The birth of writing! – History of Writing Systems #2 (Pictographs in a cave)


Writing wasn’t always faceless lines and
abstract symmetry. Originally, it was a bunch of pictures! Come see how it all started. La France. 17,000 years ago. It’s cold out.
And getting colder. Possibly dangerous, too. This may be France, and this may be the history
of writing, but there’s nothing for you here. Until you take shelter in a nearby cave, and
see how creative some of your ancestors really were. Drawing on their enlarging brains and
a long prehistory of building ever more complex tools, these early artists took to etching
and painting beautiful visual representations of the animals around them. These aren’t
words, they’re not stories, they’re pictures. Early pictures like these start to become
very routine, not necessarily depicting the world, but marking and standing for things:
a place to hunt… a place to eat. These are pictographs. The story gets sketchy here, but it’s important
to notice that pictographic symbols like these petroglyphs – rock carvings – weren’t words,
they weren’t language, but they became more than personal and communal artistic expressions.
They became regular and repeatable, possibly mapping to specific things, and, for that,
these pictographs earn themselves the fancy label of Proto-Writing. Many pictographs have an intuitive give-away
quality: they look like drawings of the things they represent. Draw me a human: easy. Draw
me a horse: sure. A river: there it is. But how do you clearly and simply draw less tangible
ideas like “playing around” or “taking it easy” or “don’t even think about
it”? Uh-oh. Watch out for this “Major Moments
in the History of Writing”! Meet Metonymy. This principled fellow lets you represent
a general, nebulous idea with a related pictogram or part of a pictogram or a pictogram combo
that’s pretty specific and obvious. Ancient stick-human is a regular old pictogram, but
if you cut off stick’s legs, you can get across the general idea of… what? Walking
or moving. What about a man leaning against a tree? What’s the idea here? Taking it
easy. Resting. These are ideographs – symbols for ideas and concepts. In some sense, all of these drawings express
ideas: the concept of a horse, the concept of a human. So they’re all ideographic.
But with a little imagination and a lot of time, extended ideographs let you cut and
combine basic pictographs to be far more expressive and abstract. Just when you’re ready to grab that chisel
and get your pictographic and ideographic carving on, someone more inventive than you
comes along. Your pictures and ideas aren’t enough for her. Gone are the old cave days. The world outside
is changing, and she needs words. Words, my friend!

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