THE EVOLUTION OF WRITING

By R. Cedric Leonard



"THE very interesting problem of the 'origins' of writing is shrouded in a cloud of darkness and is as hard to interpret as the 'origins' of art, architecture, religion, and social institutions, to name only a few of the important aspects of our culture."

In the above statement Dr. Ignace J. Gelb (1974), Professor of Linguistics at the University of Chicago, is referring to the so-called 'beginning of writing' in the Mesopotamian Valley slightly more than 5,000 years ago (the two tablets shown on the title page are examples). But the true origin of writing may be even more mysterious—and it may have occurred much earlier than commonly supposed.

How did writing began? Most epigraphers and paleographers agree that the historical evolution of writing occurred in basically four stages: 1) Ideographic; 2) Logographic; 3) Syllabic; 4) Alphabetic. It can be seen from this that alphabetic writing is considered the most advanced of the evolutionary stages (Gelb, 1974).

The development of writing is unidirectional. This means that it will pass through the above four stages in that order and no other. No system of writing can begin naturally with the syllabic or alphabetic stage; if such a case did occur, it could only happen if influenced by another system which had already passed through the earlier stages. A writing system can stop at any given stage (a case of arrested development); it can combine stages as it passes from one stage to another; or it can continue to use more than one stage forever. But no writing system ever studied has ever skipped a stage. This observation led Prof. Gelb to an important discovery concerning the Egyptian and Western Semitic systems which will be discussed.

The four major stages of writing is described below in extremely brief terms.

The ideographic stage is basically composed of pictures and readily discernible symbols, designed so that the message is obvious. At this stage there is absolutely no relationship between what is written (or inscribed) and actual speech sounds. An example is that practiced among the American Indians before the arrival of the Europeans.

In the logographic (word-sign) stage each written sign stands for an actual word in the spoken language, maintaining basically a one-to-one relationship to the spoken words. If one wanted to say "tree," a picture or a symbol of a tree would be sufficient. If one wanted to say "three trees," the written message could simply depict three trees; or the picture of a tree could be accompanied by a numerical symbol having the meaning "three". However, some things are not so easily pictured.

Abstractions, such as life, love, beauty, etc., were impossible to express in such a manner. The usual device to overcome this problem was the use of homonyms (words with the same sounds). To give an example: Since the ancient Sumerian word for "life" was ti and the Sumerian word for "arrow" had the same sound, it was easy enough to incise an arrow, which could be read as "life" if the context demanded it. This variation (or technique), although still logographic, is commonly known as rebus writing.

Proper names presented a greater difficulty. As long as names like White Cloud and Running Bear were used there was no problem. But how do you write down names like Assurbanipal, Shalmanezer or Zephnathpaaneah using a logogram? This led to a process we call phonetization.

Thus we arrive at the next major stage. The principle of phonetization arose when words could not be indicated by simple pictures. This vital step occurred when complex words were "sounded out" using separate signs. In this stage each sign represents a single syllable (a consonantal sound followed by a vowel sound, and on occasion ending with another consonantal sound). Such a system is known as a syllabary.

With logographic writing thousands of word-signs have to be memorized in order to have a good working vocabulary of the language to be written. Over long periods of time it often happens that once easily recognizable pictures become conventionalized to the point where they must be memorized in order to be recognized. In a syllabary the number of signs to be memorized drops to a few hundred.

Even in a syllabary, to delineate each vowel sound following the initial consonantal sound would require a large number of written signs (especially since some syllables also end with a consonantal sound which may be different from the initial sound). But since everyone in a given culture already knows how to pronounce the words, it is possible to eliminate differentiations in vowel sounds with a minimum of sacrifice in accuracy. In such systems, the sound of a or e was understood as standard. Sometimes a few of the leftover signs from the preceding logographic system were retained for use as determinatives. The Egyptian hieroglyphic system, which lasted some 3,000 years, retained a large number of logograms until its extinction.

However, all such 'trimmed down' syllabic systems ran into one common problem: LONG vowels! In the Western Semitic system (Phoenician, Amorite, Hebrew, etc) long vowels were absolutely necessary in expressing plurals. Something had to be done to let the reader know when a given vowel should be long rather than short. The answer was plenic writing. Plenic writing incorporated the use of the so-called "weak" consonants (such as w and y) to substitute for a long vowel sound (usually w for long "o" or "u" and y for long "i"). However, the use of plenic writing led to the misidentification of these systems of writing as "consonantal alphabets," when in reality they are syllabaries.

Paleographers saw these "weak" syllabic signs as mere vowels, and consequently interpreted plenic writing to be a development toward a partial or incomplete vowel system for the so-called "consonantal alphabets" rather than for what it really was. It was because of this misconception that the Phoenicians were accredited with "inventing" the first alphabet. But plenic writing has been found in a number of other systems which are assuredly and definitely syllabic. It has been through comparisons of all these systems of writing that the error was finally recognized. Prof. Gelb sees the distinction as extremely important in studying the evolution of the structure of writing systems.

However, plenic writing did make clear the dire need to express all the vowel sounds in every word to further improve accuracy in the transmission of knowledge; and this eventually led to the development of a true alphabet in which each and every sound is individually represented.

This brings us to the alphabetic stage of writing. We have just seen that the so-called "alphabet" used by the Phoenicians was in reality a syllabary incorporating the technique of plenic writing. The so-called "vowels" of plenic writing are in reality no vowels at all, but rather certain syllabic signs used as memnic devices to alert the reader to the presence of a long vowel-sound.

It is to the Greeks that the credit must go for the invention of a true alphabet; since the addition of a few more signs representing true vowel-sounds (which enabled them to follow each initial consonantal sound with the appropriate vowel-sound), accomplished the final result of "a single character for every single sound," which is the definition of a true alphabet.

Evolution of letters from early Phoenician to the Roman

So where does this leave the Phoenicians and the Atlanteans? The most that we can accredit the Phoenicians with is the forms of the characters used in their system. And, as we have seen, these may have come from Atlantis! It seems probable the characters themselves may have been "western" rather than "eastern" in origin. Thus the letters on this page, since they evolved from so-called "Phoenician characters," may have had their origin in Atlantis! That question is explored in the articles on the controversial Glozel Tablets, and additional classical testimony which I believe adds weight to such an hypothesis.

Ref: "A Study of Writing: A discussion of the general principles governing the use and evolution of writing" written and revised by Prof. Ignace J. Gelb, and published by The University of Chicago Press, London & Chicago, 1974.

Copyright © 2001 by R. Cedric Leonard
Version 1.2, Last updated: 14 Feb 2007
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