From Stone Tablets to Digital Tablets: A Brief History of the Written Word

Ancient writing, a quill and a book

The use of the written word as a form of communication is something we take for granted, and like everything else it has come a long way from the days of hieroglyphics and cave painting. Think of the voice-initiated typing programs of today, in which people can express thoughts in type form without even lifting a finger, for example.

With writing, innovations may come and go, but the essence is still there. The written form offers humans the ability to communicate with others and express themselves in a permanent way.  Together we will look at the development of various scripts, or systems of writing, over the years and how the printing press revolutionized written communication forever. More importantly, we can trace back all the innovations we experience today on our laptops, home computers, tablets and phones to the evolution of the written word.

The written word completely changed the way humans communicate. Without written communication, we simply wouldn’t be as connected as we are today.

Ancient Beginnings

During the 3rd Millennium BC or the Bronze Age, the Sumerians and the Egyptians, separately developed the first known forms of written communication.

Writing on bone and ivory tablets required brevity, so these cultures created pictographs, which are small images used in a literal way to depict what is being communicated. With the vastness of things that humans need to communicate, this process naturally had its downfalls. What about concepts like God? Or hunger? Or love?

The need to depict the figurative concepts caused these ancient cultures to develop a process in which they would combine the literal pictures to create concepts, often through the use of puns, or create a combination of pictures in a rudimentary form… Similar to Pictionary. For instance, a picture of three wavy lines (or river) would be combined with an image of man to indicate “thirst.”

The Sumerians: The First Accountants

Ancient Sumerians in Mesopotamia, Persia and Ugarit created their first script for rudimentary accounting – this was called “cuneiform”. In the late 4th millennium BC, a basic version of this style began to form. Temple chiefs were referred to as “sangu” which roughly translates to the modern word “accountant.” These chiefs were charged with the task of keeping track of the temples’ possessions, including animals and precious items. A picture representing an item, like an animal, was drawn on clay tablets with an indication made of how many there were, using specific marks.  The clay was then baked in the sun, and used as an official document.

Egyptians: From Cave Walls to Papyrus

Meanwhile, the ancient Egyptians were scrolling hieroglyphs on cave walls in a more literal and pictographic form and with the advent of Papyrus, paper made from the Papyrus plant, they began to use writing for business as well. Unlike the Sumerians, the Egyptians used a reed pen to write on paper, so their writing was more fluid. The culture even defined different writing styles for religion, literature and business and for personal writings.

From Phonetics to Symbols

The moment when ancient script is said to have become modern is when the Phoenicians drifted away from the pictograph phonetic style, and moved toward a more symbolic alphabetic style in the 2nd Millennium BC.

This Semitic alphabet, developed in Phoenicia and Palestine, was a consonant based alphabet which is still used in Aramaic and Hebrew writings today.

In the 8th century BC, the Greeks added vowels to the Phoenician alphabet, to develop a 24-letter alphabet. However in 7th century BC, it was the Romans who in turn developed the Greek alphabet into Latin Script that spread across Europe, and is linked to today’s modern alphabet.  By the Middle Ages, the spread of Western Christianity took the Latin Script with it, and the alphabet spread across Europe. This alphabet is still the most commonly used form of language used to this day.

The Refinement of Paper to the Advent of Movable Type

In order to understand the significance of the typed word and the printing press, we must understand the development of paper. Before the advent of the movable type press by German Johannes Gutenberg in 1450, the Chinese developed and refined modern paper by using a process of wetting tree bark and smashing it in to cloth leaving only the fibres. They also developed block and clay printing and significantly affected the improvement of ink over the previous centuries. The introduction of paper to Europe, in the 12th century, made the innovation of Gutenberg’s press possible.

From Carolingian to Black Letter

Meanwhile, the evolution of the Latin Script began to make real progress between the 8th Century AD and the advent of the printing press in the Mid 15th Century AD.  Around the late 700s, the Carolingian script was created by Alcuin to write the the “Godesalc Evangelistary”, a book of gospels commissioned by Emperor Charlemagne.

After the Carolingian script, came the Black Letter script of the Middle Ages, which began development in the 11th Century AD, as a monotonous handwritten style produced for universities, and later became revolutionized with the advent of the printing press in the Mid 15th Century.

This type was dark and condensed in order to save space, as parchment was expensive at the time. Black Letter type is even used in the famous Gutenberg Bible, which was the first major book printed en masse, and began a new era of written word communication.

After the Press: A Whole New World

Over the next few centuries, the printing press eliminated the need for handwritten manuscripts and made mass production of reading material cheaper, though the problems with illiteracy among the poor were still all too real, which meant that the use of books was still only a pastime of the elite.

That changed in the early 16th century, when the idea arose to create pamphlets for the masses. These one-page pamphlets are the basis for the modern newspapers we know today. The greatest example of this is the Augustinian Friar Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, a document that listed his grievances with the Catholic Church. This was posted to the door of  the All Saints church in Wittenberg with the intention of allowing everyone, including the masses to read it.

The dawning of the age of the pamphlet began, allowing the masses to receive information more easily. People were now kept abreast of issues like the ongoing Thirty Years War that inflamed most of Europe and eventually laid to waste the last of the Holy Roman Empire. As a result of the wide release of pamphlets, illiteracy rates began to slowly fall among the poorer classes.

The Blossoming of a New Age

In Europe, the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolutions may not have existed or been as profound without the printing press. For the first time in history, people were exposed to new ideas that differed from the stiff religious dogma they were used to; with the mass production of the written word, ideas spread like wildfire.

The Renaissance, a growth of intellectual concern in literature and the resurgence of interest in all things Greek and Roman, began in the 14th Century and quickly flourished alongside the advent of the press until the 17th Century. There would be no record of Shakespeare’s writings or the work of Thomas More or Niccolò Machiavelli without the printing press; their masterpieces would have been lost.

The Scientific Revolution, which marked the emergence of the modern scientific method we use today, began at the tail-end of the Renaissance and was also more widespread due to the advantage of mass printing. Books on  mathematics, physics, biology, human anatomy, chemistry and advances in understanding the natural world were available to the public.

Scientists like Nicholaus Copernicus and Sir Isaac Newton would not have been able to share theories of a Sun-centred solar system and gravity during the early Modern Period without this technology. Though many of these free-thinkers faced heresy claims and were oppressed, the wide distribution of these ideas gave way to the ideas of democracy and free speech, which led to both the French and the American Revolutions in the late 17th Century.

The Newspaper Age Leads to Modern Times

In the 1800s, printing presses were now able to print on continuous rolls of paper, and in 1833 the first penny press American colonist Daniel Day’s ‘The New York Sun’, made it even easier and cheaper to disseminate ideas to the public.

European Newspapers had come a long way from the one-page broadsheets of the mid- 17th Century, as well, and the first full newspaper, ‘The London Times’ came around in the mid-1800s. The heyday of the daily affordable paper had begun, leaving people more informed with each day that passed.

From Typewriters to Social Media: The Next Frontier

In 1884, the machine driven Linotype was created, and the typewriter gave people the ability to write quickly and uniformly in their own homes.  These used the QWERTY keyboard system, still found on our laptops today, a uniform layout for keyboards using Latin script named after the top  five letters on the left-hand side of the board.

A century later, the computer and internet changed everything. Though early digital computers were in the works as early as 1939, the modern home computer we know today began in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with the Internet, also developed in the 1980s, becoming widely used in the late 1990s.

With the widespread use of the Internet and computers, today we have the ability to communicate with each other within seconds. It’s hard to avoid taking the ability to express ourselves in a uniform way for granted. From the beginnings of hieroglyphics on cave walls to the ability to communicate with others around the world in a split second, it’s safe to say the written word has come a long way. And with the changing face of how we communicate on social media, through shorthand and hashtags, the evolution continues.

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