The Evolution Of Language & Its Written Forms

Essential Quesion

How did writing develop (4 stages)?

The Evolution of Writing

The Sumerians made one of the greatest cultural advances in history. They developed cuneiform (kyoo-NEE-uh-fohrm), the world's first system of writing. Soon after it's invention writing spread from one civilization to the next, each one adopting a writing system while making changes to fit their needs. This all leads to an evolution of writing

Phase 1: Pictures for Words.

Earlier written communication had used pictographs, or picture symbols. Each pictograph represented an object, such as a tree or an animal. To record the number of fish given to a temple, for example, Sumerian priests sketched a fish shape. Then they added marks to show how many.

Sumerians first used cuneiform to keep business records. A scribe, or writer, would be hired to keep track of the items people traded. Government officials and temples also hired scribes to keep their records. Becoming a scribe was a way to move up in social class.

Sumerian scribes simplified these pictographs into symbols that were easier to press into wet clay. They also created new symbols to stand for other objects and ideas. As a result, the number of cuneiform symbols grew to more than 2,000. This was a large number of symbols for one scribe to learn.

In time, Sumerians put their writing skills to new uses. They wrote works on history, law, grammar, and math. They also created works of literature. Sumerians wrote stories, proverbs, and songs. They wrote poems about the gods and about military victories. Some of these were epics, long poems that tell the stories of heroes. Later, people used some of these poems to create The Epic of Gilgamesh, the story of a legendary Sumerian king.

Phase 2: Symbols for Syllables

Some of the symbols Sumerians used for words evolved over time into symbols for sounds. For instance, the Sumerian word for arrow was pronounced tih. Thus, the cuneiform symbol for an arrow could also be used to represent the syllable "tih" in any word with that sound.

Once the Sumerians developed symbols for every syllable in their language, they could string these symbols together to write words that express more complex ideas such as "joy" or "powerful.". This change allowed Sumerians to reduce the number of symbols they used to about 600.

Phase 3: Letters for Sounds

The next step in the evolution of writing was the creation of an alphabet. An alphabet is a small set of letters or symbols each of which stands for a single sound. By combining these few symbols in different ways, a writer can record any word. That makes an alphabet a very flexible system of writing.

Our alphabet has its roots in ancient Egypt. Around 3000 B.C., the Egyptians created a written language based on hieroglyphs. These symbols stood for objects, ideas, and sounds. With hundreds of hieroglyphs to memorize, learning to read and write Egyptian was no easier than learning cuneiform. There were over 800 Egyptian hieroglyphs. In time, the Egyptians developed a simpler writing system. This system used 24 symbols to stand for consonants such as b, d, and t which could be combined to create words. This development made writing much easier. All alphabets used today evolved from this one set of symbols.

These early Egyptian writings were carved in stone or on other hard materials. Later, the Egyptians learned how to make papyrus (puh-PY-ruhs), a long-lasting, paper-like material made from reeds. The Egyptians made papyrus by pressing layers of reeds together and pounding them into sheets. These sheets were tough and durable, yet easy to roll into scrolls. Scribes wrote on papyrus using brushes and ink. Because papyrus did not decay in Egypt's dry climate, many Egyptian texts still survive. Historians today can read Egyptian government records, historical records, science texts, and medical manuals. In addition, many literary works have survived. Some, such as The Book of the Dead, tell about the afterlife. Others tell stories about gods and kings.

Phase 4: Our Modern Alphabet

Phoenician traders (a wealthy trading society at the western end of the Fertile Crescent, along the Mediterranean Sea) borrowed the Egyptian symbols to create their own alphabets. In fact, the alphabet we use for the English language is based on the Phoenicians' alphabet, as modified by later civilizations.

Phoenician traders traveled the Mediterranean Sea and some of their trading partners adopted the Phoenician alphabet, including the people of ancient Greece. The Greeks made more changes to the alphabet. Around 500 B.C., they added letters for vowels to the consonants. They also gave the letters names. The word alphabet comes from the first two letters in the Greek alphabet-alpha and beta. Later the Romans then adopted the Greek alphabet and made their own changes to suit their language, Latin. After the collapse of the Roman empire, the Latin language divided and influences several languages in Europe such as English, which is why the alphabet is so similar and about 80 percent of English words in the dictionary are borrowed, mainly from Latin.

Discussion Questions

  • What were the four stages of the evolution of writing?

  • What are hieroglyphics and who used them?

  • What is cuneiform and who used them?

Activity 1: What was the process of writing's evolution?

Using the information from this lesson, answer the questions in a thinking map. Complete this assignment digitally or on paper. It will be collected in your portfolio.

The Rosetta Stone

Historians and archaeologists have known about hieroglyphics for centuries, but for a long time they didn't know how to read it. In fact, it was not until 1799 when a lucky discovery by a French soldier gave historians the key they needed to read ancient Egyptian writing. That key was the Rosetta Stone, a huge, stone slab inscribed with hieroglyphics. In addition to the hieroglyphics, the Rosetta Stone had text in Greek and a later form of Egyptian. Because the text in all three languages was the same, scholars who knew Greek were able to figure out what the hieroglyphics said.

Activity 2: Cuneiform: Write Like A Sumerian

Complete the reading and complete the activity. You may need to use the Cuneiform Translator provided by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology to complete the worksheet.

Write Like A Sumerian.pdf

Activity 3: Hieroglyphics: Write Like An Egyptian

Complete the reading and complete the activity. You may need to use the Hieroglyphics Translator provided by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology to complete the worksheet.

Write Liken An Egyptian.pdf

Extension Activities