Prelude : In the Beginning - A History of Writing

Table of Contents:

A Sumerian tablet with cylinder seal impression of a hunter with hunting dogs and boars. 3100-2900 BC. Uruk

A Sumerian Writing Tablet.

History of Writing

Since the primordial time, spoken words and pictures have intermingled with each other as a means of communication . Humans have used words to paint pictures verbally, and inversely have painted pictures to communicate an idea. This is why writing and graphic design are intimately interrelated. Yet there is a more profound relationship between the two from an artistic perspective. Both words and pictures are used in the act of creation; that is art. If texts are not primarily for creation but for communication, then writings, with their prescribed functions of educating and instructing, would seem to be only a secondary art form. Yet calligraphy, throughout its history, has had a curious relationship with art. Besides communicating the socio-cultural and scientific ideas of various civilizations into conceptual ideas, the nature and limitations of writing have sometimes influenced the form and direction of abstract art.

The first attempts at writing was by the Sumerian priesthood in about 3100 BC who designed simplified images of their temple properties on chunks of wet clay and marked the number of the items on that clay. This was a reliable accounting report -- a message -- for keeping track of the changes in the wealth of a temple. After allowing the wet clay to bake hard in the sun, these tablets conveyed a recorded graphic message to various stakeholders. Examples of this early system represents some of the earliest texts found in the Sumerian cities of Uruk and Jamdat Nasr around 3300 BCE. These tablets were the first manifestation of graphic design as a mean to conveying a conceptual message in a fast, simple and economic way1 .

In Sumer, at first the pictures of things represented those very same things ( these are called pictographs). Then certain pictures represented some ideas and concepts (these are called ideographs) and finally they represented sounds. The writing characters of the Sumerians were adopted by the East Semitic peoples of Mesopotamia and Akkadian became the first Semitic writing system that would be used by the Babylonians and Assyrians.

Cuneiform System of Writing

The most ancient writing system that was evolved in Mesopotamia, is called cuneiform, an 18th century coinage from Latin and Middle French roots meaning “wedge-shaped”. This writing system using  a reed and applied on wet clay used between 600 and 1,000 characters that were  either words, parts of words or syllables and therefore they were not letters of an alphabet. The earliest  languages written in Cuneiform were Sumerian and  Akkadian. Sumerians developed a large  body of phonetic symbols and soon they needed to develop grammatical elements by phonetic complements to be added to their  logograms and ideograms. Moreover  since Sumerian had many identical sounding (homophonous) words, some logograms  yielded identical phonetic values, which are identified in modern transliteration. As well  a logogram  was polyphonic since represented a number associated phenomena such as "night", "stars", "moon", "dark", which had more than one phonetic value .

It is highly probable that the Egyptian hieroglyph is evolved from cuneiform  the-spot invention. Nevertheless, cuneiform continued to be used until the first century AD.

Early Writing Tablet recording the allocation of beer, 3100-3000 B.C.E, Late Prehistoric period, clay, probably from southern Iraq.

Egypt developed writing shortly after the Sumerians. Greeks called the Egyptian writing characters hieroglyphs in about 500 BC. The reason was that the Egyptian writing was mainly used for holy texts; hieros and glypho mean 'sacred' and 'engrave' in Greek. Egyptian legends attribute the invention of language to Taautos, from Byblos in Phoenicia, who was the father of tautology or imitation. He is also credited with with the first written characters in two millennium BC .   

The Papyrus of Ani is a version of the Book of the Dead for the Scribe Ani. This vignette (small scene that illustrates the text) is Chapter for not letting Ani's heart create opposition against him in the God's Domain 2. (1240s BC)

Scribe's exercise tablet with hieratic text on wood, related to Dynasty XVIII, reign of Amenhotep I, c. 1514-1493 BC. Text is an excerpt from The Instructions of Amenemhat II (Dynasty XII), and reads: "Be on your guard against all who are subordinate to you ... Trust no brother, know no friend, make no intimates.

Merneptah Stele — also known as the Israel Stele or Victory Stele of Merneptah — is an inscription by the Ancient Egyptian king Merneptah (R;1213 to 1203 BC), which appears on the reverse side of a granite stele erected by the king Amenhotep III. It was discovered by Flinders Petrie in 1896 at Thebes.

Most of the treasure of the ancient literature is written in Akkadian, the most ancient of Semetic languages, which is written in a logosyllabic cuneiform writing system of Sumerian origin. There were many other Semitic languages such as Amorite, Ugaritic and that of the Canaanites of Phoenicia . Many of these alphabets were derived from the Phoenician linear quasi-alphabet of 22 signs, first attested at Byblos and externally similar to the Proto-Byblian script. The Phoenician was the origin of the European alphabets, whereas all the Asiatic alphabets are derived from the Aramaic variants of the Phoenician.In fact many of the existing scripts such as Latin, Greek, Arabic, and Hebrew among others are derived from Phoenician characters. Greece in the 8th century BC adopted the Phoenician alphabet with very little variation. According to Herodotus:
The Phoenicians who came with Cadmus - amongst whom were the Gephyraei - introduced into Greece, after their settlement in the country, a number of accomplishments, of which the most important was writing, an art till then, I think, unknown to the Greeks. At first they used the same characters as all the other Phoenicians, but as time went on, and they changed their language, they also changed the shape of their letters. At that period most of the Greeks in the neighborhood were Ionians; they were taught these letters by the Phoenicians and adopted them, with a few alterations, for their own use, continuing to refer to them as the Phoenician characters - as was only right, as the Phoenicians had introduced them. The Ionians also call paper 'skins' - a survival from antiquity when paper was hard to get, and they did actually use goat and sheep skins to write on.

Translation of the Phoenician text according to Sabatino Moscati:

To [our] Lady Ishtar. This is the holy place // which was made and donated // by TBRY WLNSH [= The faries Velianas] who reigns on // Caere [or: on the Caerites], during the month of the sacrifice // to the Sun, as a gift in the temple. He b//uilt an aedicula [?] because Ishtar gave in his hand [or: raised him with her hand] // to reign for three years in the m//onth of KRR [=Kerer], in the day of the burying // of the divinity. And the years of the statue of the divinity // in his temple [might be ? are ?] as many years as these stars.

Phoenician alphabet

A history of the Latin Alphabet

The Latin alphabet is originated from the Etruscan alphabet, in the 7th century BC. The Etruscans themselves derived their alphabet from the Greek colonists in Italy, more specifically from the Cumae alphabet. The Ancient Greek alphabet was in turn based upon the alphabet of Phoenicians who were living on the coastal area of Lebanon, Palestine and Syria. The earliest inscription in Latin characters, dating from the 7th century BC, was made on golden brooch known as Praeneste Fibula (preserved now in the Museo Preistorico Etnografico Luigi Pigorini in Rome). It is written from right to left and reads:

The Praeneste fibula at the Museo Preistorico Etnografico Luigi Pigorini in Rome. It reads:
(in Classical Latin: Manius me fecit Numerio)
Manius made me for Numerius.

Another inscription, dating from the end of the 7th or the beginning of the 6th century BC, was engraved on a small pillar (cippus) found in the Roman Forum. It is written vertically on the four faces of the pillar in bustrophedon style.

The Duenos inscription, dated to the 6th century BC, shows the earliest known forms of the Old Latin alphabet.

 The Duenos inscription

Reflecting the obvious similarity between the Latin alphabet and the Chalcidian variety of the Western group of Greek scripts used at Cumae in Campania, Southern Italy, the earlier hypothesis suggested that Latin letters were derived directly from the Greek alphabet. However, this hypotheses is now rejected since: i. Latin letter names are of Etruscan origin, and ii. The sound of F, in most ancient documents, is represented by combination FH, which was peculiar to the Etruscan writing system.

According to a Roman legend, which credits introduction of alphabet into Latinium to Evander, son of the Cimmerian Sibyl. This was supposed to have happened 60 years before the Trojan war. However, there is no historically sound basis to this tale. This makes the early Latin alphabet one among several Old Italic alphabets emerging at the time.

 A latin inscription in Ephesus

The Romans further developed the alphabet by using 23 letters from the Etruscans. The Roman letters ABEZHIKMNOTXY was exactly the same as the Etruscans'. But the letters CDGLPRSV were redesigned. The Romans also added two Phoenicians letters, the F and Q, that were discarded by the Greeks. They placed Z at the end of the alphabet because for a while it appeared redundant. The U and W were slowly added and based on the letter V by the year 1000 and the J, which was based on the I was added by 1500.

Three important  innovations by  Romans were:  first, the introduction of serifs, which are the short finishing strokes at the end of letters, second, the graphic design of thick and thin strokes, and third lowercase letters. The most important of these was of course the lowercase letters which were developed because to copy a text scribes needed quicker and smaller versions of the letters. The first system of lowercase letterforms was known as the semi-uncial. Spacing between words was not generally adopted until the eleventh century. Punctuation marks developed in the 16th century when printing became prevalent.

A history of the Arabic alphabet

Although after the birth of Islam in 7th century AD, Arabic inscriptions became prevalent in  the western and central Asia,  the origin of the Arabic script also goes back to the Phoenician alphabet, which a branch of it evolved into Aramaic, which evolved into Modern Hebrew and Nabataean. The Nabataeans, which established the kingdom of Petra in what is modern-day Jordan from the 2nd century BC were of  Arabic origin. They wrote with a highly cursive Aramaic-derived alphabet that would eventually evolve into the today's alphabet. The Nabataeans endured until the year 106 AD, when they were conquered by the Romans, but Nabataean inscriptions continue to appear until the 4th century  AD, coinciding with the first inscriptions in the Arabic alphabet, found in Jordan.

Greek and Nabataean inscriptions at Petra.   It is estimated that Petra has been built in the sixth century BC by Nabataeans people, who created one of the greatest ancient civilizations in the Middle East, with its own alphabet, on the basis of which the conventional Arabic alphabet was formed.

Kufic Script,   Toledo, Spain, 11th century AD

After, the emergence of Islam, the Umayyad state chancery employed many skilled Persian scribes from the Iranian court. The administrative language of Umayyads officially changed from Middle Persian (Pahlavi) to Arabic during  Hajjaj ibn Yusuf governorship of Iraq. The records of administrative documents,  dīwān al-rasā’il (bureau of letters)  transferred from Pahlavi to Arabic. The early Arabic alphabet had 15 distinct letter-shapes for 28 sounds, but did not contain any dots, which were a later addition by the Persians scribes, who used them to differentiate between the different sounds. They also added the vowel marks and the Hamza  in the latter half of the seventh century.

Naskh script  at Ben Ali Youssef Medersa, Morocco,16th century AD

Generally speaking, there are two variants to the Arabic alphabet: Kufic and Naskh. The Kufic script is angular, which was most likely a product of inscribing on hard surfaces such as wood or stone, while the Naskh script is much more cursive. The Kufic script appears to be the older of the scripts, as it was common in the early history of Islam, and used for the earliest copies of the Qu'ran.

Atigh Jame' Mosque, Shiraz, 14th century AD.

A history of the Chinese Scribe

The earliest examples of Chinese writing date to the late Shang period (ca. 1200 BC). These are the so-called Oracle Bone Inscriptions (甲骨文--jiaguwen) which were found at the site of the last Shang capital near present-day Anyang in Henan province.Later on the bronze inscriptions (金文 --jinwen) which were texts casted or carved into the surface of vessels integrated the concept of aesthetics into the design during the Eastern Zhou dynasty (ca. 1150-771 BC). Nevertheless,the language and the calligraphic style were similar to those found on the oracle bones.

A bronze inscription (jinwen) casted into the surface of a vessel depicts a harmonious calligraphic composition.

The 'Lantingji Xu'', Preface to the Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion 3 is the most famous work of Chinese calligrapher Wang Xizhi, created in year 353.

The so-called "classical Chinese" (文言 -- wenyan) which had remained more or less intact until the late 19th century was written on bamboo strips on ancient times. These were manuscripts, that recorded the Chinese philosophical texts, such as the Laozi, Liji, and Lunyu. They are dated from the early fifth century BC. The characters were written with a hard brush or a stick on a prepared surface of bamboos tied together with strings to form a roll. Beside bamboo, texts were also written on wooden tablets and silk cloth.

A Chinese traditional title epilogue written by Wen Zhengming in Ni Zan's portrait by Qiu Ying.(1470–1559)

  1. Algaze, Guillermo (2005) "The Uruk World System: The Dynamics of Expansion of Early Mesopotamian Civilization", (Second Edition, University of Chicago Press.
  2. See : R.O. Faulkner, The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead (revised ed C. A. R. Andrews), The British Museum Press , 1985, London. R.B. Parkinson and S.Quirke, Papyrus, Egyptian Bookshelf, The British Museum Press, London ,1995. S. Quirke and A.J. Spencer, The British Museum book of anc, The British Museum Press 
  3. This calligraphy describes a gathering of 42 poets including Xie An and Sun Chuo at the Orchid Pavilion near Shaoxing, Zhejiang, during the Spring Purification Festival to compose poems and enjoy the wine. The poets had agreed to participate in a drinking contest. Wine cups were floated down a small winding creek as the men sat along its banks and whenever a cup stopped the man closest to the cup was required to drink it and write a poem. In the end, twenty-six of the participants composed thirty-seven poems.Richard Kurt Kraus, Brushes with Power (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 27.
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