A great YouTube video: The History of Writing – Where the Story Begins – Extra History
How did the ancient civilization of Sumer first develop the concept of the written word? It all began with simple warehouse tallies in the temples, but as the scribes sought more simple ways to record information, those tallies gradually evolved from pictograms into cuneiform text which could be used to convey complex, abstract, or even lyrical ideas.
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Sumer was the land of the first real cities, and those cities required complex administration. The temples which kept people together were not only religious places, but also warehouses which stored the community’s collective wealth until it was needed to get through lean years. As the donations came in, scribes would count the items and draw pictures of them on clay tablets. The images quickly became abstract as the scribes needed to rush, and they also morphed to represent not just an image but the word itself – more specifically, the sound of the word, which meant that it could also be written to represent other words that sounded similar (homophones). Sumerian language often put words together to express new ideas, and the same concept applied to their writing. As people came to use this system more, the scribes began to write from left to right instead of top to bottom since they were less likely to mess up their clay tablets that way. Those who read the tablets didn’t appreciate this change, so the scribes rotated the words 90 degrees allowing tablets to be rotated if the reader preferred – but this made the images even more abstract, until eventually the pictograms vanished entirely to be replaced by wedge-shaped stylus marks: cuneiform. Many of Sumer’s neighbors adopted this invention and helped it spread throughout the region, though completely different writing systems developed independently in cultures situated in places like China and South America!
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