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The Development of Writing

George Yule
Adapted by Humaira J Malik
• There are a large number of languages in the
world today that exist only in speech and do not
have a written form
• For the languages that do have writing systems,
the development of writing is a relatively recent
• The roots of writing tradition go back only a few
thousand years
• An account of the early history gradually
emerged but it comprises many gaps and
• It is difficult to decide whether a piece of graphic
expression should be taken as an artistic image or
as a symbol of primitive writing

• Practically it is possible to differentiate or assume as
artistic expression conveys subjective and personal
meanings and linguistic symbol is conventionalized
and institutionalized
• Problematic area: In Egyptian and Greek the same
word was used for both ‘write’ and ‘draw’
• The Fact: Writing systems evolved independently of
each other at different times in several parts of the
world – in Mesopotamia, China, Meso-America and
so on.
• Much of the evidence used in the reconstruction of
ancient writing systems comes from inscriptions on
stones or tablets found in the rubble of ruined cities
• Traces of human attempts go back to 20,000 years
ago, or to clay tokens from about 10,000 years ago
• Clay tokens : early attempt at book keeping
• Precursors of writing
• Writings based on some type of alphabetic script…
around 3,000 years ago

• Precursors
• Tables discovered in various parts of the Middle East
and south-east Europe from around 3500 BC.
• Large number of tablets found in sites around the
Rivers Tigris and Euphrates made by Sumerians
• Such tablets seem to have recorded matters such as
business transactions, tax account, land sales etc.
• However, The interpretation of single signs and early
groups of signs is often not possible
• There are no clear borders between picture/symbol
and what is already a sign in a writing system (specific
phonetic content which would be read in the same
way by any reader in a group of readers)
• The system was developed so that information could
be recorded

• Predynastic tablets from Abydos and Symbols on

• Use of clay tokens having several distinctive shapes,
seem to have been used as a system of accounting
from at least 9
millennium BC.

Around 3100 B.C. people began to
record amounts of different crops.
Barley was one of the most important
crops in southern Mesopotamia and
when it was first drawn looked like this.
• Stages in the development of writing
• Stage 1: Signs are only used as symbols
• Stage 2: The beginning of writing: limited standardization
• The surviving sources indicate that the hieroglyphic
writing system followed from the beginning the
rules/system which were used throughout Egyptian
• Early developments include the emergence of norms
in writing direction, forms of individual signs,
orthography of single words, and the gradual tendency
towards writing longer inscriptions
• Already in the first dynasties the writing system began
to become standardized. Actions are often expressed not
by writing a word (verb), but by depicting the action

• Inscriptions on predynastic jars
• Numbers
• early short phonetic Inscriptions
• Stelae from Abydos
• Ivory, bone and wooden tablets of the first Dynasty

• Types of Writing Systems
• Pictograms and Ideograms

• When the picture of something (like the sun) comes to
represent particular image or recognizable picture of
entities in a certain way, it can be described as a form of
picture-writing or pictogram
• A conventional relationship must exist between the symbol
and its interpretation.
• Modern forms of pictograms lead you to the phone
booth, bus stop, coffee shop and to the restrooms at the
airport even if you don't speak and read the particular
• When a pictogram takes a more fixed symbolic form and
comes to be used for instance not only to represent 'sun'
but also 'heat' and 'daytime', it is considered as part of a
system of idea-writing or ideograms
• No intention to draw the reality exactly or
artistically rather symbols must be sufficiently
clear and simple to enable them to be
immediately recognized and reproduced as
occasion demands as part of a narrative
• The sequence of the symbols may be described
verbally in variety of ways
• Importance of context and background
• Convey abstract or conventional meaning
• Ideograms or ideographs display no clear
pictorial link with external reality
• No pure ideographic system exists
• All primitive writing system were mixture of
pictographic, ideographic, and linguistic elements

• The distinction between pictograms and ideograms
is essentially a difference between the symbol and
the entity it represents
• The more picture-like forms are pictograms, the
more abstract and derived forms are ideograms

• A key property of both pictograms and ideograms
is that they do not represent words or sounds in a
particular language

• Modern pictograms: language independent
• General thinking: number of symbols turn up in
writing …. Egyptian hieroglyphics
• Symbol
• When symbols come to be used to represent words
is a language , they are described as examples of
word-writing or ‘logograms’

• Logogram
• A large number of symbols in later writing systems are
thought to have pictographic or ideographic origins
• When the symbols come to represent words in a
language, they are described as examples of word-
writing or logograms where the graphemes or characters
represent words
• In Egyptian hieroglyphics means 'house‘ and derives
from a diagram representing the floor-plan of a house

• In Chinese writing it means 'river‘ and derives from the
pictorial description of a stream flowing between two

• Examples: Chinese and its derivative script &
Japanese kanji
• Several thousand graphemes are involved in a
logographic system
• Great Chinese dictionary of K’ang His (1662-1722)
Contains nearly 50, 000 characters, most of them are
highly specialized or archaic
• Characters are classified on the basis of strokes
used to write them

• Rebus Writing
• The process of Rebus writing is a way of using
existing symbols to represent the sounds of
• The symbol for one entity is taken over as the
symbol for the sound of the spoken word that is
used to refer to that entity
• This, of course, establishes a sizeable reduction of
the number of symbols needed in a writing system
• /ba/ means 'boat’
• /baba/ means 'father'
• One symbol can be used in many different ways ,
with a range of meanings.
• Syllabic Writing
• When a writing system employs a set of symbols
which represent the pronunciation of syllables, it is
described as syllabic writing
• Phonological system
• Each grapheme corresponds to a spoken syllable,
vowel-consonant pair usually
• There do not seem to be any purely syllabic writing
systems in use today, but Japanese can be described
as having an at least partly syllabic writing system
• In the 19th century Cherokee Indians invented and
used a syllabic writing system to produce written from
spoken language
• The first fully developed syllabic writing system was
used by the Phoenicians at around 1000 B.C.

• Alphabetic Writing
• An alphabet is essentially a set of written
symbols which each represent a single type of
• Direct correspondence between graphemes and
• System needs a small number of units
• Arbitrary Nature
• This is what seems to have occurred in languages
such as Arabic and Hebrew
• The early Greeks included symbols for vowels in
their alphabet, and the modern European
alphabet can be traced from Egyptian to
Phoenician then to Early Greek and finally to the
Roman alphabet

• Written English
• There does seem to be a frequent mismatch between the
forms of written and the sounds of spoken English today
• There may be a number of historical reasons for this,
one of them is language change
• Fixed spelling of written English in the form that was
used in fifteenth century England
• Derivations from forms used in writing in other
• Recreation from old English in sixteenth century by
spelling reformers
• Written form provide unreliable clues with reference to
spoken English