Origins of Written Communication and Types of Writing Systems

Origins of Written Communication and Types of Writing Systems

Information about the origins of written communication is generally derived from the data of the disciplines of epigraphy and paleography. Epigraphy particularly focuses on the examination of inscriptions, symbols engraved on stones, and writings etched onto surfaces. Paleography experts, on the other hand, study the evolution of alphabets and ancient writing systems. Academics and researchers use these studies to bring the stories of past cultures to the present day.

Origins of Written Communication

The origins of written communication are rooted in humanity’s endeavor to express thoughts through symbols, signs, and specific visual elements. This endeavor experienced significant development during prehistoric times, particularly with the emergence of petroglyphs.

Petroglyphs have facilitated the transfer of information, cultural expression, and perhaps the transmission of abstract concepts among communities. This can be viewed as part of the evolutionary process of language. However, petroglyphs cannot be classified as a language because they lack the fundamental features of language, which involve a symbolic structure accompanied by vocal or verbal expression. Language is based on the meaningful arrangement of spoken or written sounds and symbols within a specific group. Petroglyphs, on the other hand, are more inclined towards visual narration or symbolism.

Origins of Written Communication (Petroglyph)
Petroglyphs created by Native Americans in pre-Columbian America. (Columbia River Gorge)

The history of written language has been shaped by humanity’s commencement of expressing thoughts through symbols, letters, and numbers. This evolution is often attributed to the invention of cuneiform by the Sumerians in Mesopotamia around the 4th millennium BCE. Cuneiform, developed by the Sumerians, became a tool for storing and facilitating communication in trade, law, and other social activities, laying the foundation for written language. Shortly thereafter, Egyptian hieroglyphs emerged, and they influenced many alphabets.

Cuneiform

Cuneiform writing is a script predominantly adopted by ancient Mesopotamian civilizations. It stands as one of the oldest known forms of writing, with its roots traceable to the early stages of the Bronze Age in Southern Mesopotamia.

Utilized by civilizations such as the Sumerians, Akkadians, Elamites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Hittites, and many others, cuneiform involved the creation of wedge-shaped impressions on soft clay using a blunt reed. Initially, these impressions represented pictorial symbols depicting objects or concepts. However, over time, cuneiform evolved into a more intricate and flexible system, incorporating phonetic elements and syllabic signs.

Over time, cuneiform writing was adapted to write different languages, with each language developing its own set of signs and rules. Administrative records, legal documents, literary works, and religious texts of the era were transmitted to future generations through cuneiform.

By the 1st century AD, cuneiform gave way to alphabetical writing systems like Aramaic and Greek, gradually fading into obscurity. However, thanks to 19th-century scholars deciphering ancient inscriptions, valuable insights into the history, culture, and literature of the ancient Near East have been obtained.

Hieroglyph

Origins of Written Communication (Hieroglyphs)
Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Hieroglyphs are one of the ancient writing systems used in the ancient period. The mystery of hieroglyphic writing was deciphered in 1822 by the French philologist Jean-François Champollion through the study of the Rosetta Stone.

While many civilizations, such as Luvians and Urartu, had their own hieroglyphic scripts, the most well-known and ancient hieroglyphs belong to Egypt. Egyptian hieroglyphs were used for approximately 3600 years, from around 3200 BC to the 4th century AD. Moreover, they influenced other ancient writing systems like the Phoenician alphabet.

Egyptian hieroglyphs consist of various simple pictures representing sounds or meanings. These images could depict any animal, plant, human, object, or symbol. Each picture is used to convey the visual representation of something or an action, determining the sound or syllable of a spoken word.

Hieroglyphic writing can be arranged from top to bottom or from right to left. The direction of the writing is understood based on the orientation of the images. Because writing and reading hieroglyphs required artistic skill and comprehensive education, it was typically carried out by privileged individuals such as pharaohs, nobles, and priests.

Geoglyph

Origins of Written Communication (Geoglyph)
One of the geoglyphs in Nazca.

Geoglyph is a term used to describe large motifs created by humans on the earth. The purpose behind their creation still remains a mystery. Some researchers suggest that geoglyphs might have been used for purposes such as celestial calendars, rituals, art, or communication.

The most significant examples of geoglyphs have been found in the Nazca Desert in Peru. These geoglyphs are created by removing the dark-colored rocks on the surface of the desert to reveal the lighter-colored ground beneath.

The Nazca Lines include various motifs and anthropomorphic figures such as geometric shapes, animals, and plants. It is believed that the Nazca Lines might have served as a tool for managing agricultural activities in the Nazca culture.

Petroglyph

Origins of Written Communication (Petroglyph)
Petroglyphs in Mesa Verde National Park. (Colorado, USA)

Petroglyph is a general term commonly used to refer to ancient drawings and symbols created by carving or incising on rock surfaces. Often associated with prehistoric people, petroglyphs are considered a form of rock art that bears traces of ancient eras and indigenous cultures.

This form of rock art can be seen as a means for people to express their relationships with nature, the universe, and the metaphysical through symbolic or patterned drawings. Petroglyphs feature various depictions, including supplications to deities, rituals, daily life, scenes of hunting and war, and reflections of cultural characteristics. Additionally, shamanic symbols, cosmological beings, and mythological animals are among the most commonly encountered figures.

Petroglyphs, when evaluated in chronological and cultural contexts, assist archaeologists and anthropologists in understanding and interpreting prehistoric periods.

However, interpreting petroglyphs can be challenging at times. This is because the meanings of symbols are often not fully understood without a known language. This lack of a known language can lead to various interpretations among different cultures. Therefore, archaeologists, anthropologists, and other experts often adopt a broad interdisciplinary approach to understand petroglyphs.

Runic Script

Origins of Written Communication (Runescript)
An inscription carved with runic writings.

Runic script is a writing system historically used among Germanic peoples, particularly prominent in Old Norse and Old English cultures. The runic alphabet is based on simple symbols, often composed of vertical lines.

The runic alphabet is also known as “Futhark” in Northern Europe. The name of this alphabet is derived from the combination of the first six letters (f, u, þ, a, r, k) in the alphabet. The initial Futhark alphabet originally had 24 characters but was later reduced to 16.

Runic script was used over a broad time span, from the 2nd century AD to the 17th century. To date, more than 5,000 runic inscriptions have been discovered throughout Europe. A significant majority of these inscriptions are found in countries such as Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.

The runic alphabet was also utilized by Turks and Hungarians. Some characters in the Orkhon alphabet, which is the indigenous alphabet of the Turkic people, bear similarities to those in the Futhark alphabet. However, they possess different phonetic characteristics.

Turkic runes
“İlteriş Bilge (İltrs Bilge)” in Orkhon alphabet.
(Founder of the Second Turkic Khaganate.)

Other Semantic Symbols

Semantic symbols are linguistic indicators utilized for the transmission and comprehension of meaning. These indicators serve as a formal system facilitating interaction both among individuals and across diverse cultures.

Phonogram

Phonograms are symbols that represent specific sounds. These symbols are characters that depict the sound structure of a language. The letters in an alphabet are a typical example of phonograms. Each letter corresponds to a specific sound or combination of sounds. For instance, the letters in the Latin alphabet (A, B, C, etc.) represent specific sounds, and by combining these letters, words are formed.

Ideogram

Ideograms are symbols used to represent a thought or concept. Typically, they express an idea directly rather than the phonetic sounds of words in a language. Numbers and mathematical symbols are among the most well-known ideograms. For example, symbols like &, ÷, % carry the same meaning across many languages.

Logogram

A logogram is a single symbol that represents a specific word or concept. These symbols typically convey a word directly rather than the sounds of a language. Examples include Chinese characters and Japanese kanji characters . Logograms assist in expressing words in complex writing systems in a shorter and more concise form.

Pictogram

Pictograms are simple pictures and symbols that often symbolize a specific object, action, or concept. They are used to facilitate communication and convey meaning quickly to a broad audience. Therefore, they play a significant role in cross-cultural communication.

Pictograms are typically designed in a way that everyone can understand. For instance, a simple silhouette depicting a fire extinguisher can be a pictogram. This symbol quickly conveys meaning without the need for language skills or grammatical knowledge. Examples of pictograms include directional signs in airports, emergency exit signs in hotel rooms, and symbols on maps (such as a fork-and-knife symbol for restaurants or a beer mug symbol for bars).

  • JAGERSMA, Bram. A descriptive grammar of Sumerian. 2010. PhD Thesis. Leiden University.
  • Wikipedia contributors. (2024, January 14). Cuneiform. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 17:29, January 18, 2024.
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  • Richter, C., Teichert, B., & Pavelka, K. (2021). Astronomical Investigation to Verify the Calendar Theory of the Nasca Lines. Applied sciences, 11(4), 1637.
  • İlteriş Bilge. Türk Bitig. Göktürkçe çeviri yazıcı (To convert Latin letters to Old Turkish letters).
  • Wikipedia contributors. Phonogram (linguistics), Logogram, Ideogram, Pictogram. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 17:44, January 18, 2024.
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