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Language                  1,000 BC
Africa
Southwest Asia
Egypt
Indus Valley
China
Europe
South America
Mesoamerica
North America
Other

In General

The alphabet did not naturally evolve from the Mesopotamian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphic systems which overlapped with the alphabetic system for more than 1,500 years. We do not know exactly when and where the introduction occurred, but the current "universal alphabet" appeared full-blown in human records between 3,000 and 4,000 years ago. The term "universal alphabet" applies because all ancient and modern alphabets derive from the exact same concept and structure. (113)

Africa

 

Southwest Asia

 For one thing, the inscription could give scholars the first strong evidence of the language of the Philistines. They were descendants of the enigmatic Sea People, originally from the Aegean Sea region, who arrived in large numbers on the coast of Canaan soon after 1200 BC. Canaan was a land that included much of present-day Lebanon and Israel. Whatever language these people first spoke, Greek or something else, in time the Philistines apparently adopted a Canaanite tongue, for the Bible portrays them as having no trouble communicating with the Israelites. Phoenician and Hebrew were dialects of the Canaanite language. (95)

The most widely preserved archives of such systems contain Sumerian or Akkadian cuneiform covering hundreds of thousands of clay tablets and date between 3200 BC and 75 AD. In this system, one symbol (e.g., a wedged cone) represented a small word (e.g., NI), root, or suffix/prefix. Each of these symbols could be combined with others to form a more complex word. This Sumerian system's shortcoming was its cumbersome nature, requiring as many as 600 common characters and 2,000 unusual characters. (113)

Both the Hebrews and the Greeks adopted the Phoenician model using the same number of letters in the same order. The Hebrews named each letter; each name was encoded with several meanings. The Greeks modified the Hebrew names and added vowel endings to their letters. They claim to have received the original version from Kadmus (meaning "ancient one") and used it unchanged for centuries. The poet Simonides of Ceos was credited with increasing the number of Greek letters to 26 prior to 400 BC. (113)

…we've seen how linguists have been able to extract, from written languages, evidence of a preliterate mother tongue and steamroller. The obvious next questions are: when was PIE (Proto-Indo-European) spoken, where was it spoken, and how was it able to overwhelm so many other languages? Let's begin with the matter of "when," another seemingly impossible question. It's bad enough that we have to infer the words of an unwritten language; how on earth do we determine when it was spoken? We can at least start to narrow down the possibilities by examining the oldest written samples of Indo-European languages. For a long time, the oldest samples that scholars could identify were Iranian texts of around 1000-800 BC, and Sanskrit texts probably composed around 1200-1000 BC but written down later. Texts of a Mesopotamian kingdom called Mitanni, written in a non-Indo-European language but containing some words obviously borrowed from a language related to Sanskrit, push the proven existence of Sanskrit-like languages back to nearly 1500 BC. (114)

The next breakthrough was the late-nineteenth-century discovery of a mass of ancient Egyptian diplomatic correspondence. Most of it was written in a Semitic language, but two letters in an unknown language remained a mystery until excavations in Turkey uncovered thousands of tablets in the same tongue. The tablets proved to be the archives of a kingdom that thrived between 1650 and 1200 BC and that we now refer to by the biblical name "Hittite." (114)

We can at least start to narrow down the possibilities by examining the oldest written samples of Indo-European languages. For a long time, the oldest samples that scholars could identify were Iranian texts of around 1000-800 BC, and Sanskrit texts probably composed around 1200-1000 BC but written down later. Texts of a Mesopotamian kingdom called Mitanni, written in a non-Indo-European language but containing some words obviously borrowed from a language related to Sanskrit, push the proven existence of Sanskrit-like languages back to nearly 1500 BC. (114)

The next breakthrough was the late-nineteenth-century discovery of a mass of ancient Egyptian diplomatic correspondence. Most of it was written in a Semitic language, but two letters in an unknown language remained a mystery until excavations in Turkey uncovered thousands of tablets in the same tongue. The tablets proved to be the archives of a kingdom that thrived between 1650 and 1200 BC and that we now refer to by the biblical name "Hittite." (114)

...while it is evident that there are later additions included in the present text of the book of Deuteronomy, its main outlines are precisely those that are observed by Josiah in 622 BC in Jerusalem for the first time. The very fact that a written law code suddenly appeared at this time meshes well with the archaeological record of the spread of literacy in Judah. Although the prophet Hosea and King Hezekiah were associated with ideas that are similar to those contained in Deuteronomy, the report of the appearance of a definitive written text and its public reading by the king accords with the evidence for the sudden, dramatic spread of literacy in seventh-century Judah. The discovery of hundreds of personal signet seals and seal impressions inscribed in Hebrew from this era attests to the extensive use of writing and written documents. As we have mentioned, such relatively widespread evidence of literacy is an important indication that Judah reached the level of a fully developed state in this period. It hardly had the capability of producing extensive biblical texts before. (143)

In addition, scholars have pointed out that the literary form of the covenant between YHWH and the people of Israel in Deuteronomy is strikingly similar to that of early seventh-century Assyrian vassal treaties that outline the rights and obligations of a subject people to their sovereign (in this case, Israel and YHWH). Furthermore, as the biblical historian Moshe Weinfeld has suggested, Deuteronomy shows similarities to early Greek literature, in expressions of ideology within programmatic speeches, in the genre of blessing and cursing, and in the ceremonies for the foundation of new settlements. To sum up, there is little doubt that an original version of Deuteronomy is the book of the Law mentioned in 2 Kings. Rather than being an old book that was suddenly discovered, it seems safe to conclude that it was written in the seventh century BC, just before or during Josiah's reign. (143)

Until the eighth century, writing was regarded as a divine, uncanny skill that was potentially dangerous for human beings. The wisdom of the community belonged to everybody, and should not become the possession of a literate minority. But by the end of the eighth century, literacy was becoming more widespread in the Near East, and new political circumstances prompted kings to record traditions that were favorable to their rule in a library of written texts. (158)

Egypt

One of the many mysteries of Egypt is the origin of its written language, or hieroglyphs (“sacred carvings”). These were first used shortly before 3100 BC and continued in use until about AD 1100 (and are still in use today by the crafty forgers in modern Cairo’s tourist traps). Ancient Egyptian was a mixture of signs and symbols, some of them expressing sounds in the spoken language, others indicating to the reader how a written character with several possible meanings was to be read in that specific context. It was not used as a truly alphabetic system, but virtually everything in the spoken language could be efficiently conveyed in the written language. The beautifully simple hieroglyphic characters were complemented very early on by a hieratic script, which was much more abstract and cursive and thus could be written easily on papyrus with a reed pen and ink. (47)

Hieratic was an ancient Egyptian cursive writing, used from the 1st dynasty (c. 2925-c. 2775 BC) until about 200 BC. Derived from the earlier, pictorial hieroglyphic writing used in carved or painted inscriptions, hieratic script was generally written in ink with a reed pen on papyrus; its cursive form was more suited to such a medium than were the formal hieroglyphs. It was originally written vertically and later horizontally from right to left. After about 660 BC demotic script replaced hieratic in most secular writings, but hieratic continued to be used by priests in the transcription of religious texts for several more centuries. (73)

Ancient Egyptians could have written all or most of their spoken language with just twenty-four signs. …the Egyptians never simplified their written language to this alphabetic format…(47)

Indus Valley

 

China

 Late in the Shang period (about 1200 BC), the written language had evolved (perhaps quite rapidly) to the point that texts from this period give us a detailed portrait of Shang life. Over 3,000 phonetic, ideographic, and pictographic characters were in use (of which about 1,200 have been identified), and more than 160,000 inscribed shells (of which only some have been translated) and numerous inscriptions in bronze or stone date to this period. (49)

Europe

 Both the Hebrews and the Greeks adopted the Phoenician model using the same number of letters in the same order. The Hebrews named each letter; each name was encoded with several meanings. The Greeks modified the Hebrew names and added vowel endings to their letters. They claim to have received the original version from Kadmus (meaning "ancient one") and used it unchanged for centuries. The poet Simonides of Ceos was credited with increasing the number of Greek letters to 26 prior to 400 BC. (113)

As of 500 BC, Latin was confined to a small area around Rome and shared Italy with many other languages. The expansion of Latin-speaking Romans eradicated all those other languages of Italy, then eradicated entire branches of the Indo-European family elsewhere in Europe, like the continental Celtic languages. These sister branches were so thoroughly replaced by Latin that we know each of them only by scattered words, names, and inscriptions. With the subsequent overseas expansion of Spanish and Portuguese after 1492, the language spoken initially by a few hundred thousand Romans trampled hundreds of other languages out of existence, as it gave rise to the Romance languages spoken by half a billion people today. (114)

750 BC Homer and Hesiod. (135)

Archaeologists have unearthed a writing system that could make historians revise long-accepted theories about the birth of civilization in western Europe. The 89 symbol script is preserved in scores of pottery fragments used 3,500 years ago in settlements reaching from the Orkneys to Majorca. It is more complex than any previously known in western Europe and suggests that a bronze age civilization dominated Britain, Spain and France around 1500 BC.These finds suggest that some part of western Europe, previously regarded as illiterate may have been as advanced as the ancient Greeks and Romans. What was extremely interesting was the type of symbols used. They were described as incisions of vertical, horizontal and diagonal liines circles and patterns of dots similar to the "Linear A' script, which had been used at a later date by the minoan culture on the island of Crete. (160)

South America

 900 BC Phoenician parahyba inscription in Brazil. (135)

Mesoamerica  

What is particularly important, however, is that this Epi-Olmec script contains logograms that are semantically equivalent to very similar-looking Mayan glyphs and that the Olmec were using essentially the same calendar. These Epi-Olmec inscriptions refer to the accession of various rulers, to what seems to be a war between brothers-in-law, and to other dynastic and calendrical matters. (51)

Later, America was re-discovered by a ship blown off its course and a Phoenician colony was planted about 900 BC on the coast of Mexico near the gold and silver mines. This Phoenician colony, garrisoned by West African troops, kept in occasional touch with Carthage. By that time the Phoenician lords could read and write. Writing seems to have developed in Mexico with the Olmec culture and it spread to the Mayas, near by, on the Yucatan peninsula. Along with writing came the influence of African art. Powerful and fruitful as were these several later influences, we must remember firstly that the period spanned between the arrival of the first maritime prospectors and that of Columbus and the Spaniard extended over 7000 years and secondly that the American continent stretches 10,000 miles from top to toe. Isolation was the norm, contact and colonisation the exception. But what potent and exciting exceptions! (135)

A column of symbols on a late monument at La Venta, and symbols on a cylinder seal and fragments of a stone plaque from nearby San Andres, also suggest the Olmecs made early steps toward writing. The linguistic affiliation of these people remains a matter of debate, with some arguing they spoke a Mayan language. The evidence of later inscriptions and studies of loan words into other Mesoamerican languages, however, suggest the Olmecs spoke an ancestor of the Mije-Sokean languages still spoken in parts of the southern Gulf lowlands and adjacent regions, parts of Chiapas and Oaxaca. (159)


Early steps toward writing: La Venta Monument 13 and cylinder seal from San Andres (159)

Nicknamed "The Ambassador," this late monument shows a striding, bearded figure holding what appears to be a penant. Most extaordinary, however is a column of three glyph-like elements in front of the figure and a fourth element in the shape of a footprint behind him, similar to the footprint glyphs that denoted travel in Aztec codices (p.159).

By 500 BC, an intensely burned temple and a relief sculpture of a sacrificed captive (Monument 3), both at San Jose Mogote, attest to that site's failure and success in raids that apparently intensified in the Rosario phase. Monument 3 also is widely regarded to contain the earliest known example of writing in Mesoamerica. The captive is identified by the glyph for his personal day-name, "1 Earthquake," which was taken from the zoo-day sacred calendar, presaging a common practice in later Mesoamerican cultures. (159)

In Mesoamerica, the Late to Terminal Formative period saw the emergence of at least three distinctive writing systems. One of these, believed to have been written by speakers of a Zapotecan language, began to develop in Oaxaca before 500 BC. After 450 BC, another style of hieroglyphic writing appears on Izapan and early Maya monuments from the Pacific Coast and highlands of southern Guatemala and Chiapas. Traces of glyphs in the eroded inscription accompanying the Long Count date on Tres Zapotes Stela C show that it belonged to a different tradition...an area that corresponds closely to the historical distribution of the Mije-Sokean language family. (159)

North America

 

Other