Language around 3,000 BC

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Southwest Asia

The Sumerian civilization developed in the region around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is now Iraq. Prehistoric peoples known as the Ubadians had originally settled in the region, establishing settlements that gradually developed into the ancient city-states of Adab, Eridu, Isin, Kish, Kullab, Lagash, Larsa, Nippur, and Ur. As the region prospered Semites from Syria and Arabian deserts moved in, both peaceful immigrants and as raiders. Then around 3250 BC a new group called Sumerians arrived and began to intermarry with the native population. These small dark-haired newcomers were intellectually and technologically highly sophisticated, and they spoke an agglutinative language that is unrelated to any other known language. No one knows where they came from. (Before the Pyramids)

As the Sumerians gained control, the country grew rich and powerful. They invented glass-working, the wheel, and writing: their language eventually became the language of the intellectual, just as Greek and Latin did at later dates. They also are credited with devising the second of time. (Before the Pyramids)

It was at this moment in human destiny that the art of writing first appeared in the world and that scriptorially documented history therefore begins. (Primitive Mythology)

The fact that the Sumerian language was essentially unlike those of the contemporary but less-developed Semitic cultures that surrounded the Sumerians has led some to place Sumerian origins in Turkey, Bahrain, or even outer space.

We have a detailed picture of life in these Sumerian city-states, because shortly before 3000 B.C. they began to develop a written language.The earliest known written documents may be clay tablets and sealings from early occupations at Uruk (c. 3400 BC). Those documents include signs for carpenter, donkey, boat, copper and many other things, totaling fifteen hundred symbols in all. Some signs seem to mean to buy, while others refer to en, the title of a lord, and to unken, which may have been a people's assembly. The hierarchical nature of Mesopotamian society by the end of the Uruk Period is vividly illustrated by one of the oldest documents known , the "Standard Professions List," which gives the titles of officials and names of professions, all arranged according to what is apparently a composite sense of power and prestige.

The ability of this cumbersome writing to convey abstract concepts or the spoken language was initially quite limited, but in the centuries after 2900 BC, the Sumerians improved it. Phoneticization, by which some signs came to represent distinct words and syllables of the spoken language, was a most important development.

The first truly alphabetic written languages appear to have developed about the middle of the second millennium BC among Semitic-speaking peoples in Palestine and northern Syria. In the tenth or ninth centuries BC, the Greeks adapted the Syrian or Phoenician variant of these early alphabets to their own language, reducing the number of signs to fewer than twenty-five and making several major refinements in the process. The Greek alphabet became the basis for all modern European writing systems, including the Cyrillic alphabet of eastern Europe. (Patterns in Prehistory)

The Sumerians had a story to explain their invention of writing more than 5,000 years ago. It seems a messenger of the king of Uruk arrived at the court of a distant ruler so exhausted from the journey that he was unable to deliver the oral message. So the king, being clever, came up with a solution. He patted some clay and set down the words of his next messages on a tablet. A Sumerian epic celebrates the achievement: Before that time writing on clay had not yet existed. But now, as the sun rose, so it was! The king of Kullaba [Uruk] had set words on a tablet, so it was! (110)

The Elamites of southern Iran developed a proto-writing system then, perhaps influenced by the proto-cuneiform of their Sumerian neighbors... (110)

Most of the Uruk tablets were documents about property, inventory and, even then, taxes. The only texts that do not concern administrative activities, Dr. Damerow said, were cuneiform lexicons that were apparently written as school exercises by scribes in training. For at least two decades, in fact, Dr. Denise Schmandt-Besserat, a University of Texas archeologist, has argued that the first writing grew directly out of a counting system practiced by Sumerian accountants. They used molded clay "tokens," each one specially shaped to represent a jar of oil, a large or small container of grain, or a particular kind of livestock. When the tokens were placed inside hollow clay spheres, the number and type of tokens inside were recorded on the ball with impressions resembling the tokens. Finally, simplifying matters, the token impressions were replaced with inscribed signs, and writing was invented. (110)

…the Uruk proto-cuneiform writing, whatever its antecedents, was "so radically different as to be a complete break with the past, a system different from anything else." It no doubt served to store, preserve and communicate information, but also was a new instrument of power. "Perhaps it’s because I grew up in Stalinist Poland," Dr. Michalows . said, "but I say coercion and control were early writing's first important purpose, a new way to control how people live." (110)

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. (Gods, Genes, and Consciousness)

Thus, as of 1917, two Indo-European branches--Anatolian and Indo-Iranian--had been shown to exist by around 1900 and 1500 BC, respectively. A third early branch was established in 1952, when the young British cryptographer Michael Ventris showed that ancient Crete's and Greece's so-called Linear B writing, which had resisted deciphering since its rediscovery around 1900, was an early form of the Greek language. Those Linear B tablets date to around 1300 BC. But Hittite, Sanskrit, and early Greek are very different from each other, certainly more so than modern French and Spanish, which diverged by one thousand years ago. That suggests that the Hittite, Sanskrit, and Greek branches must have split off from PIE by 2500 BC or earlier. (The Third Chimpanzee)

The usual conclusion from either glottochronology or pants' seats is that the PIE (Proto-Indo-European) language community may have started to break up into several daughter language communities by 3000 BC, surely by 2500 BC and not before 5000 BC. The latest datable invention with a PIE name is the wheel, invented around 3300 BC. (The Third Chimpanzee)

By such reasoning linguistic paleontology, even in the absence of any other evidence, would date the break-up of PIE as before 2000 BC but after 3300 BC. This conclusion agrees well with the one reached by extrapolating the differences between Hittite, Greek, and Sanskrit backward in time. If we wish to find traces of the first Indo-Europeans, we shall be safe to concentrate on the archaeological record between 2500 and 5000 BC, and perhaps slightly before 3000 BC. (The Third Chimpanzee)

According to the Sumerian king-list, Gilgamesh was the fifth king of the First Dynasty of Uruk (biblical Erech), a city-state on the banks of the Euphrates River during the Second Early Dynastic Period of Sumer (circa 27th century BC). Within two hundred years, Gilgamesh was widely revered as a god in Sumer. The adaptation of his recorded exploits from the oral recital to cuneiform inscriptions may have been initiated about this time. But even then continued oral performance by a class of illiterate storytellers was almost certain since the complex system of cuneiform signs kept writing within a tiny elite of professional scribes. A thousand years later the epic was dispersed abroad to Anatolia in the Hittite language and to the Canaanites of Palestine in Hurrian prose. Although it is impossible to know the degree of modification from inherited tradition, ritual details are strikingly similar in content and style among all the versions. Apparently the guslars, in the presence of a powerful poem, had been diligent in the faithful perpetuation of their ancestral myth. (Noah's Flood)

The exceptional fertility, the presence of a limitless supply of water for irrigation, and the growing web of canals for transport meant that the few could provide for the many. Prosperity led to more prosperity, and soon one of the world's great civilizations emerged as a people and culture known as Sumerian succeeded from their ancestors, the Ubaids. There flowered among them an amazing pantheon of gods, one for every need. A very superstitious and fatalistic people, they believed in predestination but also that the future could be revealed by divination. They sought a cause for all events among the gods. Small wonder that their entire history was recorded in myth. By 3000 BC these people had invented writing. Using wedge-shaped styli to inscribe symbols on tablets of wet day, they recorded the everyday events of their lives and immortalized their myths, religious beliefs, and practices. (Noah's Flood)

The first schools were established in Sumer as a direct outgrowth of the invention and introduction of writing. The evidence (both archaeological, such as actual school buildings, and written, such as exercise tablets) indicates the existence of a formal system of education by the beginning of the third millennium BC. There were literally thousands of scribes in Sumer, ranging from junior scribes to high scribes, royal scribes, temple scribes, and scribes who assumed high state office. Some acted as teachers at the schools, and we can still read their essays on the schools, their aims and goals, their curriculum and teaching methods. The schools taught not only language and writing but also the sciences of the day--botany, zoology, geography, mathematics, and theology. Literary works of the past were studied and copied, and new ones were composed. (The 12th Planet)

It was perhaps in order to deal with the most basic forms of commerce with neighbouring communities that the oldest known form of bartering tokens were developed by the tribal communities of the Kurdish highlands in the eighth millennium BC. These tokens gradually became more complex, until larger clay cases were made in which the smaller tokens could be kept safely without being damaged or defaced. By 3000 BC the token system had been completely replaced by sequences of markings inscribed on to the clay cases, and soon afterwards the first baked-clay tablets bearing ideogram scripts started appearing in the lowlands of Sumeria - their shape reflecting the fat cases originally used to contain the loose tokens. In other words, what was perhaps one of the earliest forms of written language in the Old World had developed initially in the highlands of Kurdistan. (From the Ashes of Angels)

The research of archaeologist Denise Schmandt-Besserat has revealed the most likely scenario for how the use of recorded symbols evolved in Mesopotamia, proposing what is essentially a five-step process. The first step involved the use of so-called clay tokens that, beginning more than 9,000 years ago, litter sites in the Middle East . The tokens initially were made in 16 basic shapes, mostly geometric forms like cones, disks, spheres, and cylinders but also stylized animals and some that resemble pottery storage jars. The second step in Schmandt-Besserat's sequence began about 6,000 years ago when the tokens appear to have experienced an explosion of elaboration, jumping from 16 basic forms to about 300, with various markings etched onto their surfaces to further differentiate their meaning.By about 5,500 years ago, Schmandt-Besserat sees a third step in the development of record keeping in Mesopotamia. The tokens are no longer found as separate, individual counters but, rather, are found stored together in clay containers called envelopes. Rather mysteriously, the envelopes were sealed shut, which would seem to negate the purpose of the tokens in record keeping. After all, if the appearance and number of tokens symbolically recorded the quantity of a set of objects, how could tokens still serve this useful function if they were removed from sight, stored in opaque clay containers? The Mesopotamians got around this by first impressing the tokens on the exterior surface of the clay envelope in which they were to be stored when that envelope clay was still moist and soft. It took very little time for the fourth step to occur. No later than 5,200 years ago, record keepers realized that they didn't have a large number of individual sets of tokens stored in clay envelopes to represent and record quantities of goods. Instead, they could use a single set of tokens to directly press the information they symbolized onto a flattened piece of clay. There is one final, fifth step in Schmandt-Besserat's sequence. By 5,100 years ago, the tokens, which originally were the records themselves, and which had then transformed into the tools used to record the information they represented on clay tablets, were dispensed with entirely. With tokens no longer needed in the record-keeping system, scribes now began impressing symbols directly onto soft clay tablets using a pointed tool, a stylus or pen, in a process of free-hand drawing. These markings, called cuneiform, allowed for an elaboration of the symbols marked on clay and the creation of a true system of writing. (The Past in Perspective)

Then circa 3250 BC the Sumerians arrived and began to intermarry with the native population. These small, dark-haired newcomers were intellectually and technologically sophisticated and spoke an agglutinative language that is unrelated to any other known language. (Agglutinative languages contain words formed through the combination of smaller morphemes [units that cannot be further divided] to express compound thoughts.) (Civilization One)

Between 3000 BC and 2500 BC more and more signs were added to the Sumerian system, gradually transforming it into a full script that we today call cuneiform. By 2500 BC, kings were using cuneiform to issue decrees, priests were using it to record oracles, and less exalted citizens were using it to write personal letters. (Sapiens)  


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. (Patterns in Prehistory)

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…(Patterns in Prehistory)

In December, Dr. Gunter Dreyer, director of the German Archeological Institute in Egypt, announced new radiocarbon dates for tombs at Abydos, on the Nile about 250 miles south of Cairo. The dates indicated that some' hieroglyphic inscriptions on pots, bone and ivory in the tombs were made at least as early as 3200 BC, possibly 3400. It was now an "open question," Dr. Dreyer said, whether writing appeared first in Egypt or Mesopotamia. The preponderance of archeological evidence has shown that the urbanizing Sumerians were the first to develop writing, in 3200 or 3300 BC. These are the dates for many clay tablets with a proto-cuneiform script found at the site of the ancient city of Uruk. In any event, the writing idea became more widespread at the beginning of the third millennium BC. (110)

What the ancients said about Thoth, Socrates reports, was that having invented writing he had gone to the god Amon, 'the King of all Egypt at that time', and urged him to introduce it amongst the populace, with these words: '0 King, here is something that, once learned, will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memory; I have discovered a potion for memory or wisdom.' But Amon replied: O most expert Theuth, one man can give birth to the elements of an art, but only another can judge how they can benefit or harm those who use them. And now, since you are the father of writing, your affection for it has made you describe its effects as the opposite of what they really are. In fact it will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it: they will not practise using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own. You have not discovered a potion for remembering but for reminding; you provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not its reality. Your invention will enable them to hear many things without being properly taught, and they will imagine that they have come to know much while for the most part they will know nothing. (Underworld)

The date of the introduction of writing, the calendar, and their associated arts to Egypt was c. 2800 BC (Primitive Mythology)

With the first dynasty the Egyptians were using two scripts: hieroglyphic which was formal and monumental; hieratic, which was functional. They also began to manufacture paper out of papyrus. (The God-Kings & the Titans)

The earliest evidence for Egyptian writing dates to about 5,200 years ago. The system developed by the ancient Egyptians for recording information is a variety of picture writing. In the Egyptian system, some of the individual pictures represent entire words, others represent particular spoken sounds, and other symbols specify the meaning of the signs that precede them. (The Past in Perspective)

Indus Valley

Archeologists have thought that the undeciphered Indus script, which seemed to appear first around 2500 BC, may have been inspired in part from trade contacts with Mesopotamia. But new excavations in the ruins of the ancient city of Harappa suggest an earlier and presumably independent origin of Indus writing. In a report from the field, distributed on the Internet, Dr. Jonathan Mark Kenoyer of the University of Wisconsin and Dr. Richard H. Meadow of Harvard University showed pictures of marks incised on potshards that they interpreted as evidence for the use of writing signs by Indus people as early as 3300 BC. If these are indeed proto-writing examples, the discovery indicates an independent origin of Indus writing contemporary with the Sumerian and Egyptian inventions. One had to be careful, he said, not to confuse potter's marks, graffiti and fingernail marks with symbols of nascent writing. (110)

Fragments of pottery and other objects found in the ruins of Harappa (in the Indus Valley) have an unknown script dated by carbon-14 to 3300 BC. It may have been one of the first widely used postcatac1ysmic systems designed for administrative operations and simple record-keeping purposes. The two most generally known were the Mesopotamian cuneiform and the Egyptian hieroglyphic systems. (Gods, Genes, and Consciousness)

Altogether, some 4200 objects - mainly pottery and seals made from steatite and terracotta - have been found bearing the Indus-Sarasvati script. Many of the seals are inscribed in 'mirror image' (so as to produce a positive impression when stamped, for example, into damp clay) and are thought to have been used by merchants to brand-mark their goods. The earliest inscribed seal (excavated in Harappa) dates to 2600 BC while the pottery is a little older. The average inscription contains five signs, the longest twenty-six, and there are many with just one sign. Despite the best efforts of the world's leading linguists, it has not proved possible to translate any of inscriptions (although quite a number of translations have been attempted and then rejected by the academic community). There is, however, a general consensus that the script} as presently known 'emerged as a fully-formed system of abstract signs called graphemes ... After careful comparison of all the signs, most scholars agree that there are between 400 and 450 different signs or graphemes.' The mature form of the script, in other words, appears suddenly in the archaeological record some time before 2600 BC. There are no indications of evolution or development. One day it wasn't there, next day it was. …the Indus-Sarasvati script might have been devised to serve strictly limited commercial and bureaucratic functions such as labeling merchandise, naming the owners of goods, naming the contents of pots, etc. It could be that the nature of the society was such that it would have been regarded as a desecration to use the script to write down anything that was revered or sacred like a wonderful story from antiquity or the prayers, hymns and recitations used in religious services. (Underworld)

The Aryans were not a distinct ethnic group, so this was not a racial term but an assertion of pride and meant something like "noble" or "honorable." The Aryans were a loose-knit network of tribes who shared a common culture. Because they spoke a language that would form the basis of several Asiatic and European tongues, they are also called Indo- Europeans. They had lived on the Caucasian steppes since about 4500 BC, but by the middle of the third millennium some tribes began to roam farther and farther afield, until they reached what is now Greece, Italy, Scandinavia, and Germany. At the same time, those Aryans who had remained behind on the steppes gradually drifted apart and became two separate peoples, speaking different forms of the original Indo-European. One used the Avestan dialect, the other an early form of Sanskrit. They were able to maintain contact, however, because at this stage their languages were still very similar, and until about 1500 BC they continued to live peacefully together, sharing the same cultural and religious traditions. (The Great Transformation)


I was now back to almost 3000 BC, and all kinds of doors began to open up. The first legendary emperor Sui-jon not only had brought fire to the Chinese, but also invented the Chinese art of knot writing! Knot writing! Years ago in Peru, I had held in my hands a pile of knotted various-colored cords--an Inca quipu. Knotted cord writing was the only form of writing the Incas possessed. (Gods of the Cataclysm)


…all that can be said with certainty about linguistic developments in Greece is that by Mycenean times (the second millennium BC), an early form of the Greek language - Linear B - was written in Greece. It does seem likely, however, that a non-Indo-European Language was indeed spoken at some earlier time in this part of the world. Several thousand loan words in the Greek language are believed to have been borrowed from a native pre-Greek tongue. Place names with -nth- or -ss- suffixes, also thought to be pre-Indo-European, have been recorded from Anatolia to southern Italy, with concentrations in central and southern Greece, Crete, and western Anatolia. (Plato Prehistorian)

The Aryans were not a distinct ethnic group, so this was not a racial term but an assertion of pride and meant something like "noble" or "honorable." The Aryans were a loose-knit network of tribes who shared a common culture. Because they spoke a language that would form the basis of several Asiatic and European tongues, they are also called Indo- Europeans. They had lived on the Caucasian steppes since about 4500 BC, but by the middle of the third millennium some tribes began to roam farther and farther afield, until they reached what is now Greece, Italy, Scandinavia, and Germany. At the same time, those Aryans who had remained behind on the steppes gradually drifted apart and became two separate peoples, speaking different forms of the original Indo-European. One used the Avestan dialect, the other an early form of Sanskrit. They were able to maintain contact, however, because at this stage their languages were still very similar, and until about 1500 BC they continued to live peacefully together, sharing the same cultural and religious traditions. (The Great Transformation)

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