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Origins of Writing: From Pictographs to Alphabets

  • Writing is the graphic representation of spoken language

  • Pre-Writing: The oldest graphic representations made by humans are cave paintings, petroglyphs and counting marks. Technically these are not writing since they do not directly represent language but they are evidence of the capacity for symbolic thought and, indirectly, of language use)

    • Chauvet Pont-d'Arc cave paintings (32,000 years ago)

    • Lascaux cave paintings (17,000-15,000 years ago)

    • Altamira cave paintings (17,000-14,000 years ago)

    • Native American petroglyphs (13,000 years ago)

    • Counting marks on clay tokens (10,000-9,000 years ago, combined with pictographs by 6,000-5,500 years ago)

  • 3,300 BC, Invention of writing by the Sumerians in Mesopotamia. Initially pictographic, eventually evolved into more abstract cuneiform (wedge-shaped) markings incised on clay with a sharpened reed

  • 3,200 BC, Egyptian writing, inially pictographic, eventually evolved into hieroglyphic characters

  • The earliest writing took the form of pictograms or pictographs where the graphic symbol visually resembles the represented object:


  • Early writing often was intended to keep track of items of property, acting as a sort of business/accounting record-keeping

  • Gradually pictograms became more abstract and lost their picture-like quality. Examples:

Chinesemanto man-1to man-2


from Egyptian cow to Phoenician "aleph" aleph to Roman A

from Egyptian "nu" = "water" water to Phoenician "mem" mem to Roman M

  • Originally a graphic symbol represented a whole word, concept or idea (logogram, ideogram)

  • Eventually, a few symbols began to do double duty, standing both for a word/concept/idea and for a similar sounding word (a homonym), a syllable, or a single sound. This process is known as the "phonetization" of writing or "phonographic" writing and is what led eventually to writing systems relying on syllabaries and alphabets.

  • A syllabary is a writing system where a symbol stands for a specific syllable. Modern Japanese is written using two different syllabaries called Katakana and Hiragana, each containing 46 symbols. Japanese is also written using ideograms borrowed from Chinese writing (this is called Kanji). Japanese is also written sometimes using Latin alphabetic symbols (this is called Romaji). The Native-American Cherokee language is written with a syllabary of about 85 signs invented by Sequoyah (d. 1843)

  • An alphabet is a writing system where a symbol stands for a single sound

  • An example of a word sign doing double duty by homonymy, i.e. standing for two different but similarly sounding words, is Sumerian "ti" ("arrow") represented by the pictogram —>, this symbol then began to be used to stand also for the word "til" ("life")

  • Sumerian "ti" ("arrow") —>, standing for the word "til" ("life") is also an example of the way in which a pictogram for a concrete object comes to help in the representation of an abstract concept. Other examples involving early Chinese characters:

sun+moon sun + moon = "brightness"

mouth + birdmouth + bird = "singing"

  • Syllabaries and alphabets are much more efficient than logographic/ideographic writing because they can represent any word in a language with a limited number of signs, as opposed to the need for a symbol for each word/concept/idea in logographic/ideographic systems

  • The so-called rebus principle illustrates the way in which logograms/ideograms became syllabic or alphabetic signs:



  • Another example of the rebus principle involving Egyptian hieroglyphics:

mouth stands for the word "R _ " meaning "mouth"

basket stands for "K _" meaning "basket"


mouth basket stands for "R_K" meaning "time"

  • The acrophonic principle is also one of the processes by which writing became phonographic. In ancient Egyptian, symbols that once stood for whole words came to stand only for the sound of the first consonant in that word. For example, the hieroglyphic sign standing for the word "f-t" (which meant "horned-viper" and also looked like one) eventually came to stand for just the sound "f" (a move toward alphabetic writing)

horned viper = f

  • 1,500 BC, earliest alphabetic writing, Proto-Sinaitic, emerges in the Middle East, followed by Proto-Canaanite (c. 1,400 BC), Phoenician (c. 1050 BC), and then the Greek (1000-800 BC) and Roman alphabets (c. 650 BC)

Links & References:

  • William O'Grady, John Archibald, Mark Aronoff, and Janie Rees-Miller, Contemporary Linguistics: An Introduction, 5th edition (Bedford St. Martin's, 2005).
  • Akira Nakanishi, Writing Systems of the World: Alphabets, Syllabaries, Pictograms (1990)
  • James Norman, Ancestral Voices: Decoding Ancient Languages (1975)
  • Ancient Scripts




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Last updated: 01/12/2010


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