A Timeline of Writing

Since the beginning of time, humans have been communicating with written marks. The development of the writing system has evolved from pictures to letters.

  • Sumerian Cuneiform

For centuries, humans have used written marks for communicating with one another. The “first true alphabets weren’t developed until the period between 1700 and 1500 B.C.” (p. 99). Writing began with ‘pitcographs’, which were usually connected to religion or magic. The Sumerians invented the earliest writing style, called ‘cuneiform’. The Sumerians used “sticks or reeds to make marks on clay” (p. 99). Many different people interpreted the Sumerians’ writing style differently because the pictures were abstract symbols that represented items that were traded. Pictographic writing was “useful for trade across different language groups” (p. 99).

  • Egyptian Hieroglyphics

Hieroglyphics were invented around 3200 B.C. (around the same time as cuneiform). It mixed pictures and the alphabetic system to create words, thus making it different from the Sumerians’ cuneiform. This was difficult, however, for people of other languages to read because they had to learn “a picture or symbol for each thing or idea” (p. 100).


  • Early Alphabets

The first writing “system in which all the marks represented sounds was developed in Syria around 1500 B.C.” (p. 100). They needed an easy way to communicate and didn’t want to combine the use of pictures for sounds and ideas. The Phoenicians created a paper-like substance from the papyrus plant for writing rather than using clay. With this new invention came the first alphabet with twenty-two letters. The “Phoecician writing system used letters to represent consonant sounds, but it did not include vowels” (p. 100).

  • Greek and Latin Alphabets

The Greeks were the first to develop an alphabet with both consonants and vowels, and “they used the Phoenician system as a base” (p. 101).  The Romans based their alphabet on that of the Greeks and added their own letters to represent sounds that Greek did not contain (like v, y, and y). The English alphabet is based widely on the Roman alphabet.


Freeman, D. E. and Freeman, Y. S. (2004). Essential Linguistics: What You Need to Know to Teach. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. 


By: Rebecca McKee


One thought on “A Timeline of Writing

  1. This is really interesting because, at least for me, I never thought of the alphabet as being pictures. It is really neat to see just how much our alphabet has evolved throughout time. I always found learning about hieroglyphics interesting and I believe that teaching this in a classroom would be fun not only for me but for the students as well, to see that the alphabet used to be drawings of random things and now we use actual letters.


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