In this Ted-ed lesson, Matthew Winkler shows us the evolution of Sumerian cuneiform and explains the difference between writing those first symbols and simply drawing meaning.
Watch the video and say whether the sentences below are true or false. You can also drop by Ted-ed and do the listening and speaking activities you can find there around Matthew's video lesson.
1 The writing system we use today can be traced back to 5,000 years ago.
2 Before the invention of writing, humans were unable to record information.
3 The Sumerians discovered that it is easy to represent meanings with words.
4 Drawing what you mean is art.
5 At some stage symbols for sounds became more important than symbols for meaning.
6 The Chinese writing system resulted from the Sumerian writing system.
7 The Mayan culture started writing in 300 BC.
8 We don't know everything about the invention of writing.
Human beings have probably been speaking to each other for tens of thousands of years, but we've only been writing our words down for about 5,000 years. Before then, we recorded information using pictures and diagrams on pottery and cave walls or woven into fabric. Those artistic impulses led us down the path to writing. The writing system that we use in English actually started with the Sumerian culture sometime between 4500 B.C. and 1750 B.C. in lower Mesopotamia, which is modern-day Iraq and Syria. The Sumerians kept records of business deals using tiny, clay sculptures of goats, donkeys, and oxen. They then discovered that two-dimensional engravings on clay tablets were even simpler. For example, this symbol meant, "mountains," this one meant, "head". If the mouth area of head was emphasized, that could mean, "mouth". Mouth combined with water meant, "drink," and mouth joined to bread meant, "eat." Add the symbol for ox, and you have "eat an ox". Voila - the invention of writing! But some words have meanings that are hard to represent with symbols. How would you draw, "ox in the mountains"?
Remember, if you just draw what you mean, that's art, not writing. In order for this to be writing, the symbol has to stand for the word. Can you read this? It's a famous quote from Hamlet by William Shakespeare. Right, "To be or not to be." That's how the Sumerians solved the problem too. Ox plus water plus mountain. What does water have to do with anything? Well, the Sumerian word for water sounded just like their word for "in," so "ox in mountains". Linguists call this rebus writing.
The Sumerians already knew how to represent meaning through written symbols and by representing sounds as well, the Sumerians expanded their written vocabulary. Gradually the symbols for sounds were used more often and the symbols for meaning were used less. The writing system became streamlined into a phonetic alphabet that we know as cuneiform. Many cultures, like the Acadians and the Syrians, adapted this Sumerian invention to create their own writing systems. The "Epic of Gilgamesh" and the "Code of Hammurabi" were written in variants of cuneiform.
As this technology spread, these symbols found their way to Greece and into the most widely used alphabet in the world today. But Sumeria wasn't the only place on Earth where writing was invented. Ancient Egyptians developed their hieroglyphic and hieratic scripts at about the same time, 3500 B.C. Then writing was independently invented in China, around 1500 B.C., and then, spread throughout Southeast Asia. Most recently, the Mayan culture in Central America began carving their cartouches in 300 A.D.
So, who invented writing? The Sumerians, the Egyptians, the Chinese, and the Mayans for sure. Ultimately, all the writing systems still in use around the world today can be traced back to Sumeria or China. Writing may have also been invented in other parts of the world. Ancient inscriptions left by the Indus Valley and Rapa Nui cultures have been discovered, but nobody has been able to decipher them. Do you want to try?
1F 2F 3F 4T 5T 6F 7F 8T