Written and spoken language are separate things. Languages that are connected to a written script change more slowly and last longer than those that don’t. Writing acts as an anchor to humans’ ever-changing speech sounds. But these two aspects of language (speech and writing) did not always go hand in hand. Today we dive into the history of the written word.
Transcript for From Orality to Literacy: A Global History of Writing
Researched and written by Marissa Rhodes, PhD
Produced by Marissa Rhodes, PhD and Elizabeth Garner Masarik, PhD
Marissa: In the early 16th century, a Spanish explorer named Hernán Cortés led an expedition to the shores of Mexico, seeking to conquer the vast and powerful Aztec Empire. When Cortés and his men arrived, they encountered a civilization with a highly sophisticated writing system unlike anything they had seen before. It was complex and beautiful and completely foreign to them. The Aztecs used a pictographic (image-based) writing system to record their spoken language Nahuatl. Instead of using an alphabet like the Europeans, the Aztecs employed a combination of symbols and images to represent words, ideas, and sounds. These pictographs were meticulously drawn and arranged in manuscripts called “codices” made from the fibers of the agave plant.
One of these codices, the Codex Mendoza, provided a detailed account of the Aztec society, including information on the tribute system, social classes, and historical events. Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza commissioned this codex in the early 16th century as a gift for the King of Spain, Charles V. But it never made it. In an extraordinary twist of fate, the Codex Mendoza fell into the hands of French privateers who captured the ship carrying it. Eventually, the codex was sold to an Italian cardinal, and from there, it found its way to the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford, where it is housed to this day.
Elizabeth: In Europe, the Codex Mendoza and other Aztec codices fascinated scholars, but they faced a significant challenge: how to decipher the intricate pictographic writing system. It wasn’t until the late 19th and early 20th centuries that progress was made in understanding Aztec writing. Scholars like Eduard Seler and Alphonse Pinart made important contributions, but it was mainly through the efforts of the Russian linguist Yuri Knorozov that significant breakthroughs were achieved.Using a combination of linguistics, ethnography, and historical analysis, Knorozov proposed that Aztec writing was not purely pictographic but rather a combination of logograms and syllabic elements. His work laid the groundwork for the eventual decipherment of Aztec writing, enabling a deeper understanding of the Aztec civilization and its history.
Marissa: The story of the Codex Mendoza and the decipherment of Aztec writing exemplifies how writing systems can act as windows into ancient cultures and how the efforts of scholars over the centuries have helped unlock the secrets of the past. But this story looks at writing history from the present backward and, what’s more, this is just one page from a much larger story. Today, to complete our series on Change Over Time, we’re tackling the global history of writing from 30,000 BCE to today.
And I’m Elizabeth
Marissa: And we are your historians for this episode of Dig.
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Marissa: It’s really difficult for most people today to conceive of written and spoken language as separate things. Whether I hear someone speaking French or I read a French word on a menu, I think “that’s French!” And there’s a historical reason for this: writing preserves and stabilizes speech. So languages that are connected to a written script change more slowly and last longer than those that don’t. Writing acts as an anchor to humans’ ever-changing speech sounds. But these two aspects of language (speech and writing) did not always go hand in hand. We know that spoken language preceded written language by millennia.
Elizabeth: We want to take a few minutes to discuss what recorded information looked like before writing (and therefore literacy) existed. Thinking about these things helps us to understand how and why writing was invented. As early as 27,000 BC people were scratching and carving intentional, stylized marks on animal bones. We don’t know exactly what they meant but they don’t have any hallmarks of a real script. They resemble something more like tallies or hatch marks. But they had a purpose. We’re just not entirely sure what the purpose was.
We also see prehistoric examples of graphic mnemonics. These are things like rock paintings, hatch marks, carvings of humans, etc. Ancient people used graphic symbols as memory devices because writing did not yet exist. It might be tempting to call some of these images some kind of image-based script (like the Aztec script) but graphic mnemonics are not writing because they did not relate in any conventional way to spoken language.
Marissa: There were also early digital systems. Here, “digital” does not refer to computers but, rather, a system of information where complex information is abstracted into something more simple anto make the recorded information more manageable. This is essentially what coding languages do today so that’s why we call computers “digital.” But digital record-keeping systems have existed for millennia. The best example are Inca quipus. These intricate systems of knots recorded Inca census information through a complex system of representation. For example, a certain rope material might represent a specific region. Then a specific twist of the rope might represent a town in that region. Then the number and type of knots in the rope would indicate that town’s population. The possibilities are endless but quipus have not been fully decoded despite the world’s best scholars devoting their full attention to it.
Elizabeth: Quipus and other knot records are another way of recording information that predates writing. This suggests that writing is not strictly necessary or even inevitable for a complex society to function. Pictograms are sometimes also used. The Cheyenne, for example, sent pictographic letters into the nineteenth century. Images can communicate really complex messages but it’s not technically writing because it has no systematic correlation to spoken language. The pictographs can be put into words if you want to but the process of communication doesn’t require speech at all. The pictures are translated directly into ideas.
American Sign Language, Morse Code, or even HTML are other examples of communications systems or “languages” but they don’t meet all of the requirements of “writing” or “speech”. Still, they are very complex and capable of high level communication. So as the episode continues, let’s try to be mindful about our biases here. Writhing was not inevitable, however, most cultures did eventually adapt writing technology to their spoken language. But it took thousands of years to develop writing technology in the first place.
Marissa: Writing systems were invented independently in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), Egypt, China, and Mesoamerica (modern Mexico). While the Afroeurasian systems (the first three) eventually came into contact with each other and, in some cases, even influenced each other’s development, the Mesoamerican system was developed complete isolation from the Afroeurasian landmass.
So how did humans go from an oral culture to a literate culture? Well, even though we know of four independently developed writing systems, we only have uninterrupted documentation of one of these writing systems over thousands of years: the Mesopotamian writing system. So we’ll use this one to explore how writing systems developed.
Elizabeth: Around 8,000 BCE, people in ancient Sumer (modern day Iraq, Iran, Israel, and Turkey) began using baked clay tokens as an accounting tool. These little tokens took on a few dozen different shapes: spheres, cones, disks, bells, etc. And ancient Sumerians would use them to keep track of inventories or loans. For example, a sphere might indicate a cistern of oil. So if you were an oil supplier and you gave 10 cisterns of oil to a merchant to sell at a market, you might take ten spheres and set them aside to keep track of the goods you gave him while you wait for him to return with what he earned and, perhaps, if he didn’t make as many sales as expected, the leftovers. If he came back with 2 cisterns of oil left over, then you’d be able to demand that he provide you the payment for 8 cisterns of oil. From that payment, you could calculate his share, give him his commission and keep the profit.
Marissa: As economies became more complex, folks were using these tokens more and more often. So they devised containers that helped them to keep the tokens orderly while they had several transactions going at once. These clay envelopes, called bullae, were not like the paper envelopes we used today. They resembled hollow spheres of clay- almost like a clay purse or urn- that would hold the counters pertinent to a specific transaction. So, rather than just set your 10 spheres aside like in our previous example, you’d put them in a bulla that was specifically designated for that merchant.
Eventually, people started imprinting the baked clay tokens on the outside of the clay bulla (before it was baked) so that they could easily see what tokens the bulla contained. So in our running example, you, the oil supplier, would mark a soft clay bulla with imprints of the ten spheres, then bake it and put the spheres inside on the day your merchant received his ten cisterns of oil. This was a sort of shortcut to counting the tokens. Instead, you could count the imprints on the bulla and be pretty sure there were 10 tokens inside. So the clay tokens continued to be the official count and where always the traditional way of accounting for things, but the markings on the bullae were a shortcut so accountants could survey all of their transactions at once without taking out the token and counting them by hand.
Elizabeth: Eventually, over the course of centuries, this system caught on. But when systems are used by large numbers of people, they tend to slowly innovate and improve the process over time. That’s what happened with the bullae and tokens. Accountants began using a reed stylus to make the mark of ten spheres on the soft clay bulla before baking it and sending the merchant on his way with ten cisterns of oil. At some point this just became easier or more logical than imprinting the tokens onto the wet clay.
At first, these stylus markings looked just like the imprints. Folks were, after all, trying to mimic the look of the traditional token imprints. So an accountant would use the stylus to carve out a half-sphere from the clay bulla to represent each sphere token. So in our running example, our bulla would have ten half-spheres notched into it on the outside and ten sphere tokens inside once it was baked. This one-to-one correspondence was a bit of a hassle as economies continued to grow and complexify. What if it was more normal to send a merchant out with 50 cisterns of oil nowadays? That’s a lot of notches carved out of a small clay envelope! It would look like swiss cheese.
Marissa: So Sumerians devised a system to use certain token shapes to represent quantities. So, you might decide that a disc token with a hole in the middle (resembling a metal washer) represents the quantity of ten. So instead of inscribing ten half-spheres on the bulla to indicate what’s inside, you’d inscribe a circle with another circle in the middle (meant to resemble the impression that would be left by the disc token) and then you’d inscribe one half-sphere, which is still representing cisterns of oil. So now with just two symbols, you’ve conveyed the same information that you did with ten symbols. This allowed for people to account for much larger quantities of goods.
Elizabeth: Eventually, as this system was used by more and more people, the markings became the important part and the tokens fell out of use. So now, instead of counting out ten sphere clay tokens, you’d just write on a piece of clay (disc with hole, half-sphere shape) and that came to represent the 10 cisterns of oil you gave to the merchant. These markings, when they were made in ancient Sumer, were called Mesopotamian cuneiform. The transition from tokens to pictographic writing had begun by about 4,000 BCE (and it “only” took 4,000 years!) but it was not complete until at least 3,400 BCE.
Marissa: Writing materials at this time were primarily natural and readily available resources. Ancient civilizations like the Sumerians and Egyptians used clay tablets and stone slabs to inscribe their pictographic and cuneiform scripts. Clay was a common medium because of its abundance and ease of use. Carved stone monuments and rock surfaces were also employed for monumental inscriptions. I want to make a point here about writing implements and media. Different media are intimately attached to specific scripts. For example, cuneiform is specifically suited to clay because it’s easiest to use a sharp implement like a sharpened, bias-cut reed to make wedges in wet clay than it is to write a cursive script with a reed on wet clay.Thus, the writing materials available had a huge influence on the shapes of the script that was written on them.
Elizabeth: Now, back to the token to writing transition. We can still trace the development of some tokens, which are still found by archaeologists all over Iran and Turkey today, to cuneiform letters. Some of the tokens came to mean quantities (so they became cuneiform numbers) while others became entire words. One 3-dimensional token, which looked like a plus-sign with a circle around it when pressed into wet clay, eventually became the cuneiform symbol for “sheep.”
Marissa: The use of tokens and bullae was much more widespread than the area that eventually developed cuneiform writing which centered around the city-state of Uruk. So it’s important to keep in mind that for many people outside of major Mesopotamian cities just continued to use the token and bulla system in whatever configuration suited them for hundreds of years after the invention of cuneiform. However, linguist Steven Roger Fischer, points out that after 3,000 BCE or so, we see a rapid decline in the number of baked clay tokens, which suggests that they were falling out of use.
Elizabeth: So we mentioned earlier that the transition from tokens to writing was not complete until 3400 BCE. So for 600 years or so, cuneiform existed but it functioned sometimes just how the clay tokens did and other times it functioned in a more abstract way. But there was no one way to use the cuneiform symbols. This changed around 3400 BCE which is when cuneiform came to represent speech sounds. Classicist Barry Powell calls this “lexigraphic writing” but honestly he seems to be the only one. For general audiences, it’s probably most useful to call it phonetic writing. What this means is that over time, cuneiform symbols stopped representing ideas and began representing speech sounds.
Marissa: Fischer argues that this kind of happened right away within the mind of the reader. An ancient Sumerian looking at the symbol for sheep would automatically say “udu” (old Sumerian for sheep) in their heads or even out loud. Other scholars argue that this doesn’t mean much because folks who spoke other languages could also sometimes look at the cuneiform and think/say “fsu” (old Persian for sheep). So the symbol did not immediately correspond to the same sounds or the same words or even the same language.
Eventually, over centuries of use, cuneiform symbols came to represent the Sumerian speech sounds that corresponded to them. The sheep cuneiform symbol no longer stood for a specific sheep sent to market, neither did it stand for the general idea of sheep; it stood for the Sumerian WORD “udu” and then, eventually it came to symbolize all or part of the sound “udu.” There’s a level of abstraction that’s really important to understand. It’s crucial for comprehending the relationship between speech and writing. The use of a pictogram to represent a speech sound is called the rebus technique and it’s found in many written languages at some point in their development, even languages that aren’t strictly and only phonetic.
Elizabeth: Some languages, like ancient Egyptian, contain a combination of phonetic and logographic characters. The Narmer Palette is an ancient Egyptian artifact, dating back to around 3100 BCE during the Early Dynastic Period. It’s a flat, rectangular piece of carved slate, about 63 centimeters in height, depicting scenes on both sides.
The palette was used for grinding and mixing cosmetics or other substances. While the Narmer Palette itself does not contain full-fledged hieroglyphic inscriptions, it showcases some early examples of pictorial symbols that later evolved into hieroglyphic signs.
Marissa: On the palette, there are images of animals, people, and various other objects that could be associated with certain sounds or concepts. These images could be combined to create symbolic representations of names or ideas using the rebus technique.
For example, one side of the Narmer Palette depicts a scene where King Narmer is shown wearing the White Crown of Upper Egypt, and he is accompanied by a person with the title “Narmer’s Sandal Bearer.” In this case, the symbol of a sandal could represent the sound “n,” as the word for “sandal” in Egyptian is phonetically close to the sound “n.” This association allows the symbol for a sandal to be used as part of King Narmer’s name or title.
Elizabeth: Another example is the representation of a catfish on the palette. In Egyptian, the word for “catfish” is “nar,” which sounds similar to the pharaoh’s name, Narmer. Thus, the image of the catfish could have been used to represent the king’s name.
While the rebus technique was not the sole method used in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, it played a significant role in the evolution of the writing system. Over time, the pictorial symbols became more abstract and standardized, forming a complex script with phonetic and logographic elements. Ancient Egyptians, it’s also worth mentioning, developed the first known paper-like writing material called papyrus. Made from the pith of the papyrus plant, this thin, flexible material was ideal for scrolls and documents. Hieroglyphics and hieratic scripts were written on papyrus using reed pens and ink. As a result of this innovation in medium, Egyptian hieroglyphs appear more fluid and stylized than cuneiform.
Marissa: Back to the larger story… Many other writing systems are believed to have developed in a similar way to the Sumerian cuneiform and ancient Egyptian. From pictograms representing specific sheep or sheep generally, to a transitional phase (the Narmer Palette is an example of this). And many script continued to transform until they were entirely phonetic.
While the cuneiform symbol for sheep came to represent the speech sound “udu,” this is called verbal phonetics. The symbol represents a speech sound that is actually an entire word. Some languages, such as Mycenaean Greek, used symbols to represent entire syllables.These are called syllabaries and they’re a kind of proto-alphabet. So you’d have one symbol that represents “ba” and another that represents “da” and another that represents “ga.” Mycenaean Greece’s script was called Linear B because it used different combinations of lines to represent each syllable. Linear B has over 100 letters.
Elizabeth: Some languages still use syllabaries today. The Japanese katakana writing system, for example, was devised to translate Chinese texts into Japanese. Cherokee uses a syllabary as well. It’s important to note that some languages lend themselves better to non-phonetic, mainly logographic writing which uses symbols to represent entire words irrespective of their pronunciation in spoken language. Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Nahuatl (Aztec) all use logographic writing systems. This doesn’t mean that they’re any less sophisticated. They just developed in unique and interesting ways from the majority.
Marissa: In most cases, writing was, eventually, dominated by alphabetic writing. Even syllabaries like Cherokee can be transliterated into phonetic, alphabetic writing. The Cherokee transliteration system is called the Sequoyah system. Logographic writing systems can be transliterated too. And these transliteration systems can be updated and revised over time. For example, using the Wade-Giles transliteration system, the longest serving non-royal leader of China is rendered as “Chiang Chieh-shih,” but using the Yale system it’s “Jéung Gaai-sehk,” while using the current standard, the pinyin system, it’s “Jiǎng Jièshí.” All the same man, all the same characters, but transliterated differently into the Roman alphabet based on speech sounds. So his name is really the characters, not the phonetic sounds we know him by which can change over time and space.
Elizabeth: So back to the alphabet…. It seems so natural to us now but the alphabet is a technology and, like any technology, the alphabet had to be invented. This was done by the Phoenicians in the second millennium BCE. The Phoenicians were an ancient Semitic-speaking civilization that inhabited the coastal regions of what is now modern-day Lebanon and parts of Syria and Israel. They belonged to the group that is referred to in the Bible as the Canaanites. The Phoenicians thrived as a maritime trading culture from around 1500 BCE to 300 BCE. The Phoenicians were known for their seafaring expertise, trade networks, and significant contributions to various aspects of ancient civilization, including their invention of the alphabet.
Marissa: The Phoenician alphabet, developed around the 12th century BCE, was revolutionary in that it represented the sounds of the spoken language rather than whole words or syllables. It is clear that it was developed from scratch to be entirely phonetic rather than the incidental phoneticization that we witnessed in Mesopotamia and Egypt using the rebus technique. The Phoenician alphabet served as the foundation for many subsequent writing systems, including the Greek, Latin, and ultimately, the modern Western alphabets (more on this later).
Elizabeth: The Phoenician alphabet contained only 22 letters, making it compact and easier to learn and use compared to earlier writing systems with hundreds or thousands of symbols. It focused on representing consonant sounds, omitting vowels. This system was initially designed for the Phoenician language, which was a Semitic language and, like other Semitic languages, primarily relied on consonants for meaning. The original Phoenician script was written from right to left, a common direction in Semitic languages. This right-to-left orientation is still retained in some modern scripts, such as Arabic and Hebrew.
Marissa: Before the Phoenician alphabet, writing systems in the ancient world were predominantly logographic or syllabic, again where each symbol represented an entire word or a syllable. These writing systems, while suitable for certain languages, were cumbersome for languages with large vocabularies and complex grammatical structures. For example, those that had many different forms and inflections which are changes to the word based on it’s function in the sentence. Greek had many different inflections or changes to words depending on case, number, gender, and tense. So the word for house changed depending on how you were using it. There was οἶκος (oîkos) – “house” (nominative singular), οἴκου (oíkou) – “of the house” (genitive singular), οἴκῳ (oíkōi) – “to the house” (dative singular) and many more. So with languages like these, it would be nearly impossible to sustain a logographic system and really cumbersome to sustain a syllabic system.
Elizabeth: In an alphabet, each character (letter) represents a single sound or phoneme. For example, in the English alphabet, there are 26 letters that cover the full range of consonants and vowels used in the language. In contrast, a syllabary needs a larger number of characters to represent all possible syllables, which can be quite extensive in languages with complex syllable structures. This makes syllabaries more complex and cumbersome.
Alphabets also offer greater flexibility in representing different languages. Since each character represents a single sound, alphabets can be easily adapted to transcribe various languages with relatively minor adjustments. Syllabaries, on the other hand, are specifically designed for the phonetic structure of a particular language, which limits their applicability to other languages. Learning an alphabet is generally easier and quicker than learning a syllabary. With fewer characters to memorize, individuals can become proficient in reading and writing in an alphabet-based system in a shorter amount of time. Syllabaries, with their larger number of characters, require more effort and practice to master.
Marissa: Due to the smaller number of characters and the direct phonetic representation, alphabets generally enable faster reading and writing. In contrast, syllabaries might require more complex combinations of characters for certain words, leading to slower reading and writing speeds. So the alphabet is particularly advantageous for written materials that need to be produced quickly and in large quantities.
Due to its simplicity, the Phoenician alphabet could be readily adapted to different languages. Later civilizations modified the original Phoenician script by adding vowel symbols to suit their own languages’ phonetic needs. For example, the Greeks added vowel signs to the Phoenician script to create the Greek alphabet. The Phoenician alphabet spread through trade and cultural interactions to various parts of the Mediterranean world, where it influenced the development of writing systems in different cultures. The Greeks, in particular, adopted and adapted the Phoenician script.
Elizabeth: Around the 9th century BCE, the Greeks, who had regular contact with Phoenician traders and sailors, recognized the efficiency of the Phoenician writing system and its potential to represent the rich sounds of their own language. Initially, the Greeks borrowed the basic 22-letter Phoenician alphabet, which consisted mainly of consonants and lacked symbols for vowels. As the Greeks adapted the Phoenician script to suit their language, they made some crucial revisions to accommodate the distinct phonetic structure of Greek. One of the most remarkable innovations was the introduction of vowel symbols. The Greek language required more precise representation of vowels to accurately convey the nuances of their speech. To address this, the Greeks repurposed some existing Phoenician consonant symbols to represent specific vowel sounds. For example, the Phoenician symbol “waw” (𐤅) was adapted to represent the Greek vowel “omega” (Ω) and the Phoenician “yod” (𐤉) became the Greek vowel “iota” (Ι).
Marissa: In addition to creating new symbols, the Greeks also modified the orientation of writing. Whereas Phoenician was written from right to left, the Greeks changed the direction to left to right, a practice that has been retained in the majority of Western languages ever since. As the Greek city-states grew in prominence and trade expanded, the Greek alphabet underwent further regional variations, leading to the development of different dialectal scripts. One notable variant is the Ionic alphabet, which emerged in the 5th century BCE and became the foundation for the standardized Classical Greek alphabet used in literature, philosophy, and other cultural domains.
New technology has always invited controversy (as we can see with the latest AI debates) and the introduction of the alphabet to Greece is no exception.Oral tradition was highly valued, and knowledge was primarily transmitted through epic poems, songs, and oral storytelling. The introduction of a new writing system, such as the alphabet, was met with resistance from those who believed that written language might undermine the purity and authenticity of oral traditions. Some critics feared that the widespread use of writing would lead to a decline in memorization skills and the ability to retain knowledge without written aids. They believed that relying too heavily on the written word could weaken people’s memories and intellectual abilities.
Elizabeth: The advent of writing and literacy brought about a significant shift in power dynamics. Those who possessed the ability to read and write gained an advantage over the illiterate population. This disparity raised concerns about the potential for written records to be manipulated or monopolized by certain individuals or groups. In a predominantly oral culture, information was often shared verbally and had some level of flexibility and adaptability. With the advent of writing, information could be fixed and preserved more rigidly, potentially leading to the loss of the dynamic qualities of oral communication. In some religious contexts, the act of writing and recording sacred knowledge was considered sacrilegious or taboo. The written word was seen as potentially desecrating the sacred nature of certain rituals and traditions.
Despite these controversies and concerns, the advantages of the alphabet and writing system eventually outweighed the objections. The alphabet proved to be a more efficient and versatile tool for communication and record-keeping. It allowed for the precise representation of language, making it easier to standardize spelling and grammar and facilitating communication across different regions and dialects. Fun note: the alphabet is named after its first two letters (alpha and beta) which is the standard way of naming an alphabet. We’ll see another example in a bit.
Marissa: Alphabetic writing spread relatively rapidly in the ancient world. For example, to the Etruscans. The Etruscans were an ancient civilization that thrived in present-day central Italy between the 8th and 3rd centuries BCE. They had close cultural and trade connections with the Greeks, particularly with Greek colonies in southern Italy and the island of Sicily. Around the 8th century BCE, the Etruscans came into contact with the Greek alphabet through their interactions with Greek traders and settlers. They recognized the efficiency and versatility of the Greek script, and while they did not adopt it wholesale, they borrowed some elements from it to create their own writing system known as the Etruscan alphabet. The Etruscan alphabet was an adaptation of the Greek alphabet, but it incorporated additional symbols and letters to represent sounds specific to the Etruscan language, which was unrelated to Greek. The Etruscans primarily used their alphabet for inscriptions on tombs, monuments, and other artifacts.
Elizabeth: And, of course, the alphabet spread from there to the Latins. The Latins were an ancient Italic people who inhabited the region of Latium, which included the city of Rome. As the Etruscans expanded their influence and power in central Italy, they came into contact with the Latins. The Etruscan influence on the early Roman civilization was significant, including aspects of art, architecture, and language. The Latin language, initially spoken only by the Latins, used an early form of the Etruscan alphabet for some inscriptions and writing. However, as the Latins developed their own distinctive identity and culture, they gradually modified the Etruscan script to better suit their language.
Over time, the Latin script diverged from the Etruscan script, and certain letters and writing conventions were adapted to represent the unique sounds and phonetic characteristics of Latin. This process marked the transition from the Etruscan alphabet to the early Latin alphabet, which later evolved into the classical Latin alphabet. The Latin alphabet eventually became the dominant writing system in the Roman world and beyond. As the Roman Empire expanded, so did the use of the Latin alphabet, leading to its widespread adoption across diverse regions and cultures. It went on to become the basis for many modern Western alphabets, including the English alphabet used today.
Marissa: Since alphabet scripts are by far the most popular form of writing, a great majority of the world’s languages are rendered using alphabets. But since we’re an English-language podcast, the rest of the episode might focus more on the writing of English (much as we focused on the writing of Sumerian cuneiform earlier). But this kind of history can, and should, be done for any alphabetic language. I won’t get too in the weeds, however, since I’m not a linguist and I’d like to focus on aspects of English writing history that can be applied globally to many languages around the world.
The Germanic peoples, including the Norse, Angles, Saxons, and other tribes, were exposed to various writing systems, including the Latin and Greek scripts, through trade, contact, and migration. The runic scripts emerged as a result of interactions between the Germanic people and neighboring cultures. The earliest known runic script is the Elder Futhark, used by Germanic tribes from the 2nd to the 8th centuries CE. It was named after the first six characters of the runic alphabet: F, U, Þ (thorn), A, R, and K (much like “alphabet” was). The Elder Futhark comprised 24 characters and was used primarily for inscriptions on objects like memorial stones, amulets, and tools.
Elizabeth: As the Germanic tribes migrated and settled in different regions, the runic script evolved to suit the linguistic and cultural needs of each community. Regional variants of the runic script emerged, each with its own unique characters and usage. Notable examples include the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc used in England and the Younger Futhark used in Scandinavia. Runic scripts were used for various purposes, including memorial inscriptions, magical and religious texts, personal names, and early poetry. Runic inscriptions have been found on stones, wood, metal objects, and personal items like combs and amulets.
Marissa: The earliest example of English-language sentence we have dates to 450 CE. Note that this coincides with the fall of the western Roman Empire and the dominance of Germanic peoples in Europe. The inscription is written on a gold medallion in Anglo-Saxon (also known as Old English) using a runic script and it reads (translated into modern English) “This She-Wolf is a reward to my kinsman.” Almost all early writings of any language are found as inscriptions or very short labels on coins, headstones, etc. So Germanic folks did not adopt the runic alphabet, adapt it to their needs and then write novels. Writing was used sparingly and often for ceremonial or high legal purposes. This remained the case throughout the “Dark Ages” or, as some scholars are calling it now, “late antiquity.”
Elizabeth: It’s also worth noting how difficult it is to date such sparse inscriptions. It’s possible to carbon date the material the inscription is carved on but that means nothing in terms of when it was written. So linguists are forced to use archaeological evidence (such as the kinds of goods found in proximity to the inscribed object) when an inscription does not have a date. Its also sometimes possible to date the script itself based on the linguistic history of various languages. For example, the widespread use of runic scripts declined with the spread of Christianity and the adoption of the Latin alphabet. The Christianization of Germanic-speaking regions brought a preference for the Latin script for religious texts and official documents. By the Middle Ages, the Latin alphabet had largely replaced runic writing for most purposes. So, for example, we know the she-wolf inscription was made before Latin script came to dominate the area around 500 CE.
These so-called “Dark Ages” witnessed some changes in writing materials. The standard for daily use in the ancient world was wax-coated wooden tablets and a stylus. Wax tablets consisted of a wooden board, typically made from thin slices of wood bound together with a hinge at one end. The inner surface of the wooden board was coated with a layer of beeswax, which was smoothed and sometimes tinted to make writing more visible. The wax layer provided a reusable writing surface.
Marissa: To write on a wax tablet, a pointed metal stylus was used. The stylus had a sharp end for writing and a flat end for erasing. When writing, the scribe or user would press the pointed end of the stylus into the soft wax, leaving an indentation and creating the desired marks or letters. If a mistake was made or the writing needed to be erased, the flat end of the stylus was used to smooth the wax, effectively erasing the previous marks. The erasable nature of the wax surface made these tablets ideal for temporary notes, calculations, or draft documents. Once the information was no longer needed or needed to be preserved, the wax could be easily smoothed out, resetting the tablet for reuse.
Elizabeth: Wax tablets were employed for various purposes, including educational exercises, personal notes, legal contracts, accounting, and administrative records. They were particularly useful for tasks that required frequent erasing and revision. Students, scholars, merchants, government officials, and even children could use wax tablets to practice writing and arithmetic or to keep records of daily transactions.But since wax tablets were temporary and reusable, few have survived as evidence.
Marissa: Ancient archives are, instead, filled with papyrus and parchment scrolls. The Greeks obtained papyrus through trade and adopted it as their preferred writing surface. Papyrus scrolls were created by pasting together strips of papyrus, forming long rolls that could be easily rolled up and transported. Parchment, made from animal skins, did exist during ancient Greek times, but it was not as commonly used as papyrus. Parchment was more expensive and labor-intensive to produce compared to papyrus, making it a luxury material primarily reserved for special or important documents. This would not have worked in ancient Greece or Rome where literacy was nearly universal. Furthermore, early medieval Europeans struggled to obtain papyrus from the Mediterranean, especially after the Roman empire fell.
During late antiquity, when illiteracy became the norm and the old Roman networks were decayed, the expensive but durable parchment became the primary material for manuscripts. The process of preparing parchment involved cleaning, stretching, and treating animal hides to create a smooth, durable writing surface. It was expensive but the ink could be removed by scratching it off with a blade after which the parchment could be reused. The lost text that was scraped off can nowadays be recovered with infrared light. These scraped-away texts are called palimpsests. This is a very fascinating area of study for medievalists as you can imagine.
Elizabeth: So what did people use to write on parchment? Well, that depended on a few things. The quill, a sharpened goose or swan feather dipped in ink, was probably the most common implement. Quills were used for over 1,000 years but there were a couple other options: in the 1700s and 1800s, metal pens (usually made out of steel) were used just as often as quills on parchment. In the Byzantine Empire and in the Islamic world, people used reed pens (similar to the reed styluses used there in ancient times) dipped in ink to write on parchment.
In medieval times, various types of ink were used on parchment for writing and illumination. The choice of ink depended on factors such as availability, affordability, and the specific requirements of the manuscript or document. Iron gall ink was one of the most prevalent inks used in medieval Europe. It was made from iron salts, tannic acid derived from gallnuts (the growths formed on oak trees caused by wasps), and water. Iron gall ink produced a dark, permanent color and was suitable for both writing and drawing. However, over time, iron gall ink could corrode the parchment, leading to degradation of the writing surface.
Marissa: Carbon ink, also known as lampblack ink, was a simple and readily available ink made from soot or carbon particles suspended in a binding agent, such as gum arabic or egg white. Carbon ink was often used for everyday writing tasks and was especially prevalent in the Islamic world. Sepia ink was derived from the ink sac of the cuttlefish or squid. It produced a dark brown color and was frequently used for artistic drawings and illustrations.
In terms of colored inks, used in illuminated manuscripts, there was always Vermilion and Cinnabar Ink. These red inks were made from mercury sulfide (vermilion) or cinnabar, a naturally occurring red mineral. Vermilion and cinnabar inks were commonly used for decorative elements and rubrics in illuminated manuscripts. Various other colored inks were used for decorative purposes in illuminated manuscripts, such as green (made from copper compounds), blue (made from lapis lazuli or azurite), and gold ink (made from gold leaf or gold powder suspended in a binding agent). Indigo ink, made from the indigo plant, was used in regions where it was available. Indigo ink produced a blue color and was used for writing and illustration.
Elizabeth: By far the most lovely and skilled option, and one that flourished in China, were brushes. The use of brushes for writing in China has a long and distinguished history that sets it apart from other regions. Brush writing, also known as calligraphy, is a highly revered art form in Chinese culture and has had a profound impact on the development of the Chinese script. In China, calligraphy is not just a means of writing but a highly respected art form. Skilled calligraphers are revered for their mastery of brushstrokes, ink, and composition. Calligraphy is practiced and admired for its aesthetic beauty, expressive power, and spiritual significance.Chinese calligraphy is deeply intertwined with Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. The act of calligraphy is considered a meditative practice and a means of self-cultivation, reflecting the character and personality of the calligrapher.
Chinese calligraphy traditionally uses ink made from soot and water, as well as special paper such as rice paper. The unique texture and absorbency of these materials contribute to the distinct appearance of Chinese calligraphy. While the brush was not a favored implement of the Western world, it was still used by some Western cultures such as the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic world which have calligraphy traditions of their own. But perhaps due to its special spiritual significance in China and the logographic nature of Chinese scripts, the brush and paper have always been crucial to Chinese writing and they still are.
Marissa: One of the reasons that the Chinese have such a long, embedded writing history is that they invented paper and used it daily long before everyone else. (Sorry but let me nerd out for a minute here because my History of Papermaking studio class was one of the highlights of my college experience.) The Chinese are credited with inventing paper around the 2nd century BCE during the Han Dynasty. The first paper was made from plant fibers, such as mulberry and hemp, which were macerated, beaten, and then mixed with water to form a pulp. This pulp was poured onto a screen or bamboo mat, and the excess water was drained, leaving behind a thin layer of fibers. The fibers were then pressed and dried, resulting in the creation of paper. The process of papermaking evolved and improved over time, leading to more refined and higher-quality paper. By the 8th century, paper production had become a significant industry in China.
Elizabeth: During the 7th and 8th centuries, Chinese prisoners captured by the Arabs in the Battle of Talas in Central Asia introduced the art of papermaking to the Islamic world. The Arabs recognized the value of this technology and further refined the process, introducing new raw materials like linen and cotton rags and establishing paper mills across the Islamic Empire. The use of paper spread rapidly throughout the Islamic world, replacing other writing materials like parchment and papyrus. Islamic scholars and traders played a crucial role in spreading papermaking to regions beyond the Arab world
Marissa: The technology of papermaking slowly made its way to Europe. One of the earliest known instances of paper in Europe dates back to the 11th century in Moorish Spain, where the technology was brought by Muslim artisans and merchants. The first European paper mill was established in Xàtiva, Spain, around 1150. From there, papermaking spread to other parts of the Iberian Peninsula and then to Italy and the rest of Europe. By the 14th century, papermaking had become a flourishing industry in Italy, particularly in cities like Fabriano and Venice. These mills produced paper from recycled rags and old clothing, following the techniques learned from the Arab papermakers. From Italy, the knowledge and practice of papermaking disseminated throughout Europe.
Elizabeth: In the 15th century, Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press revolutionized book production. This resulted in a growing demand for paper. One of the main reasons for the transition from parchment to paper was the significant cost difference. Parchment, made from animal skins, was labor-intensive and expensive to produce, while paper made from plant fibers was more affordable. Paper was also more lightweight and versatile than parchment, making it easier to transport and handle, which was particularly important as the demand for books and written materials increased.
Around 1800, Friedrich Gottlob Keller, a German-born engineer, experimented with the use of wood fibers to produce paper. He developed a mechanical pulping process that used wood logs and mechanical grinders to separate the fibers from the wood. By 1900, wood pulp paper replaced traditional materials like rags and became the primary source for paper production.
Marissa: The aesthetic of scripts also changes over time. Think about how many children are not taught cursive today so they can barely read it and definitely not write it. Most scholars believe this is due to the decline in the use of handwriting after the introduction of digital printing. But the evolution of the Roman script, also known as the Latin script, spans over two millennia and has undergone significant changes from the Dark Ages to the present day. The Roman script is one of the most widely used writing systems in the world and has influenced the development of many other scripts. We’re using it as an example here because it’s the script I used to write this episode!
The early Roman script, also known as Old Roman or rustic capitals, was used in the Roman Empire during the 1st to 4th centuries CE. It featured capital letters without spaces or punctuation, written in a clear and formal style. This script was primarily used for monumental inscriptions, stone carvings, and important documents.
Elizabeth: During the late antiquity or “Dark Ages,” a script called Uncial (pronounced unshal) emerged. Uncial was a rounded, cursive form of writing with more curved and flowing letterforms compared to the earlier rustic capitals. Uncial was often used in the early Christian period for religious texts and manuscripts. This change in script developed because people were using writing differently. Instead of carving or inscribing a very short inscription on stone or clay, folks were writing long, illuminated manuscripts and even joined the pages together into codices, or as we know them today, books. Remember though, illiteracy rates were very high so only the most highly trained scribes, often monks, would have had the skill to write these. And this is how they spent much of their time, preserving, translating, and annotating ancient manuscripts into uncial or Carolignian miniscule codices.
Marissa: The Carolingian minuscule, introduced during the reign of Charlemagne in the 8th century, marked a significant development in the evolution of the Roman script. It was a clear and legible script characterized by lowercase letters and standardized letterforms. The Carolingian minuscule became the basis for many later Latin scripts and played a crucial role in the spread of literacy during the medieval period. During the High Middle Ages, Gothic scripts emerged as regional variations of the Carolingian minuscule. Gothic scripts were used in different parts of Europe, and they featured more elaborate and decorative letterforms. These scripts were prevalent in handwritten manuscripts and inscriptions during the medieval period.
Elizabeth: With the Renaissance in the 15th century, scholars sought to revive classical Roman culture and the works of antiquity. As part of this revival, a humanist cursive script was developed, drawing inspiration from ancient Roman inscriptions. Humanist cursive was characterized by a more elegant and refined style, and it influenced the development of italic and other cursive scripts. In the modern era, the Roman script underwent further standardization and regularization. The typographic designs of the Roman script became more consistent and recognizable across different typefaces.
Marissa: Historians even have to be trained in paleography (the study of historical handwriting) so that we can read documents written in our periods of study. For example, I study the eighteenth century so I had to learn all about long Ss. The long S (ſ) is a historical form of the lowercase letter “s” that was commonly used in English writing and printing from the medieval period up until the early 19th century.
In the 18th century, the use of the long S was still prevalent in English texts, particularly in printed materials such as books, newspapers, and official documents. The long S was used at the beginning of words or when “s” appeared as the first letter of a word. For example, the word “state” would be written as “ſtate.” In the middle of a word, the long S was used in place of a regular “s” except in certain cases where a double “s” was required. For example, “passion” would be written as “paſsion.” In the final position of a word, the long S was often used, except when the word ended with a double “s.” For example, “kiss” would be written with a regular “s” as “kiss,” but “kissed” would be written with a long S as “kiſſed.” Since I study breastfeeding and the long S is often mistaken for an f, you can imagine how silly it gets since I’m constantly looking at the words “suck” and “suckle.”
Elizabeth: There are some other ways that writing has changed over time since 1700 that may be worth thinking about. Before the 18th century, English spelling was less standardized, and there were many variations in how words were spelled. During the 18th and 19th centuries, efforts were made to standardize English spelling, resulting in the establishment of consistent spelling rules and the publication of dictionaries.
Marissa: Before the standardization of spelling, both spellings were used interchangeably in English writing. However, during the 18th century and the publication of dictionaries like Samuel Johnson’s “A Dictionary of the English Language,” a movement towards spelling standardization began. In Johnson’s dictionary, he chose to standardize the spelling as “honor” for both British and American English. This standardization was influenced by etymology and usage patterns. The word “honor” comes from the Old French word “honneur,” which dropped the “u” from the Latin word “honor.” Johnson’s dictionary and its subsequent editions became influential in establishing this spelling as the preferred and standardized form. Over time, the spelling “honor” became widely accepted and dominant in American English. Even though Johnson suggested the Brits drop the U, they refused, citing tradition (and probably wanting to differentiate themselves from the American newjacks). So now, “honour” is primarily used in British English.
Elizabeth: In addition to spelling, punctuation has also changed over time. In the 18th century, punctuation marks were used more liberally, leading to longer and more complex sentences. Think of all the ridiculous book titles we have mentioned on the show, most of them eighteenth-century titles). These were ridiculously long because English-language writers were positively addicted to the comma. Modern punctuation conventions, such as the use of commas, periods, and quotation marks, became more standardized in the following centuries. As a result, writing styles have evolved over time, with changes in rhetoric, tone, and formality. Earlier writing often used a more elaborate and flowery style, while modern writing tends to be more concise and straightforward.
Marissa: In addition to punctuation and spelling, vocabulary also changes over time. New words and phrases enter the lexicon while others fall out of use. This happens very slowly but lately I feel like the process is a little more rapid. For example, that spiky wire that lines prison fences, it was always called “barbed wire.” But many people call it (infuriatingly to some) “bob wire.” It’s a mistake but it’s a mistake that has become so common that bob wire will someday (in all likelihood) become an accepted variant. That’s how language evolution works. Of course, this happens via spoken language but once the accepted variant is popular enough, it begins appearing in writing as well. The vocabulary used in writing has changed significantly since 1700, reflecting the development of new concepts, technologies, and societal changes.
One example I can think of is victuals. Victuals refers to the goods you acquire to stock a home, business, or ship. Clean water, meat, grains, etc. As some point, the word was probably pronounced victuals but now even when it’s spelled victuals it’s properly pronounced “vittals.” Which… is nuts. But over time, folks started writing it out as vittals or something similar to accommodate the speech corruption. Now you find both. Another example of varmint. I see only “vermin” in 18th century texts but enough people started calling vermin “varmint” that now varmint is an accepted variation.
Elizabeth: The last big change in writing over time that we want to point out is that brought on by our most recent technological advancements. The invention of the typewriter in the 19th century and its widespread use in the 20th century led to changes in writing conventions. Typewriters introduced fixed spacing between letters, which influenced the use of double spaces after periods. With the advent of digital word processors, double spacing after periods has become less common. In recent decades, the rise of informal communication methods, such as texting and social media, has influenced writing conventions. Abbreviations, acronyms, and emoticons have become common in informal writing, while formal writing still adheres to more traditional conventions.
In more recent years, there has been a push for gender-inclusive language, using terms that are more neutral and inclusive of all genders. This has led to changes in writing conventions, such as using “they” as a singular pronoun for gender neutrality. This actually began quite a while ago with “stewardesses” being transformed into “flight attendants” or “mail man” into “mail carrier.” But rising acceptance of gender fluidity (if you don’t live in Florida like Marissa at least) has allowed for this process to continue, generating a whole host of gender-neutral terms that did not used to exist: like nibling, Mx, ze, or pibling.
Marissa: So in all, writing conventions and technologies have experienced significant changes over time, from clay tokens, to imprints, to inscriptions, to syllabaries, to alphabets, to manuscripts, typeset, and word processing and everything in between. These changes reflect the dynamic nature of writing and its continuous adaptation to suit the needs and preferences of contemporary society.
Elizabeth: Thanks for joining us today! We invite you to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at dig_history, or join our Facebook group – Dig History Pod Squad – for all kinds of memes and historian hijinks. If you have a comment or question or want to share some kind words with us, you can always email us at email@example.com – we love listener mail! If you’re an educator, we’ve got a compendium of episodes you can use in the classroom – and free teaching resources, including full lesson plans! – on our website, digpodcast.org. You’ll also find full bibliographies, the scripts for all of our episodes, resources, and a link to our swag store at digpodcast.org.
Fischer, Steven R. A History of Writing New ed. London: Reaktion Books. 2021.
Gabrial, Brian. “History of Writing Technologies,” in Bazerman Charles. 2008. Handbook of Research on Writing : History Society School Individual Text. New York: L. Erlbaum Associates.
Powell Barry B. Writing: Theory and History of the Technology of Civilization. New York: John Wiley & Sons. 2012.
Stanlaw, James. The International Encyclopedia of Linguistic Anthropology. Hoboken NJ: Wiley Blackwell. 2021.
Stroud, Kevin. https://historyofenglishpodcast.com/
“The Evolution of Writing.” Published in James Wright, ed., INTERNATIONAL ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SOCIAL AND BEHAVIORAL SCIENCES, Elsevier, 2014 https://sites.utexas.edu/dsb/tokens/the-evolution-of-writing/