Category Archives: Languages

Ancient Scripts and language

In a packed lecture room in the Taylor Institution Library, John Coleman, Professor of Phonetics at Oxford, gave a fascinating seminar on the connection between Ancient Scripts and language. He focused on the following questions; “What might writing systems reveal about how people think (or thought) about their languages? How are differences between writing systems relate to differences between languages?”

He pointed out that script is relatively young, as the earliest examples of writing date back only 6000 years (to 4000 BC), whereas 200,000 years ago homo sapiens already had speech. The importance of writing language down was illustrated by the request to the University from a non-literate speaker of Nipode Uitoto, an oral South American language, to invent a writing system for his language. The request reached Oxford via a linguistics student when he did fieldwork in the area. In the recorded message the speaker said “…We truly want to know about our language so that we can teach our word to our children. […] if it is truly possible to write down our language, I want to know how this can be done.”

In the Middle East, script developed from ideographs (characters representing concepts) to syllabic script (characters representing sounds). The oldest texts were either written on stone or on clay tablets, some of which have survived. In Oxford, we don’t have far to go to see examples: the Ashmolean Museum holds clay tablets as well as engraved stones. The stone monument pictured below is engraved with Hieroglyphic Luwian, where some symbols represent a whole word but most represent syllables.

Stone monument from Carchemish (modern Jarablus, Syria) written in Hieroglyphic Luwian.

Stone monument, Ashmolean Museum.

Syllabic scripts were regarded as systems of sounds that could be listed in syllabaries; lists of symbols that represent syllables with a consonant and a vowel in one symbol or element. There are examples of such syllabaries in various languages, including the Native American language Cherokee, Japanese, Amharic (Ethiopic) and the Linear B writing system used to write Mycenean Greek. Since the symbols consist of just one element representing sounds like ‘da’ or ‘ja’, these symbols show no understanding of the distinction between consonants and vowels.

Mycenaean Greek (Linear B)

Bilingual texts can help us to decipher scripts and translate unknown languages. For example, the extract below from an Old Babylonian grammar with Sumerian translation gives us an insight into both languages. We can see in the chart below that Sumerian has more inflections than Babylonian.  Members of the Babylonian elite were keen to learn the Sumerian language as it was seen as more prestigious.

Extract from Old Babylonian Grammatical Text I (c.1600 BC)

Ancient Chinese writing, which is entirely separate from the Middle Eastern tradition, also shows some awareness of sound structure. The majority of Chinese characters are picto-phonetic, so every character has a meaning in itself, but can also be used for its phonetic value as a sound.  Even in the case of pictograms that do not have an internal structure, there are some examples indicating that scholars analysed the syllable in two parts as in the rhyme tables below.

Ancient Chinese (700 AD)

In conclusion, the earliest writing is based on both meaning and sounds, so even the oldest symbols could already represent sounds. “Sounds” usually means syllables or parts of syllables. Moving to writing based on sounds makes literacy easier to acquire and makes it possible to read and write almost anything, including intangible meanings and foreign names. Almost as soon as scribal education started, we have documents about language: sign-lists, lists of vocabulary, lists of translations, grammatical paradigms … in other words, what we once called Grammar and now call Linguistics.

Many thanks to Prof. Coleman for the content of this blog. You can listen to the full lecture and see the slides here.

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Johanneke Sytsema, Linguistics Librarian

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Further reading

Senner, W. M. ed. 1991. The Origins of Writing. University of Nebraska Press.

Naveh, Joseph. 1982. Early history of the alphabet : an introduction to West Semitic epigraphy and palaeography. Jerusalem : Magnes Press, Hebrew University ; Leiden : E.J. Brill.

Powell, Barry B. 2012. Writing : theory and history of the technology of civilization. Chichester : Wiley-Blackwell.

Robinson, Andrew. 2009. Writing and script : a very short introduction Oxford : Oxford University Press

Jean, Georges. 1992. Writing : the story of alphabets and scripts. London : Thames & Hudson.

Harris, Roy. 1986. The origin of writing.  La Salle, Ill : Open Court.

Daniels, Peter T. and William Bright, eds. 1996. The World’s Writing Systems. OUP.

Coulmas, Florian. 1989. The Writing Systems of the World. Blackwell.

Sampson, Geoffrey.1985. Writing Systems, a Linguistic Introduction. London: Hutchinson.

Cohen, Marcel. 1958. La grande invention de l’écriture et son evolution. Paris : Impr. Nationale.

Baines, John. J.Bennet and S.D.Houston. 2008. The disappearance of writing systems : perspectives on literacy and communication. London : Equinox.

Asher, R. E. and E. J. A. Henderson, eds. 1981. Towards a History of Phonetics. Edinburgh University Press.

Jacobsen, T. ‘Very Ancient Linguistics’, in: Hymes, D.ed., Studies in the History of Linguistics: Traditions and Paradigms. Indiana University Press. pp.41-62.

Veldhuis, Niek. 2014. History of the Cuneiform Lexical Tradition. Münster : Ugarit-Verlag.

Glassner, Jean-Jacques. 2003. The Invention of Cuneiform. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Melchert, H. Craig, ed. 2003. The Luwians. Brill.

Han, Jiantang. 2012. Chinese characters. Cambridge University Press

Tsien, Tsuen-hsuin. 2013. Written on bamboo and silk : the beginnings of Chinese books and inscriptions. Chicago ; London : University of Chicago Press.

Drucker, Johanna. 1995. The alphabetic labyrinth : the letters in history and imagination. London : Thames & Hudson.