The Five Original Writing Systems


Only five independent writing systems have been produced in the entire human history.  Sumerian, Egyptian, Harappan, Mayan, and Chinese.  Among them only Chinese has survived into modern age.  All others have long since ceased to be functional.  From Egyptian and Sumarian, the proto-Canaanite was developed in 1750 BC and became precursor of all the alphabetic languages


Sumerian Egyptian Harappan Mayan Chinese


Sumerian      (back to top)

The Sumerian language was not deciphered until the nineteenth century of our era, when it was found to be different from both the Indo-European and Semitic language groups. Fifteen hundred cuneiform symbols were reduced in the next thousand years to about seven hundred, but it did not become alphabetic until about 1300 BC. By 2500 BC libraries were established at Shuruppak and Eresh, and schools had been established to train scribes for the temple and state bureaucracies as well as to legally document contracts and business transactions.Schools were regularly attended by the sons of the aristocracy and successful; discipline was by caning.

Sumerian, the oldest known written language in human history, was spoken in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq and peripheral regions) throughout the third millennium. BC and survived as an esoteric written language until the death of the cuneiform tradition around the time of Christ. The Sumerian language, which is related to no other known tongue, was only properly deciphered this century. A considerable literature in Sumerian is currently being reconstructed from fragmentary clay tablets housed in the museums of the world. A logogram is a meaningful cuneiform sign.

The most important words in Sumerian had their own cuneiform signs, whose origins were pictographic, making an initial repertoire of about a thousand signs or logograms. Sumerian was an agglutinative language not just in its verb construction, but also in its noun or morpheme construction. The earliest known writing comes from Uruk and has been dated to about 3,300BC. It took the form of 'word-pictures' drawn with a stylus on tablets of damp clay. Each word-picture represented an object. Much later, the complete system had more than 700 signs. Tablets measured about 5cm wide and 2cm thick.
Writing developed as a convenient way to keep records of produce and accounts of trade. It much later became used to record literature and history. The word-pictures from Uruk developed into the script now called cuneiform. The pictures gradually became 'ideographs', an object also meaning an 'idea'. Then came 'phonograms' representing sounds as well as the meaning of a picture. Cuneiform was a syllabic script with hundreds of wedge-shaped signs that developed from these pictures. The Sumerians were the earliest to write in cuneiform, closely followed by the Assyrians, Babylonians, Elamites, Hittites, Hurrians and the Urartu from Anatolia.

Cuneiform was the language of politics until the fifth century BC. It died out and was replaced by the 22 letter Aramaic in about 900BC. The Sumerians of southern Mesopotamia, who assigned their own word-sounds to the symbols, wrote the earliest known documents in cuneiform. Tools included clay tablets and a wedged shaped stylus to produce writing.
Over 200,000, many from city of Mari, have been preserved. Sir Henry Rawlinson deciphered writing after finding the "Rock of Behistun" in present-day Iran.

Egyptian      (back to top)

The language consists of approximately 121 bi-literals, 75 tri-literals, and various determinants and phonetic complements. The bi-literals were individual symbols which expressed two sounds and the tri-literals were individual symbols which express three sounds. Phonetic complements are monoliterals found in front of and/or behind multi-consonantal signs in order to provide clarity and also to complete the meaning of the word. They normally repeat sounds already found in the word, but have no separate sound value.

Special attention was given to the Aesthetics of the language. The sentences were not written with one individual symbol after another. All words took a quadrangular form which some scholar call the square principle; the symbols are placed in an imaginary square and the upper ones take precedence over the lower. The majority of the language was written from right to left except for occasional specific purposes. The determinants were symbols which had no sound value and were used at the end of the word to decipher the meaning between two words with the same symbols. The determinant normally came at the end of the word and demonstrated the meaning of the entire word. Many of the determinants which were added to the words (sometimes more than one per word) did not seem to be relevant to the word's meaning to most European scholars, but I will show that there is a connection with the language to the spiritual beliefs of the people who spoke the language.

These symbols, "Medu Netcher" [Mdw Ntr], cannot be understood without understanding African spirituality and African spirituality cannot be understand without understanding Medu Netcher. The language had to be deciphered in two ways; first it had to be transliterated from symbols to orthographic text and then translated into English.


Harappan      (back to top)

Archaeological and linguistic evidence indicates that the Dravidians were the founders of the Harappan culture which extended from the Indus Valley through northeastern Afghanistan, on into Turkestan. The Harappan civilization existed from 2600-1700 BC. The Harappan civilization was twice the size the Old Kingdom of Egypt. In addition to trade relations with Mesopotamia and Iran, the Harappan city states also had active trade relations with the Central Asian peoples.

To compensate for the adverse ecological conditions, the Harappans first settled sites along the Indus river. (Fairservis 1987:48) The Dravido-Harappans occupied over 1,000 sites in the riverine Indus Valley environments where they had soil and water reserves. The Harappan sites are spread from the Indus Valley to Ai Kharnoum in northeastern Afghanistan and southward into India. In Baluchistan and Afghanistan Dravidian languages are still spoken today. Other Harappan sites have been found scattered in the regions adjacent to the Arabian sea, the Derajat, Kashmir, and the Doab.

The Indus region is an area of uncertain rains because it is located on the fringes of the monsoon. Settlers in the Indus Valley had to suffer frequent droughts and floods. Severe droughts frequently occurred in the Indus Valley so the people dug wells to insure for themselves a safe supply of water.To compensate for the adverse ecological conditions, the Harappans settled sites along the Indus river.The Mature Harappan civilization is divided into two variants the Sorath Harappan and the Sindhi Harappan. The Sindhi Harappan sites are sites characterized by elaborate architecture, fired brick construction, sewage systems and stamp seals. The Sindhi Harappan styles have been found in Gujarat, Kutch, the Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. The major Sindhi cities include Mohenjodaro, Lothal, Rangpur, Harappa, Rangpur, Desalpur, Shirkotada, Manda, Ropar, Kalibangan and Chanhudaro.

The Sindhi Harappans possessed writing, massive brick platforms, well-digging a system of weights-and-measures, black-and-red ware (BRW), metal work and beads. (Possehl 1990:268) The Harappans were masters of hydraulic engineering.They were a riverine people that practiced irrigation agriculture. They had both the shaduf and windmills.(Fairservis 1991) In the Harappan sites domestic quarters and industrial areas were isolated from each other. The Sorath Harappan sites lack stamp seals, ornaments and elaborate architecture. Sorath is the ancient name for Saurashtra. The Sorath Harappan sites are located in Saurashtra, Kulli, and the Harappan style of Baluchistan and Gujarat. The Dravido-Harappans occupied over 1,000 sites in the riverine Indus Valley environments where they had soil and water reserves. The Harappan sites are spread from the Indus Valley to Ai Kharnoum in northeastern Afghanistan and southward into India. In Baluchistan and Afghanistan Dravidian languages are still spoken today. Other Harappan sites have been found scattered in the regions adjacent to the Arabian sea, the Derajat , Kashmir and the Doab.


Mayan      (back to top)

The Mayans evolved the only true written system native to the Americas and were masters of mathematics.The Maya writing system (often called hieroglyphics from a vague superficial resemblance to the Egyptian writing, to which it is not related) was a combination of phonetic symbols and ideograms. It is the only writing system of the Pre-Columbian New World that can completely represent spoken language to the same degree as the written language of the old world. The decipherment of the Maya writings has been a long laborous process. Bits of it were first deciphered in the late 19th and early 20th century (mostly the parts having to do with numbers, the calendar, and astronomy), but major breakthroughs came starting in the 1960s and 1970s and accelerated rapidly thereafter, so that now the majority of Maya texts can be read nearly completely in their original languages.With the decipherment of the Maya script it was discovered that the Maya were one of the few civilizations where artists attached their name to their work.

The Maya developed a highly complex system of writing, using pictographs and phonetic or syllabic elements. Their writing was highly sophisticated. Most likely only members of the higher classes were able to read their symbols.Maya writing was composed of recorded inscriptions on stone and wood and used within architecture. Rectangular lumps of plaster and paint chips are a frequent discovery in Maya archaeology; they are the remains of what had been books after all the organic material has decayed.Folding tree books were made from fig tree bark and placed in royal tombs. Unfortunately, many of these books did not survive the humidity of the tropics or the invasion of the Spanish, who regarded the symbolic writing as the work of the devil.

The Maya also carved these symbols into stone, but the most common place for writing was probably the highly perishable books they made from bark paper, coated with lime to make a fresh white surface. These 'books' were screen-folded and bound with wood and deer hide.They are called codices; codex is singular. Unfortunately zealous Spanish priests shortly after the conquest ordered the burning of all the Maya books. While many stone inscriptions survive - mostly from cities already abandoned when the Spanish arrived - only 3 books and a few pages of a fourth survive from the ancient libraries. Only four codices remain today. The contents of the codices must have varied, but some of them were evidently similar to astronomic almanacs. We have examples of a Venus table, eclipse tables in a codex in Dresden. There is a codex in Paris that seems to contain some kind of Maya Zodiac, but if it is and how it must have worked are still unknown.

Another major example of Maya almanacs are present in the Madrid Codex. The fourth codex is called the Grolier and was authenticated as late as 1983. These codices probably contained much of the information used by priests or the noble class to determine dates of importance or seasonal interest. We can only speculate as to whether or not the Maya developed poetry or drama that was committed to paper. The codices probably kept track of dynastic information as well.Mayans had a voluminous literature, covering the whole range of native interests either written, in their own peculiar "calculiform" hieroglyphic characters, in books of maguey paper or parchment which were bound in word, or carved upon the walls of their public buildings.

Twenty-seven parchment books were publicly destroyed by Bishop Landa at Mani in 1562, others elsewhere in the peninsula, others again at the storming of the Itzß capital in 1697, and almost all that have come down to us are four codices, as they are called, viz., the "Codex Troano", published at Paris in 1869; another codex apparently connected with the first published at Paris in 1882; the "Codex Peresianus", published at Paris in 1869-71; and the "Dresden Codex", originally mistakenly published as an Aztec book in Kingsborough's great work on the "Antiquities of Mexico" (London, 1830-48).

Besides these pre-Spanish writings, of which there is yet no adequate interpretation, we have a number of later works written in the native language by Christianized Maya, shortly after the conquest.Several of these have been brought together by Brinton in his "Maya Chronicles". The intricate calendar system of the Maya, which exceeded in elaboration that of the Aztec, Zapotec, or any other of the cultured native races, has been the subject of much discussion. It was based on a series of katuns, or cycles, consisting of 20 (or 24), 52, and 260 years, and by its means they carried their history down for possibly thirteen centuries, the completion of each lesser katun being noted by the insertion of a memorial stone in the wall of the great temple at Mayapan.


Chinese      (back to top)

Preamble (from Keightley)

The origins of Chinese writing are closely associated with the great shift from Neolithic culture to Bronze Age civilization. This shift is of particular interest in China, where it occurred roughly in the second millennium B. C., because it lies at the genesis of one of the world's great civilizations and because it largely occurred in isolation. The writing system that emerged was, like most of the features of China's Bronze Age civilization, indigenous. The origins of writing in China are also of particular interest because there have been few cultures where high literacy, high civilization, and aesthetic prowess have been so intimately combined. Literacy in China involved not only a profound knowledge of the written classics but also the ability to wield a brush effectively, either to paint a landscape, usually with a poem inscribed at its side, or to write Chinese characters in a way that conveyed not just their meaning but also their aesthetic vitality and the taste of their composer. As Michael Sullivan has put it:

From the merchant who hoists up his newly written shop-sign with ceremony and incense to the poet whose soul takes flight in the brilliant sword-dance of the brush, calligraphy is revered above all other arts. Not only is a man's writing a clue to his temperament, his moral worth and his learning, but the uniquely ideographic nature of the Chinese script has charged each individual character with a richness of content and association the full range of which even the most scholarly can scarcely fathom.

A man absorbed with writing was absorbed not just with words but with symbols and, through the act of writing with the brush, with a form of painting and thus with the world itself. To the lover of high culture, the way in which something was written could be as important as its content. There is still a third reason why the origins of Chinese writing are of interest: namely, the seminal and overriding importance of Chinese script in the general history of East Asia. It is hard for us today to conceive of the cultural dominance that imperial China exerted over Korea, Japan, and much of Southeast Asia. China was to this area what the Near East, Greece, and Rome were to Europe. China was the source of all high culture, and its influence, including that of its writing system, was accordingly great during the early periods when civilization was developing in the neighboring countries. This influence derived in part from China's early start. China was developing an advanced Bronze Age civilization by about the middle of the second millennium B.C., well before the surrounding areas reached such a stage. The influence also derived from the remarkable attractiveness of Chinese civilization, including its writing system. The majestic words with which Edward Gibbon opened his Decline and Fall of the Roman EmpireŚ"In the second century of the Christian era, the Empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth and the most civilized portion of mankind"Śmight equally well have been applied to the empire of China in the middle of the second century before Christ, and certainly to several high points of the dynastic cycle since. China's impact on Japan from the Nara period of the seventh century onward, to cite but one example, was immense. Nara was modeled on the T'ang capital of Ch'ang-an, and its administration, law codes, court rituals and ceremonies, and even Buddhist religion, were all based on Chinese prototypes. The Chinese writing system, with its multistroke characters and its emphasis on elegant calligraphy, was a key element in this wave of sinification.

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