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The History of Writing

G. Carboni, July 2006
Translation edited by Karyn Loscocco, September 2008
Revised in august 2011




Before writing began
Multiple origins
Slow progress
Cuneiform writing
Hieroglyphic writing
A and B linear writings
Alphabetic writings
The Phoenician alphabetic writing
The diffusion of the Phoenician alphabet
Other writings
Experiments on writing


Undoubtedly, one of the most important developments of humankind has been writing, but often people are unaware of how long and complicated this path has been. At school teachers do not explain to students the way writing began. Instead, they present writing as something which has always existed. In this way, teachers lose the opportunity to describe a charming history which could enchant children and increase their desire to learn this ancient and refined technique of expression and communication.

Not only children, but also many adults take writing for granted and they do not think about the complex process that brought it into existence. If you are interested in knowing something more on how writing began, follow me in the next paragraphs, where we will go back in time for thousands of years and we will also do some experiments on writing. The birth of writing is a long and very interesting process and I'm convinced that by the end of this article, you will want to know more about this topic.


In ancient times, nobody knew that writing needed to be invented and its invention has been the fruit of continuous advances, through a process which has lasted thousands of years and which has been progressively enriched by further developments. The invention of writing happened in an independent way in different parts of the world and it followed the same fundamental steps. At the beginning, to indicate something people used its picture or a conventional sign. Then they moved on to a phonetic writing system based on the mechanism of the rebus, then they went to a syllabic writing and only at the end did they arrive at alphabetic writing.

Before writing began

During the upper Palaeolithic, 30-40,000 years ago, people started by drawing graffiti and paintings on rocks and walls of caves. It is more or less from the same period that the oldest fragments of bones and pebbles with notches date from. Unfortunately, we do not know with certainty what was the purpose of these beautiful images of animals painted on caves, nor the purpose of repeated signs. The paintings of animals were probably connected to magical rites to foster hunting, while it seems the notches engraved on bones and stones were a way to count something, as for example the days which pass, the lunar months, or the prey captured.

Multiple origins

There is not a unique origin of writing; it was independently born in different parts of the world. It seems the first people who wrote were the Sumerians and the Egyptians around 3500-3200 BC. It is not clear which of those two peoples invented writing first, although it seems the Egyptian writing had some Sumerian influence and not vice versa. They were peoples who had known agriculture for some millennia and who felt the need for a system of notation for agricultural products. Usually, sovereigns imposed taxes on their own subjects as agricultural products. They used these resources in order to pay for the construction of palaces and temples, to maintain the army, the court officials, the court, etc. Also in the trade exchanges people felt the need to be allowed to annotate goods. The same is valid for the offers which were brought to the temples. The invention of writing closely followed many other innovations typical of the Neolithic age, such as the construction of cities, the use of bronze, the invention of the wheel, the potter's wheel and the loom for weaving. In this period, agriculture and breeding spread and it was always more important to be able to indicate goods and persons in account documents and in commercial transactions. Let us take some steps backwards.

Slow progress

In Syria, 10,000 years ago, people used clay tokens of different shapes to indicate agricultural products. For example, a token with a shape of a coin and with a cross carved on it indicated a sheep; a conical-shaped token meant a measure of corn, an egg-shaped indicated an amphora of oil, etc. To distinguish among sheep, ram and lamb, the tokens were carved with different marks. To mean 20 sheep, people needed to use 20 tokens. This system continued to be used for some millennia. In 3500 BC, the officials of the token stores used to avoid dispersing the tokens, by placing them inside hollow clay and sealed balls (bulla) on which they later started drawing the token it contained. After 300 years, the token were abolished and the hollow balls were replaced with a flat clay tablet on which they simply carved the shapes of the tokens. These tablets were smaller and handier to use than the heavy mud balls. So, all previous three-dimensional objects were replaced with two-dimensional tablets, more handy to be handled and to be stored.


Figure 2 - Clay tokens used to mean farm animals or
agricultural products. (Copies made in the beginning
of the III millennium AD, that is quite awhile ago).


Anyway, if you wanted to show 43 amphorae, you had to carve 43 drawings of amphora. Somebody thought to simplify things by indicating first the number and then the counted object. In practice, scribes started with indicating the units with lines traced with the tip of a stylus and the tens with circular impressions obtained by pressing the bottom of the stylus on the tablet. After this number, the figure of what was counted followed. In this manner, to indicate 43 amphorae you no longer needed to draw as many amphorae; you simply had to indicate: OOOO III and the figure of only one amphora. This system was much quicker to use than the former one. Moreover, the signs which indicated numbers and those which indicated goods became two different systems of signs: the accounting system and the writing system.

If it was comparatively easy to mean agricultural products with a drawing or with a conventional symbol, it was more difficult to write the name of a person. To solve this problem, somebody thought of using short words, mono or bi-syllabic, and to unite them in the same way we are doing today with the rebus. So, around 3000 BC, other signs were introduced which were not used to mean an object, but rather a sound (phonograms). For example, in Sumerian the head was named "lu" and the mouth "ka". By reading one after the other as phonograms the drawing of the head and that of the mouth, it was possible to obtain the name of "Luka" ("Luke"). With this important innovation, it was also possible to write the name of persons who were involved in the transaction and not just the goods. People were also allowed to write abstract words. Several centuries passed before somebody had the idea to use writing for different uses from the accounting ones. One of the oldest funerary Sumerian scripts dates from 2700/2600 BC and it indicates the name and the title of the dead person. In 2400 BC, a Sumerian sovereign described his own exploits in a long text. In 2000 BC, writing was used for legal purposes, for literature and school texts, etc. Sumerian writing was a mixed system which used conventional symbols, some of which depicted objects and other meant sounds.

Cuneiform writing

The term cuneiform writing comes from the fact it is composed of signs that look like small wedges, in Latin: cuneus. Yet, in the beginning cuneiform writing was not at all composed of wedges and on the clay tablets scribes engraved the shape of the designated objects and the possible numerical signs. Usually, the domestic animals and the agricultural products were represented by conventional signs, while for other objects and wild animals they used drawings that represented their distinctive characteristics. Unfortunately, when scribes were carving clay with a pointed tip they caused chips and detachment of clay fragments. This required continuous cleaning of the drawings while they were carved on the tablets. To avoid this mishap, they began to impress straight marks by mean of a stylus.

As a consequence, the drawings were altered. Curves were replaced with straight marks and the figures lost their realism. Over the centuries, the pictograms used by the Mesopotamians underwent a process of schematization. In the end, the figures were unrecognizable. They became abstract symbols. Their meaning was no longer tied to the original picture which people were no longer able to recognize (figure 3).

As I said, the writing that was born for administrative purposes was enriched by symbols having a phonetic value which allowed writing of words that were not possible to represent with a picture, such as the personal names and abstract concepts. This writing was enriched by figures that depicted natural objects, actions, etc. The writing system which developed was mixed, containing pictograms and phonograms, as well as numeric signs.


Cuneiform writing spread to a good part of the ancient Middle East and was used by many different peoples such as the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians and Assyrians. Most of these peoples spoke Semitic languages, yet the cuneiform system was used also by people who spoke Indo-European languages, such as the Hittites. It was used also by the Egyptians to communicate with the princes of the eastern coasts of the Mediterranean sea. Cuneiform writing lasted millennia until replaced by alphabetic writing, which was much easier to learn and to use. However, cuneiform writing did not disappear as soon as alphabetic writing became available. It survived for many centuries because the scribes considered it superior for expressing shades of thought and of language.

Hieroglyphic writing

The origin of the hieroglyphic writing was nearly contemporary to the cuneiform one. It did not evolve in the cuneiform structure, but it kept a pictographic representation of the signs. Probably, this was due to the fact the Egyptians did not use clay as a support for writing, but papyrus, wood and rock walls such as those of the temples. During its evolution, the hieroglyphic writing was influenced by the Sumerians, but it developed in a completely original way. Its symbols were derived from objects of the Egyptian world and often they were represented sideways. Unlike the Sumerian writing, which for a long time was used in account documents only, very soon the Egyptian one was used for writing, so the Egyptians started using the sheer writing long before the Sumerians.

As the Sumerians did, the Egyptians used pictograms to indicate objects and other to represent sounds. The Egyptian language was not exactly Semitic, but when they wrote Egyptians used mainly the consonants. According to the number of the consonants they represented, the phonograms have been separated into four-letter, three-letter, two-letter and one-letter. In virtue of the wide use of these phonograms, the hieroglyphic writing was by the most part phonetic. Later on, the phonograms made up of only one letter were called "alphabetic signs". From the beginning, the Egyptians had the letters of the alphabet and they commonly used these signs among the others. They would have been allowed to use a writing purely alphabetic at once, but they did not it because they always preferred to use the rich inventory of hieroglyphs they were provided. By using phonograms, pictograms and determinatives, the hieroglyphic writing too was a mixed writing.


The term hieroglyph is Greek and it means sacred writing, in fact for the Egyptians the writing was divine. If you think that when we are reading we hear a voice in our mind, you can well imagine how this surprising phenomenon could be considered divine in those times. For the Egyptians, the hieroglyphic scripts was sacred and its symbols kept the properties of the objects that they refer to, so they were alive, magical, they exerted an influence and a power of their own. Egyptians were allowed to write the same things by choosing different symbols. By means of the mythological references which it was possible to find in the symbols they used, their writing was enriched with meanings and shades that it was not possible transmit or obtain from the alphabetic writing.

In principle, every word was made up of three parts: the first one was formed by phonetic signs or phonograms that suggested the pronunciation of the word, the second one (which was often omitted) was composed by a pictogram which represented the object, the third one was composed by a determinative that indicated the area topic of which they were speaking about. This determinative helped the right interpretation of the word, not just to indicate the end of it.

Figure 4 - Pupils of a school of scribes. Perhaps they
were intent on writing something down as a dictation.


The hieroglyphic writing was at the same time phonetic, figurative and symbolic. Often the Egyptians fused scenes of life of the Pharaoh or even of ordinary people with the hieroglyphic writing, and in a very modern way writing and images trespassed on one another, enlightening each other. The hieroglyphic writing was used from 3,300 BC until 394 AD, so for nearly 4,000 years.

In Figure 5, you can see an example of a hieroglyph. The first two signs are phonograms. The mouth like sign indicates R and the circular one indicates KH. The word is read REKH, which in old Egyptian meant to know. The pictogram is lacking. The determinative is a rolled papyrus, which means abstraction. In bibliography, you can find a text which explains how to read and write hieroglyphs.

A and B linear scripts

In the fist half of the II millennium BC, the Minoans of Crete used a writing which has not yet been deciphered: the Linear A, of clear Egyptian derivation. When Mycenaean people conquered Crete, they adopted the Linear A to write in their own language, the ancient Greek. This writing, named Linear B, replaced the preceding one. Both these writings were written on clay tablets, but they were not cuneiform. They used syllabic characters and they did not have anything to do with alphabetic writings. The Linear B disappeared because of the destruction of the Mycenaean palaces that happened in the XIII and XII centuries BC. In that period, the great civilizations of the bronze age, of the Aegean sea and of the Near East, suddenly collapsed. Centuries of serious difficulties followed and the population of that area drastically lowered. Greece rediscovered the writing only 4 centuries after, with the arrival of the Phoenician alphabet.

Alphabetic writings

In the Middle East, people found widespread proof of attempts at simpler writing by rapport to the cuneiform and the hieroglyphic ones. In the XIV century BC, in Ugarit, a town on the Syrian northern coast, a cuneiform alphabet was developed. The alphabetic Ugaritic writing was used until the destruction of the town, in 1180 BC. Another cuneiform alphabet was used to write in ancient Persia (modern day Iran) in 500 BC.

The Phoenician alphabetic writing

Now, imagine that around 1900 and 1800 b.C. you are a miner and you are working in a copper and turquoise mine for the Egyptians. Often you see hieroglyphs and you know they are a form of writing, but you are not able to read them, besides you speak a Semitic language, different to that of Egyptians. You want to draw a votive inscription to the Gods so that they protect you in your dangerous job, but you do not know how to do this. While observing hieroglyphs, you had the idea of using some of them to indicate songs. In order to better remember them, each figure will indicate the first song of its name (acrophony). For example, the ox's or the bull's (in Semitic 'alpu) head to indicate the A letter (now it is oriented with the muzzle upward and the horns downward), the house plant (in Semitic betu) to indicate the b, the palm of the hand (kappu) to indicate the k, the water (mayyuma) to indicate the m and so on (Figure 7).

In this way, you will have a writing system composed of only 22 signs. Because of its simplicity, this writing system can be learnt by anybody and it does not require the years of study needed to learn the complex cuneiform and hieroglyphic writings. The signs employed in this writing system were named letters. The collection of letters was called an alphabet and the writing systems that use signs of this kind (acrophonic) were named alphabetic systems.

This writing was also used by workers occuped in the construction of palaces and temples, by mercenaries in the Pharaoh's pay, and also by merchants. The inscriptions of Wadi el-Hol, which are one of the first example of alphabetic writing from which will come the Phoenician one, was carved between 1900 and 1800 b.C. on a rocky wall along a military and trade road linking Abidos and Thebes in the Kings valley.

This writing, named by the archaeologists Proto-Sinaitic because its first inscriptions were found in copper and turquoise mines of the Sinai Peninsula, was used by people of low social standing in order to write short inscriptions. Little by little this writing, also known as Proto-Canaanite, spread and later it was used by the Phoenicians. By observing Figures 6 and 7, you can see how many signs of that ancient writing are similar to those we use today. In fact, our alphabet just comes from the Proto-Sinaitic one. During the centuries, these letters have been modified and further have been added. We can say that each letter of our alphabet has a history of its own.



The cuneiform and hieroglyphic writings comprised many hundreds of symbols and so they were complex to learn and also difficult to use. They were reserved to a caste of specialists, the scribes. On the contrary, because of its low number of signs the alphabetic writing is much simpler and it can be easily learnt and used by everybody. Unlike the cuneiform writing which had to be engraved on clay tablets, the Sinaitic alphabet and afterwards the Phoenician one, could be written with ink on papyrus, earthenware pieces and wood. Therefore, the alphabetic writing fitted well to the needs of the Phoenician, a people of traders and sailors, by putting at their disposal a writing system simple to learn and quick to use.

Diffusion of the Phoenician alphabet

Greeks were among the first peoples to obtain the Phoenician alphabet. In fact, Greeks and Phoenicians were geographically close and they were actively trading between themselves, as well as other Mediterranean peoples. Greeks frankly allowed the Phoenician origin of their alphabet and they called its signs Phoinikeia Grammata, Phoenician letters. The first proof of the Phoenician scripts date from the XII and XI centuries BC, but its transmission to the Greeks seems to date from the VIII century BC.

Phoenician language was Semitic and its alphabet was composed by consonants only. In a Semitic language, the use of consonants only is enough to correctly interpret a text. Whilst reading, the context helps to reduce the ambiguities and in some cases people add little signs to indicate vowels. On the contrary, with the ancient Greek language, as well as in all Indo-European languages, it was not possible to write by using consonants only because people would encounter an excessive amount of ambiguities. Also in English, if you write without using vowels you would obtain a very imprecise text. For example the word "rd" could be road, reed, read, raid, etc. Faced with this problem, the Greeks adapted some letters of the Phoenician alphabet with some similar to the Greek vowels to suit their needs. In this way they introduced the use of vowels in the alphabet.


The first proof of short scripts in Italy date from the VIII century BC, but only near 700 BC do the Etruscan inscriptions became numerous. The Etruscans also adapted the Greek alphabet to their own language by changing the shape of lots of the signs. Successively, the Etruscan alphabet passed to the Latins who adapted it in their turn. The Latin alphabet was then exported in all countries of the Roman Empire, but the oriental regions kept using the Greek alphabet. In the beginning, the Latin alphabet was composed of the capital letters only, but with ordinary use developed a cursive writing and in the Middle Ages lower case was introduced.

The Latin alphabet was spread through the whole of Europe and, after the big geographic discoveries, carried to America and Oceania. Many countries such as the Vietnam, Philippines and Indonesia adopted the Latin alphabet. In 1928, Turkey replaced the Arab alphabet with the Latin one. After the fall of the Berlin wall, other countries with language similar to the Turkish replaced the Cyrillic alphabet with the Latin one.

Figure 8 - Girl with stylus and tablets.
Fresco found in Pompei.

The Greek alphabet had a wide diffusion in the Hellenistic world, but today it is confined to Greece. Due to the importance of ancient Greek literature and philosophy, the ancient Greek alphabet and language are again studied in many countries of the world. In the IX century AD, the bishop Cyril adapted the Greek alphabet for the Slavic languages. This alphabet spread to the Russians and the other orthodox Slavic peoples who called it Cyrillic. Many countries of the Warsaw Pact adopted that alphabet. Through the Aramaic, also the Syrian, Hebrew, Arabic and Persian scripts derive from the Phoenician alphabet and are consonant writings. Most Islamic countries use the Arab alphabet.

Other writings

The oldest traces of Chinese scripts date from the Shang dynasty (1500-1028 BC). Chinese writing is composed of signs that in the same time have a semantic and a syllabic value. Its evolution was similar to the cuneiform and hieroglyphic writings, but it never attained the alphabetic stage. Usually, in this writing each ideogram combines a semantic indication with a phonetic one. That is each ideogram does not limit itself to indicate something, but it also suggests the pronunciation. At the beginning, Chinese writing had a religious function, and then it was mainly used for administrative purposes and for literary texts. In order to understand this writing, you need to know around a minimum of 2400 characters but the total amount of ideograms is much higher. In 1716, a dictionary of 47,043 characters was drawn up.

In Mexico, writing appeared around 700 BC. It seems that the Maya derived their writing from an older writing, used by other peoples. The Maya's writing was syllabic and was used to describe the most important events which concerned the aristocratic families. Towards 250 AD, the Mayan writing was already used and it lasted until the XVII century AD. Now, its scripts are actively deciphered.

A lot of other writings have been composed during history and in different parts of the world. Unfortunately, in this introductory article we cannot deal with all of them and with some books indicated in the bibliography you could fulfill any wish to deepen your understanding of the subject. The history of writing is a riveting and much more complex topic than I have described it to you. It is worth reading more about!

Experiments on writing

When I tell you to write sentences, you can either invent or copy them from books and magazines.
In the rebuses, in the syllabic and in the mixed scripts, some imprecision is allowed.

With reference to the figure 9, how much amphorae are indicated in 3?

In order to practise the mechanism of rebus:
- by referring to Figure 9, solve the rebus in 4, 5, 6, 7;
- solve rebuses you find in magazines or in Internet;
- with figures used as phonograms, write words or sentences. Some approximations are allowed. You are also allowed to integrate the sentences with some letters of the alphabet.

- Which words do you read in the following examples?
1. - brbr (person name)
2. - th llw sbmrn; whn th snt g mrchg n;
3. - mmml;
4. - th qck brwn fx jmps vr th lzy dg;
5. – chrstms dy s th twnty ffth f dcmbr;
6. – bcycls hv tw whls bt trcycls hve thr;
7. - by using consonants only, write some sentences. Ask a friend to read them and check their readability. Discuss the possible ambiguities.
8. - by using vowels only, do the same thing.



- Write words with the hieroglyphic writing (only for those who read the book [1])

With reference to the site indicated,
- by using the Ugaritic alphabet, write names and words  Ugaritic alphabet
- by using the Egyptian alphabet, write names and words  Egyptian alphabet
- by using the Proto-Sinaitic alphabet, write names and words  Proto-Sinaitic alphabet
- by using the Phoenician alphabet, write names and words  Phoenician alphabet
- by using the Greek alphabet, write names and words  Greek alphabet
If necessary, you can also use this table:
If possible, make the exercises with the Ugaritic alphabet on clay tablets.
If the pages are not longer working, look for some other pages with the keyword indicated in the end of each row.

- If each symbol represents the first song of its name and by referring to the figure 9, which word is wrote in 10?
- Following the Proto-Sinaitic example and by basing yourself on the system of acrophony, invent an alphabet by using symbols drawn from the world of today. For example a house for the letter H. Use this alphabet to write words and sentences.
- Simplify these letters and try to obtain a block letters writing with capital and small letters. If you made it with other classmates, you will have a writing that the others would be able to read, otherwise only you will be able to read it. In this case it could be useful to you to write messages or notes without other people being able to read them. So, this writing will preserve a little of the magic character of the ancient writings and it will keep silent towards those who do not know its secret.

- Try to write with logical propositions (only for students of high schools).

Organize a treasure hunt in which the instructions for each stage and all or some quizzes are based on the example of the Experiments on Writing of this section.

During conversations on the Internet (made with the keyboard and screen) the first Internauts realized that the sentences they wrote could be misunderstood. In not being able to see the other person, it was not possible to observe his gestures that usually accompany the speech. Moreover, it was not possible to see the expressions of the face, nor the voice intonation. To avoid this problem, some internauts began to follow their sentences by smiles (or smileys or emoticons) written with the usual alphabet and punctuation characters (see below). These symbols quickly spread and they are again often used by the cybernauts during their conversations. Also those who send messages with their mobile phones use them frequently. The use of these smiles has gone further than their initial purpose and now they are used also to express, in a quick way, emotions and sentiments that otherwise would be expressed by words and by using long sentences. Obviously, a smile is not enough for a declaration of love, but your presence will be essential and you should also be able to find the right words. On the contrary, in many other cases the smiles are a valuable help.

The idea of writing the emotions is interesting. In some way, it is an innovation in the writing. Besides the exercises I’ve suggested, you could also study the problem of writing emotions and arrange it in a better way. For example, check if the main emotions are present and suggest symbols for those which are lacking. These smiles are not again entered in the conventional writing and who knows if they never will enter in it.

Some examples of smiles:
::-| normal
::-) smile
::-( sad
For more smiles:  The Canonical Smiley (and 1-Line Symbol) List  Emoticon (Wikipedia)  The Man Who Brought a :-) to Your Screen

- Wrote sentences and end them with the expression of emotions by means of smiles. With some companions, evaluate and discuss how the use of these smiles changes the meaning of the sentences.
- Invent some ideograms to indicate the main emotions to be used in a mixed writing.

Remember that with the computers it is possible to compose and use personalized characters. You can also draw little images and put them the one after another.


After you have taken a look at the history of the writing, writing is no longer a banal and anonymous fact like it was before; it becomes something of much more interest. You realize that each letter has a history of its own which often dates from thousands of years ago. Now, the letters of the alphabet say hallo to us. The A says us: "Hello, do you remember me? I'm the bull head", the B says us: "And I'm the house", the M says us: "I'm the waves of the sea", the N says: "I'm the snake", etc. By means of all the times and the peoples they have passed, these letters tell us about the ancient Egyptians, about the Semitic people who were working in the King Valley in Egypt, about the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Etruscans and finally about the Romans. The small letter, tell us of the amanuensis monks and, with the cursive writing they talk us of the more recent times, when they developed many different styles.

The history of the writing is much more complex that I have suggested. Unfortunately, I have been obliged to keep myself to the essential things to avoid to turn this article into a book, but in order to exhaustively narrate the history of the writing even a book would not be enough. I hope you obtained the will to know more on this topic. Remember there are many books on this subject. Besides, also the Internet provides many documents on this important venture of mankind.


1 - Christian Jacq; How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs, A Step-By-Step Guide to Teach Yourself

Internet Pages:
1 -  Inscriptions of Wadi el-Hol
2 -  Development of the alphabet letters
3 -  Ancient Scripts
4 -  Jim Loy's Egyptian Hieroglyphics and Egyptology Page
5 -  Hieroglyphs Lessons
6 -  Birth of the alphabet
7 -  Archaeology Activities for Kids
8 -  Cuneiform signs
9 -äkuva.png  Alphabets
10 -  Letters of the alphabet (pictures)
11 -  The Alphabet Tree. A magnificent description of the historical development of the main alphabets with very fine reproductions of the letters.

Internet keywords:
history writing, clay tablets, cuneiform writing, Egyptian writing, hieroglyphs, Proto-Sinaitic, Proto-Canaanite, Ugaritic alphabet, Egyptian alphabet, Proto-Sinaitic alphabet, Phoenician alphabet, Greek alphabet, Etruscan alphabet, rebus, token, bullae.

3 : 23
4 : wall + king = walking
5 : nail + sun = Neilson (family name)
6 : wick + field = Wickfield (family name)
7 : pin + up = pinup
8 : house + eclipse + leaf + leaf + onion = hello


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