The development of linguistics is perhaps the single most significant development in the history of human civilization. Language and speech allowed humans to communicate with each other in ways that formed the foundation of nearly every aspect of civilization. Later, the development of writing made it possible to record information and to pass this information along to others, and to future generations. The earliest examples of writing were, by contemporary standards, fairly crude. This early writing often took the form of pictographs, wherein symbols were used to represent specific objects or ideas. Such writing was generally utilitarian, and was used to keep track of commercial activities, such as trade and other business transactions. As writing became more complex, and pictography was supplemented by the development of written symbols used to represent sounds and word, the way that writing could be used became even more complex. The development of writing served to underpin the advancement of ancient civilizations; the evidence of this can be found in innumerable artifacts and archeological items. This paper will examine the development and evolution of early writing systems as seen in civilizations in ancient Mesopotamia and China.
It is generally agreed that the earliest evidence of written language comes from the region of Mesopotamia1. As noted, this earliest writing was primarily used for keeping records of commercial transactions. Such writing took the form of pictographs, wherein symbols were drawn to represent known objects, such as might be found in trade or for sale1. These images typically represented livestock and other animals, such as sheep or oxen or fish; additionally, agricultural products such as wheat, barley, and oats were represented by pictographs1. Physical objects such as pottery or other items used for trade and commercial activities were also represented by pictographs.

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This use of writing was, by its very nature, fairly crude, and had limited use. It was possible to keep records of items that had been bought or sold, and this allowed various aspects of commercial activity to be recorded and detailed in more accurate ways than could be done simply through spoken communication. Beyond that, however, pictography did not allow for the communication of more sophisticated or complex ideas or other forms of communication that were, at the time, only done through speaking. The Sumerians, an early civilization in the region of Mesopotamia, advanced the use of writing as a means of communication by developing a graphic system that used various symbols to represent sounds and syllables, making it possible for writing to more accurately represent and record the words that made up spoken language1. With the development of such a graphic system, it was now possible for written language to be used for more abstract ideas and thoughts than could be captured by simple pictography.

Over time, this advent of graphic writing systems was merged with the already-existing system of pictography, and a more sophisticated system of writing was developed. Using a combination of pictographs and graphics, writing could now be put to use to record much more than just commercial records; this evolution in writing laid the foundation for the development of literature, as it was possible to write stories, poems, and other literary works that would previously have only been recorded or transmitted through memory and the spoken word. The Sumerians developed a system for recording the pictographs and graphic symbols used for writing that is now known as “cuneiform.”2 Members of society who were responsible for learning to write and for recording those things that needed to be written down were known as scribes, and these scribes used a writing implement known as a stylus to make marks in slabs of wet clay. The shape of the stylus pressing into the wet clay left a wedge-shaped impression; “cuneiform” is based on a combination of Latin words that means, simply “wedge-shaped.”1

This cuneiform writing remained in use for thousands of years, and as the use of writing spread throughout the ancient world, cuneiform writing spread with it, becoming common throughout parts of the Middle East and Asia.

While the development of writing systems had significant influence on the ways that ancient civilizations developed and evolved, there were also social and cultural conditions in these ancient civilizations that influenced how these writing systems evolved. Some historians note the difference between “ceremonial” and “utilitarian” writing, drawing distinctions between the forms of writing that were used primarily for those seen, for example, in early Sumerian writing, where the purpose of writing was largely for recording commercial activities, and the kind of writing that was used for what might be considered to be more “artistic” purposes3. Ancient Chinese writing, for example, was put to use for the same sort of commercial record keeping seen in Mesopotamia, but it was also used for the purposes of writing poetry or narratives, for discussions about theology and philosophy, and for other abstract uses4. Some contemporary research seems to demonstrate that the utilitarian uses of writing as seen in ancient Mesopotamia remained the predominant way in which writing was employed for many centuries. By contrast, the development of writing in ancient China, which arose more or less at the same time as did writing in Mesopotamia, evolved into uses for more abstract writing far earlier than it did elsewhere4. When researchers examine the evidence of such differences in how writing evolved, and the ways in which it was used, some of the most significant questions that arise are related to these differences, and in determining whether the use of writing for more abstract purposes in China, for example, was a result of already-existing aspects of Chinese culture and society, or if the ability to use writing for more abstract purposes underpinned the way that ancient Chinese culture developed.

Another question that researchers often consider is how much of the writing that developed in different ancient cultures arose spontaneously and independently of other civilizations and cultures, and how much of it arose from communication and contact between different cultures. It seems clear that some of the advances in writing that were developed in Sumer, for example, were carried forth on trade routes and made their way into use in other cultures and societies1. At the same time, however, there were significant differences in the way that writing evolved in different cultures; in China, for example, early forms of written language were based on a pictograph system (the influence of which still exists in contemporary Chinese writing) just as were the earliest forms of writing in Sumer. Despite the general similarities between the writing of these two cultures, however, the pictograph system used in China was quite different than was that used in Sumer1. It may be possible that the development of writing in these two ancient cultures arose independently of each other yet was still influenced by each other. This would seem to explain why there are some fundamental similarities yet also some fundamental differences between the writing systems of these two, and of other ancient cultures.

There is no question that the development of writing had significant influence on the development and course of cultural evolution in ancient societies. In Mesopotamia, for example, traditional forms of education that existed prior to the development of writing were, just as was early writing, largely utilitarian. For young people acquiring an education, their experience was primarily vocational; in contemporary terms it might be referred to as on-the-job training1. As writing developed and became widely used in various aspects of societal activity, it became necessary to establish formal educational facilities that were primarily intended to teach scribes how to write. Learning to write was a time-consuming and challenging process1, and for those who did learn to write there were some notable societal advantages. It was, of course, not only necessary to learn how to make marks on clay; it was also necessary to understand what those marks meant. As writing grew more sophisticated, and the amount and type of information that could be recorded by scribes became greater and more complex, those who were capable of writing were also becoming well-versed in nearly every aspect of their society and culture. This education aligned well with careers in public service, and it was common for scribes to go on to serve in local government, to enter the priesthood, or to otherwise take on some role in public life in their communities1.

Regardless of whether writing in ancient China developed primarily independently of writing in other civilizations or if it was heavily influenced by outside forces, the historical record seems to indicate that it was used for purposes other than those that were strictly utilitarian much earlier than in some other cultures and civilizations. Examples of writing found in ancient China from the Shang dynasty that date nearly 4000 years old show that writing was used for simple matters such as commercial record keeping, but was also used for religious and ceremonial purposes4. Bronze statues and other artifacts from this period show inscriptions that are related to “divination records”4 and other ceremonial uses, and other examples of early writing in ancient China show that it was used for discussions related to the ideas put forth by ancient Chinese philosophers and other non-utilitarian uses.

It can be difficult to say with certainty exactly how much writing influenced the evolution of ancient cultures and how much these ancient cultures influenced the evolution of writing. What is certain, however, is that the two are deeply interconnected, and that writing was an integral component of the development of evolution and culture. Although it began as a means of making it easier to keep accurate business records, writing soon became a means of recording much more than simple trade and sale transactions. It became a means of recording and transmitting the idea and beliefs and philosophies of these ancient cultures; in a sense, it became an integral part of these cultures. The development of the written word allowed these cultures to evolve and develop over the centuries, and assured that they would remain alive even today.

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  • Liu, Li, and Hong Xu. “Rethinking Erlitou: legend, history, and Chinese archaeology.” Antiquity 81, no. 314 (2007): 886-901. Accessed March 14,”2013.