Pictures for things and even ideas gave us proto-writing. But we can do better! It’s time to invent full-fledged writing. You’re ready to grab that chisel and get
your pictographic and ideographic carving on. Then someone… inventive… comes along.
Your system is artistic, but it’s not practical enough for her. Gone are the days of Lascaux. The world outside
this cave is changing, she says. Crops, cities, rulers, markets, and she needs a way to keep
track of it all. She likes your icons. She can use them for goats and pots, fields and
even long walks through the desert. But she has an incredible practical streak. She takes
those goats and those pots, and starts to tally the items she’s recording. One goat,
she says. Then two goats, three goats, four goats. Notice what she’s done. These aren’t
simple depictions anymore. They’re not just ideas. She’s reading one word for each symbol.
She’s encoding language. Let’s slow down here, because it’s hard
to overstate the importance of this “Major Moments in the History of Writing”. These
goat counts are word-symbols now – logographs. Pictographs can be visualized. Ideographs
can be imagined. But logographs can be directly and consistently read. Logographic systems emerge and flourish in
the early civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and Mexico. Characters for people,
animals, land, crops, hundreds – even thousands – of logographs for everything under the sun
and moon, including the sun and the moon. Even after all these millennia, if you squint
hard enough you can still pick out the symbols scratched into weathered artifacts bearing
the world’s early scripts: a Chinese turtle, an Egyptian house, a Sumerian head, a Sumerian
head eating bread, a Mayan jaguar. And, in each of these places, in all of these languages,
these were read as words. We know what these logographs mean, and we can put that meaning
into words. The world is now in a race to fill itself
with logographs. But which humans started this craze?
Well, the Mesoamericans started writing more than 2900 years ago. Some Chinese characters
are at least 3200 years old. Writing popped up in Crete 4000 years ago. But the two clear
contenders are Egyptian Hieroglyphs and Sumerian Cuneiform, both a whopping 5000 years old!
Minimum. It’s common to say that the Egyptians stole the idea of writing from Mesopotamia
and just came up with their own glyphs – common, but not demonstrated. For a while, monogenesis made sense. This
is idea that one civilization was king of all the writing, that writing started once
in Mesopotamia, where people pressed a stylus into wet clay to make these wedge (cuneus)
shapes (forms): Cuneiform. So the monogenesis story goes, everyone else steals Cuneiform
and reskins it to fit their needs. It’s not a popular story these days, given what
we know about Chinese and especially Mesoamerican writing, along with some very early Egyptian
finds. Whoever’s first, in these early days of
writing, all the civilizations start manufacturing hordes of logographs, so many in fact that
they unwittingly unleash an epic memory burden on budding logographers, from would-be ancient scribes to beginning students of Mandarin Chinese. Do they really need this many characters to write? Surely there’s an easier way!