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LanguagePrintCritical dictionary


David Olson

The use of visible marks for representational and communicative purposes is perhaps as old as mankind itself with some evidence of such use dating back some 50,000 years.   The Upper Paleolithic (roughly 30,000 - 10,000 years before the present) provides clear evidence of the beginnings of utilitarian developments including pottery making, food preparation, and domestic agriculture, as well as psychological developments manifested in the ornamentation and burial of the dead.  Those developments are more or less contemporaneous with the beginnings of representational drawing and the use of tallies for counting.  The use of visible marks for communicative and aesthetic purposes was the first step in the long evolution of the visual and plastic arts.  But it was also the first step towards the development of modern forms of writing.  Just how this development occurred remains the subject of a great deal of modern research by archeologists, linguists, historians and psychologists.



Keywords: figure; oral communication; legible/visible; number; signal; text

The origins of writing

Much depends upon one's conception of writing.  Most scholars now agree that writing is a technology for the representation of speech and that all modern writing systems represent not only ideas but the basic properties of speech namely, the sounds produced in speaking, that is, the phonological properties of speech.  The history of writing, consequently, is largely a matter of tracing the development of the use of visible marks for communicative purposes from their first appearance to the point that they become inscriptions of oral speech.  Indeed, this is the classical view of writing first expressed by Aristotle and adopted in modern times by distinguished linguist Ferdinand de Saussure.  Aristotle wrote in De interpretatione: "Words spoken are symbols or affections or impressions of the soul: written words are the signs of words spoken". 

The invention of written inscriptions designed to represent the properties of spoken utterances is clearly a late achievement first appearing in the all-purpose writing systems developed independently in Sumeria (modern Iraq), Egypt and China some 3000 years BC whereas, as noted, written representations used for communicative purposes go back much further to Paleolithic period.  A traceable line of development from theseearly inscriptions to modern ones seemed to imply a direct evolutionary process.  Beginning with visual signs for ideas, they developed into signs for words, then to signs for sounds, and ultimately to signs for the minimum constituents of sound, namely, the phonemes represented by letters of the alphabet. Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his Essay on the origin of language (1754-91) was an early proponent of the view that not only had writing systems progressed from primitive to advanced but also that the societies employing them could also be ranked.
These three ways of writing correspond almost exactly to three different stages according to which one can consider men gathered into a nation.  The depicting of objects is appropriate to a savage people; signs of words and propositions, to a barbaric people, and the alphabet to civilized peoples.

Needless to say, such rankings always placed the writer's own society at the top.
Modern linguists, beginning with I. J. Gelb in his book A study of writing (1963), saw the development of writing as a single evolutionary achievement with the alphabet at the pinnacle.  He distinguished four states in this evolution beginning with picture writing, which expressed ideas directly, followed by word-based writing systems or logograms, then sound based syllabic writing systems or syllabaries, and concluding with phoneme based writing systems or alphabets.  The Greeks have long been credited with the invention of the alphabet.  As Eric Havelock put it in his The Literate Revolution in Greece and Its Cultural Consequences (1982): "At a stroke the Greeks provided a table of elements of linguistic sound not only manageable because of economy, but for the first time in the history of homo sapiens, also accurate". 

The emphasis upon the alphabet is now seen as somewhat misleading in that it leads to the underestimation of the optimality of other writing systems such as Chinese and Japanese which rely heavily on signs for whole words, it underestimates the efficiency of Arabic and Hebrew scripts which like syllabaries have no signs for vowels, and it completely underestimated the success of the writing systems of the ancient Americas.  Peter Daniels, in his article "Grammatology" in the Cambridge Handbook of Literacy, speaks for most linguists in criticizing the evolutionary approach, adopting rather a functional approach to the history of writing, and arguing that writing systems in every part of the world have adapted to the functions they are called upon to serve as well as to the properties of the language spoken by their inventers.  Thus, there are many histories of writing to be written rather than a single all-encompassing one.  And the study of visual signs used for communicative purposes including the whole range of the visual and plastic arts has become an active focus of research parallel to but largely independent of the study of writing.


From tokens to scripts - The case of Sumerian writing

Full-scale writing systems, that is writing systems capable of expressing anything that could be said orally, developed independently in at least four ancient societies, in Sumer in the region the Greeks later called Mesopotamia, now modern Iraq, in Egypt, in China and in Central America. In each case the elaboration of a full-scale writing system developed in the context of a complex urban society sustained by year round agriculture and managed by a complex administrative bureaucracy.  Early versions of these writing systems developed along with a broad range of visual representational devices.  Tallies for counting and images for aesthetic and religious purposes were used long before the inventions of inscriptions capable of representing spoken language.  Geometrical signs were used to indicate ownership in Mesopotamia four millennia ago in ways comparable to the crests and cattle-brands used to this day; tally sticks were used in Ancient China to keep records of debts and other data and, indeed, tallies were used in Britain by the Royal Treasury until relatively recently; knotted cords were used for keeping records in Ancient China and reached an extremely high level of complexity in the quipu of pre-colonial Peru; and emblems, that is, seals, totem poles, coats of arms, hallmarks, banners, and religious signs made up a part of the graphic codes of ancient times just as they do today.

 Some early graphic devices represented not only deities, objects and relations such as ownership, but some also represented narratives.  A relatively modern example is the picture writing used by the aboriginal peoples of North America in the 17th and 18th century AD.  The Ojibway employed a series of depictions inscribed on birch-bark scrolls to represent the rituals and beliefs of the culture including a pictorial account of the creation of the world.  The Iroquois confederacy used a series of wampum belts to symbolize treaties pertaining to land claims.  Such visual graphic systems served primarily as reminders to the informed rather than as communicative devices to be read by others unfamiliar with the content.  Hence, the inscriptions could not be "read" in the modern sense of the word.  Again, such tokens and inscriptions represent ideas and events but they do not represent language about those events and hence are not writing systems in the modern sense of that term.

 Just how such writing systems developed from such notational devices varied from one context to another but that of the Sumerian invention of hieroglyphics is perhaps the best understood.  One extremely important graphic form from which Sumerian as well as most western writing systems have evolved is the token system developed for accounting purposes in Mesopotamia beginning in the ninth millennium BC.  The system consisted of a set of tokens of distinctive shape and marking, used to keep records of sheep, cattle and other animals, and of goods of various kinds such as oil and grain.  Thousands of these tokens have been unearthed in such ancient cities as Ur, Lagash, Larsa and Umma, now a wasteland.

  About the fourth millennium BC, roughly at the time of the growth of cities with their more complex commercial and social requirements, the variety of tokens increased greatly, presumably because of the increasing number of types of items to be inventoried, and the tokens began to be pierced in such a way that they could be strung together to represent more complex transactions.  Then, according to Denise Schmandt-Besserat's Before writing (1992), a curious and remarkable transformation occurred.  The tokens were placed in a clay envelope and marks inscribed on the envelope to indicate the contents.  These inscribed marks were similar in shape to the tokens, and the inscribed marks provided the basis for what became cuneiform writing as further developed by the other inhabitants of the area, the Akkadians, the Babylonians and the Assyrians.  The plastic sculptured tokens had been replaced by marks on a surface, the first clear evidence of writing.  Thousands of cuneiform tablets have been found through the Middle East indicating that the writing system was used not only locally but also for international trade and other forms of communication.

 The most common early cuneiform tablets represent business transactions, the buying and selling of property or other goods. One such tablet, currently in the British Museum is thought to be the inventory of a storehouse.  The tablet is squared off into cells, each of which lists a product and an amount.  The symbol for a jar resting on a pointed base stands for beer while the round impressions in the clay stand for quantities.  Quantities are represented by two shapes, one produced by the end of a round stylus representing a set of six, and the other produced by edge of the round stylus representing units.  While some uncertainty remains as to the correct reading of such tablets, the cell in question may be read as "twenty three vats of beer".

 Paleographers have noted that by the third millennium BC literary texts also appear and such texts give clear indications of reflecting the linguistic knowledge of the writer.  The first indication is the introduction of word signs.  The sign for beer on early cuneiform tablets, a v-shape similar to the vat containing the beer, is a sign for a commodity, not a sign for the word "beer".  Nor does the sign for a bee necessarily represent the word "bee"; it may just represent the object, a bee, as is typical in the picture writing employed by the aboriginal people of North America described above.  But when the sign for bee is now appropriated to represent the verb "be", the sign has become a word sign, a logograph.  The principle involved in this case is that of the rebus, the use of a sign that normally represents one thing to represent a linguistic entity that sounds the same. This new entity is a word.  This rebus principle was used widely in the elaboration of early Sumerian logographs into Akkadian syllabaries.  Signs that once represented entities came to be use to represent spoken syllables of completely unrelated words.  The same principle is used in Egyptian hieroglyphic inscriptions and indeed, was critical to decoding that ancient and lost script.  Paleographers noted that the first sign, a small square, in the royal name "Ptolemy" was identical to the fifth sign in the royal name "Cleopatra" and led to the discovery that the sign represented a sound similar to that represented by the letter p.  Similarly, the bird-shaped sign in the sixth and ninth position in Cleopatra represents a sound similar to the letter a.  This same principle, using the sign for an object to represent rather the sound of a syllable or a phoneme has been shown to operate in the writing system of the ancient Mayans of Central America.


Tallies and tokens represent by means of one tally or token for each object represented.  Four sheep could be represented by four marks on a stick, four pebbles in a pouch or by four sheep-shaped tokens on a string, as did the early Sumerians.  But when the four tokens are represented by two signs, one representing the object, sheep, and the other a number, four, writing in the modern sense has emerged.  Signs are no longer emblems or token but linguistic word signs that have the syntactic properties that allow them to be read as expressions in a natural language.  Only when it becomes possible to differentiate the activity of describing what a picture shows from reading what a text says, can a graphic notational system be appropriately described as a writing system.  The evolution of a writing system that represents the properties of speech is thus not only an enormous technical achievement but also it marks an important stage in the consciousness of the implicit properties of language.

 The evolution of notations for number is closely tied to the invention of notations for language although it involved the additional constraint that the notations be useful for computational functions unique to mathematics.  Early notations were simple one to one functions, one mark for each item enumerated.  Then groupings of such notations, such as the diagonal slash across four marks to indicate a grouping of five, were invented, presumably to make addition easier.  Early cuneiform writing systems already exhibited such groupings or bases.  Whereas Arabic number systems operate on the base of ten, Sumerian number systems had a base of six.  Thus sixty would be ten sixes just as for us twenty-five is not twenty-five ones but rather five fives.  Interestingly, once number notations had been invented, mathematics as a discipline soon developed in which the properties of number were investigated in their own rights as well as for their supposed magical properties.

Stephen Chrisomalis in his article "The origins and co-evolution of literacy and numeracy" in the Cambridge Handbook of Literacy,  distinguished simple tallies from more complex numerical notation systems. Some artifacts from the Upper Paleolithic period appear to have been numerical markings, lunar calendars, or similar tallies or mnemonic devices. In contrast, numerical notation systems are structured symbolic systems of permanent, trans-linguistic graphic marks for recording numbers.   They include the Hindu-Arabic numerals, the Roman numerals, and over 100 other systems used over the past 5000 years, few of which are still used.

At least five numerical notation systems were invented independently and while ancient Peru had a numerical notation system but not a phonologically based writing system, in most cases script traditions had both writing and notations for number.

 Learning to write

The processes that children go through in the course of learning to write provides further evidence as to the special nature of writing.  Young children from the age of about two years begin to make marks on paper if appropriate tools are available.  At first, such marks are purely expressive, providing satisfaction in their production rather than in what they represent or communicate.  When asked what they are drawing, a child may answer: "I don't know, I have not finished yet".  By the age of three of four, the drawings represent objects: a flower, a dog, a parent or oneself.  Soon the representations are embedded in a context and take on narrative qualities.  At the same time their communicative properties become prominent and children use marks to indicate ownership and they show their pictures to others or have them prominently displayed.


Yet the distinction between what the picture shows and what a text says, remains a hurdle to be overcome in the process of learning to read and write.  Pre-reading children may distinguish the request to "Draw a cat" from that to "Write 'a cat'", making an outline in the former case and only a scribble in the latter.  But when asked to "Write 'three cats'" they will produce three squiggles, one for each cat, rather than two squiggles, one for each of the words "three" and "cats".  Such demonstrations indicate that the hurdle to overcome is to learning to think of the linguistic properties of the expression, the words and the sounds rather than to think of the properties of the objects or events depicted.  Again, it suggests that drawing is a more fundamental cognitive competence than is writing and it explains why literacy is such a difficulty and yet such an important social and psychological achievement.

 Art, language and culture

Our challenge is to understand the past on the basis of material evidence interpreted in the light of our own modern experience.  Cultures without writing leave traces that indicate important aspects of culture.  The invention and refinement of tools has long been seen as evidence evolutionary development, unique to the human species.  Equally important evidence of human evolution is the early use of visual symbols including tokens, tallies and graphic images that indicate the social practices of the culture as well as provide evidence of the cognitive capacities of our ancestors.  Whether such visual symbols, including plastic and graphic arts, precede or follow the evolution of a natural language remains unclear.  What is clear is that early graphic symbols, both historically and in the ontogenetic development of children, develop quite independently of language and remain in large part an alternative mode of expression and communication.  Indeed, these functions are subserved by different regions of the brain.  Only under special conditions, primarily urban and agricultural development, have such visual representations evolved into the special kind of graphic forms we know as writing.  Writing systems are devices that connect the graphic representations with linguistic ones, combining these distinctive resources of the brain.  Thus writing is not only a socially useful practice it exploits as well as develops and elaborates a particular set of cognitive resources.

Along with the special set of visual forms adopted to serve as elements of writing systems, other visual symbols continue to serve a vast range informative, communicative and aesthetic functions that rival in significance those long served writing and literacy.


Gaur, A. (1984).  A history of writing.  London: The British Museum.

Gelb, I.J.  (1963).  A study of writing.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Olson, D. R. (1994). The world on paper.  Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Olson, D. R. & Torrance, N. J. (Eds.) (2009).  The Cambridge Handbook of Literacy.  Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Goody, J. (Ed.) (1968).  Literacy in traditional societies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Havelock, E. (1982).  The literate revolution in Greece and its cultural consequences.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Schmandt-Besserat, D. (1992).  Before writing.  Austin: University of Texas.


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