Like so many other aspects of our civilization, we take writing for granted since we grew up with it. Therefore, consider the story of John Cremony, an army officer in the American southwest writing a letter to his mother back home. A Navajo Indian saw Cremony writing the letter and asked what he was doing. Cremony replied that he wrote words on the paper and sent it home. His mother would look at the paper and get his message. The Indian just laughed at such a ridiculous story. Therefore, in order to prove his story, Cremony wrote a note and told the Indian to take it to another officer who would read it and give him a piece of candy. The Navajo took the note to the officer who read it and, to the Navajo’s astonishment, gave him a piece of candy.
Before we condemn the Indians or anyone else for not having writing, we should keep in mind that no one thought of the idea until about 5000 years ago. At that time, the first civilizations were emerging, and with them, a much more complex way of life. The temple of the Sumerian city of Lagash provides a good example. It employed some 1200 people, including 300 slaves. The temple employed 205 cloth workers in addition to sailors, millers, bakers, cooks, guards, fishermen, herders, and scribes. Such a complex operation was beyond one man’s ability to keep everything straight in his head. A more efficient record keeping system had to be developed.
Prelude to Writing
People used to think that writing developed overnight in response to the needs of civilization. Actually, it gradually evolved with the increasingly complex society that started to develop with agriculture. At that time, people started making little clay tokens in various shapes to represent the types and numbers of goods they possessed. For example, a man might have ten small clay discs or one large disc to represent the ten bags of grain he owned. It was such a simple system of record keeping that sometimes the tokens had holes in them and were strung together in a necklace.
Around 3500 B.C.E., cities and much more complex economies were evolving. As a result, we find the number of types of tokens expanding dramatically as new types of goods were being produced and traded. Long distance trade was also starting with merchants and temples sending caravans with large amounts of goods from city to city. The caravan drivers would be entrusted with tokens representing all the goods they were travelling with. They would present the tokens along with the goods to a merchant in the next city after making a transaction. Unfortunately, it was apparently easy for the caravan driver to steal a few goods and the tokens for himself without the first merchant knowing he had done that instead of selling them honestly. As a result, the first merchant started putting the tokens in a sealed clay ball or envelope. If the second merchant found the seal broken, he knew the goods had been tampered with. However, the sealed envelope made it difficult for the caravan driver to remember how many items of each type of merchandise he was travelling with. Therefore, the merchant started making impressions of the shapes of the tokens on the outside of the clay envelope while it was still wet. Before long, someone realized that the envelope and tokens were not needed as long as there was an impression of them in the clay. The tokens were dispensed with, the envelope was flattened into a tablet, and writing was born.
Different stages of writing
Writing was first developed for keeping records of goods. In time its uses expanded, and that meant new ways to express and interpret the symbols had to be developed. There were five basic stages in the history of writing.
- Pictographs(c.3500 – 3000 B.C.E.). In this stage, one pictograph or symbol means what it looks like. For example, a picture of the sun means the “sun”. This stage was well suited for straight record keeping, but little else.
- Ideographs(c.3000 – 2100 B.C.E.). Here the symbols can also mean something a bit more abstract than their literal meaning. A sun can mean “day” as well as “sun”. A picture of legs can mean “legs” or “walk”. Thus the uses of writing were greatly expanded, although there are severe limits on what one can write this way.
- Rebus writing (c.2100 – 1000 B.C.E.). This was a critical turning point. Up till now, one related to what the symbols looked like to tell the meaning. With rebus writing, one used the phonetic sounds of words created by symbols to create new words. For example, a word like “Neilson” would be very difficult to write with pictographs unless everyone knew what Neilson looked like as distinguished from other people. However, with rebus writing, one could use the sounds suggested by a picture of a man kneeling plus a sun to build the word “Neilson”. Rebus writing, by making the reader relate to the ears, not the eyes, made it possible to write just about anything. It was a complex system, however, since it required hundreds of symbols, one for each syllable used in a language. Both Mesopotamian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphics used about 700 symbols.
- Phonetic alphabet (c. 1000 B.C.E. to the present). This system is based on the fact that we can only make about twenty-five or so different sounds, while we can combine those individual sounds into hundreds of symbols, each requiring a different rebus. The alphabet simplifies the process vastly by using just one symbol for each individual sound we make (e.g.–B, D, K, etc.). Although we generally give credit for the alphabet to the Phoenicians (thus the term “phonetics”), it seems the Egyptians also had an alphabet of sorts that the Phoenicians drew upon. The Greeks completed the process by adding vowels, which the Egyptian and Phoenician systems lacked.
Along with writing, mathematics also evolved to help keep records. The Mesopotamians in particular had some sophisticated math, using base 60 instead of base 10 which we use. Mesopotamian influence is reflected even today in our 360-degree circle with 60 minutes in each degree. They seem to have developed the Pythagorean theorem for figuring out the lengths of the sides of a right triangle. They also figured a number of square and cube roots. The ancient Greeks, who gave us much of our math, drew heavily upon the Mesopotamians for their math.
Scribes and education
Before the invention of a much simpler alphabet, only a small group of men had the time to learn how to read and write a system using some 700 symbols. These men were known as scribes.
Scribes usually came from middle class families with the money to pay for their sons’ education. In Egypt, the temple oversaw education, but in Mesopotamia private teachers ran their own schools. Education started around age six and lasted about twelve years. Students went to school from sunrise to sunset about four days out of five, twelve months of the year. Younger students’ lessons involved memorizing long lists of symbols that represented various sounds and syllables. Older students memorized the rules for combining those symbols into words. They also learned math for keeping records and surveying fields. At the end of their schooling, they took an exam. If they passed, they became scribes. If they failed, they could only find employment in such lowly jobs as writing letters for people in local villages.
Fully qualified scribes could look forward to a promising career working for the king, temple, or rich merchants. They had high status in society, since their skills were so specialized. In some 2500 years of Mesopotamian history, only one king, Ashurbanipal of Assyria, is known to have been able to read. Society was completely dependent on this narrow class of scribes to keep the machinery of government and business running smoothly. In fact, their dependence was so complete that there was always the danger of scribes taking bribes to misread letters or tamper with government records. Oftentimes, letters were introduced with a plea or threat to the scribes reading the letters to read them accurately. We can easily imagine the palace intrigue that resulted from this situation.
Results of writing
The invention and spread of the much simpler alphabet meant that more people could learn to read. As a result society was less dependent on scribes, whose status declined accordingly. The alphabet also meant the uses of writing could expand to such things as literature, poetry, and history. Before the alphabet the small number of scribes had to devote most of their energies to running government and business. With the alphabet, more people were literate and free to pursue more cultural applications of writing. We should keep in mind that the vast majority of people, especially the lower classes, remained illiterate until about a century ago.
The importance of writing to history is hard to overestimate. Without it, kings, priests, and businessmen would not be able to keep track of anything beyond their immediate surroundings. With it, trade routes could expand and kings could keep the tax and census records necessary for expanding their city-states into empires. Two subsequent inventions have built upon writing and expanded our capabilities as a species by quantum leaps beyond what they had been before: the printing press and the computer. Today, with the computer, we are witnessing a revolution every bit as dramatic as writing was 5000 years ago. But it is important that we keep in mind that the computer traces its lineage back to those first clay tokens used to keep rudimentary records.