The Story of Writing

Writing began about 5,500 years ago as a way of keeping accounts and records, and later of passing on news, views and stories. Before this, people had to rely on what they could remember, and this was not always very accurate. As people began to trade and travel widely, a more practical and reliable system of storing and passing on infromation was needed.

Without writing, we would know very little about the past. Most of our historical evidence comes from ancient writing. From Ancient Egyptian records, for example, we know about what people wore, what they ate, what work they did, the battles they fought, whom they married, what their hourse looked like, and the gods they worshipped.

Temple Records

Some of the earliest known examples of writing are inscriptions found on clay tablets from Sumeria (now in Iraq). The tablets are over 5,000 years old. They are temple records, listing heads of cattle, sacks of grain and the number of workers (bakers, brewers, blacksmiths and slaves) employed in various temples.

The First Alphabets

The Egyptians – In many early civilisations, writing was thought to be a gift from the gods. The Ancient Egyptians believed that Thoth, the god of wisdom, created writing and bestowed it on the world. The word “hieroglyphics”, which describes the Egyptian writing system, means “sacred writing”.

The picture symbols could represent a whole word, a single sound or part of a longer word. It could be written and read left to right, right to left, or top to bottom. Animal and people signs provided clues about where to start. If they faced left, you read from left to right, and so on.

The whole system was so complicated that highly-trained scribes were the only ones to understand it. Most Egyptians couldn’t read or write!

Hieroglyphs remained a complete mystery until AD1822. Then, for the first time, a French linguist, Jean-Francois Champollion, deciphered the hieroglyphs inscribed on a large, stone slab known as the Rosetta stone.

The Vikings believed that thier god, Odin, invented the runes they wrote with. The Viking alphabet, or futhark, gets its name from its first six letters and only has 16 letters. It was designed to be carved on wood or stone so the individual letters, or runes, were composed of simple, straight lines.

The Ancient Greeks, in the 8th century BC, adopted the alphabet of the Phoenicians, a trading people from Lebanon. The Greeks had to add vowels because the Phoenician alphabet only used consonants. At first, they wrote from right to left. Then they tried writing “plough-wise”, changing ddirection at the end of each line, like oxen ploughing a field. Eventually, they settled on writing left to right, which made life a lot easier.

The Romans – A form of the Greek alphabet was adapted for writing Latin, the language of the Romans. During the time of the Roman Empire, the alphabet only contained 22 letters. J, U, W, Y and Z were added later. Long after the Romans had come and gone, their alphabet remained. In the Middle Ages, Latin was the language of scholars and the Church. The alphabet we use today to write English is based on the Roman alphabet.

~ excerpt from The Story of Writing and Printing by Anita Ganeri ~

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