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Development of Written Language

Written for the KidsKnowIt Network by:
Meredith Tennant

 

The alphabet is a code that we crack when we learn to read. Letters represent sounds. But who invented the code?

Writing appears to have developed in several cultures at more or less the same time - several thousand years ago. Writing began as pictures (pictograms) of everyday items. Originally people made pictograms by either drawing or pressing shapes onto pieces of wet clay. Many such tokens have been found during archaeological digs in areas that are known to have been agrarian (farming) cultures. In fact, some of the very oldest examples of writing that have been found have to do with the daily ration of beer given to each citizen. Gradually the pictograms developed into representations of ideas and then came to stand for particular sounds.

Petroglyphs created thousands of years ago





 

Harappan clay tablets

Examples of early writing, which have been dated to about 3500 B.C., have been found in Pakistan at the site of Harappa. Harappa was at that time a large city in the Indus Valley. The writing has not been deciphered, however, unlike writing examples found in Egypt and Iraq that are clearly to do with the trading of grain, land, and animals. As Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), ancient Egypt, and ancient India traded with each other it is possible that the idea of writing could have spread between them. Mesopotamia was part of the Sumerian culture. Their early writing has become known as cuneiform (wedge-shaped) due to its style.

Ancient cuneiform writing on a clay tablet

In Egypt, one of the oldest examples of a pictogram is the name of a Pharoah, possibly written in about 3400 B.C. These ancient Egyptian symbols are called hieroglyphs and are thought to have developed from cuneiform symbols. Gradually a hieroglyph representing a particular word came to represent just the sound of the first letter of that word. For example, the hieroglyph for water was pronounced ‘nu’. The symbol came to stand for the sound ‘n’. This is believed to be the beginning of a written alphabet, or the system of having one symbol for one sound. Cuneiform only had symbols for the consonants and none for the vowels.

Egyptian hieroglyphs

Further north, archaeological excavations at the site of Ugarit (modern Ras Shamra) in Syria have revealed that they too were developing an alphabet for the consonants. It was the ancient Greeks who made symbols for the vowels, using the Phoenician alphabet from Ugarit and further developing it. The Greek alphabet led to all the alphabets of the western world.


The written languages of the eastern world, such as Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese, all come from Chinese. Early Chinese writing examples are on tortoise shells and animal bones dating from the Shang Dynasty (17th-11th century B.C.) but are already quite developed. It is therefore believed that Chinese writing might have begun more than 5,000 years ago, and, according to some archaeologists, even earlier than that, possibly as much as 8,000 years ago. The Chinese written language does not have an alphabet like the western world, but uses characters. These characters have parts that can represent one or more syllables, meaning, objects, pronunciation or ideas.

A Shang Dynasty oracle bone

Question:

Can you think of a modern written language that is being developed?

_______________________________________

Answer:

Computer languages

10101111000101011000101110101010
01011010101010101000101010110110
11100010101010100010101010101000
10101001101010101101010101010100

       


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