The Development of Writing From Past to Present

People of the Ice Age carved symbols on the walls of caves some 35 thousand years ago. As hunter-gatherers, they left intelligible imprints on the bones they used during hunting or on the cave walls for their descendants. Depicting the sanctity of the hunt or ceremonial celebrations, these drawings constituted the oldest language of communication between the ages. The silence of prehistory had thus been shattered.

The first pictographic writing system was used by the Sumerians circa 3250 BC, the same time during which Hieroglyphics came into use in Egypt. Pictographic writing began with the depiction of the form of the concept that people sought to convey. If the concept in question was a mountain, it was created in the shape of three adjoining hills and if it was a female figure, a triangle was used. Nearly 2000 pictographs were used in this manner and memorizing each was akin to memorizing all the road signs.

This system was eventually replaced by the Ideogram, which emerged in 3rd Millennium BC and conveyed not only a concept but an idea as well. The emergence of the Ideogram coincided with the possible birth of the first syllable system. In Ideograms, a few pictorial signs were combined to create meaning. Writing thus underwent a significant transformation. The third important change was the cuneiform system also used by the Sumerians. Now, the pictograms were simpler and were replaced by a system of writing that used lines instead. It was far more practical; following the Sumerians, the Akkadians and many other civilizations also began using cuneiform.

In circa 900 BC, the Phoenicians developed a new language of writing. Thus emerged, for the first time, a writing system based on letters with the first letter as aleph and the second bet.  In subsequent centuries, the term “alphabet” would be coined and embraced as the name of this new writing system. The Phoenicians; however, did not use any vowels. Adopting their own alphabet from the Phoenicians, the Hellenes added vowels to the alphabet in the ensuing years and made a significant contribution to the transformative development of writing.

Sumerians used writing as a memory tool that could be preserved outside of the human brain.  It was, once again, merchants, that facilitated the advancement of writing in subsequent centuries. Writing was therefore, a momentous discovery prompted by commercial needs and bequeathed to the history of humankind.   

In the introduction of his Book II, Herodotus, also known as the “Father of History,” writes that before Psammetichus I became king of Egypt, the Egyptians deemed themselves to be the oldest nation on earth. Psammetichus thus devised a plan whereby he took two newborn children gave them to a shepherd to feed. When, after two years, the shepherd opened the door and entered, both children ran towards him, calling “Bekos”, a Phrygian word meaning bread. Based on this fact, the Egyptians finally confessed that the Phrygians were older than they.



The Development of Alphabet From the Beginnings of Writing to the Modern Day

Aleph (ox). This letter originated as a symbol used to demonstrate the head of an ox. When the Hellenes needed a vowel, they started using it by calling it “Alpha” (Α, α). The Romans used this letter as “A”.

Beth (home). It is thought that this letter may have been emerged from the shape of a wind instrument that existed in Egypt. The Hellenes called it “Beta” (Β, β). The Romans used this letter as “B”.

Gimel (camel). The Hellenes called this letter “Gamma” (Γ, γ). Etruscans, who did not use the G sound, used the K sound instead, and it was passed to the Romans as “C”. After a while, C and G started to be used interchangeably as letters giving the same sound.

Daleth (gate or fish). The Hellenes used this symbol as “Delta” (Δ, δ), and the Romans used it as the letter “D”.

Epsilon (window). This letter originally consisted of the symbol of a praying man with raised arms facing us. The Hellenes used it for the vowel “Epsilon” (Ε, ε). The Romans used this letter as “E”.

Waw (hook or knob). The Hellenes used Digamma (Ϝ, ϝ), which is a version of Waw and represents the number six, similar to the letter “F” we use. A second form of this, Upsilon (Υ, υ), was added to the end of their alphabet. Waw was used as “V” by the Etruscans, and “F” by the Romans. The Romans used the second form of the Upsilon, the “V”, which would later become the letter “U”. The letter “W” became “Double U” in England in the 7th century.

Zayin (sword or weapon).The Hellenes used this symbol for the letter Zeta (Ζ, ζ). The Romans took it as the letter “Z” and added it to the end of their alphabet.

H.eth (fence). The Hellenes call this letter vowels Eta (Η, η). The Romans used “H” for the consonant.

Teth (reel). It is the symbol of the “th” sound in Hellenic and was used for the letter Theta (Θ, θ). In the alphabet of the Romans, who did not use the “th” sound, this letter disappeared.

Yodh (hand). This letter originally represented the entire arm. The Hellenes used this symbol for the letter Iota (Ι, ι) by simplifying it. The Romans used it for the “I” vowel. Later, they added another form, the “J” sound.

Kaph (empty hand or palm). This symbol was accepted as Kappa (Κ, κ) by the Hellenes and as “K” by the Romans.

Lamedh (stick used to prod oxen). The Hellenes used this symbol for Lambda (Λ, λ), and the Romans used it for the letter “L”.

Mem (water). This symbol was used as the letter Mu (Μ, μ) in Hellenic, and was accepted as “M” in Romans.

Nun (fish, eel or snake). It was used as the letter Nu (Ν, ν) in Hellenic, and the Romans used it as the letter “N”.

Samekh (fish or tent). Although its origin is uncertain, it means fish, but the symbol used for this letter may have come from a tent pole. The Hellenes used this letter (X) for Xi (Ξ, ξ), the simplified form of Chi. The Romans retained only the shape of the X.

‘Ayin (eye). A throaty consonant. The Hellenes named this letter “Omikron” (ο) and used it as “lower case o”. Later, they developed another form and named it “Omega” (Ω), and used it as “upper case O”. The Romans used it as “O”.

Pe (mouth). The Hellenes used it as “Pi” (Π, π), the Romans closed one corner and turned it into the letter “P”.

Sade (origin uncertain). It is sung as a sound between “S” and “Sh”. In fact, its origin may be a plant. But later on, it took on a fish hook-like appearance. The Hellenes used it in place of the expression “Sampi” (Ϡ, ϡ), representing 900. Etruscans used it for the letter “M”. The Romans, on the other hand, did not need this letter.

Qoph (monkey). This shape representing the knot and it was a letter close to the “K” sound. While the Hellenes used this shape to represent the number 90 (Ϙ), it was passed to the Etruscans and Romans as the letter “Q”.

Resh (head). It was used as “Rho” (P, ρ) in Hellenic. The Romans added one more dash to separate this letter from the letter P, making it the letter “R”.

Shin (tooth and bow). Although it is pronounced as “Sh”, the Hellenes call it “Sigma” (Σ, σ, ς). The Romans used it for the letter “S”.

Taw (sign). It was used as “Tau” (T, τ) by the Hellenes and as the letter “T” by the Romans.

The Development of Letters from the Beginning of the Writing to the Present

Anatolian Languages