The origin of written words, how our love affair with letters began

Written by: Captain Skellett // November 28th, 2009 // How Things Work, Science at Home

Clay Inscriptions from Sumer circa 4000BCE

I was reading a story to my niece a few months ago (we’ll call her Cutie, ‘cos she’s cute, and she’s not actually my niece, she’s SexyMan’s niece.) She’s about two. While we were reading this story the cat came into the living room, and Cutie immediately pointed at the cat and said “Cat,” then pointed at a picture of a cat in the book and said “Cat” again.

I. Was. Stunned.

Okay, maybe I’m being a little bit of a proud sort-of-auntie, but for some reason it really struck me as incredible. Cutie could recognise a pictoral representation of a cat as a symbol of a cat, she knew they were supposed to be the same thing, even though one is walking around and meowing and the other one is 2D and on paper. And it wasn’t even a good drawing of a cat!

When does it happen, that we first become aware of symbols? Surely this must be a major step in learning to read and count, words and numbers being symbols of the most stylised variety. I know there are cave drawing thousands of years old which tell us cave-dwellers could draw and understand symbols, and monkeys can be taught to recognise the number four as a representation of four dots.

The subject reminds me of a story I was once told about the origin of written language.

Thousands of years ago, in the times when Sumer was a dominant trend-setting civilisation (around 4,000 BCE), people would take out loans, as they do. Say you wanted to borrow two goats and a chicken from a lending house, they would keep a record of what you owed by putting little figurines of goats and chickens in a bag. That wasn’t safe enough, cos anyone could get in and change the amounts, so they started sealing them in a clay box.

But people forget how much they owe other people REALLY easily (angry face), and if you came to check they’d have to break open the clay box and then make a new one and fire it with the figurines and EFFORT! So they started drawing pictures on the box with the figurines inside to say “inside this box is two goats and a chicken.”

Pretty quickly someone realised they didn’t need the figurines inside the box anymore – the pictures on the box were enough. These pictures became clearly recognisable symbols, from there became more and more stylized and easier to draw, called cuneiform. The rest of Mesopotamia caught on and soon they were symbolising syllables that could be put together to make a word. Egypt took it a little further and made letters which could be put together to form a sound to form a word to form a concept. And thus the written word was created.

It won’t be long until Cutie learns that the letters CAT mean the same thing as the picture and the animal, and from there a whole world opens up that will take her into Narnia or across the high seas, hair blown back and framed with full sails…

Captain Skellett

I be Captain Skellett. Me blog started in April 2009 when I was working full time and didn’t get a chance to talk science. Now I have changed jobs and talk science all the time, but that doesn’t stop me blogging. More About Captain Skellett   Google

   

One Response to “The origin of written words, how our love affair with letters began”

  1. Lab Rat says:

    My parents were very pleased when I first coonnected words to things, pointing at a bird and going ‘bird!’

    They were slightly less impressed when I spent the rest of the day pointing to every moving thing on the planet and repeating the same word XD.

    Your last image was totally unexpected, and lead to a couple of minutes of emotional sniffling. Books were a whole different land…






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