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The Origins of Writing: from the Oral Tradition to the first Western Alphabet.
Stories originated at the dawn of time, and the most practical way to tell them is through speech. Unfortunately, by its nature, voice is ephemeral and volatile. This made it the fastest means of educating young people but also the least historically reliable.
In ancient times, narratives depended heavily on the memory of the speaker. As in the telephone game, handed down from generation to generation, details were subject to change over time.
The technology was not even remotely conceivable yet. It was impossible to record sounds and play them back endlessly, as is the case today. However, it was necessary to pass on human wisdom in a more concrete and lasting way.
The first attempts were pictographic signs or pictograms. Iconographic and stylized images of an object. A method that revolutionized the communicative function:
Sound was abandoned in favor of sight.
Beautiful evidence still exists today of a time when the stories illustrated in pictograms were an integral part of the daily lives of cave dwellers. A time when remembering made the difference between life and death.
As the rock dwellings were abandoned, people’s needs changed. The visual aspect of pictograms became limiting precisely because of their iconographic component.
Too many images made it difficult to decipher the messages. Each symbol could represent an object (pictogram), an idea (ideogram), or even a whole word.
Thus, the first alphabets were developed that began to separate the iconic component in favor of the phonetic one. The importance of sounds was rediscovered, but unlike the oral tradition, rules were established to harness them on clay tablets.
Thus was born the cuneiform alphabet, from which hieroglyphs developed; the Zapotec ideograms (Mesoamerica); and later the Oriental ones (China, Japan…), which gave rise to modern kanji.
Cuneiform writing is perhaps the real first example of writing, developed in Mesopotamia around the middle of the 4th millennium BC and used until the 1st century AD.
Some archaeological findings near the ancient city of Uruk, today now as Warka, suggest that this new means of communication was the evolution of its predecessor.
The rock drawings became sharp images resembling nails or wedges.
The Alphabet’s primary function was of practical origin: merchants used to carve clay tablets to record goods, purchases, and sales.
There was, however, also a mystical purpose: to predict the future.
The purpose of writing
Over time, symbols lost their initial meaning and became conventional signs linked to image and phonetics. This is the case with Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Hieroglyphs combined oral tradition with iconographic function in communication by developing phonograms.
Famous and fascinating even today, these symbols developed the dual function of speech:
- The image or logogram, which represents the word;
- Phonetics, that is the sound related to it.
Over time, the evolution of the written word has given rise to two different forms, depending on purpose:
The hieratic scripture, belonging to the priestly caste demotic writing, i.e., of the people.
The former is composed of elaborate symbols, the latter of minimalist, simple phonograms.
To encounter a modern alphabet, we have to wait for the Phoenicians (late 2nd Millennium B.C.), who used an alphabet consisting of 22 letters, from which today’s alphabets are believed to be descended: Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Etruscan, and Latin.
It probably reached as far as the Germanic peoples of northern Europe, who developed the runic alphabet, consisting of 24 signs, the Futhark.
The invention of the alphabet is attributed to the Phoenician civilization.
Similarly, interconnections between the various alphabets led to the emergence of Asian languages, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, etc.
There was an abrupt break in the Americas due to the Spanish invasions, which destroyed the Mesoamerican civilizations. All that remains today are the ruins of ancient cities and the pictograms enclosed in some 500 Codices.
As you can see, one could talk about writing and the alphabet for hours, rediscovering civilizations that are now gone, lost in history and the sands of time.
In future articles, we will explore the emergence of writing in ancient pre-Columbian and Asian cultures.
If you enjoyed the article and would like to learn more, below are the sources that inspired and helped me with dates and historical references.