread the word of god most widely, throughout the most powerful empire the world had ever seen. Christian texts, written mainly in Latin, would form the foundations of Western literature for centuries and have a huge socio-political impact on Europe and the rest of the world in the two tumultuous millennia to come. (See Part Two of this series: From Roman Times to Times New Roman.)


The development and intrinsic characteristics of writing systems throughout the world have been as varied as the cultures they have helped to shape, but just like their spoken counterparts, they have all shared the same fundamental purpose: communication. However, it is the inherent ability of the written word in particular to record and preserve the human story which has enabled us all to at least offer a reply to the first of Gaugin’s three famous questions: 'Where do we come from?'

The oral tradition should be valued and celebrated, never underestimated or discounted. However, can you imagine it being your only historial/cultural source of information? Being disinherited of so much of your people’s past, due to your written language becoming extinct or unintelligible, is a very disconcerting notion indeed. It is difficult to imagine how we would feel if we were unable to read our children a bedtime story, or even write them a birthday card. No wonder those Mayan villagers were so excited to meet Dr Christensen.