How the invention of writing gave humanity a history. From hieroglyphs to emojis, an exploration of the way in which the technology of writing has shaped the world we live in.
Ch1. From Pictures to Words
We take it for granted, but every time we pick up a pen, we are employing the most powerful technology ever invented: the technology of writing. The invention of writing about 5,000 years ago made civilisation itself possible, and every innovation of the modern world is based on the foundation of the written word. But how and where did writing begin, and who began it? In From Pictures to Words, the first of three films about the history of writing, we uncover the hidden links between all the diverse writing systems in use today and trace the origin of our own alphabet to a turquoise mine in the Sinai Desert and a man riding a donkey whose name was Khebded.
Writing is a recent innovation. Our species has existed for about 300,000 years, and for all but the last 5,000 of them, people had to record and transmit vital knowledge without the aid of writing. At the Moon Dreaming site in the Northern Territory of Australia, Yidumduma Bill Harney, an elder of the Aboriginal Wardaman people, explains how Aboriginal culture has been transmitted down the generations orally, without the need to write anything down. So, why did people eventually feel the need to make permanent records in visual form?
According to Irving Finkel, an Assyriologist from the British Museum, it was in Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq, where the need for record-keeping was first felt. Here, about 5,000 years ago, the Sumerians developed the first city states. The city dwellers depended for their sustenance on taxing the surrounding countryside, and Irving produces a clay tablet from this period that is the distant ancestor of today’s spreadsheet: a grid of boxes ruled into the clay, with symbols that represent numbers, and small stylised pictures that represent commodities, such as an ear of barley. These so-called pictograms would be the basis for the first writing systems, and so we owe writing to the first accountants and tax inspectors.
But the language of accountancy is limited. To represent the full vocabulary of the Sumerian people would require a key conceptual leap, a way to use pictures to represent not things but sounds. This is what Irving dubs the giant leap for mankind, something called the Rebus Principle: the idea is that a picture of an ear of barley can represent barley, but it can also be used to represent the sound of the word barley in Sumerian, which is pronounced ‘sheh’. Thus, the word ‘sheh-ga’, which means ‘beautiful’, can be represented by the pictogram of an ear of barley, followed by the stylised picture of a cow’s udder, which stands for milk, pronounced ‘ga’ in Sumerian.
The Rebus Principle is the key that unlocked writing for all the peoples of the ancient near east. Egyptian hieroglyphs, which developed in the same period, are also based on the same principle. The earliest known complete Egyptian text is found beneath a pyramid near Cairo, inscribed on the walls of the tomb of Pharaoh Teti. The Pyramid Texts are a series of elaborate magic spells, designed to raise Teti to eternal life. Hieroglyphs are indeed magic, because like all writing, while they may not be able raise the dead, they do allow them to speak.
In fact, the Rebus lies behind all the ancient writing systems of the world. The earliest known Chinese writing is found inscribed on bones and turtle shells from 3,500 years ago. Chinese is a picture-based script that uses the Rebus Principle to represent sounds with stylised pictures. The same is true of Mayan glyphs, a writing system that developed in Central America about 2,600 years ago. The similarities between these scripts is striking. Is this evidence of a common root for all writing?
In essence, the Rebus Principle is simply a sort of pun, something that could have occurred to a child. Irving Finkel believes that it was invented many times, as a natural expression of a common human sense of humour! The similarities between ancient writing systems are simply due to the fact that we all share the same human mind.
But today, most people write using alphabets – simple scripts with just a few dozen symbols that seem to have no connection to pictures. Here the story is different, because the alphabet was only invented once. In the company of archaeologist Pierre Tallet, we travel to the Sinai to an ancient Egyptian temple perched high above the desert. This is the place where the cultural exchange between Egyptian scribes and illiterate Canaanite migrant workers created a new kind of script. This script also used the Rebus Principle, but in a radically simpler way, adapting hieroglyphic pictograms to represent the sounds of the Canaanite tongue.
Almost every alphabet in use today, from Arabic to the Latin alphabet, can trace its origins to this script. Our letters do not look like pictures, but in fact in almost every word we write lie hidden the ghosts of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Ch2. Words on a Page
In 1448, in Mainz, Germany, a goldsmith named Johannes Gutenberg was experimenting with a lead alloy and a hand-held mould. His aim was to speed up the process of putting ink on paper. But what he did was speed up history. Gutenberg’s printing press spelled the end of the Middle Ages and ushered in the modern world of science and industry. Every innovation since has been built on this foundation.
Yet behind Gutenberg’s invention lay centuries of development and change in the way words were written, without which he could never have succeeded. In this film, presenter Lydia Wilson and calligrapher Brody Neuenschwander set out to explore history’s most important technology – the technology of putting words on a page.
Writing itself is 5,000 years old, and for most of that time words were written by hand using a variety of tools. As a calligrapher, Brody can still use those tools in a form of experimental historical research. The insights gained in this way reveal how the changing methods people used to create written texts helped to change the course of history.
Arguably, the history of writing begins in Egypt. The ancient Egyptians created the world’s first nation state, and they ran it with the help of one of the very earliest writing systems: hieroglyphs. Today, hieroglyphs can still be read in monumental inscriptions carved in stone. But, the Egyptians also had a portable, everyday medium on which to write: papyrus.
Papyrus is a type of sedge that grows all along the banks of the Nile. Readily available and easily harvested, this unassuming plant was turned by the Egyptians into one of the foundations of civilisation: the papyrus scroll. And as civilisation spread from Egypt across the Mediterranean world, so did papyrus. The Romans were able to run an empire thanks to documents written on papyrus, and when they conquered Egypt in 30 BC, one of the biggest prizes of conquest was domination of the Mediterranean papyrus trade.
Brody’s experiments with a reed pen and a papyrus scroll reveal just what an efficient combination they are for the rapid production of written text. That meant that scroll books could be made quite cheaply, and Roman bookshops could sell one for as little as one denarius, a soldier’s daily wage. As a result, ancient Rome had a thriving literary culture.
But, by the end of the third century, Rome’s control over the Mediterranean had begun to slip. Papyrus became more and more difficult to obtain, and Roman book production plummeted. Europeans were forced to turn to a much more expensive surface on which to write: parchment. From being a relatively affordable and available commodity, books would become rare and costly. The fall of the Roman Empire and the onset of the European Middle Ages coincides with this shift from papyrus to parchment.
Medieval handwritten books, with their sumptuous illuminations, represent a pinnacle of medieval art, but since a large book could cost as much as a house, they also represent a limitation on literacy and scholarship.
No such limitations were felt in China, where paper had been invented in the second century. Paper was the foundation of Chinese culture and power, and for centuries how to make it was kept secret. But, in 751 AD, the westward expansion of the Tang Dynasty was checked by Arab forces at the River Talas. It was a defeat which ensured that, to this day, central Asia would be part of the Muslim world. And in the captured baggage train of the Chinese army there were paper-makers. The secret was out, and paper mills soon sprang up across central Asia.
The result was an intellectual flourishing known as the Islamic Golden Age. Muslim scholars made discoveries in biology, geology, astronomy and especially mathematics. By contrast, Europe was an intellectual backwater.
That changed with Gutenberg’s development of movable type printing. The secret of Gutenberg’s printing press was his ability to mass-produce multiple copies in metal of each individual letter. And in this he had a hidden advantage: the letters of the Latin alphabet are very simple block-like shapes, which made it relatively simple to turn them into type pieces.
On the other hand, when printers tried to use movable type to print Arabic texts, they found themselves hampered by the cursive nature of Arabic writing, where the letters of a word often join together to form one single flowing shape. It was more than two hundred years before the first Arabic print shop was established in the Muslim world, in 1727 in Istanbul.
The success of movable type printing in Europe led to a thousand-fold increase in the availability of information, an explosion of ideas that led directly to the European Scientific Revolution and the Industrial Revolution that followed. That these developments began in Europe is one of the most important facts that shapes the world we live in today, and it is down in part to the simple accident of the shape of the Latin alphabet.
Ch3. Changing the Script
The written word is so important in everyday life that there can be few more radical acts than forcing an entire nation to learn a new script. Yet that is what happened in Turkey in 1928 when the founder of the modern Turkish nation, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, decreed that the Arabic script, which had been used to write the Turkish language for more than six centuries, would be replaced by the letters of the Latin alphabet.
His motivation lay in events that happened in Europe in the 15th century, at the beginning of the modern age, when society was transformed by the invention of the printing press. Because the shape of the letters of the Latin alphabet made them easier to print than other scripts, printing took off in Europe in a way it did not elsewhere. The resulting explosion in information led to scientific and industrial revolutions that, by the early 20th century, had taken Europe to unprecedented levels of wealth and power, giving European nations the means to dominate the globe.
This link between the Latin alphabet and the rise of western industrial society resulted in leaders in other parts of the world seeing the western script as the key to modernity. Could adopting the Latin alphabet be a shortcut to mass literacy and a modern society? Certainly, by switching from Arabic to Latin letters, it was possible to write Turkish phonetically, making it easier to learn to read and write, and so tackle the disastrously low levels of literacy in the country.
But alongside the practical motivation for the change, Mustafa Kemal also had a political one. Arabic was the script of the Koran, and when he banned the use of the Arabic alphabet, it was an attempt to alter the trajectory of Turkish history away from its Islamic past towards the kind of secular, technological society that was being created in Europe.
Indeed, in the 1920s, the Latin alphabet, with its promise of modernity, was on the march into central Asia, where most of the Islamic states had been absorbed by the expanding Russian Empire. Under the tsars, the languages of the region continued, however, to be written in the Arabic script.
But in 1917, the Russian Empire collapsed, and power was seized by the Communist Party. Its leader, Lenin, was determined to modernise and secularise the new Soviet Union. So, in 1929, the Soviet Union decreed the change to Latin letters in central Asia. But Lenin’s successor, Joseph Stalin, was determined to strengthen Moscow’s control and he did so by means of another script reform. In 1940, he replaced the Latin alphabet with the Russian Cyrillic alphabet.
Cyrillic remained the script of central Asia for five decades. But in 1991, the Soviet Union fell apart and central Asian states like Uzbekistan became independent nations. Uzbeks now had a new political identity, and there was no stronger way to signal this change than to change the script yet again. Out went Cyrillic and back came the Latin alphabet.
No country has changed its script more often in such a relatively short period as Uzbekistan. But through all these dizzying changes there has been one constant: the pull of the Latin alphabet as a means of connecting with the wider world and as a symbol of a nation that embraces modernity.
In China too, the Communist Party under Chairman Mao made a determined effort to replace the ancient Chinese pictographic script with a phonetic system based on Latin letters. But, since so much of Chinese culture and history is embodied in the characters of the Chinese writing system, this attempt ultimately failed. However, today’s technology threatens to do what even Chairman Mao could not: persuade the Chinese people to embrace the use of Latin letters.
The native script of computers is a simple binary code of ones and zeros, but in order to facilitate human interaction with computers, American computer scientists developed Ascii, the American Standard Code for Information Interchange, which allows communication with computers using human language, written in Latin letters.
This universal standard meant, for many decades, that using a computer demanded that you use the Latin alphabet, and this is how most Chinese people interact with their computers and smart phones, using a Latin-based phonetic script called Pinyin. As a result, even highly educated Chinese are losing the ability to write using Chinese characters.
Could what is happening in China be the future of writing everywhere? With new ways of creating text becoming ever more popular, will there soon be any need to learn to write by hand at all? That said, there has always been more to script than language. For 5,000 years, scripts themselves have been repositories of cultural and religious identities that cannot easily be put into words. This is the hidden power, and value, of script. For, each time we pick up a pen, we express who we are in every letter we write.