Primitive Writing Systems


Among many ancient societies, writing held an extremely special and important role; often writing was so revered that myths and deities were drawn up to explain its divine origin.

More complete writing systems were preceded by proto-writing—systems of ideographic and/or early mnemonic symbols. True writing in which the content of a linguistic utterance is encoded so that another reader can reconstruct with a fair degree of accuracy, is a later development. It is distinguished from proto-writing, which typically avoids encoding grammatical words and affixes, making it more difficult or impossible to reconstruct the exact meaning intended by the writer unless a great deal of context is already known in advance.

Writing systems are distinguished from other possible symbolic communication systems in that one must usually understand something of the associated spoken language to comprehend the text. By contrast, other possible symbolic systems such as information signs, painting, maps, and mathematics often do not require prior knowledge of a spoken language.

Every human community possesses language, a feature regarded by many as an innate and defining condition of mankind. However, the development of writing systems and their partial supplementation of traditional oral systems of communication have been sporadic, uneven, and slow. Once established, writing systems on the whole change more slowly than their spoken counterparts, and often preserve features and expressions that are no longer current in the spoken language. A great benefit of writing is that it provides a persistent record of information expressed in a language, which can be retrieved at a future date.

When we trace the development stages of writing systems from a conventional proto-writing to actual writing, we will find it following a general series of developmental stages:

  1. Picture writing system: Glyphs—simplified pictures—directly represent objects and concepts; in connection with this the following sub-stages may be distinguished:
  • Mnemonic: Glyphs primarily a reminder;
  • Pictographic: Glyphs directly represent an object or a concept such as (A) chronology, (B) notices, (C) communications, (D) totems, titles, and names, (E) religion, (F) customs, (G) history, and (H) biography;
  • Ideographic: Graphemes are abstract symbols that directly represent an idea or concept.
  1. Transitional system: Graphemes refer not only to the object or idea which it represents, but to its name as well.
  2. Phonetic system: Graphemes refer to sounds or spoken symbols; the form of the grapheme is not related to its meanings. This resolves itself into the following sub-stages:
  • Verbal: Grapheme—logogram—represents a whole word;
  • Syllabic: Grapheme represents a syllable;
  • Alphabetic: Grapheme represents an elementary sound.

In the Old World, actual writing systems developed from Neolithic writing in the Early Bronze Age—4th millennium BCE. The Sumerian archaic—pre-cuneiform—writing and the Egyptian hieroglyphs are generally considered the earliest actual writing systems, both emerging out of their ancestral proto-literate symbol systems, 3400–3200 BCE, with earliest coherent texts from about 2600 BCE.

There is no definite statement as to the material which was in most common use for the purposes of writing at start of the early writing systems. In all ages it has been customary to engrave on stone or metal, or other durable material, with the view of securing the permanency of the record. The common materials of writing were the tablet and the scroll; the former probably having a Chaldean origin, the latter an Egyptian.

Writing is just as important as knowledge is. It can bring and preserve much more knowledge than is possible without writing. When a civilization was able to write, they could record information about how they have done things, their way of life, their life events and their achievements; these records could be exact and could last. Civilizations could also gain ideas from faraway places by writing them down; in fact, a nation that could write was capable of conquering another that could not write, because writing was a source of power.


The article was first published in print in SCIplanet, Spring 2015.

Image by wirestock on Freepik.

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