The first four millennia

The first writing: late 4th millennium BC

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 c. 3200 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.

The alphabet

Phonetics and the alphabet: from the 15th century BC

The most significant development in the history of writing, since the first development of a script in about 3200 BC, is the move from a pictographic or syllabic system (characteristic of Sumerian, ancient Egyptian and Chinese) to a phonetic one, based on recording the spoken sound of a word. This change has one enormous potential. It can liberate writing from the status of an arcane skill, requiring years of study to learn large numbers of characters. It makes possible the ideal of a literate community.

The first tentative steps in this direction are taken in the second millennium BC in the trading communities of Phoenicia.

Phoenician is a Semitic language and the new approach to writing is adopted by the various Semitic groups in Phoenicia and Palestine. Versions of it are used, for example, for Aramaic and Hebrew. Only the consonants are written, leaving the vowels to be understood by the reader (as is still the case today with a widespread Semitic language, Arabic).

The contribution of the Greeks, adapting the Phoenician system of writing in the 8th century BC, is to add vowels. For some they use the names of existing Phoenician letters (alpha for example). For others entirely new signs are added. The result is a Greek alphabet of twenty-four letters.

The alphabet takes its name from the first two letters in the Phoenician system, alpha and beta, borrowed and adapted by the Greeks.

The Romans in their turn deveolop the Greek alphabet to form letters suitable for the writing of Latin. It is in the Roman form - and through the Roman empire - that the alphabet spreads through Europe, and eventually through much of the world, as a standard system of writing. With a system as simple as this, and with portable writing materials such as Papyrus, Wooden tablets or leaves written correspondence becomes a familiar part of everyday life.

The Arabic script: from the 5th century BC

A stele, or inscribed column, is set up at Tema in northwest Arabia. Dating from the 5th century BC, its inscription is the earliest known example of the writing which evolves a millennium later into the Arabic script.

The script is developed from the 1st century BC by the Nabataeans, a people speaking a Semitic language whose stronghold at Petra, on a main caravan route, brings them prosperity and the need for records. Writing is not much needed by the Nomads of arabia, but when it becomes urgently required for the Qur'an (to record accurately the words of God in the 7th century AD), the Nabataean example is to hand. Through Islam and the spread of Arabic, it becomes one of the world's standard scripts.

The first American script: 2nd century BC - 3rd century AD

Of the various early civilizations of central America, the Maya make the greatest use of writing. In their ceremonial centres they set up numerous columns, or stelae, engraved with hieroglyphs. But they are not the inventors of writing in America.

Credit for this should possibly go back as far as the Olmecs. Certainly there is some evidence that they are the first in the region to devise a Calendar, in which writing of some sort is almost essential. The Zapotecs, preceding the Maya, have left the earliest surviving inscriptions, dating from about the 2nd century BC. The first Mayan stele to be securely dated is erected at Tikal in the equivalent of the year AD 292.

The Mayan script is hieroglyphic with some phonetic elements. Its interpretation has been a long struggle, going back to the 16th century, and even today only about 80% of the Calendar are understood. They reveal that the script is used almost exclusively for two purposes: the recording of calculations connected with the Calendar and astronomy; and the listing of rulers, their dynasties and their conquests.

Thus the priests and the palace officials of early America succeed in preserving writing for their own privileged purposes. In doing so they deny their societies the liberating magic of literacy.

Ulfilas and his alphabet: AD c.360

Ulfilas is the first man known to have undertaken an extraordinarily difficult intellectual task - writing down, from scratch, a language which is as yet purely oral. He even devises a new alphabet to capture accurately the sounds of spoken Gothic, using a total of twenty-seven letters adapted from examples in the Greek and Roman alphabets.

God's work is Ulfilas' purpose. He needs the alphabet for his translation of the Bible from Greek into the language of the Goths. It is not known how much he completes, but large sections of the Gospels and the Epistles survive in his version - dating from several years before Jerome begins work on his Latin text.

The achievement of Ulfilas is repeated in the 9th century by two missionaries, Cyril and Methodius, who adapt their own Greek alphabet for the purposes of writing down a previously oral Slavonic language.

An even more extraordinary feat of the same kind is achieved by Cherokee indians in the 19th century. Their analysis of their own previously unwritten language leads them to the conclusion that it consists of eighty-six different syllables. They turn it into a written languge by adopting a symbol for each syllable.

Cyril and Methodius: 9th century AD

Cyril and his elder brother Methodius already have a distinguished reputation as theologians and linguists when the Byzantine emperor sends them as missionaries, in 863, to the Slavs of Moravia. The brothers are Greek but they know the Slavonic language spoken in their native region of Salonika. In Moravia they conduct church services in Slavonic. Naturally they wish to write down this liturgy, together with their own Slavonic translation of parts of the Bible. But there is no Slavonic script.

Like Ulfilas before them with Gothic, the brothers need to devise a new alphabet for their purpose.

Cyril and Methodius base their new letters loosely on Greek examples. The Slavonic alphabet is known today as cyrillic after the more forceful of the brothers - though in its surviving form it is probably devised by Cyril's followers in Bulgaria rather than the saint himself (whose original invention is more likely to be the now extinct glagolitic alphabet).

Nevertheless the remarkable fact is that cyrillic remains the script of all the Slav regions which adopt the Greek Orthodox faith - including Serbia, Bulgaria and above all Russia.

Scripts used by printers

Classical scripts: from the 7th century AD

It is a striking fact that the letters which we take for granted today, in printed books, derive for the most part from handwriting in the last centuries of the Roman empire. Indeed the script in fragments of Latin messages, written by members of the Roman garrison at Hadrian's Wall in about100, is visibly related to the letters taught in western European languages in the 20th century.

When Christian monks in western Europe write out their holy texts, they do so in Latin on Parchment - in the relatively new form of the Codex. The script they use is that of the Roman empire, but there are many regional variations.

Manuscripts written in Italy in the 7th to 8th centuryare entirely in capital letters, giving a neat and intensely formal look. But Celtic monks in Ireland, who are among the most prolific of scribes at this time, prefer a more workaday script (the everyday hand of the Roman legionaries at Hadrian's Wall must have survived in many outlying regions as the normal style of handwriting).

A very early surviving example is the so-called Cathach of St columba (cathach meaning 'battler', because this book of psalms is believed to have been carried into battle as a sacred talisman).

The Cathach of St columba, dating perhaps from the early 7th century and possibly written by the saint himself, also exemplifies one profoundly influential innovation of the Irish monks. To emphasize the beginning of an important passage, the scribes write its first letter much larger than the rest of the text and in a grander style. Slightly embarrassed by the difference in scale, they tend to reduce each succeeding letter by a little until reaching the small scale of the ordinary text.

Here, already, is the distinction between capitals and lower case (or in manuscript terms, majuscule and minuscule) which is later a standard feature of the western European script.

The early Christian manuscripts influence the later standards of calligraphy and of print in two widely separated stages.

At the court of Charlemagne, in the 8th century, the existing manuscript traditions are deliberately tidied up into one official style of exquisite clarity. This becomes cluttered again during the later Middle Ages, until calligraphers of the Renaissance, in the 15th century, rediscover the earlier style. From them, still within the spirit of the Renaissance, it is adopted by the early printers - and thus enshrined for succeeding centuries.

The Carolingian script: 8th century AD

In780 the emperor Charlemagne meets Alcuin, a distinguished scholar from York, and invites him to direct his Palace school at Aachen. Twelve months or more later, in October 781, Charlemagne commissions from a scribe, by the name of Godesalc, a manuscript of the gospels. Godesalc completes his magnificent book for the emperor in April 783. The Godesalc Evangelistary, as it is now called, is the first book in which the script known as Carolingian minuscule appears. The text uses conventional capitals, but the dedication is in these lower-case letters.

It is probably not too fanciful to see the influence of Alcuin, recently arrived at court, in Godesalc's experiment with this new script.

Over the next two decades Alcuin rigorously researches and refines a new calligraphy for Charlemagne's new empire. Just as Charlemagne sees himself as a Roman emperor, so Alcuin goes back to Rome for his inspiration. With a passion and a thoroughness which prefigures the scholars of the Renaissance, he copies the letters carved on Roman monuments or written in surviving manuscripts and selects from them to establish a pure classical style - with the addition of the Minuscule letters of monastic tradition.

The results are superb. Carolingian manuscripts (produced in large numbers in a monastery at Tours, of which Alcuin becomes abbot in 796) are among the most clear and legible documents in the history of writing.

Black-letter style: 11th - 15th century AD

In the later Middle Ages, the clarity of the Carolingian script becomes lost. A much darker and denser style evolves in northern Europe from the 11th century. It is known as 'black letter', because of the almost oppressive weight of dark ink on each densely packed page.

This medieval style derives partly from an aesthetic impulse (there is drama in dark pen strokes and in the angular ends left by a broad nib), but it is above all a matter of economy. Parchment is expensive. Books are much in demand, particularly with the growth of Universities. If the letters in a word and the words in a sentence are squashed more closely together, less pages are used and the book is cheaper.

The black-letter style is the convention in German manuscripts when printing is developed there in the 1450s. It therefore becomes the type face used for the earliest European printed books, such as Gutenberg's Bible. Angular letters of this kind remain the normal convention in German books until the early 20th century.

But within the first century of printing there is a reaction in Italy against this heavy style. Italian Humanists of the Renaissance associate it with all that they consider dark and barbarous about the Middle Ages. Like medieval architecture, it is given the dismissive name of Gothic.

Roman and italic: 15th century AD

Italian scholars of the 14th and 15th century, followers of Petrarch in their reverence for classical culture, search through libraries for ancient texts. Copying out their discoveries, they aspire also to an authentic script. They find their models in beautifully written manuscripts which they take to be Roman but which are in fact Carolingian.

The error is a fortunate one. The script devised for Charlemagne's monastic workshops in the 8th century is a model of clarity and elegance. It is adapted for practical use, in slightly different ways, by two Florentine friends - Poggio Bracciolini and Niccolò Niccoli.

Bracciolini, employed as secretary at the papal court in Rome from 1403, uses the ancient script for important documents. To the rounded lower-case letters of the the Carolingian script he adds straight-edged capital letters which he copies from Roman monuments.

By contrast his friend Niccoli adapts the Carolingian script to the faster requirements of everyday writing. To this end he finds it more convenient to slope the letters a little (the result of holding the pen at a more comfortable angle), and to allow some of them to join up. Joining up is not in itself new. In several forms of medieval hand-writing the letters flow together to become what is known as a 'cursive' hand.

Printers in Venice later in the century, attempting to reflect the classical spirit of Carolingian script, turn to the scripts of Bracciolini and Niccoli. The rounded but upright style of Bracciolini is first used by the French printer Nicolas Jenson shortly after his arrival in the city in 1470. This type face is given the name roman, reflecting its ancient origins.

In 1501 another great Venetian printer, Aldus Manutius, needs a contrasting and smaller type for a 'pocket edition' of Virgil. He turns to the script of Niccoli, in everyday use by fashionable Italians, and calls it accordingly italic. Roman and italic eventually become a standard part of every printer's repertoire.

Copperplate: from the 16th century

For purposes of handwriting a version of the italic script eventually becomes the norm in most western societies. The reason is partly accidental. Flowing letters are easily engraved, as can be seen in the captions of any Engraving. The natural movement of the burin through the metal is in elegant curves, ending in elongated points. A nib, filled with ink, can easily make the same flowing marks on paper.

As writing becomes a necessary accomplishment for the middle classes, a new profession is created - that of the writing master.

The writing master needs examples for his pupils to copy. The Engraver provides these, as separate sheets or as plates bound into manuals, and the manuals soon have the effect of standardizing handwriting. The conventional form becomes known as copper-plate - imitating the letters which the Engraver has cut in his copper plate.

Many such manuals are published, starting with the Essemplare ('Examples') of Gianfrancesco Cresci, a Vatican writer, in 1560. The most successful collection of copper-plate examples is the Universal Penman of George Bickham, first published in 1733 and still in use as a teaching aid in Britain in the early part of the 20th century.

19th century

The talking leaves of the Cherokee: AD 1821 - 1828

The magic of writing is encapsulated in an achievement of the Cherokee indians of north America. In the early 19th century, recognizing the advantage that writing brings to the white Americans, they resolve to acquire the same benefit for their own people.

They analyze the spoken sounds of the Cherokee language and decide that it consists of eighty-six identifiable syllables. A symbol is selected for each syllable - by adapting letters in the English alphabet, and perhaps also by borrowing from fragments of Greek and Hebrew in the books distributed by missionaries.

Traditionally this exacting task has been said to be the work of Sequoyah (the illiterate son of a British trader and a Cherokee woman), helped only by his daughter. More recently it has been suggested that others invented the system and that Sequoyah's main contribution was in popularizing it. Whatever the precise detail, the achievement is an even more striking example of what Ulfilas did for the Goths in the 4th century.

Written Cherokee, described as 'talking leaves', becomes accepted with a rapidity which testifies both to the magic of writing and to the persuasive powers of Sequoyah. The system is completed in 1821. The first issue of the Cherokee Phoenix, written in the syllables, is dated 21 February 1828.

This History is as yet incomplete.
Arrow Arrow
Page 1 of 4
Arrow Arrow