Six major historical writing systems (left to right, top to bottom): Sumerian pictographs, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Chinese characters, Old Persian cuneiform, Latin alphabet, Devanagari

The history of writing traces the development of writing systems[1] and how their use transformed and was transformed by different societies. The use of writing prefigures various social and psychological consequences associated with literacy and literary culture.

With each historical invention of writing, true writing systems were preceded by systems of ideographic and mnemonic symbols called proto-writing, which were not fully capable of recording spoken language. True writing, where the content of linguistic utterances can be accurately reconstructed by later readers, is a later development. Proto-writing typically avoids encoding grammatical words and affixes, making it difficult or impossible to reconstruct the meaning intended by the writer without significant context being known in advance.

The earliest uses of writing were to document agricultural transactions and contracts in ancient Sumer, but it was soon used in the areas of finance, religion, government, and law. Writing allowed the spread of these social modalities and their associated knowledge, and ultimately the further centralization of political power.[2]


Main article: Writing system

Writing systems typically satisfy three criteria. Firstly, the writing must have some purpose or meaning to it, and a point must be communicated by the text. Secondly, writing systems make use of specific symbols which may be recorded on some writing medium. Thirdly, symbols used in the writing system usually correspond to elements of spoken language.[3][page needed] In general, systems of symbolic communication like information signs, painting, maps, and mathematics are distinguished from writing systems, which require knowledge of an associated spoken language in order to read a text.

Examples of proto-cuneiform (4th millennium BCE) and cuneiform numerals using a sexagesimal system

The development of writing systems and their partial replacement of oral communication has been sporadic, uneven, and slow. In general, writing systems change more slowly than the corresponding spoken languages do, often preserving features and expressions that no longer exist in the spoken language.

Historical accounts

Main articles: Recorded history and Ancient literature

The origins of writing are more generally attributed to the start of the pottery-phase of the Neolithic, when clay tokens were used to record specific amounts of livestock or commodities.[4] These tokens were initially impressed on the surface of round clay envelopes and then stored in them.[4] The tokens were then progressively replaced by flat tablets, on which signs were recorded with a stylus. Actual writing is first recorded in Uruk (modern day Iraq), at the end of the 4th millennium BCE, and soon after in various parts of the Near East.[4]

An ancient Mesopotamian poem gives the first known story of the invention of writing:

Because the messenger's mouth was heavy and he couldn't repeat (the message), the Lord of Kulaba patted some clay and put words on it, like a tablet. Until then, there had been no putting words on clay.

— Sumerian epic poem Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta. c. 1800 BCE.[5][6]

The emergence of writing in a given area is usually followed by several centuries of fragmentary inscriptions. Historians mark the "historicity" of a culture by the presence of coherent texts written the culture.[7] Scholars have disagreed concerning when prehistory becomes history and when proto-writing became "true writing".[8]


See also: List of languages by first written account

Sumer, located in southern Mesopotamia, is believed to be where written language was first invented.
The Kish tablet from Sumer c. 3500 BCE, bearing what is possibly the earliest known writing – Ashmolean Museum

Before the 20th century, most scholarly theories as to how writing was invented promoted forms of "monogenesis",[9] assuming that writing had originated in only one location—namely, with cuneiform in ancient Sumer (modern-day Iraq)—from which it spread across the world via cultural diffusion.[9] According to these theories, writing was such a particular technology that exposure through activities like trade was a much more likely means of acquisition than independent reinvention. Specifically, many theories were dependent on a literal account of the Book of Genesis, including the emphases it placed on Mesopotamia.[10] Over time, greater awareness of the systems of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica conclusively established that writing had been independently invented multiple times. At least four independent inventions are generally recognized: Mesopotamia (c. 3400–3100 BCE), Egypt (c. 3250 BCE),[11][12][9] China (c. 1200 BCE),[13] and Mesoamerica (before 500 BCE).[14]

Sumerian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs are generally considered to be the earliest examples of true writing systems. Both gradually evolved from proto-writing between 3400 and 3100 BCE. The Proto-Elamite script is also believed to have been in use during this period.[15] Regarding Egyptian hieroglyphs,[11][16][17] scholars point to very early differences with Sumerian cuneiform "in structure and style" as to why the two systems "[must] have developed independently", and if any "stimulus diffusion" of writing did occur, it only served to transmit the bare "idea" of writing between cultures.[11][18] Due to the lack of direct evidence for the transfer of writing, "no definitive determination has been made as to the origin of hieroglyphics in ancient Egypt".[19] Others have held that "the evidence for such direct influence remains flimsy" and that "a very credible argument can also be made for the independent development of writing in Egypt ..."[20]

Since the 1990s, the discoveries of glyphs at Abydos, dated to between 3400 and 3200 BCE, have shed doubt on the classical notion that the Mesopotamian symbol system predates the Egyptian one. However, Egyptian writing appeared suddenly at that time, while Mesopotamia had a long evolutionary history of the usage of signs—for agricultural and accounting purposes—in tokens dating to as early as c. 8000 BC. Still, a date of c. 3400 BCE for the earliest Abydos glyphs challenges the hypothesis of diffusion from Mesopotamia to Egypt, pointing to an independent development of writing in Egypt.[21]

It is believed that Chinese characters were invented independently, as there is no evidence of contact between Shang dynasty China and the literate civilizations of the Near East.[22] Furthermore, the approaches to logography and phonetic representation in written Chinese are distinct from those of the earlier systems.[23]


Main article: Proto-writing

Further information: Prehistoric counting

See also: History of communication

Clay bulla and tokens, 4000–3100 BCE, Susa
Numerical tablet, 3500-3350 BCE (Uruk V phase), Khafajah
Pre-cuneiform tags, with drawing of goat or sheep and number (probably "10"), Al-Hasakah, 3300–3100 BCE, Uruk culture[24][25]
Examples of Jiahu symbols (c. 6000 BCE) inscribed on tortoise shells. The majority of the signs uncovered were inscribed individually or in small groups on different shells.[26][27]

The first writing systems of the Early Bronze Age evolved from systems of proto-writing, which used ideographic and mnemonic symbols to communicate information, but did not directly represent human language. Proto-writing emerged as early as the 7th millennium BCE, with well-known examples including:

After the Neolithic, other cultures also developed proto-writing. The quipu used in the Inca Empire (15th century CE) may have been such a system. Prior to the creation of the Yugtun script to write Central Alaskan Yupʼik (c. 1900), the Uyaquq people also used a system of pictographs.

Bronze Age

Further information: History of the alphabet

During the Bronze Age, writing emerged as Sumerian cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Cretan hieroglyphs, Chinese characters, the Indus script, and Olmec hieroglyphs. Cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Chinese characters, and the Mesoamerican writing systems (including Olmec and the Maya script) are believed to have been invented independently of one another.

It is thought that the first true alphabetic writing was developed around 2000 BCE for Semitic-speaking workers in the Sinai Peninsula by giving Egyptian hieratic letters Semitic values. The Geʽez script of Ethiopia and Eritrea is an evolution of the Ancient South Arabian script, in which early Geʽez texts were originally written.[31]

Most other alphabets in the world today either descended from this one innovation, many via the Phoenician alphabet, or were directly inspired by its design. In Italy, about 500 years passed from the early Old Italic scripts to Plautus (c. 750–250 BCE), and in the case of the Germanic peoples, the corresponding time span is again similar, from the first Elder Futhark inscriptions to early texts like the Abrogans (c. 200–750 CE).


Tablet with proto-cuneiform pictographic characters – Uruk III, end of 4th millennium BCE

Main article: Cuneiform

The original Sumerian writing system derives from a system of clay tokens used to represent commodities. By the end of the 4th millennium BCE, this had evolved into a method of keeping accounts, using a round-shaped stylus impressed into soft clay at different angles for recording numbers. This was gradually augmented with pictographic writing by using a sharp stylus to indicate what was being counted. By the 29th century BCE, writing, at first only for logograms, using a wedge-shaped stylus developed to include phonetic elements, gradually replacing round-stylus and sharp-stylus writing by around 2700–2500 BCE. About 2600 BCE, cuneiform began to represent syllables of the Sumerian language. Finally, cuneiform writing became a general purpose writing system for logograms, syllables, and numbers. From the 26th century BCE, this script was adapted to the Akkadian language, and from there to others, such as Hurrian and Hittite. Scripts similar in appearance to this writing system include those for Ugaritic and Old Persian.

Egyptian hieroglyphs

Main article: Egyptian hieroglyphs

Writing was of political importance to the Egyptian empire, and literacy was concentrated among an educated elite of scribes.[citation needed] Only people from certain backgrounds were allowed to train as scribes, in the service of temple, royal, and military authorities.

Geoffrey Sampson stated that Egyptian hieroglyphs "came into existence a little after Sumerian script, and, probably [were], invented under the influence of the latter",[32] and that it is "probable that the general idea of expressing words of a language in writing was brought to Egypt from Sumerian Mesopotamia".[33][34] While there were important relations between the two regions, due to the lack of direct evidence "no definitive determination has been made as to the origin of hieroglyphics in ancient Egypt".[35] Instead, it is pointed out and held that "the evidence for such direct influence remains flimsy" and that "a very credible argument can also be made for the independent development of writing in Egypt".[36]

Designs on tokens from Abydos, dated to c. 3400–3200 BCE[37][38] They bear similarities to contemporary clay tags from Uruk.[39]

Since the 1990s, the discoveries of glyphs dated to between 3400 and 3200 BCE at Abydos may challenge the existing notion that the Mesopotamian symbol system predates the Egyptian one, though Egyptian writing does appear suddenly at that time, while sign usage in Mesopotamian tokens dates to c. 8000 BCE.[38][6][40] These glyphs, found in tomb U-J at Abydos are written on ivory and are likely labels for other goods found in the grave.[41]

Frank Yurco states that depictions of pharaonic iconography such as the royal crowns, Horus falcons and victory scenes were concentrated in the Upper Egyptian Naqada culture and A-Group Nubia. He further elaborates that "Egyptian writing arose in Naqadan Upper Egypt and A-Group Nubia, and not in the Delta cultures, where the direct Western Asian contact was made, [which] further vitiates the Mesopotamian-influence argument".[42]

Egyptian scholar Gamal Mokhtar argues that the inventory of hieroglyphic symbols derived from "fauna and flora used in the signs [which] are essentially African" and in "regards to writing, we have seen that a purely Nilotic, hence African origin not only is not excluded, but probably reflects the reality", although he acknowledges the geographical location of Egypt made it a receptacle for many influences.[43]

Elamite script

Main article: Proto-Elamite script

The undeciphered Proto-Elamite script emerges from as early as 3100 BCE. It is believed to have evolved into Linear Elamite by the later 3rd millennium and then replaced by Elamite Cuneiform adopted from Akkadian.

Indus script

Main article: Indus script

Indus script tablet recovered from Khirasara

Markings and symbols found at various sites of the Indus Valley Civilisation have been labelled as the Indus script citing the possibility that they were used for transcribing the Harappan language.[44] Whether the script, which was in use from about 3500–1900 BCE, constitutes a Bronze Age writing script (logographic-syllabic) or proto-writing symbols is debated as it has not yet been deciphered. It is analyzed to have been written from right-to-left or in boustrophedon.[45]

Early Semitic alphabets

Main article: Middle Bronze Age alphabets

The first abjads, which map symbols to single phonemes, but not necessarily each phoneme to a symbol, emerged c. 1800 BCE in Egypt, as a representation of language developed by Semitic workers in Egypt, but by then alphabetic principles had a slight possibility of being inculcated into Egyptian hieroglyphs for upwards of a millennium.[clarification needed] These early abjads remained of marginal importance for several centuries, and it is only towards the end of the Bronze Age that the Proto-Sinaitic script splits into the Proto-Canaanite alphabet (c. 1400 BCE) Byblos syllabary and the South Arabian alphabet (c. 1200 BCE). The Proto-Canaanite was probably somehow influenced by the undeciphered Byblos syllabary and, in turn, inspired the Ugaritic alphabet (c. 1300 BCE).

Anatolian hieroglyphs

Main article: Anatolian hieroglyphs

Anatolian hieroglyphs are an indigenous hieroglyphic script native to western Anatolia, used to record the Hieroglyphic Luwian language. It first appeared on Luwian royal seals from the 14th century BCE.

Chinese characters

Main articles: Written Chinese and Chinese characters

The earliest confirmed evidence of the Chinese script yet discovered is the body of inscriptions on oracle bones and bronze from the Late Shang period. The earliest of these is dated to around 1250 BCE.[46][47]

There have recently been discoveries of tortoise-shell carvings dating back to c. 6000 BCE, like Jiahu Script, Banpo Script, but whether or not the carvings are complex enough to qualify as writing is under debate.[28] At Damaidi in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, 3,172 cliff carvings dating to c. 6000–5000 BCE have been discovered, featuring 8,453 individual characters, such as the sun, moon, stars, gods, and scenes of hunting or grazing. These pictographs are reputed to be similar to the earliest characters confirmed to be written Chinese. If it is deemed to be a written language, writing in China will predate Mesopotamian cuneiform, long acknowledged as the first appearance of writing, by some 2,000 years; however it is more likely that the inscriptions are rather a form of proto-writing, similar to the contemporary European Vinca script.

Cretan hieroglyphs

Main articles: Cretan hieroglyphs, Linear A, and Linear B

Cretan hieroglyphs are found on artifacts of Crete (early-to-mid-2nd millennium BCE, MM I to MM III, overlapping with Linear A from MM IIA at the earliest). Linear B, the writing system of the Mycenaean Greeks,[48] has been deciphered while Linear A has yet to be deciphered. The sequence and the geographical spread of the three overlapping, but distinct, writing systems can be summarized as follows:[a][48]

Writing system Geographical area Time span
Cretan hieroglyphs Crete (eastward from the Knossos-Phaistos axis) c. 2100−1700 BCE
Linear A Crete (except extreme southwest), Aegean Islands (Kea, Kythera, Melos, Thera), and Greek mainland (Laconia) c. 1800−1450 BCE
Linear B Crete (Knossos), and mainland (Pylos, Mycenae, Thebes, Tiryns) c. 1450−1200 BCE


Main article: Mesoamerican writing systems

A stone slab with 3,000-year-old writing, the Cascajal Block, was discovered in the Mexican state of Veracruz, and is an example of the oldest script in the Western Hemisphere, preceding the oldest Zapotec writing dated to about 500 BCE.[49][50][51]

Of several pre-Columbian scripts in Mesoamerica, the one that appears to have been best developed, and has been fully deciphered, is the Maya script. The earliest inscriptions which are identifiably Maya date to the 3rd century BCE, and writing was in continuous use until shortly after the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores in the 16th century CE. Maya writing used logograms complemented by a set of syllabic glyphs: a combination somewhat similar to modern Japanese writing.

Iron Age

The sculpture depicts a scene where three soothsayers are interpreting to King Suddhodana the dream of Queen Maya, mother of Gautama Buddha. Below them is seated a scribe recording the interpretation. From Nagarjunakonda, 2nd century CE. A child learning the Brahmi Alphabet is also known from the 2nd century BCE in Srughna.

Main article: History of the alphabet

The Phoenician alphabet is continuation of the Proto-Canaanite alphabet into the Iron Age, conventionally taken from a cut-off date of 1050 BCE.[citation needed] This alphabet gave rise to the Aramaic and Greek alphabets. These in turn led to the writing systems used throughout regions ranging from Western Asia to Africa and Europe. For its part the Greek alphabet introduced for the first time explicit symbols for vowel sounds.[52] The Greek and Latin alphabets in the early centuries of the Common Era gave rise to several European scripts such as the Runes and the Gothic and Cyrillic alphabets while the Aramaic alphabet evolved into the Hebrew, Arabic and Syriac abjads, of which the latter spread as far as Mongolian script. The South Arabian alphabet gave rise to the Ge'ez abugida. The Brahmic family of India is believed by some scholars to have derived from the Aramaic alphabet as well.[53]

Grakliani Hill script

A previously unknown script was discovered in 2015 in Georgia, over the Grakliani Hill just below a temple's collapsed altar to a fertility goddess from the 7th century BCE. These inscriptions differ from those at other temples at Grakliani, which show animals, people, or decorative elements.[54][55] The script bears no resemblance to any alphabet currently known, although its letters are conjectured to be related to ancient Greek and Aramaic.[54] The inscription appears to be the oldest native alphabet to be discovered in the whole Caucasus region,[56] In comparison, the earliest Armenian and Georgian script date from the fifth century CE, just after the respective cultures converted to Christianity. By September 2015, an area of 31 by 3 inches of the inscription had been excavated.[54]

According to Vakhtang Licheli, head of the Institute of Archaeology of the State University, "The writings on the two altars of the temple are really well preserved. On the one altar several letters are carved in clay while the second altar's pedestal is wholly covered with writings."[57] The finding was made by unpaid students.[citation needed] In 2016 Grakliani Hill inscriptions were taken to Miami Laboratory for Beta analytic radiocarbon dating which found that the inscriptions were made in c. 1005 – c. 950 BCE.[citation needed]

Greek alphabets

Early Greek alphabet on pottery in the National Archaeological Museum, Athens

Further information: Archaic Greek alphabets

The history of the Greek alphabet began in at least the early 8th century BCE when the Greeks adapted the Phoenician alphabet for use with their own language.[58]: 62  The letters of the Greek alphabet are more or less the same as those of the Phoenician alphabet, and in modern times both alphabets are arranged in the same order.[58] The adapter(s) of the Phoenician system added three letters to the end of the series, called the "supplementals". Several varieties of the Greek alphabet developed. One, known as Western Greek or Chalcidian, was used west of Athens and in southern Italy. The other variation, known as Eastern Greek, was used in present-day Turkey and by the Athenians, and eventually the rest of the world that spoke Greek adopted this variation. After first writing right to left, like the Phoenicians, the Greeks eventually chose to write from left to right. Occasionally however, the writer would start the next line where the previous line finished, so that the lines would read alternately left to right, then right to left, and so on. This was known as "boustrophedon" writing, which imitated the path of an ox-drawn plough, and was used until the sixth century.[59]

Italic and Latin alphabets

Cippus Perusinus, Etruscan writing near Perugia, Italy, the precursor of the Latin alphabet

Further information: History of the Latin script

Greek is in turn the source for all the modern scripts of Europe. The most widespread descendant of Greek is the Latin script, named for the Latins, a central Italian people who came to dominate Europe with the rise of Rome. The Romans learned writing in about the 5th century BCE from the Etruscan civilization, who used one of a number of Italic scripts derived from the western Greeks. Due to the cultural dominance of the Roman state, the other Old Italic scripts have not survived in any great quantity, and the Etruscan language is mostly lost.

Medieval and modern eras

With the collapse of the Roman authority in Western Europe, literacy development became largely confined to the Eastern Roman Empire and the Sassanid Empire. Latin, never one of the primary literary languages, rapidly declined in importance (except within the Roman Catholic Church). The primary literary languages were Greek and Persian, though other languages such as Syriac and Coptic were important too.

The rise of Islam in the 7th century led to the rapid rise of Arabic as a major literary language in the region. Arabic and Persian quickly began to overshadow Greek's role as a language of scholarship. Arabic script was adopted as the primary script of the Persian language and the Old Turkic language. This script also heavily influenced the development of the cursive scripts of Greek, the Slavic languages, Latin, and other languages.[citation needed] The Arabic language also served to spread the Hindu–Arabic numeral system throughout Europe.[citation needed] By the beginning of the second millennium, the city of Córdoba in modern Spain had become one of the foremost intellectual centers of the world and contained the world's largest library at the time.[60] Its position as a crossroads between the Islamic and Western Christian worlds helped fuel intellectual development and written communication between both cultures.

By the 14th century, the Renaissance in Europe led to a temporary revival of the importance of Greek, and a slow revival of Latin as a significant literary language. A similar though smaller emergence occurred in Eastern Europe, especially in Russia. At the same time Arabic and Persian began a slow decline in importance as the Islamic Golden Age ended. The revival of literacy development in Western Europe led to many innovations in the Latin alphabet and the diversification of the alphabet to codify the phonologies of the various languages.

The nature of writing has been constantly evolving, particularly due to the development of new technologies over the centuries. The pen, the printing press, the computer and the mobile phone are all technological developments which have altered what is written, and the medium through which the written word is produced. Particularly with the advent of digital technologies, namely the computer and the mobile phone, characters can be formed by the press of a button, rather than making a physical motion with the hand.

Writing materials

Main article: Writing material

There is no very definite statement as to the material which was in most common use for the purposes of writing at the start of the early writing systems.[61] In all ages it has been customary to engrave on stone or metal, or other durable material, with the view of securing the permanency of the record. Metals, such as stamped coins, are mentioned as a material of writing; they include lead,[b] brass, and gold. There are also references to the engraving of gems, such as with seals or signets.[61]

The common materials of writing were the tablet and the roll, the former probably having a Chaldean origin, the latter an Egyptian. The tablets of the Chaldeans are small pieces of clay, somewhat crudely shaped into a form resembling a pillow, and thickly inscribed with cuneiform characters.[c] Similar use has been seen in hollow cylinders, or prisms of six or eight sides, formed of fine terracotta, sometimes glazed, on which the characters were traced with a small stylus, in some specimens so minutely as to require the aid of a magnifying-glass.[61]

In Egypt the principal writing material was of quite a different sort. Wooden tablets are found pictured on the monuments; but the material which was in common use, even from very ancient times, was the papyrus, having recorded use as far back as 3,000 BCE.[62] This reed, found chiefly in Lower Egypt, had various economic means for writing. The pith was taken out and divided by a pointed instrument into the thin pieces of which it is composed; it was then flattened by pressure, and the strips glued together, other strips being placed at right angles to them, so that a roll of any length might be manufactured. Writing seems to have become more widespread with the invention of papyrus in Egypt. That this material was in use in Egypt from a very early period is evidenced by still existing papyrus of the earliest Theban dynasties.[63]

As the papyrus, being in great demand, and exported to all parts of the world, became very costly, other materials were often used instead of it, among which is mentioned leather, a few leather mills of an early period having been found in the tombs.[61] Parchment, using sheepskins left after the wool was removed for cloth, was sometimes cheaper than papyrus, which had to be imported outside Egypt. With the invention of wood-pulp paper, the cost of writing material began a steady decline. Wood-pulp paper is still used today, and in recent times efforts have been made in order to improve bond strength of fibers. Two main areas of examination in this regard have been "dry strength of paper" and "wet web strength".[64] The former involves examination of the physical properties of the paper itself, while the latter involves using additives to improve strength.

Uses and implications


According to Denise Schmandt-Besserat writing had its origins in the counting and cataloguing of agricultural produce, and then economic transactions involving the produce.[65] Government tax rolls followed thereafter. Written documents became essential for the accumulation and accounting of wealth by individuals, the state, and religious organizations as well as the transactions of trade, loans, inheritance, and documentation of ownership.[66] With such documentation and accounting larger accumulations of wealth became more possible, along with the power that accompanied wealth, most prominently to the benefit of royalty, the state, and religions. Contracts and loans supported the growth of long-distance international trade with accompanying networks for import and export, supporting the rise of capitalism.[67] Paper money (initially appearing in China in the 11th century CE)[68] and other financial instruments relied on writing, initially in the form of letters and then evolving into specialized genres, to explain the transactions and guarantees (from individuals, banks, or governments) of value inhering in the documents.[69] With the growth of economic activity in late Medieval and Renaissance Europe, sophisticated methods of accounting and calculating value emerged, with such calculations both carried out in writing and explained in manuals.[70] The creation of corporations then proliferated documents surrounding organization, management, the distribution of shares, and record-keeping.[71]

Economic theory itself only began to be developed in the latter eighteenth century through the writings of such theorists as François Quesnay and Adam Smith. Even the concepts of an economy and a national economy were established through their texts and the texts of their colleagues.[72] Since then economics has developed as a field with many authors contributing texts to the professional literature, and governments collecting data, instituting policies and creating institutions to manage and advance their economies. Diedre McCloskey has examined the rhetorical strategies and discursive construction of modern economic theory.[73][74][75] Graham Smart has examined in depth how the Bank of Canada uses writing to cooperatively produce policies based on economic data and then to communicate strategically with relevant publics.[76]


The identification of sacred religious texts codified distinct belief systems associated with particular divine texts, and became the basis of the modern concept of religion.[2] The reproduction and spread of these texts became associated with these scriptural religions and their spread, and thus were central to proselytizing.[2] These sacred books created obligations of believers to read, or to follow the teachings of priests or priestly castes charged with the reading, interpretation and application of these texts. Well-known examples of such scriptures are the Torah, the Bible (with its many different compilations of books of the Old and New Testaments), the Quran, the Vedas, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Sutras, but there are far more religious texts through the histories of different religions with many still in current use. These texts, because of their spread, tended to foster generalized guides for moral and ethical behavior, at least for all members of the religious community, but often these guidelines were considered applicable to all humans, as in the Ten Commandments.


Private legal documents for the sale of land appeared in Mesopotamia in the early third millennium BCE, not long after the initial appearance of cuneiform writing.[77] The first written legal codes followed shortly thereafter around 2100 BCE, with the most well known being the Code of Hammurabi, inscribed on stone stellae throughout Babylon circa 1750 BCE.[78] While Ancient Egypt did not have codified laws, legal decrees and private contracts did appear in the Old Kingdom around 2150 BCE. The Torah, or the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, particularly Exodus and Deutoronomy, codified the laws of Ancient Israel. Many other codes were to follow in Greece and Rome, with Roman law to serve as a model for church canon law and secular law throughout much of Europe during later periods.[79][80]

In China, the earliest indications of written codifications of law or books of punishments are inscriptions on bronze vessels in 536 BCE.[81] The earliest extant full set of laws dates back to the Qin and Han dynasties, which set out a full system of social control and governance, with criminal procedures and accountability for both government officials and citizens. These laws required complex reporting and documenting procedures to facilitate hierarchical supervision from the village up to the imperial center.[82]

While common law developed in a mostly oral environment in England after the Roman period, with the return of the church and the Norman conquest, customary law began to be inscribed as were precedents of the courts; however, many elements remained oral, with documents only memorializing public oaths, wills, land transfers, court judgments, and ceremonies. During the late Medieval period, however, documents gained authority for agreements, transactions, and laws. With the founding of the United States, laws were created as statutes within written codes and controlled by central documents, including the federal and state constitutions, with all such legislative documents printed and distributed.[83] Also court judgments were presented in written opinions which then were published and served as precedents for reasoning in consequent judgments in states and nationally. Courts of Appeals in the United States only consider documents relating to records of prior proceedings and judgements and do not take new testimony.[84]

Government, bureaucracy, and journalism

Writing has been central to expanding many of the core functions of governance through law, regulation, taxation, and documentary surveillance of citizens; all dependent on growth of bureaucracy which elaborates and administers rules and policies and maintains records. These developments which rely on writing increase the power and extent of states.[2] At the same time writing has increased the ability of citizens to become informed about the operations of the state, to become more organized in expressing needs and concerns, to identify with regions and states, and to form constituencies with particular views and interests; the history of journalism is closely linked to citizen information, regional and national identity, and expression of interests. These changes have greatly influenced the nature of states, increasing the visibility of people and their views no matter what the form of governance is.

Extensive bureaucracies arose in the ancient Near East[2] and China[85][86] which relied on the formation of literate classes to be scribes and bureaucrats. In the Ancient Near East this was carried out through the formation of scribal schools,[87] while in China this led to a series of written imperial examinations based on classic texts which in effect regulated education over millennia.[88] Literacy remained associated with rise in the government bureaucracy, and printing as it emerged was tightly controlled by the government, with vernacular texts only emerging later and then being limited in their range up through the early twentieth century and the fall of the Ching dynasty.[89] In ancient Greece and Rome, class distinctions of citizen and slave, wealthy and poor limited education and participation. In Medieval and early modern Europe church dominance of education, both before and for a time after the reformation, expressed the importance of religion in the control of the state and state bureaucracies.[90]

In Europe and its colonies in the Americas, the introduction of the printing press and decreasing cost of paper and printing allowed for greater access of ordinary citizens to gain information about the government and conditions in other regions within the jurisdictions.[91] The Reformation with an emphasis on individual reading of sacred texts, eventually increased the spread of literacy beyond the governing classes and opened the door to wider knowledge and criticism of government actions. Divisions in English society during the sixteenth century, the English Civil War of the seventeenth century, and the increased role of parliament that followed, along with the splitting of political religious control[92] were accompanied by pamphlet wars.

Newspapers and journalism, having origins in commercial information, soon was to offer political information and was instrumental to the formation of a public sphere.[93][94] Newspapers were instrumental in the sharing of information, fostering discussion, and forming political identities in the American revolution, and then the new nation. The circulation of newspapers also created urban, regional, and state identification in the latter nineteenth century and after. A focus on national news that followed telegraphy and the emergence of newspapers with national circulation along with scripted national radio and television news broadcasts also created horizons of attention through the twentieth century, with both benefits and costs.[95]

One of the earliest known examples of a named person in writing is Kushim, from the Uruk period.[96]


Much of what we consider knowledge is inscribed in written text and is the result of communal processes of production, sharing, and evaluation among social groups and institutions bound together with the aim of producing and disseminating knowledge-bearing texts; the contemporary world identifies such social groups as disciplines and their products as disciplinary literatures. The invention of writing facilitated the sharing, comparing, criticizing, and evaluating of texts, resulting in knowledge becoming a more communal property across wider geographic and temporal domains. Sacred scriptures formed the common knowledge of scriptural religions, and knowledge of those sacred scriptures became the focus of institutions of religious belief, interpretation, and schooling, as discussed in the section on writing and religion in this article. Other sections in this article are devoted to knowledge specific to the economy, the law, and governance. This section is devoted to the development of secular knowledge and its related social organizations, institutions, and educational practices in other domains.

Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, and Mesoamerica

In Mesopotamia and Egypt, scribes became important for roles beyond the initiating roles in the economy, governance and law. They became the producers and stewards of astronomy and calendars, divination, and literary culture. Schools developed in tablet houses, which also archived repositories of knowledge.[87] In ancient India, the Brahman caste became stewards of texts that aggregated and codified oral knowledge.[97] Those texts then became the authoritative basis for a continuing tradition of oral education. A case in point is the work of Pāṇini the linguist, who analyzed and codified knowledge of Sanskrit syntax, prosody and grammar. Mathematics, astronomy and medicine were also subjects of classic Indian learning and were codified in classic texts.[98] Less is known about Mayan, Aztec, and other Mesoamerican learning because of the destruction of texts by the conquistadors, but it is known that scribes were revered, elite children attended schools, and the study of astronomy, map making, historical chronicles, and genealogy flourished. [99][100]


In China, after the Qin dynasty attempted to remove all traces of the competing Confucian tradition, the Han dynasty made philological knowledge the qualification for the government bureaucracy, so as to restore knowledge that was in danger of vanishing. The Imperial examination system for the civil service, which was to last for two millennia, consisted of a written exam based on knowledge of classical texts. To support students obtaining government positions through the written examination, schools focused on those same texts and the associated philological knowledge.[88] These texts covered philosophical, religious, legal, astronomical, hydrological, mathematical, military, and medical knowledge.[101] Printing as it emerged largely served the knowledge needs of the bureaucracy and the monastery, with substantial vernacular printing only emerging around the fifteenth century CE.[89]

Ancient Greece and Rome

Ancient Greece gave rise to much written knowledge that influenced western learning for two millennia.[102] Although Socrates thought writing an inferior means of transmission of learning (recounted in the Phaedrus), we know of his works through Plato's written accounts of his dialogues. Havelock, as well, has seen the philosophic works of Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle as arising from literacy and the ability to compare accounts from different regions and to develop systematic critical reasoning through the inspection of documents and writing coherent accounts.[103][104][105] Aristotle wrote treatises and lectures which were the core of education at the Lyceum, along with the may volumes collected in the Lyceum's library. Other philosophers such as the Stoics and Epicureans also wrote and taught during the same period in Athens, although we now have only fragments of their works.

Greek writers were the founding writers of many other fields of knowledge. Herodotus and Thucydides writing during the fifth century BCE in Athens are considered the founders of history, transforming genealogy and mythic accounts into systematic investigations of events. Thucydides developed a more critical, neutral history through the examination of documents, transcription of speeches, and interviews. Hippocrates during the same period authored several major works of medicine codifying and advancing the knowledge of this field. In the second century CE the Greek trained physician Galen went to Rome where he wrote numerous works that dominated European medicine through the Renaissance. Hellenized writers in Egypt also produced compendia of knowledge using the resources of the great library at Alexandria, such as Euclid whose Elements of geometry remains a standard reference to today. Ptolemy's work on astronomy dominated through the Middle Ages.

Scholars in Rome continued the practice of writing compendia of knowledge, including Varro, Pliny the Elder, and Strabo. While much of Roman accomplishment was in material culture of construction, Vitruvius documented much of the contemporary practice to influence design until today. Agriculture also became an important area for manuals, such as Palladius' compendium. Numerous manuals of rhetoric and rhetorical education that were to influence future generations also appeared, such as the anonymous Rhetorica ad Herennium, Cicero's de Oratore and Quintilian's Institutio Oratoria.

Islamic world

With the fall of Rome, the Middle East became the crossroads for learning, with knowledge bearing texts from the West and East meeting in Constantinople, Damascus, and then Baghdad. In Baghdad a research institute (or House of Wisdom) with a large library was founded, where Greek works of medicine, philosophy, mathematics and astronomy were translated into Arabic, along with Indian works on mathematics and therapeutics.[106] To these texts, philosophers such as Al-Kindi and Avicenna and astronomers such as Al-Farqhani made new contributions. Al-Kharazami authored the first work on algebra, drawing on both Greek and Indian resources. The centrality of the Quran to the new Islamic religion also led to growth of Arabic Linguistics.[107] From Baghdad knowledge and texts were to flow back to South Asia and down through Africa, with a large collection of books and an educational center around the Sankhore Mosque in Timbuktu, the seat of the Songhai Empire. During this period the deposed Abbasid Caliphate moved its seat of power and learning to Córdoba, now in Spain, where they founded a major library which reintroduced many of the classic texts back into Europe along with texts of Arab learning.

Early universities in Europe

The reintroduction of classic texts into Europe through the library and intercultural intellectual culture in Córdoba, including works of Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, Ptolemy and Galen, along with Arabic texts such as by Avicenna and Al-Kharazami created a need for interpretation, lectures, and scholarship to make those works more accessible to scholars in monasteries and urban centers. During the twelfth century universities emerged from these clusters of scholars in Italy at Bologna; in Spain at Salamanca, in France at Paris and in England at Oxford.[108] By 1500 there were at least sixty universities throughout Europe[109] enrolling at least three quarters of a million students.[110] Each of the four faculties (Liberal Arts, Theology, Law, and Medicine) was devoted to the transmission of classic texts rather than the production of fresh knowledge beyond lectures and commentaries. This form of scholastic education continued well into the seventeenth century and beyond in some locations and disciplines.[109][111][112][113][114]

Printing in Europe

Johannes Gutenberg's European introduction of the moveable type printing press around 1450 created new opportunities for the production and widespread distribution of books, fostering much new writing, with particular consequences for the development of knowledge, as documented by Elizabeth Eisenstein.[115] The production and distribution of knowledge was no longer tied to monasteries or universities with their libraries and collections of scribal copies. In the ensuing centuries a politically and increasingly religiously divided Europe, no single authority was able to censor or control the production of books. While universities remained attached to disseminating traditional texts, publishing houses became the new centers of knowledge production, and publishing houses in different jurisdictions led to a diversity of ideas becoming available as books moved across borders and scholars came to see themselves as citizens of the Republic of Letters.

The comparison of multiple editions of traditional texts led to improved textual scholarship.[116] The ability to share and compare results from many regions and enlist more people into the production of science soon led to the development of early modern science.[115] Books of medicine began to incorporate observations from contemporary surgery and dissections, including printed plates providing graphic displays, to improve knowledge of anatomy.[117] With many copies of traditional books and new books appearing, debates arose over the value of each in what became known as the battle of the books.[118] Maps and discoveries of exploration and colonization also were recorded in books and governmental records,[119] often with the purpose of economic exploitation as in the Archives of the Indies in Seville but also to satisfy curiosity about the world.[120]

Printing also made possible the invention and development of scientific journals, with the Journal des sçavans appearing in France and the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in England, both in 1665. Over the years these journals proliferated and became the basis of disciplines and disciplinary literatures.[121] Genres reporting experiments and other scientific observations and theories developed over the ensuing centuries to produce modern practices of disciplinary publication with the extensive intertexts which represent the collective pursuits of disciplinary knowledge. The availability of scientific and disciplinary books and journals also facilitated the development of modern practices of scientific reference and citation. These developments from the impact of printing on the growth of knowledge contributed to the Scientific Revolution, science in the Renaissance and during the Enlightenment.


Further information: Oral tradition § Africa

In Sub-Saharan Africa, prior to modern colonialism, history was generally recorded orally despite most societies having developed a writing script, leading to them being termed "oral civilisations" in contrast to "literate civilisations".[122]

Modern academia

In the eighteenth century a few Scottish and English dissident universities began offering some more practical and contemporary studies offered instruction in rhetoric and writing to enable their non-elite students to influence contemporary events.[123][124] Only in the nineteenth century, however, did universities in some countries begin creating place for the writing of new knowledge, turning them in the ensuing years from primarily disseminating classic knowledge through the reading of classic texts to becoming institutions devoted to both reading and writing. The creation of research seminars and the associated seminar papers in history and philology in German Universities were a significant starting point for the reform of the university.[125] Professorships in philology, history, economy, theology, psychology, sociology, mathematics and the sciences were to emerge over the century, and the German model of disciplinary research university was to influence the organization of universities in England and the United States, with another model developing in France. Both, however, prized the production of new knowledge by faculty and to be learned by students. In elite British universities writing instruction was supported by the tutorial system with weekly writing by students for their tutors, while in the United States regular courses in writing were often required starting in the late nineteenth century, with writing across the curriculum becoming an increasing focus, particularly towards the end of the twentieth century.


Military knowledge of strategies and devices date back to the ancient worlds of Egypt, India, China, Greece, and Rome, with both historical accounts and manuals for conducting war. After printing was introduced in the West, manuals for construction of fortifications and battle strategies were widely reproduced, as nations frequently were in conflict. With the growth of chemistry and other sciences, however, knowledge of new weaponry was frequently restricted to secret documents. Other documents also of limited distribution developed around policies, production, and distribution of the new weaponry.[126] By World War I, both the Allied and Axis powers applied new technologies based on scientific advances to military uses, particularly chemical weapons, with over 5000 scientists engaged in developing and producing weaponry, while attempting to limit access to the information in secret documents.[127][128] The drive towards secret knowledge, including novel research and not just applications of prior knowledge, became especially intense with the race to develop nuclear weapons in World War II as in the US Manhattan Project. Aviation, rocketry, radar, encryption, and computing were also the subject of classified documents. This system of classification of knowledge continued after WWII ended as the Cold War ensued. The tension between the needs for military secrecy, open scientific research, and citizen deliberation over military policy led in the United States led to the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, which created civilian control, but through a continuing regime of classified knowledge.[129][130]


The history of literature followed after the development of writing in Sumer, which was initially used for accounting purposes. The very first writings from ancient Sumer by any reasonable definition do not constitute literature. The same is true of some of the early Egyptian hieroglyphics and the thousands of ancient Chinese government records. Scholars have disagreed concerning when written record-keeping became more like literature, but the oldest surviving literary texts date from a full millennium after the invention of writing. The earliest literary author known by name is Enheduanna, who is credited as the author of a number of works of Sumerian literature, including Exaltation of Inanna, in the Sumerian language during the 24th century BCE.[131][132] The next earliest named author is Ptahhotep, who is credited with authoring The Maxims of Ptahhotep, an instructional book for young men in Egyptian composed in the 23rd century BCE.[133] The Epic of Gilgamesh is an early notable poem, but it can also be seen as a political glorification of the historical King Gilgamesh of Sumer whose natural and supernatural accomplishments are recounted.

Psychological implications

Walter Ong, Jack Goody, and Eric Havelock were among the earliest to systematically argue for the psychological and intellectual consequences of literacy. Ong argued that the introduction of writing changed the form of human consciousness from sensing the immediacy of the spoken word to the critical distance and systematization of words, which could be graphically displayed and ordered,[134][135] such as in the works of Peter Ramus.[136] Havelock attributed the emergence of Greek philosophic thought to the use of the written word which allowed the comparison of beliefs and belief systems and the critical examination of concepts.[103][105] Jack Goody argued that written language fostered such practices as categorization, making lists, following formulas, developing recipes and prescriptions, and ultimately making and recording experiments. These practices changed the intellectual and psychological orientation of those who engaged with them.[137][138]

While recognizing the possibilities of all these psychological and intellectual changes that accompanied these literate practices, Sylvia Scribner and Michael Cole argued that these changes did not come universally or automatically with literacy, but rather were dependent on the social uses made of literacy in their local contexts.[139] They carried out field observation and experiments among the Vai people of West Africa, for whom the psychological impacts of literacy vary due to the three different contexts in which locals learn to read and write the Vai language, English, and Arabic—practical skills, secular education, and religious education, respectively. European language literacies were associated with European style schooling, and fostered among other things syllogistic reasoning and logical problem solving. Arabic literacy was associated with the religious training of Madrasas and fostered, among other things, heightened rote memory. Literacy in the written forms of Vai associated with daily practices of making requests and explaining tasks, increased anticipation of audience knowledge and needs along with rebus solving (as the written language used rebus-like icons).

Following a different line of Inquiry, James Pennebaker and colleagues have carried out many experiments establishing that writing about traumas can relieve anxiety, improve mental well-being, and improve physical health measures and outcomes.[140][141]

See also


  1. ^ The beginning date refers to first attestations, the assumed origins of all scripts lie further back in the past.
  2. ^ Although whether to writing on lead, or filling up the hollow of the letters with lead, is not certain.
  3. ^ These documents have been in general enveloped, after they were baked, in a cover of moist clay, upon which their contents have been again inscribed, so as to present externally a duplicate of the writing within; and the tablet in its cover has then been baked afresh. The same material was largely used by the Assyrians, and many of their clay tablets still remain. They are of various sizes, ranging from nine inches long by six and a half wide, to an inch and a half by an inch wide, and even less. Some thousands of these have been recovered; many are historical, some linguistic, some geographical, some astronomical.



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Further reading

21st century sources
Late 20th century sources
Earlier 20th century sources