Copyright © 2007 Dorling Kindersley
Writing was invented in Mesopotamia, around 3200 BC. Cities had grown so big that people could no longer do business by keeping every detail in their heads. Rulers needed to keep track of who had paid their taxes, which craftworkers had been given rations, and how many goods they had made.
The first writing was made up of pictograms—small pictures representing objects or expressing actions or ideas. These writing systems, which included CUNEIFORM, were complicated, and few people managed to learn them.
Different forms of picture-writing developed in Egypt, China, and Meso- (Middle) America. In the Indus Valley, scribes used pictures combined with symbols—a system that today’s experts have still not explained.
Cuneiform is the name given to the wedge-shaped script, written using trimmed reeds, developed by scribes in Sumer around 2900 BC. It was borrowed by other Middle Eastern peoples to write and develop their own languages, before the ALPHABET was developed.
The first pictograms were scratched on to tablets of wet clay, using stalks from reeds that grew beside Mesopotamian rivers. The tablets were then dried in the sun to preserve the written text. Scribes (people trained to copy manuscripts) soon began to trim the reeds to make a triangular tip, which created clear, wedge-shaped marks.
The world’s first alphabet was invented in around 1000 BC by the Phoenicians, who lived in the eastern Mediterranean region. Unlike pictogram scripts, the alphabet used letters that stood for individual sounds.
The Phoenicians discovered that letters could be put together in different combinations to spell almost all known words. Alphabetic writing needed fewer than 30 letters, compared with the 600 cuneiform symbols used by Sumerian scribes, or the 5,000 characters used by Chinese scholars. This made it much easier to learn, so literacy (reading and writing) became much more widespread in societies using alphabetic scripts.