Evolution of the written word

While reading and writing is so large a part of our daily lives as to be taken utterly for granted – the concept of representing spoken language in a visual format actually took many centuries to develop.

The writing down of numerical information was the first to appear, and our earliest examples of this which survive were in the form of tallies, which are estimated to have been used for at least 40 000 years before the invention of ‘true writing’ in the form of cuneiform in Mesopotamia around 3500BC.

before writing came numbers shweshwe notebooks


The development of agriculture, and therefore the need to record measures of grain, areas of land and farm animals for example gave rise to a system of counting – first by hand on the fingers, verbally, and finally in a written format. The easiest way to show measures of different objects began with little clay tokens of different shapes – which could represent goats, sheep, pots of grain and the like, where one token represented one sheep, for example. The next step was now to represent ‘more than one’ sheep, and this is where writing took its first steps into the realm of the abstract – and perhaps the first ideas that sounds, or spoken language, might also be represented graphically.

Initially pictographs were used to represent objects, such as ‘hand’, or a drawing of a sun to represent the concept of ‘day’. While now representing words, these images were not yet representative of actual sounds, or an alphabet as such. For how this process might have evolved into a full alphabetic script, we can track the evolution of Egyptian writing, which began as the well-known pictorial script, Hieroglyphics.

egyptian hieroglyphs recycled paper notebooks

If you look at the symbol for ‘R’ for example, which is a drawing of a mouth, you can see how their word “r’i” eventually became representative of the sound ‘r’ in all words. Similarly, the word for water – ‘nu’ became used to represent the consonant N. The basis of this alphabet became the precursor for the Phoenician, Greek and Roman alphabets. Meanwhile, further north in the ancient city of Urgarit, a similar development was taking place in cuneiform script. However it is the Greeks who we can credit for introducing the first vowels, which they adapted from the Phoenician alphabet.

egyptian symbols and semitic symbols

From the image above you can see some of the connections carried through from one script to another. Greek then became then source for all of the modern scripts of Europe, the most widespread of which was Latin script, which spread with the domination of Rome.

As we know however, the Roman empire was not to last forever; and Latin rapidly declined as a language of importance outside of the Church of Rome; and Greek and Persian became the primary literary languages. In the 7th century, the rise of Islam brought in a heavy Arabic influence, especially in the fields of scholarship. Today, the Arabic numerals still serve as the world’s standard for numbers and calculations, and harkens back to the merging of Islamic and Western Christian intellectual development and written communication.

calligraphy pen is mightier than the sword

In the modern era, with a standard alphabet pretty much stabilized, it was possible for writing to serve a less practical function, and to once again become a channel for artistic and aesthetic expression as well. Some of the beautiful calligraphic scripts can be so ornate as to become almost illegible – more art than writing.

Handwriting is even thought by many to give insight into the psyche and nature of the writer – as in the art of graphology. While it is up for debate how much about the personality of an individual can be ascertained from their handwriting (consider our usage of the word ‘signature’ for example), there are certainly characteristics which can be used by trained professionals for legal cases in verifying whether a piece of evidence was forged.

With this enormous range of individual styles, it is hardly surprising that there are estimated to be over 100 000 different and unique computer fonts available for download! If you would like your own, you can even have your handwriting converted to a font which you can use for typing up documents!

If you prefer to house your writing in its natural habitat, however – don’t forget that we have beautiful notebooks made from recycled paper available for creativity with a conscience too!


Further reading: