Feature The Written Word

Learn more about the origins of written language.

The Written Word

Although spoken language is believed to have developed tens of thousands of years ago, the written word emerged much later, as hunter-gatherers developed more permanent agrarian societies.

Some 9,000 years ago, the Sumerians invented counting tokens. These simple stamps were inscribed with pictures that represented the objects to be itemized.

They could be impressed in clay to document a record of land, grain, or cattle ownership.

These pictographs became more stylized as scribes began drawing them with a wedge-shaped stylus made of reeds.

This script is now known as cuneiform, our first written language.

The next step occurred in Egypt, sometime toward the end of the fourth millennium B.C.

Unlike cuneiform, which depicted individual objects, hieroglyphics represented sounds.

This major advance, called a “one-sign, one-sound” system of writing, is regarded as the first alphabet.

Language developed elsewhere, too.

Cultures with no apparent connection to the Near East -- in China, the Indus valley, and much later, the Olmecs and Mayans of Mesoamerica -- developed their own advanced alphabets.

Whether these arose independently or were influenced by existing languages is still a matter of fierce debate among scholars.