Before the development of writing, people kept all of their information in their heads. But it is difficult for human beings to remember everything and pass it on accurately to someone else. Writing is a way of sharing information and passing it on to other people some distance away in space or in time.
Writing was not invented by one person or even one society, but it evolved naturally in different places at different times, from the need to keep accounts or record events.
Pictographs 7,500 B.C.
The history of writing begins about 4 million years ago. People controlled fire, made complex tools, and survived variable weather. Humans wanted to share what they had seen, so they drew on the walls of caves. These drawings were called pictographs.
We learned much about the animals that were important to these humans by studying these pictures. To read this kind of language we simply have to recognize the symbols. To record and pass on more complex information, societies developed ideograms. They used pictures as symbols that represented a word. They used natural materials for paint-like dried blood, berries, charcoal or rocks.
Sumer 3,500 B.C.
The people of Sumer had a great civilization. They did not have many trees in Sumer, so they learned to use a clay tablet. They baked the tablet in the sun to dry. They used a wedge-shaped tool called a stylus. We called their wedge-shaped writing Cuneiform.
Egypt 3,200 B.C.
The Egyptians developed a style of writing called hieroglyphics. They carved their symbols into rock. It was very difficult to learn, as it had many symbols. They had scribes who went to school to learn how to write. Only boys were allowed to go to scribe school. The Egyptians developed a type of paper from a plant called papyrus. They used a reed sharpened into a point to write on their paper. They then rolled the paper into scrolls. These were their books. Sometimes the Egyptians wrote symbols that stood for sounds. They wrote left to right, right to left, and up and down.
The Shang on the Yellow River is the earliest known civilization that used Chinese writing. They used about 3,000 symbols for words and actions. Chinese people can read ancient texts without too much difficulty. This is because the Chinese civilization was isolated from the rest of the world for many years.
Phoenicians 1,600 B.C.
The Phoenicians lived on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. They were merchants who sailed around the Mediterranean selling ivory, spices, incense, ornaments, and glass. Their name comes from the purple dye they used to make clothes. It came from the shellfish called the Murex snail. They needed an easy system of writing to keep track of all the goods they traded. They saw the Egyptian and Sumerian alphabets and borrowed their ideas. Their first alphabet had 80 symbols, but eventually they simplified it to only 22 letters with sounds. The Phoenicians did not have any vowels.
Greeks 800 B.C.
The Greeks learned the alphabet from the Phoenicians. They did not speak the same language as the Phoenicians, so they had to add some new letters. They changed to an alphabet with 24 letters. The word alphabet comes from the first two letters of their alphabet – alpha and beta. The Greeks used vowels, left spaces between words, used some punctuation, and were the first to only write from left to right.
Romans 100 B.C.
The Romans were a great civilization. They conquered a lot of the world. They simplified the Greek alphabet by changing the shape of many of their letters. They named their language Latin. The Romans kept their writing in books, instead of on scrolls. Monks copied the books by hand using beautiful script, and pictures called illumination. They wrote with quill pens on paper made from animal skins called parchment. They wrote beside open windows, using the sun for light.
Europe 1,400 A.D.
Johann Gutenburg, a German, is thought to have invented the first paper in Europe. The Chinese had developed a process to make paper, but refused to share their secrets.
Today the written word can travel from one part of the world to another in seconds. Computers and satellites have made it possible to exchange news as it happens. Languages are translated from one to another by machines. Great quantities of information can be held by one magnetic disk. Someday, communication with paper may be looked upon as we now look upon cave drawings.