As you read about the people who lived in Çatalhöyük and Jericho, you may have wished that you knew more about what they thought and did and what stories they told each other before going to bed at night. Sadly, we will never know, because when those ancient towns were built writing had not yet been invented. People did not have any way to record their thoughts and stories for others to read many hundreds or thousands of years later.
Although we are glad that the ancients invented writing because it allows us to read their stories and histories, that is not why writing was first invented . Most of the earliest pieces of writing we have found are not stories; they are tax records.
In the growing cities of Mesopotamia and Egypt (which we will read about in a few more chapters) kings and their servants needed to keep track of who owed them grain and livestock and money. Perhaps writing began with the king's servants drawing little pictures to help them remember who had given the king how much of what, and how much was still owed. However it happened, many of the baked clay tablets that archeologists have dug up in the cities of ancient Mesopotamia are lists which simply record things like, "Two hundred baskets of wheat, three hundred baskets of barley, forty cattle, twenty camels, one hundred goats," and so on.
Reading and writing may seem very obvious to us today, but inventing a system for writing down language was challenging when no one had ever done such a thing before. As a result, the first writing was very complicated.
The Sumerians (who founded Uruk, which we read about in the last chapter) invented a way of writing called cuneiform [kyoo-nee-uh-form] around 3,000 B.C. (In Latin, a language spoken much later by the Romans, cuneus means "wedge".) Historians call the Sumerian writing cuneiform because they wrote by pressing the end of a wedge-shaped stylus into clay tablets to make symbols. If they needed to keep what they wrote for a long time, they baked the clay tablets until they were almost as hard as rock.
Some symbols stood for a single word such as "king" or "sun". Others stood for the sound of a syllable such as "al", "fa" or "bet". This must have made a lot of sense to people trying to figure out how to write down language for the first time. After all, when you say "alphabet" you say al - fa - bet not a - l - f - a - b - e -t. But writing this way meant that they had many, many more symbols in cuneiform than we have letters in our alphabet. The English alphabet has 26 letters, but Sumerian cuneiform had over 1,000 different symbols. Just learning them all must have taken years. For that reason, most people did not know how to read and write. Professional scribes kept accounts for the kings and the temples. They also wrote down the first histories and stories about what the Sumerians believed.
To the south and west, along another large river called the Nile, the Egyptians were also starting to build cities. They developed a way of writing which we call hieroglyphics after two Greek words meaning "sacred" and "writing". The Egyptians often carved inscriptions all over the walls of their temples and the tombs of their dead, and so early historians called their written language "sacred writing".
The Egyptians developed hieroglyphics around the same time as the Sumerians developed cuneiform (about 3,000 B.C.), and we do not know if one of them got the idea from the other or not. Sometimes the Egyptians used clay tablets to write on like the Sumerians, but often they carved their hieroglyphics in stone instead. They also made a sort of paper called papyrus our of reeds and wrote on it using ink.
Hieroglyphics look more like pictures than cuneiform symbols do, but just like the Sumerians the Egyptians used some of these symbols to stand for single words while many others stood for syllables. They had even more symbols than the Sumerians did, as many as 5,000! So like the Sumerians, the people who read and wrote were professional scribes. We have even found some of the writing samples that young scribes wrote for practice as they were learning their trade. Sometimes they were given stories or letters to copy, and other times they wrote about what a good life it was to be a scribe.
The Egyptians used their hieroglyphics for thousands of years. Meanwhile, in the kingdoms of Mesopotamia, other the Babylonians, Persian, and Assyrians took the cuneiform symbols that the Sumerians had developed and used them to write down their own languages.
The next big change in writing came nearly two thousand years later around 1,000 B.C. At that time a people named the Phoenicians lived on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, where Israel is today. The Phoenicians were great traders, and they sailed all over the Mediterranean buying and selling things. They needed an easy way to keep records of what they bought and sold. The writing system they invented was so useful and so easy to learn that nearly all later Western peoples used something like it to write down their own languages.
Remember how in cuneiform and hieroglyphics each symbol stood for either a whole word or a syllable such as "al" or "fa"? The Phoenicians realized that there would be far, far fewer symbols in their writing if they broke these syllables up into smaller sounds. So instead of having one symbol for "al" they one for "a" and one for "l". While cuneiform and hieroglyphics had over 1,000 different symbols, the Phoenician alphabet had just 22 letters -- even fewer than ours.
Because the Phoenicians were such great travelers and their alphabet was so easy to use, many other peoples learned to use it too. The Greeks developed their alphabet based on the Phoenicians', and the Romans based theirs on the Greeks'. The letters that you are reading right now are based on the ones that the Romans used. Arabic, Hebrew and many Indian languages also use alphabets that are based on the one that the Phoenicians developed.
No one uses the original Phoenician alphabet anymore, but we have them to thank that we don't have to learn a thousand or more symbols in order to read and write.
Go back to: Elementary Program: Volume One
Next Story: The Bronze Age