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Writing Systems Introduction

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The three writing systems that developed independently in the Near East, China and Mesoamerica, shared a remarkable stability. Each preserved over millennia features characteristic of their original prototypes. The Mesopotamian cuneiform script can be traced furthest back into prehistory to an eighth millennium BC counting system using clay tokens of multiple shapes. The development from tokens to script reveals that writing emerged from counting and accounting. Writing was used exclusively for accounting until the third millennium BC, when the Sumerian concern for the afterlife paved the way to literature by using writing for funerary inscriptions. The evolution from tokens to script also documents a steady progression in abstracting data, from one-to-one correspondence with three-dimensional tangible tokens, to two-dimensional pictures, the invention of abstract numbers and phonetic syllabic signs and finally, in the second millennium BC, the ultimate abstraction of sound and meaning with the representation of phonemes by the letters of the alphabet.

Writing is humankind’s principal technology for collecting, manipulating, storing, retrieving, communicating and disseminating information. Writing may have been invented independently three times in different parts of the world: in the Near East, China and Mesoamerica. In what concerns this last script, it is still obscure how symbols and glyphs used by the Olmecs, whose culture flourished along the Gulf of Mexico ca 600 to 500 BC, reappeared in the classical Maya art and writing of 250-900 AD as well as in other Mesoamerican cultures (Marcus 1992). The earliest Chinese inscriptions, dated to the Shang Dynasty, c. 1400–1200 BC, consist of oracle texts engraved on animal bones and turtle shells (Bagley 2004). The highly abstract and standardized signs suggest prior developments, which are presently undocumented.

Of these three writing systems, therefore, only the earliest, the Mesopotamian cuneiform script, invented in Sumer, present-day Iraq, c. 3200 BC, can be traced without any discontinuity over a period of 10,000 years, from a prehistoric antecedent to the present-day alphabet. Its evolution is divided into four phases: (a) clay tokens representing units of goods were used for accounting (8000–3500 BC); (b) the three dimensional tokens were transformed into two-dimensional pictographic signs, and like the former tokens, the pictographic script served exclusively for accounting (3500–3000 BC); (c) phonetic signs, introduced to transcribe the name of individuals, marked the turning point when writing started emulating spoken language and, as a result, became applicable to all fields of human experience (3000–1500 BC); (d) with two dozen letters, each standing for a single sound of voice, the alphabet perfected the rendition of speech. After ideography, logography and syllabaries, the alphabet represents a further segmentation of meaning.

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