Writing Systems in the Ancient World Analysis

Pictographic/ideographic/logographic writing

(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

The earliest writing systems were not phonetic; the symbols used did not directly reflect the speech sounds of the language. Rather, the first writing was pictographic, consisting of simplified drawings of objects and animals. This limited system gradually began to include ideographic signs, which symbolized more abstract concepts relating to the original pictograph. For example, a pictograph of the sun might also come to mean “day” or “light.” Eventually, logographic signs were added. These were signs invented to symbolize words but no longer had a direct pictorial connection.


(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

The Sumerian farmers living between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in southern Mesopotamia are generally credited with the first known instance of writing, toward the end of the fourth millennium b.c.e. The principal writing material was clay, which was compacted and smoothed into a tablet. Bones, sticks, or reeds were carved into a stylus with a triangular tip. The stylus was used to create impressions in the clay, creating a writing script known as cuneiform, from the Latin cuneus, or “wedge.” The script was rigid and angular as a result of the clay medium. When the writing was complete, the tablet was baked or left to dry in the sun. The Sumerians often used a form of clay envelope. The tablet was covered with a secondary layer of clay on which the same message was written, thus ensuring transmittal in spite of potential damage.

Indus Valley

(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

As early as 2500 b.c.e., the peoples living in this area, located within present-day Pakistan, invented a pictographic writing system called the Indus script. It eventually became purely logographic, in that it used highly evolved symbols that no longer resembled particular objects, and most signs stood for whole words. Only a few samples of stone inscriptions remain, presumably because the principal writing medium was something perishable. The script has not been deciphered.

Crete and Cyprus

(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

The ancient Cretans developed a writing system between the second and third millenniums b.c.e. Their Minoan script started out pictographic and developed into a logographic system. By 1700 b.c.e., two cursive scripts, called Linear A and Linear B, were in existence. They employed characters that were made of lines, rather than pictures, and they were largely phonetic. Only Linear B has been deciphered. About a thousand years later, a syllabic Cypriot script was in existence on the island of Cyprus. Because it represented the Greek language, it could be deciphered and was instrumental in the decipherment of Linear B.


(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

The Chinese began developing their writing system around 2000 b.c.e. It began with pictograms and developed into a logographic system. It was codified by about 1500 b.c.e., and the earliest samples were written with a brush in ink on bone and tortoiseshell. At this time, a single language was in use by all the Chinese peoples. Over the next two thousand years, many dialects developed, often mutually unintelligible. Because Chinese writing remained logographic, all Chinese, regardless of dialect, could read it. People who could not converse verbally could still communicate in writing.

The logographic system also worked well for the Chinese because their language was made up of many homophones, which were distinguished verbally by pitch and context. The script could handle this easily because it used symbols to provide context. In addition, Chinese grammar worked by rearranging whole words, and a logographic system suited it well. The Chinese script used thousands of signs.

Brush and ink were used on a variety of mediums, such as stone and wood tablets, metal, and most commonly, bamboo and silk. Writing was from top to bottom, with columns progressing from left to right. Calligraphy was from early on an artform.

The first paper was systematically produced by the Chinese during the Han Dynasty, about 105 c.e. Paper was made from tree bark, rags, fishnets, and hemp. These fibrous substances were crushed and pressed into a mold. As they dried, they resulted in a thin sheet of paper. The Chinese guarded their papermaking techniques for six hundred years and exported it to the Middle East and the Mediterranean.

Analytic writing

(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Analytic, or transitional, writing systems used ideograms and logograms in combination with phonograms (signs that represent sounds). Sumerian cuneiform began employing pictograms to signify parts or syllables of words. An example would be combining the pictures for “bee” and “leaf” to form the word “belief.” This rebus writing was the first crucial step in creating a relationship between sound and symbol. Cuneiform began with an unwieldy two thousand symbols. As it became logosyllabic, this was reduced to six hundred symbols. Cuneiform began to spread throughout Mesopotamia to almost all of the major peoples of the ancient Near East.


(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

The Akkadians of northern Mesopotamia, the Babylonians, and the Assyrians succeeded each other as the dominant powers in Mesopotamia from 2500 to 700 b.c.e. They adapted cuneiform to fit their Semitic languages and simplified it to an increasingly syllabic system. Throughout this period, the Sumerian language was often transcribed as a parallel text. About 570 signs remained, but 300 were used most frequently.

Cuneiform adaptations

(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Many other peoples adopted the cuneiform system but invented their own signs to reflect the needs of their languages. The Eblaites and the Hurrians of Syria used cuneiform and wrote in Sumerian, with a small percentage of words in their own languages. In Persia, the Elamites invented a writing system around 2500 b.c.e. but discarded it in favor of cuneiform. They created many of their own signs for their non-Semitic language. Peoples farther west in the Persian Empire invented Old Persian cuneiform script in an attempt to distinguish themselves but abandoned it by 300 b.c.e. and adapted Mesopotamian cuneiform. The Urartians, northwest of Mesopotamia, similarly adapted cuneiform. In Asia Minor, the Hittites invented their own glyphic system around 1500 b.c.e. It came to be used mainly for carving inscriptions on stone monuments. Cuneiform was adopted for ordinary purposes, along with new signs to better translate their three Indo-European languages of Hittite, Palaic, and Luwian.


(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

On the other side of the world in Mesoamerica, the development of writing was closely tied to the civilization’s advanced astronomical knowledge and its desire to record it. The ancient Olmec civilization left behind only a few clues suggesting that they had some form of writing system, which was probably rudimentary. The first real evidence of writing occurs with the Zapotec civilization in the Oaxaca Valley at the site of Monte Albán, around 500 b.c.e. This writing had many calendrical and noncalendrical glyphs, the latter being logosyllabic. Samples of the Epi-Olmec and Isthmian script of the Izapa civilization in the village of La Mojarra in Veracruz date to the second century c.e. and are also a mixture of logographic and...

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(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

The Egyptians invented a writing system that rivals Sumerian cuneiform in its antiquity. Recent evidence indicates that it may actually predate cuneiform. During the fourth millennium b.c.e., the Egyptians were building a civilization along the Nile River. They invented hieroglyphics, literally “sacred engraved writing.” From the start, it was a very complete writing system in that it could effectively record all aspects of spoken language. It consisted of three types of signs: pictograms, phonograms, and determinatives, clarifying symbols that indicated the category of ideas pictured. Because hieroglyphics were thought to be divinely inspired (a gift from the god Thoth), scribes were considered noble and the majority of the...

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Phonetic writing

(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Truly phonetic writing systems are those in which there is a direct connection between each symbol and a speech sound. A syllabary has a sign for each syllable in a language. Cuneiform never evolved into a true syllabic system. A consonantal script has a sign for all consonants with little emphasis on vowel sounds. An alphabet has a sign for each individual sound.


(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

The African kingdom of Kush (Napata) flourished in ancient Nubia in the area of present-day Sudan from the ninth century b.c.e. to the fourth century c.e. In the late seventh or early sixth century b.c.e., its capital was moved to Meroe. The Meroites adapted Egyptian hieroglyphics and, by the third century b.c.e., had devised their own primarily alphabetic system, known as Meroitic script. It had both a cursive version for everyday use and a hieroglyphic variant for monuments. It had fifteen consonantal signs and three vowels. The kingdom collapsed around the fourth century c.e., but the script was used through the fifth century c.e. to write various Nubian languages, after which it was gradually replaced by the Greek-based Coptic alphabet, spread by the coming of Christianity. Although the script has been deciphered, the language itself is unknown, and thus the meaning of much of the surviving samples is unknown.


(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

By the beginning of the second millennium b.c.e., several North Semitic scripts were developing among the Canaanite peoples, Semites who had migrated from Arabia west to Palestine. They contained the precursors of an alphabetic system. Semites also occupied the Sinai Peninsula from 1800 to 1400 b.c.e. They used a script consisting of only twenty-seven different signs. It remains undeciphered but was probably alphabetic in nature.


(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

The city of Ugarit, on the northwest coast of Syria, left behind tablets with a script employing only twenty to thirty characters. A fourteenth century b.c.e. inscription was found that supplied sounds in roughly the same sequence as would later appear in the Phoenician alphabet. The characters were similar to cuneiform but bore no resemblance to Mesopotamian cuneiform or any other scripts.


(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

The Phoenicians were North Semitic sailor merchants based along the Mediterranean coast of Syria. Several tablets from the city of Byblos dating from the eleventh century b.c.e. display a pseudohieroglyphic script that was probably syllabic. It had about eighty characters, a substantial decrease from any preexisting syllabic scripts. By about 1000 b.c.e., the Phoenicians developed the first truly phonetic script. It could be applied to many languages because it was based on sound alone. It consisted of twenty-two consonants but no vowels. It was a fluid script and had simple, clear letterforms, two essential characteristics of a utilitarian and effective script that could be mastered easily by the general population. From the tenth century b.c.e., the Phoenicians colonized westward throughout the Mediterranean region, on the islands of Cyprus, Sicily, and Sardinia, in Italy and Greece, southern Spain, and along the northern coast of Africa, particularly in Carthage. Their script spread with them.

North Africa

(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

The Berber peoples living in North Africa, in the area known as Numidia, were ruled by Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans during the period between the first millennium b.c.e. and 500 c.e. The Phoenicians established Carthage, and the Greeks established Cyrene. Their scripts disseminated throughout the area. After the Romans conquered Cyrene, there followed a period of turbulence during the second century b.c.e. between Carthage and the Romans, known as the Punic Wars. This gave the Berber peoples an opportunity for a period of independence. During this time, they derived their own consonantal Berber script from the Semitic models. It remained in use through the third century c.e. and was applied to the various Berber languages. The modern-day Tifinagh script used for the Tuareg language is a descendent of this script. As the Romans extended their rule across North Africa during the first centuries c.e., Christianity was introduced and the Latin script was again used. This lasted until the arrival of Arab culture in the seventh century c.e. and the introduction of Arabic script.


(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Indigenous peoples living in southern Spain and in Portugal, in the area known as the Iberian Peninsula, developed Iberian scripts during the first millennium b.c.e. These scripts were part syllabic and part alphabetic and of unknown origin, although they are probably partly derived from the writing of the Phoenicians and Greeks who colonized there. Celtic peoples who migrated to the area between the eighth and the sixth centuries also used this script.


(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

The Aramaic peoples living in Syria had a writing system almost identical to Phoenician. By the first century b.c.e., their scripts replaced Mesopotamian cuneiform and also spread to the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, India, and Mongolia. Several books of the Old Testament were written in Aramaic. The rest were written in Hebrew. Early Hebrew was a form of proto-alphabetic writing in use during the first millennium b.c.e. in Israel. It gave way to Square Hebrew, which was a derivative of Aramaic. Both of these scripts were used in the writing of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Arabic writing also developed from Aramaic by the sixth century c.e. and coincided with the beginning of the Muslim era. The Qurān was transcribed in Arabic script around 650 c.e. Because of the rapid expansion of Islam, the Arabic script also spread through the Byzantine Empire, Africa, Asia Minor, and also eastward to India and China.


(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

In South Arabia, a civilization of peoples called the South Semites developed a consonantal writing system that differed from the North Semitic scripts. It was in use by the first millennium b.c.e. and consisted of twenty-nine letters. Unlike North Semitic, it did not spread outside of the Arabian peninsula, except for Ethiopia on the African continent.

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(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Early in the first millennium b.c.e., the Sabaeans began to colonize in Ethiopia and the kingdom of Axum arose. By the fourth century c.e., the Axumites modified the consonantal South Semitic script into an Ethiopic syllabary with vowel indicators to fit their language of Ge’ez, which had developed with the introduction of Christianity. The direction of writing was reversed to run from left to right, which was probably a Greek influence. Ethiopia resisted the onslaught of Islam and retained its culture. The Ethiopic script forms the basis of modern-day Ethiopic writing.

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(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

By about 800 b.c.e., the Brahmi script was created; it is believed to have developed from the Aramaic scripts. By the fourth century b.c.e., the script was highly structured, largely because of the work of the grammarian Pānini. The Kharostī script also developed during the fifth century b.c.e. Both of these scripts required sophisticated phonological knowledge in order to organize the alphabet to reflect the articulation of the Indian language. The earliest known writing medium was ink on birch bark. Palm leaf manuscripts were prevalent and contributed to the development of a more rounded script because firm straight lines would rip the leaf. Inscriptions were hammered in copper for official records. Cotton and silk began to be...

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(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

With the Dorian invasion of Greece about 1100 b.c.e., the use of the early Linear B script ceased. The earliest use of a new script using the consonantal Phoenician alphabet occurs in 850 b.c.e. This alphabet was somewhat inadequate for the Greek language, which had many vowel sounds compared with the Semitic languages for which it had been used. The Greeks adapted the alphabet by borrowing signs for consonant sounds that did not exist in their language and using them instead to transcribe their vowels. By 403 b.c.e., Ionic script existed. It had twenty-four signs, with seventeen consonants and seven vowels. This is considered the first complete alphabet. Greek was at first written right to left, as were many of the ancient...

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(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

The early Romans adopted the Greek alphabet either directly or through the Etruscans. The Etruscans ruled northern Italy until the fourth century b.c.e., when they were driven out by the Romans. The Etruscan script was written in Greek characters, but the language was not similar to any others and has not been decoded. By the third century b.c.e., the Roman Empire had an alphabet of nineteen letters, and the majority of the population was literate.

Several script forms arose. Stone inscription involved detailed preparation and was considered an art. The size of the letters had to be calculated and the text measured out. Guidelines were drawn, and then the letters were painted on. They were then engraved with a chisel,...

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(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

The ancient Germanic peoples of Europe used writing known as Runic script. More than four thousand inscriptions have been found primarily in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Germany, some dating back to the second century c.e. The script consisted of twenty-four letters and is of uncertain origin, although some characters bear a relation to the Roman alphabet. Runes were associated with secrecy and mystery and may have first been used in making charms and spells. They were scratched on armor, jewelry, wooden monuments, and tombstones. Therefore, the characters were created mostly from straight lines. It is not known if runes were used widely for secular purposes. A separate runic script called the ogham alphabet was used by the Celts...

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Other Latin scripts

(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

In the early Dark Ages, monasticism took root in Ireland. The monks developed a unique form of writing based on various influences, including the Scandinavian runic script. They modified the Roman uncial scripts into their own Insular script. The Celts also created the first true minuscule (lowercase) family of letters. The uncial scripts ceased being used by the eighth century c.e. Many different miniscule scripts developed as the Old World fell into disorganization. Among these were the Anglo-Saxon script of England, the Merovingian script of the Franks, the Visigothic script of Spain, and the Beneventan script of southern Italy.

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Additional Resources

(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Claiborne, Robert. The Birth of Writing. New York: Time-Life Books, 1974.

Daniels, Peter T., and William Bright. The World’s Writing Systems. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Diringer, David. The Alphabet: A Key to the History of Mankind. 3d ed. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1968.

Diringer, David. Writing. New York: Praeger, 1962.

Jackson, Donald. The Story of Writing. New York: Taplinger, 1981.

Jean, Georges. Writing: The Story of Alphabets and Scripts. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1992.

Robinson, Andrew. The Story of Writing. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1995.


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