Writing is a system of human communication by means of visual symbols or signs. The earliest stages of writing date almost from the dawn of humanity. The first developed systems of writing appeared about 5,500 years ago, or possibly earlier, in Egypt and Mesopotamia. About 5,000 years ago, a developed writing system was used in Minoan Crete, and about 4,000 years ago, the Hittite people of Anatolia (modern Turkey) had a writing system. In China, bones dating from 3,500 years ago have been found which bear written inscriptions.
Counting devices have been used in all parts of the world. Such devices include sticks, pebbles, clay tokens, and strings. For example, a shepherd could record the exact number of sheep in his flock by cutting one notch in a stick for each sheep. He could also keep pebbles or clay tokens of about the same size and shape to represent the different kinds of animals in his care. The Inca of Peru tied knots in strings of various lengths and colors to keep accounts. These methods of counting could not easily be adapted to real writing.
Rock drawings conveyed a clearer meaning, but were not so useful for counting. A simple rock drawing was found near a dangerously steep trail in New Mexico. The design shows a mountain goat and a man riding a horse. The mountain goat stands on all fours, but the horse and rider are upside down. The design warns a horseman that a mountain goat can climb the rocky trail, but that his horse cannot.
Ideographs express an idea without any clear connection with any language. For example, a picture of a smiling face represents happiness. Any person can understand the idea of such a drawing, whether or not he or she speaks the language of the person who drew it. This way of expressing ideas, not necessarily in words, is called ideography. Pictures drawn for the purpose of communication differ only slightly from pictures drawn for artistic purposes. Communication pictures are simplified and stereotyped, and they have no details that are not needed as part of the communication.
Logographs. Human beings took the decisive step in developing real writing when they learned to express ideas indirectly. They did this by using signs that stood for the words in their language, not the ideas the words stood for. This kind of writing is called logography. To see how it works, take such a message as "The king killed a lion." In ideography, the message would include two drawings, one showing a man with the insignia of his office, such as a crown, holding a spear in his hand, and the other showing a lion. Logography, or word writing, would express the same message by signs that stand for the words themselves. One picture, of a man wearing a crown, stands for the word "king." A spear stands for the word "kill," and a drawing of a lion stands for "lion." If the king had killed three lions, the phrase "three lions" would be expressed in word writing by two signs, one standing for the numeral "three" and the other for "lion." In ideography, the message would have to contain pictures of three lions.
Early in the development of this kind of writing, the pictures became conventional, or simplified and formal. They often showed only a part for the whole, such as a crown for the word "king." But pictures cannot represent words like "the" or "a," nor can they represent grammatical endings like the "-ed" of "killed."
The Sumerians, who lived in southern Mesopotamia, were the first people to reach the stage of logographic writing, about 3500 B.C. They kept records with such simple entries as "10 arrows" and the sign for a personal name, or "5 cows" and the sign for another name. They could easily use signs for numbers and for items such as arrows or cows. But they had difficulty in writing names and abstract ideas.
Phonetization. To overcome these problems, the Sumerians found that they could use word-symbols of objects that were easy to picture, like "arrow," to stand for words that sounded similar, but were hard to picture. The sign for "arrow" could also stand for "life," because the word ti means both things in Sumerian. This principle of phonetization, often called the rebus principle, is the most important single step in the history of writing (see REBUS). If the arrow sign could stand for both "arrow" and "life," because they are both pronounced ti, why not use the arrow sign for the sound ti wherever it occurs, regardless of its meaning? The Sumerian language was made up largely of one-syllable words, so it was not difficult for the people to work out a syllabary of about one hundred phonetic signs.
Sumerian writing is called logo-syllabic, or word-syllabic. It uses both logograms, or word signs, and syllabograms, or syllabic signs. Logograms expressed most of the words in the language. Syllabograms expressed rare and abstract words and proper names. Sumerian writing gradually developed the wedgelike appearance we call cuneiform. The Babylonians and Assyrians took cuneiform from the Sumerians, and the Hittites and other peoples learned it from them (see CUNEIFORM).
The Egyptians developed another important word-syllabic writing, hieroglyphic, about 3000 B.C. It resembled Sumerian in using word-signs but differed in the choice of syllabic signs. The Sumerians regularly indicated differences in vowels in their syllabic signs, but the Egyptians did not. The Hittites also had a writing of their own, hieroglyphic Hittite, that was related to some of the systems used in the lands around the Aegean Sea. See HIEROGLYPHICS.
The Chinese, perhaps about 1500 B.C., began the most highly developed word writing in the world. The peoples of the Middle East usually had only a few hundred word signs, but the Chinese may have as many as 50,000. They use some of these signs for the syllables in proper names or in foreign words.
The alphabet. The older word-syllable systems were gradually simplified. From the complicated Egyptian system, the Semites of Syria and Palestine, especially the Phoenicians, developed simple systems of from 22 to 30 signs, each standing for a consonant followed by any vowel. The Japanese worked out a syllabic system with symbols for an initial consonant and different vowels. They also used many word symbols borrowed from Chinese. The Greeks were the first to evolve a system of vowel signs, creating the first alphabetic system of writing.