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Around 3400 BC, the Sumerians invented a form of ’writing primitive to record business transactions. Cuneiform writing, obtained by imprinting reeds on wet clay, took several hundred years to evolve into a more complex system and the invention of the alphabet. Its uses diversified, from the recording of legal codes and historical chronicles to the transmission of messages, including the writing of religious and literary texts.
A definition of writing?
In order to clearly mark the difference between writing signs and pictograms, writing in the strict sense can therefore be given the following definition: "system of graphic symbols making it possible to record and transmit any statement in human language". This means that writing is related to language by definition or, in other words, that anything that can be said can be written and vice versa. As a corollary, if it is not, it is not writing.
Was writing thus defined "invented"? If so, by whom and under what circumstances? To meet possible inventors, you have to go back in time, that is to say, in practice, look to inscriptions whose archeology attests to their age. We must then decipher these inscriptions, in other words read them. If it is successful, it is writing, by definition. Otherwise, the question remains open.
Today, four systems of ancient signs can be read: the Sumerian cuneiform script, which appeared in the land of Sumer (Lower Mesopotamia) before the end of the 4th millennium BC. J.-C .; the Egyptian writing, which appeared around the same time; ancient Chinese writing, attested from the end of the 2nd millennium BC. AD; Mayan writing, which appeared in the 3rd century AD. On the other hand, other systems of signs remain undeciphered, such as that of the Cretans (1800-1450 BC) or that of the Indus civilization (2500-1900 BC). . The four systems we can read have some things in common. Three of them were born independently in regions far removed from one another: Mesopotamia, North China and Mesoamerica (present-day Mexico and Guatemala). The same seems to be true of the Egyptian system, possibly influenced by the Sumerian example.
From the practice of the rebus to the birth of writing
In any case, archeology shows that the use of pictograms preceded writing. In all cases also, the practice known as "the rebus" made it possible to diversify the roles of signs and opened the way to writing proper.
The rebus is based on the distinction made between the semantic value of a sign and its phonetic value. This is how in French the juxtaposition of the drawing of a cat and the drawing of a grain can be read "chagrin". In Sumerian, the sign (originally pictographic) corresponding to the word "plant", pronounced mu, was applied to the word "year", also pronounced mu, then to the affix mu meaning "my", then to any syllable mu. This example shows how we go from the game of homonymies to a purely phonetic element: the syllable. It also shows that the practice of the rebus allows not only to write abstract words, but also and above all grammatical elements such as "my" and many others, essential for the formulation of sentences. It should be noted that in Egyptian vowels are not taken into account in writing; It follows that the rebus does not lead to syllables but to consonants, alone or in groups of two or three: the sign representing an owl reads "m", that representing a beetle reads "hpr", etc.
If there is an "invention" of writing, this is undoubtedly where it lies: in the distinction between semantic value and phonetic value of symbols. But it may also be that this distinction results from an accumulation of small empirical innovations, in other words a gradual evolution. Be that as it may, the systems using the rebus remain very complicated, because a large number of signs continue to be used for their semantic value ("logograms") while also being used for their phonetic value ("syllabograms"). "). They are referred to as "logo-syllabics" (or "logo-consonantal" in the Egyptian case).
Writing, an invention that describes the world
From the first millennium BC, the great world civilizations had developed writing systems for the administration, so that we cannot really speak of a inventor of writing, but from several peoples over the same period. The first known written documents are inventories of goods. Discovered on clay tablets unearthed in Uruk, Mesopotamia, they date back to 3400 BC. Subsequently, some rulers related their exploits on stone monuments, and myths and legends relating to religious beliefs were also written. Primitive writing systems used simplified drawings (pictograms). Later, they evolved into more complex phonetic signs. These two systems are still in use in different parts of the world. The Rosetta Stone, discovered at the end of the 18th century, is testimony to this cohabitation.
Using pointed reeds, the scribes of Mesopotamia traced pictograms on moist clay tablets which then dried. This form of writing is called cuneiform. The Egyptians wrote on the ancestor of paper, obtained from papyri from the banks of the Nile. As for the Chinese, they carved signs on animal bones. The Phoenicians bring new improvements to arrive at the first alphabet of about thirty signs, around 1200 before our era. Historians decipher many of these scriptures, but not all. These testimonies, if they enlighten us more than the archaeological finds, do not however paint a complete picture of the first civilizations.
Transmit ideas and knowledge
In the centuries that followed, alphabetical writing became essential, and the Phoenician alphabet was followed by the Greek alphabet, which itself gave rise to the Latin alphabet. From an initial essentially commercial and legal use, writing becomes a formidable tool for the dissemination of knowledge and literature. It will make the glory of famous authors, poets and thinkers and of antiquity, all over the world. Improvements in various writing media such as the invention of printing in the 15th century will contribute to its sustainability and its evolution over time. Cursive writing, which aims to simplify the lines, will ensure its accessibility to as many people as possible.
- The History of Writing, by Louis-Jean Calvet. Plural, 2011.
- The fabulous history of inventions - From mastery of fire to immortality. Dunod, 2018.