Give Now  »

Noon Edition

A Brief History Of Writing

Alphabet soup with spoon

Where did writing get its start? Seems like a simple question, but the answer might be more complex than you would expect.

Writing was developed to keep track of things, like money. For example, early empires like Sumer, in what is now Iraq, invented scripts so they could keep records for tax purposes.

What were these ancient scripts like? Did Sumerians draw a cow to represent a cow, and so on, or did they have an actual alphabet?

Writing started out as concrete symbols that represented actual objects, but many of the things people wanted to record were difficult to draw.

For example, the Sumerian word "ti" means "to give life to," but how do you draw that? Ancient scribes turned to puns. By coincidence, the Sumerian word for "arrow" also sounds like "ti," and so scribes used the arrow symbol to represent the phrase "to give life to." Written symbols became associated with syllables.

For languages like English, symbols that represent individual sounds are much more economical than symbols that represent whole syllables. With our 26 letters, which represent individual sounds, we can write any word in English. To do the same thing with symbols that represent syllables, we'd need about eight thousand signs.

The ancient Egyptian language, which was written with hieroglyphs representing whole words or syllables, also had an alphabet of 26 letters. Although their alphabet looks different, most authorities believe that our alphabet descends from this Egyptian invention.

Support For Indiana Public Media Comes From

About A Moment of Science