Writing Through the Ages: A Summary

The current form of writing used in English is a result of centuries of modifications and reformations. The first true alphabets did not come to be until 1700-1500 B.C. Before that, writing was mainly pictographic or ideographic. These early writings were mostly religious because the majority of those who could read or write were priests or their scribes. The following is a summary of the gradual evolution of alphabetic writing.

Sumerian Cuneiform
Around 3300 B.C., Sumerians in Mesopotamia developed a writing form called cuneiform. It was invented so that merchants could record business transactions. To do this, writers used sticks and weeds to write on clay, which made a triangular wedge shape. This system was useful because it was symbolic, meaning that people who spoke many different languages could interpret and understand it. A modern example of a modern-day of a largely ideographic writing system is Chinese.


Egyptian Hieroglyphics
Hieroglyphics were developed in Egypt around 3200 B.C. This system combined symbols that represented things with symbols that represented sounds. It was difficult for writers because there had to be a symbol for each thing or idea.

Early Alphabets
The first system that had every mark representing a sound dates back to Syria in 1500 B.C. in the port of Ugarit. They still used cuneiform symbols because they had easy access to clay. Around 1100 B.C., the introduction of papyrus by the Phoenicians revolutionized writing forever. The smoothness of the papyrus made it easy for writers to produce lines, which then led to the development of the twenty-two-letter Phoenician alphabet. This writing system did not include vowels. Some modern-day writing systems that use only consonants are Arabic and Hebrew. To represent vowels in these languages, diacritical marks are placed over consonants.


Greek and Latin Alphabets
Using the Phoenician system as a base, the Greeks developed their alphabet included both vowels and consonants. They also added more letters to represent the sounds that existed in Greek but not in the Phoenician language. What resulted was the first true alphabet. The Romans based their alphabet on the Greek, adding letters such as v, x, and y to represent sounds that exist in Latin but not in Greek. This writing alphabet is the most widely used alphabet in the world, and the English writing alphabet is based off of the Roman alphabet. Another variation of the Greek alphabet is the Cyrillic alphabet. This alphabet includes Slavic sounds not found in Greek. It is used today in Russia, the Ukraine, Serbia, and Bulgaria.

The above map shows (in dark green) the countries of the world that use the Latin Alphabet as the official script. The lighter green countries use the Latin alphabet as co-official script with other(s).

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

Abbie Middleton


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