John Larrysson Column: The Invention of Writing

Writing is a very special invention. Language developed spontaneously in all humans, civilised or not, due to some underlying biological function. Having a language is like having hands. However written language is not the same. It was only invented five times. The Sumerians invented writing first in about 3100 BC. The only other people to independently develop writing are the Egyptians, Chinese, Indians and Meso-Americans. All other writing systems are descendants of these ancestors.

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The Meso-American (Mayas, Incans, Aztec...) writing system was only developed in about 500 BC. It did not survive the coming of the European conquerors. The Meso-American writing system never developed beyond the symbolic-picture stage. The Indian (Harappa-Mohenjo-Daro) writing also died out. Modern Indian writing is alphabetic and is descended from the Phonetician alphabet. Although there may have been some influence on other developing writing systems, Sumerian writing also died out. Egypt, China and India may have got the idea from the Sumerians, but developed their own writing.

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The two great successes were the Egyptian and Chinese writing systems. Both started as picture writing systems and evolved into symbolic-picture writing. Both were often copied and used as models for other languages. All the writing systems of East Asia were borrowed from Chinese. Egyptian went on to be the ancestor of all Western writing systems.

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However most Western writing systems are based on an alphabet. The Egyptian written language was based on symbols, very much like Chinese characters. Traditional Egyptian writing took a long time, and a lot of money, to learn. Only an elite few were able to read and write. Many changes would have to happen to Egyptian writing before it would become the English, and other Western, alphabets we know today. These changes involved rich businesses, a civilized empire and ignorant barbarians. Next week I'll tell you the story of how ancient Egyptian became English.

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by John Larrysson

A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for more than a decade.


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