Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Where did the first writing system emerge?

The earliest known examples of writing were discovered in the Sumerian city of Uruk in Mesopotamia. They are thought to have been produced in about 3000 BC - very early in the history of this advanced civilisation. The famous king Hammurabi - under whose rule the code of Hammurabi was drawn up - did not live until some 1500 years later.

The first writing systems seem to have been pictographic. The symbol for eat, for example, clearly depicts a head next to a bowl, but this literal linking of things and symbols vanished over the course of the centuries. As the use of a blunt reed called a stylus to scratch symbols into clay became widespread, writing became wedge-shaped which gave rise to the name cuneiform script (which means wedge shaped).

Cuneiform script makes up what is known as logographic writing system, a system in which a single word is represented by one symbol. Over time, the stock of symbols in logographic writing systems tends to become rather large. Chinese, for example, which also has a logographic writing system, uses about 50000 symbols of which 4000 to 7000 are in common use. Faced with this sort of complexity, it is clear why the development of alphabetic writing systems is regarded as being of equal importance to the invention of the wheel.

Note: The code of Hammurabi was written in cuneiform script and created in about 1700 BC. It is the world's oldest recorded complete code of laws. The ancient Egyptian texts were written in hieroglyphs, a highly developed and complicated pictographic language that was in use for 3000 years