The History of Writing – Where the Story Begins – Extra History


On this show, we often talk about the history
of people or places, societies. Rarely do we get to talk
about the history of an idea. So today we’re going
to try an experiment: we’re going to talk about
the history of the concept of the written word. ♫ [intro music] ♫ Writing is one of mankind’s
most enduring technologies. For fifty-six hundred years, this ability
to transmit thoughts over generations, to give instructions, to express ourselves, to communicate ideas
over the gulf of space and time, has allowed us to make vast strides
in our understanding of the universe, our understanding
of each other and our understanding
of ourselves. But to understand
how writing began, we have to travel back
to ancient Sumer, where the first widespread
use of writing started. Look around.
What do you see? Yes, you see the potters
and the merchants. You see streets
and gardens. But what do you see
looming over all of it? The temples. These temples play a huge part
in why writing began. For, you see, Sumer was the land
of the world’s first real cities. Not hundreds of people
or thousands of people, but tens of thousands
grouped together. And these cities
formed city states bound together by the veneration
of a specific set of gods. The people mastered irrigation
and the cities grew and as the cities grew,
so too did the temples to the gods. But these massive,
sprawling temple complexes didn’t serve only
as houses of worship. No, no, look close. Do you see the men bringing in
the clay pitchers full of grain? These temples also served
as enormous warehouses. Repositories
for the vast wealth of the city. In good times, donations and gifts
would come flooding in. And in lean times, they would be
distributed back out. This system created vast wealth for the priests, but it also ensured that cities of this size could function. But we’re not concerned
with that. Not directly. Look next to the men
bringing in the grain. Do you see that man
watching them? Notice how every time
they bring in a jar of grain, he makes a little mark on
that clay tablet he’s holding. With an economy of this size, with tons of supplies moving in and out of the temple each day, they needed to keep
records somehow. And that is exactly
what he’s doing. That tablet
will later be stored so that priests can know what exactly the have
on hand in their giant temple warehouse. But as much as tally marks have
their place in the origin of writing, there’s something far more interesting for us
on that wet piece of clay he’s got in his hands. You see, he’s drawn
a little picture of a grain stalk next to his tally marks so it’s clear that his tallies
refer to grain. Well, over the generations, that nice little drawing of grain would get simpler. More abstracted. Scribes looking for quicker
and easier ways to note common goods wouldn’t laboriously draw
every single item coming into the temple, but instead came to an agreed-upon
set of more symbolic representations for the goods flowing
into the holy places. And you can see how somebody might quickly
realise that those symbols could represent not only the concept of something,
but the word itself. And that’s exactly
what happened. The symbol for “cow” came to be understood not only
as a representative of the animal, but also of the word “cow” itself. But, still, there’s not much you can do
with just a set of a thousand or so nouns. And here’s where a happy accident
of linguistics comes in. You see the people talking
around the temple? Well, if you could hear them, it would sound like everybody was just saying
the same few words over and over again. And that’s because Sumerian is a language
where most of the words are just single syllables and where concepts are built out of putting words together. Both of those points are important. because when many of your words
are mono-syllables, it’s easy to go from thinking
of a symbol as a word to thinking of it
as a sound for that word. To go from thinking of the symbol
for “the ewe”, meaning just the sheep, to thinking of it as meaning
the sound “ewe”. And thus giving you the word
for the tree “yew” or the person “you”. Once you do this, you’re no longer drawing
pictures for every word in the language. Now you’re starting to think of those pictures as sounds. And stringing sounds together lets you build up all sorts of words. And once you couple that with the fact that, in Sumerian, many concepts were built up out of basic words, so for example: “sickle” plus “grain” might mean “harvest”, there’s a huge amount you can do with the concepts and sounds that a thousand or so images represent. But we’re not done yet. Because the very medium the scribes were writing on changed how we write in the West today. You remember how our buddy in the temple tallying the grain was making his marks on a clay tablet? Well, watch him write. See how he’s writing from top to bottom, just as you would if you were making a list. Well, that would soon change because the problem with clay is that it takes forever to dry. and so if you accidentally set your hand down while you’re writing from top to bottom, you could easily obliterate whole sections of the column you just wrote. But this risk is reduced if you start writing from left to right. But a lot of the people in the temple didn’t like that innovation. It was easier on the scribes, but for the other literate folks who had to read it, they had learned to read from top to bottom and so they didn’t like this “sideways” thing at all. So what did the scribes do? Well, they simply rotated all of the characters 90 degrees so that a person could turn the tablet and read it from top to bottom just like they always had. Soon, people were just reading the sideways characters left to right. But because they’d been flipped, now they were even more abstracted. Even further from the pictures and the things that they originally represented. This writing system was then adopted by the neighbouring Akkadians and Elamites. who abstracted it even further. Determinatives, or little markers to designate what part of speech something was in case it was ambiguous, also got added. And now you’ve got a real writing system! The original pictures, and even the pictograms they became, vanished entirely into wedge-shaped impressions and line strokes made by the stylus favoured at the time. Which means, instead of simply a handful of nouns to record storage lists, we have a system for writing that can give us things as abstract and lyrical as The Epic of Gilgamesh, or the Enûma Eliš. So how do we know all this? Well, funny thing about clay, when a place is burned down and all of your writing is on clay, rather than it being destroyed, the writing hardens and becomes preserved. But that won’t happen here for some time, so let’s just celebrate what scribes like this one and the marvellous city of Sumer gave us: a gift that has lasted us more than five and a half thousand years. Writing. Now since we don’t get to do the Lies episodes for these one-offs, I also want to point out that this is just the first place in history where writing achieved widespread use. Later it would be developed independently in Mesoamerica and was almost certainly developed independently in China. There’s a great deal of contention about whether it developed independently in the Indus Valley and Egypt. Although, from what we’ve read, which admittedly isn’t nearly enough to form anything more than a layman’s opinion, I’m more in the camp that both of these groups inherited the basic concept from Sumer. Anyway, let us know in the comments if you liked this little experiment and are as interested in the history of ideas as the history of societies and peoples. If so, we’ll try to do this from time to time. Who knows? Maybe we’ll even cover how we moved from the Sumerians writing syllables to that incredible tool: the Alphabet that most Western cultures still use today. See you next week! ♫ [closing music] ♫

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