Cover Page



Half Title page

Title page

Copyright page






Introduction: A Difficult Topic, Little Studied, Poorly Understood

A Chaos of Terms

Writing, Language, Speech

Chapter 1: What Is Writing?

The Magic, Romance, and Danger of Writing

A Definition of Writing

Change and Evolution in Systems of Writing

Writing Is Material

Speech and Writing

Chapter 2: Writing with Signs

Gelb’s Category “Forerunners of Writing”



Chapter 3: Categories and Features of Writing

The Rebus

Logography, the First Division of Lexigraphy

Phonography, the Second Division of Lexigraphy

Syllabography and Alphabetic Writing, the Two Categories of Phonography

Auxiliary Signs and Devices

Spelling Rules


Chapter 4: Some General Issues in the Study of Writing

Strategies in the Formation of Lexigraphic Writing Systems

Writing and Play

“You Have a Lovely Hand”: Writing and Beauty

Chapter 5: Protocuneiform and Counting Tokens

The Protocuneiform Tablets of Uruk III and IV

Context for Protocuneiform Writing

The Tokens of Denise Schmandt-Besserat

Chapter 6: Origin of Lexigraphic Writing in Mesopotamia

Discovery of the Phonetic Principle

The Discovery and Decipherment of Cuneiform

Logosyllabic Cuneiform Writing

Transliteration Nightmares

Changes Across Time and Place


Chapter 7: Plato’s Ideas and Champollion’s Decipherment of the Egyptian Hieroglyphs

The Allegorical Interpretation of the Hieroglyphs

Background to the Decipherment of the Hieroglyphs

The Decipherment of Jean François Champollion

Chapter 8: Egyptian Writing and Egyptian Speech

The Phases of Egyptian Language/Speech

The Forms of Egyptian Writing

Chapter 9: The Origin and Nature of Egyptian Writing

The Earliest Egyptian Writing

Different Kinds of Signs in Egyptian Writing

Types of Phonograms

Nonphonetic Signs: Logograms and Semantic Complements/Determinatives

Chapter 10: “The House of Life”: Scribes and Writing in Ancient Egypt

The Tools of the Egyptian Scribe

The Role of Scribes

An Example of Egyptian Writing

Chapter 11: Syllabic Scripts of the Aegean

“Cretan hieroglyphs”

Linear A

Linear B

The Decipherment of Linear B

How Linear B Works

Syllabic Writing on Cyprus

Chapter 12: The West Semitic Revolution

Cuneiform Syllabaries

The West Semitic Syllabaries

The “Ugaritic Cuneiform Alphabet”

The Phoenician Syllabary, c.1000 BC

Chapter 13: What Kind of Writing Was West Semitic?

What Is an Alphabet?

The Phoneme

The Phoneme as a Projection of Greek Alphabetic Writing

Abjads, Abugidas, and Other Monsters

Chapter 14: The Origins of West Semitic Writing

Origins of West Semitic Writing: The Epigraphic Finds

The Proto-Sinaitic Inscriptions

Discarding the “Acrophonic Principle” in the History of Writing

The Invention of West Semitic Writing

Other Levantine Epigraphic Finds from the Bronze Age

Chapter 15: Chinese Logography

Chinese Writing

Neolithic Finds

Oracle Bones and the Problem of Origins

How Chinese Writing Works

An Example of a Chinese Complex Character

Chinese Logography

Chinese Writing and Chinese Speech

Attempts at Reform

China’s Influence

Chinese Writing and Poetic Expression


Chapter 16: Lexigraphic Writing in Mesoamerica

Slouching toward Decipherment

Origins of Maya Writing

The Nature of Maya Writing

The Earliest Historical Text

Translating a Mayan Text: A Historical Inscription from DOS PILAS, Mexico


Chapter 17: The Greek Alphabet: A Writing That Changed the World

Background to the Invention of the Greek Alphabet

The Adapter’s Achievement

The Earliest Greek Alphabetic Writing

The Date of the Alphabet’s Invention

The Poetic Inspiration for the Invention of the Alphabet

The Fortuitous Origins of Alphabetic Writing

Chapter 18: Summary and Conclusions



Further Reading





Title Page

To Emmett L. Bennett, Jr.
colleague, friend, teacher

I’ll make you love scribedom more than your mother!
I will place its beauties before you.
It’s the greatest of all callings.
There is nothing like it in the land!

from Satire on the Trades (or Instructions of Dua-Khety), c.1800 BC


0.1 Relief of bilingual scribes, from the palace of Tiglath Pileser III at Nineveh (in modern Iraq), c.740 BC.
0.2 Various character forms for West Semitic writing, from c.1000 BC to modern times.
2.1 Road sign warning of cows falling from cliff.
2.2 A sign prohibiting dumping.
2.3 Petroglyph from Newspaper Rock State Historic Park, Utah.
2.4 The “Chinese Horse,” prehistoric cave painting, c.20,000 BC.
2.5 Turtle-Following-His-Wife writes to Little Man.
2.6 Instructions for uncrating a refrigerator.
2.7 Assembling a portable iPod player.
2.8 Drawing of the Narmer Palette, First Dynasty.
2.9 Winter count by Flame, a Lakota Indian from the Yanktonai band, a copy on muslin made by Lt. Hugh T. Reed from the original.
2.10 Figure number 48 in the winter count of Flame.
2.11 Figure 14 from the winter count of Flame.
2.12 Figure from the winter count of Flame for the year 1876.
2.13 “Trumpet concerto for Two Trumpets and Orchestra” by Antonio Vivaldi in modern musical notation.
2.14 The mathematical solution to the problem of finding four numbers such that the product of any two of them is one less than a perfect square.
2.15 Computer semasiography.
2.16 Sign in Tokyo airport.
3.1 Advertisement for Heineken beer as a rebus.
3.2 Opening portion of Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights written in George Bernard Shaw’s “Shavian alphabet.”
4.1 Stela of Sarennewtet, Sixth Dynasty.
4.2 Calligraphic medallion in Santa Sofia, Istanbul.
5.1 Drawing of a protocuneiform tablet from Uruk IV.
5.2 Sculpture on a stone vase from Uruk, c.3500–3000 BC.
5.3 Plain tokens, found in Tepe Gawra, Iraq, c.4000 BC.
5.4 Complex tokens.
5.5 Envelope showing the imprints of cones and discs, from Susa, Iran, c.3300 BC.
5.6 Tokens and protocuneiform signs evidently based on them.
6.1 Five signs from protocuneiform.
6.2 Cuneiform signs.
6.3 Seven stages in the evolution of the Sumerian sign SAG = “head.”
6.4 The Behistun inscriptions, western Iran, c.1840.
6.5 Tablet from the most complete version of the Gilgamesh epic in standard Akkadian cuneiform script.
6.6 Four cuneiform syllabograms with the same value, /gu/.
7.1 Hieroglyph of a falcon, from the first illustrated edition of Horapollo.
7.2 A page from the Hypnerotomachia Polifili, c.1499.
7.3 The obelisk in the Piazza Minerva in Rome.
7.4 Cartouches of Apries on the obelisk in the Piazza Minerva, Rome, c.560 BC.
7.5 The Rosetta Stone.
7.6 Demotic, detail from central portion of the Rosetta Stone.
7.7 The name of Ptolemy (PTOLEMIS) on the Rosetta Stone and the Bankes Obelisk.
7.8 The name of Cleopatra (KLEOPATRA) from the base of the Bankes Obelisk.
8.1 Stele of King Djet, First Dynasty.
8.2 Man roasting a goose over a bowl filled with coals, from a tomb of the Sixth Dynasty.
8.3 Section from a private letter hieratic script with a transliteration into hieroglyphs.
8.4 The same signs written in hieroglyphic, cursive hieroglyphic, hieratic, and demotic scripts.
8.5 A sample of Coptic script and language with transliteration and translation.
9.1 Non-legible ivory and bone labels from Dynasty Zero.
9.2 Two legible (?) bone labels from tomb U-J at Abydos, from Dynasty Zero.
10.1 Old Kingdom limestone statue of a noble named Kai, c.2450 BC.
10.2 The name and titles of the nobleman Hesire, c.2575 BC.
10.3 The lector-priest reads aloud the ritual of “opening the mouth.”
10.4 Stele with offering formula, Sixth Dynasty.
11.1 “Cretan hieroglyphs,” c.1700 BC.
11.2 The Phaestus disk, c.1850–1600 BC.
11.3 Linear A tablet from Ayia Triada, c.1500 BC.
11.4 Linear B tablet, c.1200 BC.
11.5 Some Linear B logographic signs designating commodities.
11.6 A grid by Michael Ventris with the columns representing vowels and the rows representing consonants.
11.7 The values of the Linear B syllabic signs.
11.8 Chart of transliterations of various words in Linear B.
11.9 An accounting tablet from Cnossus.
11.10 The bronze tablet of Idalion, imitating the shape of a writing board, c.480 BC.
11.11 The Cypriote syllabary.
11.12 Examples of words in the Cypriote syllabary.
12.1 “Luvian hieroglyphs,” c.1000–700 BC.
12.2 A tablet with protoElamite writing.
12.3 Lawsuit against Shamumanu for stealing 50 shekels of silver in the “Ugaritic Cuneiform Alphabet”.
12.4 A Ugaritic abecedary with transliteration into Roman characters.
12.5 The Ugaritic script with transliterations.
12.6a Sarcophagus of King Ahiram of Byblos, c.1000 BC.
12.6b Transcription of the first few words on the sarcophagus.
12.7 Linear Phoenician forms of the West Semitic signary.
12.8 Drawing of the Gezer “Calendar,” c.950 BC.
12.9 The Mesha Stele, c.850 BC.
13.1 Gardiner’s “alphabet” of uniliteral signs embedded within the Egyptian logosyllabary.
13.2 Change of meaning through phonemic transformation.
13.3 The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).
13.4 Spectrograph of “row, boat, row.”
13.5 Chart of the descent of the “alphabet,” of which Greek is an “offshoot.”
13.6 Syllabic signs in the Brahmi script.
14.1 Early inscriptions from the cliff face in the Wadi el Hol.
14.2 ProtoSinaitic inscription on a boulder.
14.3 Sphinx c.1800 BC with protoSinaitic inscription.
14.4 Undeciphered protoCanaanite inscription from Shechem, c.1600–1500 BC.
15.1 Neolithic markings from Jiahu, Henan Province, China, c.6500 BC.
15.2 Rubbing of turtle plastron with early inscriptions, c.1200 BC.
15.3 Chart of complex Chinese characters built on a single phonetic /yáo/ combined with 16 radicals to create 16 different logograms.
15.4 The Buddha as the character fo, in Xiamen, c. seventeenth century AD.
16.1 Page 9 of the Maya Dresden Codex containing the word for “dog.”
16.2 Bishop Diego de Landa’s description of how the Mayan writing worked.
16.3 Excerpt from the Madrid codex containing the word for “turkey.”
16.4 Excerpt from the Dresden codex.
16.5 Drawing of the so-called Cascajal block, c.900 BC.
16.6 Different ways of spelling Mac, a Maya month.
16.7 Three ways of writing tsa-pa-h(a), “was set up.”
16.8 The two sides of the Leiden Plaque.
16.9 A passage from hieroglyphic stair four, step five, at Dos Pilas, in the province of Petén, Guatemala, c. AD 660.
17.1 The adapter’s alterations to his Phoenician model to create the Greek alphabet.
17.2 The earliest alphabetic inscription, from Osteria Dell’ Osa, c.775 BC.
17.3 The Dipylon Oinochoe, c.740 BC.
17.4 Transcription and translation of the Dipylon e inscription.
17.5 Cup of Nestor inscription.
17.6 Reconstruction of the first lines of the Iliad.
18.1 Athenian school. Red-figure Attic drinking cup, c.480 BC.


Map 1  Places important in Chapter 6

Map 2  Places important in Chapters 8 and 9

Map 3  Places important in Chapter 11

Map 4  Places important in Chapter 12

Map 5  Places important in Chapter 14

Map 6  Mesoamerica, with modern political divisions, towns, and important archaeological sites

Map 7  Places important to the background of the Greek alphabet

Map 8  Places important in the early history of the alphabet


I hope this book may serve as a brief introduction to an immense, tangled, and obscure topic. Writing can be defined and understood, but only with the help of a careful organization of categories and terms. I know of no other humanistic topic more distorted through the careless use of categories and terms, so that things “everyone knows” are illusions. The professionals, too, offer us neologisms, buzzwords, and terms that attempt a fatal precision. For example, in one of the best books on writing in the last several years (S. D. Houston, ed., The First Writing: Script Invention as History and Process, Cambridge, 2004), a series of essays on the origins of writing, the reader will struggle with “glottography,” “cipherability,” “morphophonic,” “alphasyllabaries,” “consonantaries,” “logophonic,” “logophonemic,” “logoconsonantal,” “phonological heterography,” “taxograms,” “semasiologographic,” “graphotactical,” “numero-ideographic,” “phonophoric,” “ethnogenetic” – as well as the usual bête noire “pictograms” and “ideograms.” Is writing really so complex, or esoteric? The study of the history of writing is the study of the explosion of illusions, and such jargon has stood as the greatest obstacle to understanding. Yet we cannot understand the historical past without understanding the technology that made possible our knowledge of it. This book should be of interest to anyone who wishes to come to grips with the question, What happened in the human past?

I have dedicated this book to my friend and colleague Emmett L. Bennett, Jr., but would also like to thank him here for the countless insights into the history of writing he has given me over the years, and the collection of examples that illustrate these insights.

I should also like to thank John Bennet for reading the entire manuscript and saving me from many errors, both of fact and interpretation. I am deeply grateful to him for his help. His hand appears on nearly every page, but I reserve to my own responsibility all remaining failings of both kinds.

To annotate a book such as this properly would require massive documentation that would detract from the synthesis I propose. I have therefore reserved remarks about bibliography to a section in the back.

Photos and translations not otherwise credited are my own. I have included basic maps with many chapters, because where things happened is as important as when. In the text I have highlighted places on the maps by means of small capitals. The reader may find the glossary at the back of the book useful in keeping straight the bewildering terminology of writing.


9000 BC  
  Widespread use of geometric tokens throughout Near East, c.8500 BC
Appearance of complex tokens, c.4500–3400 BC
4000 BC  
  Round clay bullae that enclose tokens, impressed with cylinder seals, c.3500–3400 BC
Protocuneiform numerical flat clay tablets, sealed or unsealed, with impressions of three-dimensional tokens or imitations of token shapes by means of a stylus, c.3400–3300 BC; first logograms with numbers c.3300 BC
ProtoElamite writing, c.3300(?)–3000 BC
Egyptian hieroglyphic writing, Pharaonic civilization emerges, c.3250 BC
Tokens disappear, c.3000 BC
Sumerian cities flourish in Mesopotamia, c.2800–2340 BC
Texts in Sumerian cuneiform that reflect order of words in speech; similar development in Egypt, c.2800–2400 BC
Minoan civilization flourishes in Crete, c.2500–1450 BC
Akkadian Empire in Mesopotamia, c.2334–2220 BC; Akkadian cuneiform
Linear Elamite writing, c.2150 BC
Third Dynasty of Ur, c.2120–2000 BC
“Cretan hieroglyphs,” c.2100 BC–c.1700 BC
Arrival of Indo-European Greeks in Balkan Peninsula, c.2000 BC
Babylon’s ascendance under Hammurabi, c.1810–1750 BC; Old Babylonian cuneiform
Old Assyrian cuneiform, c.1800 BC
Cretan Linear A, c.1800 BC–1450 BC
Hittite Empire rules in Anatolia, c.1600–1200 BC; Hittite cuneiform; “Luvian hieroglyphs”
1500 BC West Semitic syllabic writing invented, c.1500(?) BC
Destruction of Cretan palaces, c.1450 BC
Destruction of the rebuilt Cnossus, c.1375 BC
Amarna tablets in Middle Babylonian cuneiform, c.1350 BC
Trojan War occurs, c.1250(?) BC
Destruction of Ugarit, c.1200 BC
Chinese script first attested in the Shang Dynasty on oracle bones, c.1200 BC
1100 BC IRON AGE begins with destruction of Mycenaean cities in Greece and other sites in the Levant
Earliest Mesoamerican “writing,” from Olmec territory, c.1140–400 BC
1000 BC Greek colonies are settled in Asia Minor, c.1000 BC
NeoAssyrian cuneiform, c.1000–600 BC
NeoBabylonian cuneiform, c.1000–500 BC
900 BC NeoHittite cities flourish in northern Syria, c.900–700 BC
Earliest “Isthmian” writing, c.900 BC (?)
800 BC GREEK ARCHAIC PERIOD begins with invention of the Greek alphabet, c.800 BC
Iliad and the Odyssey, attributed to Homer, are written down, c.800–775 BC
Greek colonies in southern Italy and Sicily, c.800–600 BC
Olympic Games begin, 776 BC
Hesiod’s Theogony is written down, c.775–700(?) BC
Rome, allegedly, is founded, 753 BC
600 BC Formation of Hebrew Pentateuch (first “five books” of Bible) during Babylonian Captivity of the Hebrews, 586–538 BC Cyrus the Great of Persia, c.600–529 BC
“Zapotec” writing from the valley of Oaxaca in Mexico, c.600–400 BC
Expulsion of the Etruscan dynasty at Rome and the foundation of the “Roman Republic,” 510 BC
500 BC Late Babylonian cuneiform, c.500 BC–AD 75
Behistun inscriptions (Old Persian cuneiform, Late Babylonian cuneiform, Elamite cuneiform), c.500 BC
CLASSICAL PERIOD begins with end of Persian Wars, 480 BC
Herodotus, c.484–420 BC
Thucydides, c.470–400 BC
Plato, c.427–347 BC
400 BC  
  Aristotle, c.384–322 BC
Alexander the Great conquers the Persian Empire, founds Alexandria 336–323 BC
HELLENISTIC PERIOD begins with death of Alexander in 323 BC
300 BC  
  Earliest Mayan writing, c.250 BC
Mouseion founded by Ptolemy II, ruled 285–246 BC
200 BC  
  Ptolemy V carves the Rosetta Stone, 196 BC
ROMAN PERIOD begins when Greece becomes Roman province, 146
100 BC  
  Diodorus of Sicily, c.80–20 BC
Vergil, 70–19 BC
Augustus defeats Antony and Cleopatra at battle of Actium and annexes Egypt, 30 BC
Augustus Caesar reigns, 27 BC–AD 14
Year 0  
  Last Mesopotamian cuneiform, AD 75
AD 200 Classic Maya Period, c. AD 250 until AD 900
Plotinus, a NeoPlatonist Greek philosopher writes that the hieroglyphs are allegories, c. AD 250
Coptic phase of pharaonic Egyptian recorded in modified
Greek alphabet called Coptic script, c. third century AD
AD 300  
  Last hieroglyphs inscribed at Philae near Aswan, AD 396
AD 400 European MEDIEVAL PERIOD begins with fall of Rome in AD 476
Hieroglyphics, by Horapollo (?), c. fifth century AD
AD 1500  
  Hernán Cortés lands in Mexico, AD 1519
AD 1600 Mesoamerican writing disappears, c. AD 1600
Travelers’ reports bring information about cuneiform to Europe
Rosetta stone found in Egypt, AD 1799
AD 1800  
  Jean François Champollion deciphers Egyptian hieroglyphs, AD 1822
Henry Rawlinson and others decipher Mesopotamian cuneiform, c. AD 1850
AD 1900  
  Michael Ventris deciphers Linear B, AD 1952
Yuri Knorosov establishes the phonetic basis of some Mayan signs, AD 1952

Introduction: A Difficult Topic, Little Studied, Poorly Understood

It is not hard to see that writing is the single most important technology in human life, yet it is not easy to study or to think about. Nonetheless we use it almost every minute of our lives. Naturally, many handbooks attempt to explain this extraordinary technology, some of good quality, but most suffer from a recurring blindness about what writing is, where it comes from, and how it functions in relationship to speech. All scientific speculation on the history of writing, without exception, is conducted by alphabet-users, including the present study, which gives a bias to our questions and to what we take as answers. Many historians of writing do not read nonalphabetic scripts or have a casual acquaintance with them. The alphabet-using historians of writing make prejudgments that harm our understanding.

In this book I will struggle against such prejudgments by providing a scientific nomenclature for understanding writing built on a coherent model of the different internal structures that govern all writing. I want to explicate this nomenclature and this model (see diagram facing the title page) through the study of the history of writing in the ancient Mediterranean, China, and Mesoamerica. This book is not, then, a description of the endless variety of external form in the history of writing, for which good studies exist, but an examination through historical examples of the internal structural principles that govern all writing. By proceeding in this fashion through a dark forest filled with dragons, I hope to slay several and clear away some popular confusions:

A Chaos of Terms

In no sense is the history of writing a discipline with niches in universities filled by experts. Those who write about the history of writing come from different directions and bring with them the expectations of their own disciplines. Linguists occasionally write such books because they feel that “language” is their province and that writing is somehow language. They are unrealistic about the quality of the phonetic information encoded in systems of writing, and their explanations too often ignore the social and historical forces behind change in systems of writing. Archaeologists sometimes work directly with unfamiliar ancient scripts, but they are rarely trained philologists. Perhaps philologists are in the best position to study the history of writing, if they have learned a nonalphabetic script, because they have wrestled most with the problem of deriving meaning from symbols. Thus the Polish-American Assyriologist I. J. Gelb (1907–85), who worked at the University of Chicago and contributed to the decipherment of “Luvian hieroglyphs,” wrote the most important analysis of writing in the twentieth century and laid the foundations for the modern scientific study of writing. His famous book A Study of Writing: The Foundations of Grammatology appeared first in 1952 (revised in 1963). Gelb was wrong in details, but he understood that the history of writing exists, with discoverable underlying principles, as in all historical study. His outline of those principles stands today, and I refer to them often in this book.

Above all Gelb urged the use of a consistent and rational vocabulary in discussing the history of writing, although few follow his advice. In reading and thinking about writing we struggle with terms that have their origin in the history of study, not in the nature of the subject. For example, we just referred to “Luvian hieroglyphs” to distinguish this writing from “Hittite cuneiform,” but there is nothing hieroglyphic about this writing except the casual and entirely superficial resemblance to the historically unrelated Egyptian hieroglyphs. Both scripts are iconic, that is, we can sometimes recognize in the signs objects from the everyday world – for example, a hand, a bird, or an animal – but there is no direct historical connection between the scripts and they work in different ways. Another example is the “Ugaritic cuneiform alphabet,” which is unrelated to Mesopotamian cuneiform and is not an alphabet. Unfortunately, such terms have stuck, and we are stuck with them, and we are stuck constantly explaining that this or that term is inappropriate. I will put such casual and inaccurate but common terms in “quotations.”

But the misuse of three words more than any others have harmed the study of the history of writing: “pictogram,” “ideogram” (or ideograph), and “alphabet.” The word “pictogram” means “picture-writing,” but carries with it so much imprecision that we must avoid it rigorously. The use of “pictogram” should be the hallmark of the amateur, but careless professionals go on using it. It is always tempting to call any sign that looks like something a “pictogram,” implying that the message is communicated through pictures and not through the resources of speech. Underlying the use but usually unspoken is a specious theory that “writing” began as pictures, then somehow became attached to speech, yet still remained pictures. So written characters that resemble something in the world, like Egyptian hieroglyphs, are called pictograms, as if the sign stands for what they picture and not for elements of human speech or sounds of speech. We do find representations of recognizable objects in early writing, but these “pictures” can fulfill a wide range of functions. Even when such designs appear to stand for the object represented, really they stand for the word attached to the object; that is, they refer to elements of speech, and not directly to items found in the world. “Pictures” can fulfill other functions, for example, place the thing described in a category. When wishing to speak of the representational aspects of some writings, we can call these aspects “iconic”.

A similar situation pertains to the word “ideogram,” often used, for example, of Chinese characters or of a class of signs in Cretan Linear B. Ideogram should mean “idea-writing,” that is, the graphic symbolization of an “idea,” a Platonic, invisible, eternal, unspoken reality. At one time scholars thought that Egyptian hieroglyphs were just that. But Chinese characters never represent eternal, unspoken realities, and neither do Linear B characters. Probably “ideograms” do not exist, so it makes little sense to talk about them.

The deep problems surrounding the word “alphabet” will be the subject of a good part of this book.

Writing, Language, Speech

Writing is old, but writing attached to speech, which I will call lexigraphic writing, goes back only to around 3400 BC, as far as we know. That is a rough date, as are all dates in the fourth millennium, but one we can nonetheless work with. Immense changes have taken place in the art of lexigraphic writing since that time, as one will quickly discover if setting out to learn Akkadian cuneiform. Yet such changes rarely result from evolution, except in writing’s earliest stages, and were never inevitable. They came about through the accidents of history and the intercession of individual men of genius working across racial and linguistic bounds, when fresh approaches were possible. There is no certain direction that a writing must take. Because writing systems are arbitrary and conventional they do not respond to nature (whose rules of behavior are not arbitrary and not conventional), but to the inventiveness of unknown creators, who had a purpose too often hidden from us.

So improbable is it that anyone should devise a means of encoding elements of speech by means of graphic symbols that in the Old World lexigraphic writing was invented only once, in Mesopotamia, and perhaps a second time, much later, in China. But even in China the idea of “writing” must have come from Mesopotamia over the Gansu corridor north of the Himalayas, where caravan traffic was constant. China was never wholly separated from cultural developments in Mesopotamia. A separate invention did take place in Mesoamerica, providing a test case for principles distilled from the study of Near Eastern writing. We will spend one chapter on writing not attached to speech, which I call semasiography (after I. J. Gelb), but most of this book is about lexigraphic writing.

Because such writing is attached to speech, we need a clear description of what we mean by speech. Unfortunately scholars often use “language” when really they mean “speech,” as if they were the same thing. “Language” is a formal system of differences and by no means restricted to vocal utterances. In the language of speech, the spoken word “water” is not the spoken word “ice” because they have different forms, to which we attach different meanings. In the language of writing, Egyptian is not , though, both transliterate as sny: the one means “two” and the other means “companion.” Different meanings accompany different forms. Similarly, in the language of writing [$] means something different from [%] because they have different forms to which we assign different significations. These signs belong to the language of writing, and they refer to words, though they do not have phonetic value.

The broad category of “language” will also include Morse Code, semaphore, and American sign language, which may refer to speech, but can never be confused with it. Such forms of language as Unicode or mathematical notation do not refer to speech at all. In the study of writing we speak of the “underlying language” essential to deciphering an unknown script, so that we easily forget that writing is itself a kind of language. The confusion between “writing” and “language” is profound, ubiquitous, and disruptive, so that in a popular view Chinese “language” is the same as Chinese “writing,” a confusion that turns out, oddly, to be true once we understand how little Chinese writing has to do with Chinese speech.

Lexigraphic writing is based in speech, yes, but because we know of ancient speech only through written documents, it is easy to think that we are talking about “language” or “speech” when really we are talking about graphic representations that make use of spoken lexical elements, which may constitute in themselves a kind of language, but by no means intend to preserve actual speech. The intention is to communicate information, and for this purpose a graphic system with systematic phonetic ties to speech is a tool of earth-shaking power. It is not, however, a tool for the preservation of ancient speech.

For this reason the Sumerian speech was of use to nonSumerian Semitic scribes, because the relationships between graphic symbols and symbols originating in speech had been established by ancient usage. Just so, it was logical and practical for medieval Europeans to use Latin as a basic system for understanding across the polyglot confusion of mutually unintelligible local dialects and languages. Sumerian written in cuneiform (“wedge-shaped”) writing was a traditional system of signs for communicating information whether you were Sumerian or not, and as such worked well. For the same reason, during the dominance of Assyria over the Near East during the ninth to seventh centuries BC and of Persia in the sixth to fifth centuries BC, the West Semitic Aramaic script encoding lexical forms from the “Aramaic language” was used by nonAramaic-speaking scribes over an area stretching from the Mediterranean to northwest India.

For example, in Figure 0.1, from the palace at Nineveh of Tiglath Pileser III (ruled 745–727 BC), one of the most successful commanders who ever lived, a beardless eunuch on the left calls out a list of booty while the presumably Assyrian-speaking eunuch in the middle records the inventory in the contemporary Assyrian dialect by impressing cuneiform characters with a stylus into a waxed wood tablet. The presumably Assyrian-speaking eunuch scribe on the right makes a duplicate record (to prevent cheating?) by writing on a roll of papyrus or leather, certainly West Semitic Aramaic characters tied to Aramaic speech. The difference in writing medium, part of any writing tradition, accompanies a difference in script and “underlying language.”

Figure 0.1 Relief of bilingual scribes, from the palace of Tiglath Pileser III at Nineveh (in modern Iraq), c.740 BC.

(London, British Museum BM118882.)

Lexigraphic writing may refer to elements of speech, but in real speech we find extraordinary local and social differences, so great among English speakers that TV interviews in a regional English are often given subtitles for the greater English-speaking audience; that is, by means of alphabetic writing the speech is reduced to a standard form. Even in the same town speakers may not understand one another across differences in class and social background, although they “speak the same language.” In my own experience, once, in Alexandria, Egypt, my middle-class guide was unable to communicate with a street sweeper who may have known the location of our hotel, yet both spoke “Arabic.”

Only writing, and especially alphabetic writing supported by political power and social prestige, creates the illusion that a “language” such as English is a single thing, out there, bounded, defined, and capable of discovery. Writing’s overarching power stabilizes speech, represses local differences, and fashions standards for thought and expression. Dante’s Florentine dialect was one of hundreds of local Italic vernaculars descended from Latin, but his written Commedia in a fourteenth-century Florentine dialect created “the Italian language.” Many books speak of the Phoenician, Hebrew, Moabite, Aramaic, and Syriac “languages” when, really, they are looking at small variations in the forms of West Semitic writing applied over a broad geographical area to a single speech-family that we might loosely call “Semitic,” with local differences based on a similar phonology (a selection of voice sounds) and a similar inner structure. For example, in Hebrew the word for son is bn and in Aramaic it is br, but in Cambridge, Massachusetts, spirits to drink are /lika/ and in Seattle they are /likor/. Still, spoken communication takes place. The imperative “carry!” is qabur in the Hebrew “language,” qabor in Syriac, ‘uqbur in Arabic and qabar in Ethiopic, but all are mildly different expressions from a single underlying system. The great family of Semitic languages has very many regional variations, and we are simply never sure when a dialect has slipped over into a new “language,” that is, when a speaker within one system can no longer understand a speaker from another system. But twenty years of study of the holy Quran, certainly written in Arabic, will not enable the student to converse, even about simple things, with an inhabitant of Fez, Cairo, or Damascus, where everyone speaks “Arabic.”

The confusion is clear in Figure 0.2, a type of chart that appears in many books on writing. The chart catalogues the transformations undergone by the West Semitic signary (in which a hypothetical but wholly unproven priority is given to Phoenician script). Such graphic variations are taken as designating the different languages of “Phoenician,” “Moabite,” various forms of “Aramaic,” and “Hebrew.” But such different “languages” are as close to one another as Quranic Arabic is to spoken Arabic in its myriad and often mutually unintelligible varieties. It is true that, schooled in the Phoenician script of 1000 BC, one will have a hard time reading “Palmyrene Aramaic” of the third century AD, the script and language used in the caravan city of Palmyra in the Syrian desert, but these are nonetheless the same script with formal differences growing over more than one thousand years. The underlying “language” has remained the same. Such charts are really a study in handwriting, or paleography, with limited importance for understanding the theory and history of writing, and they do not describe an evolution of “language.”

Figure 0.2 Various character forms for West Semitic writing, from c.1000 BC to modern times.

(After Healey, 1987, fig. 15, p. 223.)

In sum, the ambiguous correspondence of language and speech afflicts all such studies as this one, because speech, sometimes called “spoken language,” certainly is a language, but not all language is speech. We will need constantly to speak of the “language” underlying systems of writing, even if we really mean “speech.” In this case by “language” we refer to a system of phonic symbols intelligible to speaker and listener, more or less, over a wide range of variation. However, that system of phonic symbols could never itself be the “language” of the lexigraphic writing, because lexigraphic writing is its own language, making use of the resources of speech but never identical with it. “To speak a language” means something – if you speak Greek, you may enter the Mysteries at Eleusis; if you don’t, you can’t. Nonetheless, language, speech, and lexigraphic writing are all tangled up and, once we acknowledge their boundaries and differences, we must to some extent live with the confusion.


In the case of writing that is related to speech we must constantly deal with reconstructions of the sounds of speech encoded in the writing. In talking about the forms of characters and the sounds of speech I will follow the conventional practice of using brackets [] to enclose a given form or shape, how something looks, how it is written, and slashes / / to indicate the sound.

For example, in Egyptian hieroglyphs the sign represents the sound /m/ (plus an implied vowel). Unfortunately, each discipline has its own system, or more than one, for transcribing sounds, which originated in the history of the discipline. Such systems, internal to a discipline, are not themselves consistent, but may differ in England and Germany and even in the same place. For example, the Egyptian character for /y/ is written sometimes as [i] and sometimes as [j]. The situation is worse between disciplines. The glottal stop, when the throat closes as before and between “uh-oh,” is represented as [‘] in transliterations from West Semitic, but as [] by Egyptologists, although the sound is the same. Ideally, everyone might use the admirable International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) as a means to suggest the sound values in systems of writing (see Fig. 14.3), and sometimes you do find this. However, few readers without formal training in linguistics understand the symbols of the IPA, the use of which can become a kind of game of phonetic precision that misrepresents the enormous phonetic ambiguity in all writing systems. Furthermore, the IPA is not easy to learn or to understand.

The problem of consistency in transliteration is not solvable, and in this book I have chosen, as much as possible, to use systems of transliteration traditional within a discipline, explaining myself as I go, but cautioning the reader about the need for flexibility and attention to sometimes subtle distinctions.