Course Handout - Glossary - The History of Human Writing Systems

Copyright Notice: This material was written and published in Wales by Derek J. Smith (Chartered Engineer). It forms part of a multifile e-learning resource, and subject only to acknowledging Derek J. Smith's rights under international copyright law to be identified as author may be freely downloaded and printed off in single complete copies solely for the purposes of private study and/or review. Commercial exploitation rights are reserved. The remote hyperlinks have been selected for the academic appropriacy of their contents; they were free of offensive and litigious content when selected, and will be periodically checked to have remained so. Copyright 2010, High Tower Consultants Limited.


First published online 13:30 BST 24th October 2003, Copyright Derek J. Smith (Chartered Engineer). This version [HT.1 - transfer of copyright] dated 18:00 14th January 2010


Much of this material appeared in Smith (1998). It has here been shortened, stripped of its graphics and supporting exercises, but supported with hyperlinks.

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The Two Basic Definitions

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Orthography: (Greek orthos = "straight" + graphein = "to write".) The "art or practice of spelling words correctly" (Chambers Dictionary). Hence (a) an orthography, a writing system in particular, or (b) comparative orthography, the comparative study of writing systems in general, or (c) the orthography of a language, the fine detail of the signs themselves.

Writing System: A system of "graphic-linguistic correspondence" (Goody, 1981:110). An orthography. A means of communicating using two-dimensional symbols or shallow three-dimensional reliefs written on or into some durable medium such as paper, wood, cloth, clay or stone, but excluding art per se, which - whilst graphic and whilst frequently for communication - does not have a linguistic structure (for more on this at times vague distinction, see pictogram). Lecours (1995) dates the very first human writing system to the Sumerians around 3300 BC. This was then closely followed by the hieroglyphic form of Egyptian around 3100 BC, and then progressively by Akkadian, Cretan, Proto-Canaanite, and Chinese. From Proto-Canaanite developed a wide variety of European and Middle Eastern systems, including Greek, Latin, and Arabian. It is customary to classify writing systems into three basic types, according to the relationship between the individual signs and the individual words of the spoken language. Where each sign identifies and is to be read as a single word the system is known as logographic, where each sign identifies a syllable the system is known as a syllabary, and where each sign identifies a single phoneme the system is known as an alphabet.

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The Geography

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Fertile Crescent and Nile Valley: These are two of the areas of easily irrigated fertile land where human civilisation first developed. The fertile crescent is the arc of land saddling the northern half of the Syrian Desert, and the Nile Valley forms the eastern border of the Sahara Desert. The western part of the crescent comprises the Levant, whilst the northern and eastern parts follow the lands between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates (the famed "Rivers of Babylon"), between which lies the area known as Mesopotamia. The area was originally populated by a nomadic culture known as the Kebarans, but was then settled perhaps 11,500 years ago by an essentially static culture known as the Natufians. The essence of this dramatic change of lifestyle was that the Natufians preferred to cultivate their own crops rather than go foraging for what grew naturally. This, in turn, is the key to increasing population density, and thus to a village-based existence. Smith (1995) actually lists seven areas of the world where agriculture developed independently, and the fertile crescent appears to have been the earliest of them all. Then, in the millenia which followed, the villages gradually grew into the first cities, the cities into kingdoms, and the kingdoms into empires. The individual civilisations have come and gone, of course, and the "juiciest" bits of territory have changed hands many times (Mesopotamia, for example, has "belonged" to at least seven non-indigenous empires in the last 5000 years). To begin with, however, the empires were home-grown, namely the Assyrians to the north of the crescent (based on the cities of Ashur and Ninevah), the Babylonians to the east of it (based on the cities of Ur - the birthplace of Abraham, Akkad, Uruk, and Babylon itself), and the Egyptians along the equally fertile Nile Valley. These civilisations emerged in the fourth millenium BC, flourished in the third, and then exhausted each other squabbling in the second and the first.

Six of the most famous sites are explicitly named, but the dispersion of many unnamed others (from a variety of sources, including Smith 1995:50) is shown for general effect. The use of tokens as trading aids arose in the area indicated, and this practice is believed to have led to the first writing system. Map (b) shows the cities and the empires. These then fought amongst themselves, taking it in turns to prevail until initially Alexander the Great and subsequently the Romans brought a whole new dimension to the game of conqueror. And in the middle of all the military comings and goings, smaller tribal peoples such as the Canaanites, the Israelites, and the Philistines managed to maintain a somewhat fragile and repeatedly disrupted presence. Indeed, it is far from inappropriate that the tiny Levantine corridor settlement of Megiddo, which sat astride the political faultline between the Egyptian and the Mesopotamian civilisations and which was in about 1460 BC the site of a decisive victory by the Egyptians under Tuthmose III over the Syrians, has gone on - albeit with its name modernised as Armageddon - to become the very symbol of human intercontinental destructiveness (and an Israeli tourist park into the bargain)!

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Additional Definitions and Background Information

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Akkadian: Northern Babylonian during the third and early second millenia BC. The ancient Semitic civilisation of the Tigris-Euphrates basin, north of modern Baghdad. In what Lecours (1995:221) describes as "the Akkadian implement", the Akkadians added a partial syllabary to Sumerian cuneiform to make a more powerful version of this system of their own. They did this using cuneiform-phoneme and phoneme-cuneiform "convertors", thus creating a written language which had a small stock of phonograms. The principal benefit of this, of course, was that "one who speaks Akkadian and has learned the new code can now read and write words which one does not understand" (Lecours, 1995:222). The empire peaked around 1850 BC, after which it is best treated as part of the Babylonian empire. The writing system eventually evolved into Proto-Canaanite. See under cuneiform for examples of the lettering.

Allograph: The written equivalent of the phonetician's allophone. The intended shape of a written sign an instant before it is written. An intermediate between the final physical expression of a grapheme as a graph. A "quasi-spatial description of the shape of each letter-form [but not yet specifying] the sequence of strokes required to create [it] on paper" (Ellis and Young, 1988:180). (For an example, see grapheme.)

Alphabet: The repertoire of signs used in a particular phonographic writing system. (See next.)

Alphabet, Modern Western: The main writing system of the western world. Taking its numbering system from the Arabic, it started to emerge from Church Latin towards the end of the Dark Ages, and became fully established with the development of printing in the 15th century. It now forms the basis of English, French, German, Italian, Scandinavian, and Spanish. In addition, some of the Slavic languages (eg. Czech and Croatian) have switched to it in preference to Cyrillic. The English alphabet, of course, reads from left to right, and consists of only 26 letters. However, since the English sound system consists of 44 separate phonemes, there are too few letters to "go around". This makes for irregularities in mapping the text onto the spoken word. In fact, there are 577 distinct grapheme-phoneme correspondences in English, some of which are very idiosyncratic - how, for example, can you reconcile the pronunciation "fish" to the spelling "ghoti"? (Answer at end of chapter.) In Czech and German, by contrast, the use of diacritics allows more letters in the alphabet (, , , , , , etc.), but the pronunciation of each is much more consistent from one word to another, allowing you safely to adopt a "say what you see" approach. Here is the Czech alphabet with and without the diacritics:

Arabic: The writing system of the ethnic Arab. It started to emerge out of Nabatean, an Aramaic derivative, around 150 AD, flourished as the language of the Koran in the seventh century, and survives in a variety of regional variations as the modern Arabic alphabet. Modern Arabic reads from right to left, and consists of 28 letters. By virtue of its Phoenician ancestry, it remains an essentially consonantal system. As such, it is rich in word families based upon simple three-consonant "roots". Thus drs is the root for the concept of teaching and learning (the borrowing of the square root notation from mathematics is from Sampson, 1985). This is then subjected to a variety of vowel and other changes, each of which produces a variant of the core concept. Thus darasa = "to study", darrasa = "to teach", dars = "class"; durus = "lessons", mudaaris(a) = "teacher" (male/female), and madrasa = "school". Here is the full alphabet in its "single letter" form (as with English "joined up writing", there are a number of differences in word-initial, word-medial, and word-final occurrences in the full script version):

Aramaic: The common root language of modern Middle Eastern peoples, originating in Syria around 900 BC and widely spread thanks to the success of the Assyrian empire. Its writing system derived from Phoenician, and was therefore a consonantal system. It then in turn progressively divided into Arabic (via Nabatean), Hebrew, Armenian-Georgian, and the modern Indian alphabets. Survives to this day in some Syrian rural dialects. (Example in Goody, 1981.)

Assyrian: (See firstly fertile crescent.) Reputedly named after Ashur, grandson of Noah. The ancient Semitic civilisation which created the Assyrian Empire (see Map (b)). It started to expand towards the end of the second millenium BC under such emperors as Tilgat-Pileser (r. 1116-1090 BC), defeated the Israelites in 721 BC, peaked under Sennacherib (r. 714-681 BC), and died away with the fall of Ninevah to the Medes in 612 BC. It was the principal Babylonian power during this period. The spoken language was Aramaic, which had its own Phoenician-derived writing system, but the much older cuneiform was also retained. The 30,000 clay tablets discovered in the ruins of Ashurbanipal's (r. 668-626 BC) library at Ninevah are an archaeological resource of the first importance.

Babylonian: A group name for the lesser empires of the Akkadians, Chaldeans, and Sumerians, and, sometimes, the Assyrians, that is to say, any Mesopotamian empire which took Babylon (50 miles south of modern Baghdad) as its common capital city. The Babylonians were therefore an early "United Kingdom", in which the partners, though originally racially distinct enemies, found marginally greater value in cooperation. The empire developed during the third millenium BC under such emperors as the Akkadian, Sargon I, flourished in the early second millenium BC under such as Hammurabi, went through a period of Assyrian dominance between 1200 and 612 BC, peaked again under Nebuchadnezzar II (r. 605-565 BC), and finally fell to Alexander the Great in 330 BC to become a province of the Hellenistic Empire.

Boustrophedon: Writing alternating lines of text from a different direction, from left to right on one line, and then from right to left on the next. Sometimes seen in examples of early Greek.

Byzantium (1): Ancient town on the Bosphorus. Chosen in 330 AD by the Emperor Constantine as the eastern capital of the Roman Empire, and then renamed Constantinople in his honour. Modern Istanbul.

Byzantium (2): The Eastern Roman - or Byzantine - Empire, controlled from Byzantium (1) after the fall of the Western Roman Empire (the one based in Rome) in 376 AD. The home of the "orthodox" form of Christianity (as still practised in Greece and Russia), and the source of the Cyrillic script. The Byzantines continued to govern Egypt and the fertile crescent until those lands were overrun during the Islamic conquests of 622-642 AD. However, they retained a smaller empire centred on Greece and Turkey until the time of the crusades.

Canaanites: An ancient Semitic race, occupants of Canaan - the southern Levant - during the second millenium BC. Defeated and displaced by the Israelites under Joshuah some time after the biblical Exodus (perhaps 1290 BC) and before 1050 BC.

Cave Art: (Alternatively, parietal or rupestral art.) The static art of our Upper Palaeolithic ancestors. It started to emerge around 50,000 years ago, was fully established at least 32,000 years ago, and survives until the present day in certain aboriginal populations. The signs used may be classified as either figurative, where there is a direct representation of (usually) an animal or (less frequently) a human, or non-figurative, where the markings are more abstract and make no clear reference. Among the most commonly seen figurative signs are bison, horses, deer, and reindeer, and among the most commonly seen non-figurative signs are roughly collarbone-shaped claviforms, roughly oblong quadrilaterals, and roughly house-shaped tectiforms. There are also triangles, ovals, circles, crosses, points. (See also pictogram and mythogram.) Here are some examples:

Chaldeans: An ancient Semitic race, occupants of Chaldea, the area of Babylonia situated south of the River Euphrates. Abraham, patriarch of the Israelite tribes, came from the Chaldean city of Ur (see Map (b)) in the early years of the second millenium BC.

Chinese: The language of China. Its writing system started to emerge around 1500 BC, was fully established by 1000 BC, and survives as modern Mandarin. It also spawned Japanese and Korean. It holds the record for the world's oldest living writing system, and shares (with hieroglyphics) the record for the longest continuously used system. It is almost totally logographic in nature, with each sign derived from one or more ancestral pictograms. There are around 5000 - 6000 signs in common usage, but these are easily compounded to cope with more complex concepts when necessary (see Exercise 4.6.2). Here, selected from Sampson (1985:151), are some examples:

Coptic: A variant of Greek, retained in Egypt between the Roman era and the coming of Islam in the seventh century. Its writing system included seven additional characters derived from hieroglyphics (Gardiner, 1957). It remains to this day the ritual language of the Orthodox Coptic Church.

Cretan: (Alternatively Minoan.) The language of the Cretan civilisation. Its writing system developed around 1900 BC, influenced by Egyptian hieroglyphics. It evolved by around 1500 BC into the still undeciphered Linear A script, and died away around 1100 BC as the Cretan civilisation became overshadowed by the Mycenean from the north and Phoenician from the east.

Cuneiform: The writing system developed initially by the Sumerians and then improved upon by the Akkadians, Assyrians, and Babylonians. A wedge-shaped script written by pressing the tip of a stylus into clay tablets. Flourished in the third, second, and early first millenia BC, but then fell suddenly from use after the fall of Assyria (being replaced initially by Phoenician-Aramaic and then by Greek). Here, redrawn from Coulmas (1989:76), is how the sign for "sky" evolved over the millenia (see Heise, 1995, for further examples):

Cursive: Free-flowing. Of writing, "joined up". Text which is written in a hurried hand rather than with copybook accuracy. (Compare hieroglyphics with hieratic, or hieratic with demotic, the latter both cursive variants of the former. See also ligature.)

Cyrillic: Variant of the Greek alphabet which spread into the Slavic countries under the influence of Byzantium (2). Named after St Cyril, who did the necessary missionary work. Here is the modern Russian alphabet (in upper case):

Demotic: The third of the writing systems used in Ancient Egypt. A cursive variant of hieratic (and therefore a doubly cursive form of hieroglyphics). It started to emerge around 700 BC, and survived as the writing system for everyday Egyptian life until 452 AD (Gardiner, 1957).

Determinative: A type of ideogram used in hieroglyphics. A "silent sign" attached to a common phonetic root and denoting the general semantic category of the preceding character(s). This allowed homophones in the spoken language to be clearly differentiated in the written - as though, in English, we were allowed to write "mine " (hole in the ground) to distinguish it from "mine " (to blow something up) and "mine " (that which I own). (Compare ideogram.) Here, from Gardiner (1957) are some examples:

Diacritic: A mark capable of varying the pronunciation of the letters in an alphabet. Includes the accents found in French (, , ), German (, ), Spanish (, ), and Czech (, , ), and taken to the extreme in the 31-accent set found in the International Phonetic Alphabet.

Egyptian: The civilisation of the Nile valley. Arose in the fourth millenium BC and survived relatively unchallenged until the first millenium BC when it fell under a succession of foreign rulers, including the Assyrians, the Persians, the Macedonians, and the Romans. Developed the world's second important writing system, the hieroglyphic system, around 3100 BC. This developed, in turn, into the hieratic and demotic systems. The civilisation itself peaked under the pharaoh Amenhotep III (r. 1382-1344 BC).

Etruscan: The language of Pre-Roman Italy. Its writing system emerged out of Mycenean and Phoenician in the early part of the first millenium BC, and had evolved in turn into Latin by 550 BC. It is also believed to have influenced the runic (1) alphabet adopted by the Germanic peoples of northern Europe.

Gematria: Letters with an additional number value, usually - as with the infamous 666, the "Number of the Beast" - with a secret or mystical purpose. See Exercise 4.7.

Graph: The written equivalent of the phonetician's phone. The final physical shape produced on the writing medium when expressing a particular allograph.

Grapheme: The written equivalent of the phonetician's phoneme. The mind's conceptualisation of the items in an orthography. A letter's abstract identity rather than its shape. Sampson (1985:25) explains that the lower case letter "g", for example, has a single conceptual representation in the mind which is then capable of several intended outputs (font, italic, bold, etc.). These are the allographs < g g g g g > etc of the grapheme < g >, and - for handwritten text, at least - each allograph is then capable of an almost infinite number of fine detail variants - the graphs - when it hits the paper (for typewritten text, the range of allographs is no less wide, but the graphs are more consistent).

Greek: (See firstly Mycenean.) The language of Classical Greece. Its writing system started to emerge out of Phoenician around 750 BC, thus drawing in turn on the earlier Sumerian and Egyptian writing systems. Unlike its parent systems, however, Greek recorded the vowel sounds as well as the consonants (compare Aramaic and its derivatives), for which innovation Lecours (1995:223) describes it as the world's first "fully fledged" alphabet. It is the source of the letters alpha and beta (and therefore of the word alphabet itself), as well as of the mathematician's favourites delta, omega, pi, rho, sigma, lambda, chi, etc. It was also one of the major scholastic languages, being the language of documents such as the Bible. It survives as the modern Greek alphabet and has heavily influenced the Cyrillic script used in modern Russia. Here are the 24 characters of the modern Greek alphabet (in lower case):

Hebrew (1) - Early: (See firstly Israelite.) The writing system of the Israelites. Reputedly named after Heber, great-great-grandson of Noah, it started to emerge out of Phoenician around 900 BC, and was therefore a consonant-only phonographic system, reading from right to left. It died away following the Assyrian conquest in 721 BC, although some ritual usage survives to this day amongst the Samaritans of Nablas (Goody, 1981).

Hebrew (2) - Square: The writing system of the ethnic Jew. It started to emerge out of Aramaic around 150 BC, and was a 22-character consonant-only phonographic system reading from right to left. It died away following the Roman massacres of the Jews in 66-73 and 132-135 AD.

Hebrew (3) - Modern: The writing system of the modern state of Israel. A nineteenth century revival of Hebrew (2), which had fallen from use after the Roman dispersion (Sampson, 1985). The system reads from right to left, and consists of 27 letters. As with Hebrew (1/2), it is a consonant-only phonographic system. There is, however, a supplementary system of diacritic dots which indicate the supporting vowels. Here is the full alphabet:

Hieratic: The second of the writing systems used in Ancient Egypt. A cursive version of hieroglyphics, which, because it was quicker to write, became the language of traders rather than of priests and scribes. It started to emerge with a "relatively consistent orthography of its own" (Gardiner, 1957:10) around 2000 BC, and was fully established by around 1500 BC. However, with the rise of demotic after 700 BC, hieratic became restricted to use by the priesthood. Contains many examples of ligatures.

Hieroglyphics: (Greek hieros = "sacred" + glyphos = "sculptured".) The earliest and longest lasting of the writing systems used in Ancient Egypt. Consists of a basic consonantal phonetic alphabet, supplemented firstly by a syllabary, and secondly by a rich variety of logograms, determinatives, and ideograms. The system appeared around 3100 BC and lasted with natural evolution but no fundamental change until around the fall of the Roman Empire three and a half thousand years later. During this time, it gave rise to two other forms of Egyptian - hieratic and demotic - and also heavily influenced the development of systems such as Proto-Canaanite in surrounding lands. The last known hieroglyphic inscription was not until 394 AD (Gardiner, 1957), whereupon the system remained undeciphered until its principles were rediscovered in the nineteenth century. Here, from Gardiner (1957) is the basic 24-character Middle Egyptian alphabet, plus a selection of supporting characters from the syllabary (all oriented for reading right-to-left). See under transliteration for the steps required to translate.

Hittite: (See firstly fertile crescent.) The language of the western Assyrian Empire (roughly modern Turkey) during the second millenium BC. They developed a mix of cuneiform and hieroglyphic signs around 1500 BC. The system finally died away around 700 BC.

Ideogram: One of the types of signs used in writing systems (compare determinative). A "silent sign" attached to a word's phonetic root, and acting as an incorporated pictogram to convey a general idea. Presumably a considerable aid to those having to remember what a given word meant. Thus, in Egyptian hieroglyphics "the hawk symbolises [] everything which happens quickly, because this creature is just about the fastest of winged animals and the idea is transferred through the appropriate metaphor to all swift things" (Diodurus Siculus, 1st Century BC; cited in Andrews, 1981:7). Here are some examples, all of which include the sparrow ideogram - the "bad bird" sign. Note the negative nature of all the concepts involved. Note also that the anglicised pronunciation is merely for the convenience of Western scholars - the actual pronunciation can only be guessed at, and would certainly have used a totally different phonology:

International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA): This is the notational standard developed and maintained by the International Phonetic Association to allow the written representation of all the world's languages regardless of their particular phonology. The latest version of this "super-alphabet" was published in 1993, with amendments in 1996. The IPA is a 111-character alphabet, supplemented by a 31-character set of accents and symbols known as diacritics. These are placed under, over, or by the side of the symbol to which they relate, and vary its normal pronunciation in a specified way. Each transliteration is conventionally enclosed in square brackets, thus [fIS ], pronounced "fish". Here are a few of the symbols used (see the Phonetics course notes for a full character listing):

Israel, Modern State of: See Levant.

Israelites: An ancient Semitic race, descended from the Chaldean patriarch, Abraham, around 2000 BC. Spent much of that millenium in bondage to the Egyptians, until led away by Moses in perhaps 1290 BC. Thereafter, conquered and settled in the land of Canaan (see Map (b)) perhaps by around 1230 BC. Flourished initially as individual tribes under non-dynastic leaders called judges (eg. Joshiah), and then from around 1050 BC as a united kingdom under kings like Saul, David, and Solomon. In 928 BC squabbled and split into the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel and Judah respectively, and so remained until defeated by the Assyrians in 721 BC, whereupon many of their number - the "ten lost tribes" - were forcibly exiled to nobody knows where (being replaced by Samaritans forcibly imported from Persia). Those allowed to remain were predominantly from the southern parts of the kingdom, the land of Judah. See now Jews.

Japanese: The writing system of Japan. It started to emerge from Chinese during the first millenium AD, becoming fully established by around 700 AD. It exists today in two forms, namely Kana and Kanji. For an introduction to these, see Morton, Sasanuma, Patterson, and Sakuma (1992) or Kishioka (1997); for a full description, see Coulmas (1989).

Jews: The inhabitants of Judah (see Map (c)) after the dispersal of the Israelites in 721 BC. Were defeated in their turn by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar II in 597 BC, and themselves exiled to Mesopotamia, not being allowed to return until after 538 BC, whereupon they reinstated their former kingdom. Subsequently incorporated into the Alexandrian and post-Alexandrian empires until conquered by the Romans in 63 BC and renamed Judea. Relations with the Romans were generally poor, however, and Judea was largely destroyed as a nation following unsuccessful armed uprisings in 66-73 and 132-135 AD. The surviving Jews were then dispersed yet again, and concentrated into enclaves - ghettos - in lands as far apart as Spain and Russia, where they remained - persecution and the holocaust permitting - until the creation of the modern state of Israel in 1948. See now Hebrew (1/2/3).

Kana: The non-logographic form of the two Japanese writing systems (compare Kanji). A 49-character syllabary. Used for creating inflectional morphemes and for building up words adopted from other languages. Here, redrawn from Kishioka (1997), is the complete repertoire:

Kanji: The logographic form of the two Japanese writing systems (compare Kana). It contains some 50,000 discrete characters, of which 3000 are needed for everyday purposes (newspapers, etc) (Yamazaki, Ellis, Morrison, and Ralph, 1997). Although there are many single character words, the "great majority" are compounds of two or more simpler characters (Morton, Sasanuma, Patterson, and Sakuma, 1992:517). Here are some examples:

Latin: The language of post-Etruscan Italy. Its writing system started to emerge out of Etruscan around 700 BC, and was fully established by around 550 BC. It was then admirably placed to become the official system of the Roman Empire, and eventually of the western parts of the Roman Christian Church (those based in Rome, rather than Byzantium). It survives with only minor modifications as the modern Western alphabet (although our numbering system comes from the Arabic).

Levant: A politically neutral collective term for the western horn of the fertile crescent. The lands along the Middle East's Mediterranean seaboard, from Antioch in the north to Gaza in the south, and including the ancient cities of Tripoli, Sidon, and Tyre on the coast, and Damascus, Jerusalem, and Jericho inland. The southern Levant is taken herein as synonymous with the biblical Canaan, and as approximating since 1948 to the modern state of Israel. The northern Levant is taken as synonymous with ancient Phoenicia, and as approximating to the modern states of Lebanon and (coastal) Syria. Here, with the writing system(s) prevailing at the time shown in square brackets (ruling system first), is a summary timeline for the southern Levant:

Pre-Conquest (1500 - 1230 BC): The tribal lands of the Canaanites until their defeat by the Israelites on their way out of Sinai. [Proto-Canaanite becoming Phoenician]

Israelite (1230 - 928 BC): The "promised land", self-ruled from Jerusalem. [?Egyptian-Phoenician mix]

Israelite (928 - 721 BC): The "promised land", divided within itself. The northern and southern kingdoms of Israel and Judah respectively, ruled from Samaria and Jerusalem respectively. [Hebrew (1)]

Assyrian (721 - 612 BC): Rule from Ninevah as part of the Assyrian Empire. [Cuneiform, Aramaic]

Babylonian (597 - 539 BC): Rule from Babylon as part of the Babylonian Empire. [Aramaic]

Persian (539 - 332 BC): Jews returned to Judah. Rule from Susa and Persepolis as part of the Persian Empire. [Aramaic, Hebrew (1)]

Alexandrian (332 - 323 BC): Rule from Athens as part of Alexander the Great's Macedonian Empire. [Greek, Aramaic, Hebrew (1)]

Ptolemaic (323 - 188 BC): Rule from Alexandria by one half of Alexander's heirs, "the Ptolemies" of Egypt, the last dynasty of pharaohs. [Egyptian-Greek mix, Hebrew (1)]

Seleucid (188 - 165 BC): Rule from Damascus by the other half of Alexander's heirs, "the Seleucids" of Syria. [Aramaic, Hebrew (1)]

Maccabean (165 - 63 BC): Rome-supported self-rule under the Jewish Maccabean dynasty. [Hebrew (2), Aramaic]

Roman (63 - 41 BC): Divided into lesser provinces - Judea, Samaria, Galilee, Batanea, and Perea - and ruled from or on behalf of Rome as part of the Roman Empire. [Latin, Hebrew (2), Aramaic]

Roman (41 BC - 6 AD): Judea ruled by the Roman vassal king Herod the Great and his son Achelaus. [Hebrew (2), Latin, Aramaic]

Roman (6 - 135 AD): Period of rebellions. For most of the time, Judea had its own Roman governor (eg. Pontius Pilate), whilst the remaining areas were sometimes vassal kingdoms and other times provinces. [Latin, Hebrew (2), Aramaic]

Late Roman (135 BC - 313 AD): Rule from or on behalf of Rome. [Latin, Arabic]

Byzantine (313 - 636 AD): Rule from Istanbul as part of Christian Byzantium (2). [Greek, Arabic]

Islamic (636 - 934 AD): Rule from Damascus or Baghdad as part of the Arab Islamic caliphates. [Arabic]

Fatimid (934 - 1099 AD): Rule alternately by Turks or Fatimid Egyptians. [Arabic]

Kingdom of Jerusalem (1099 - 1291 AD): War zone during the Crusades. Rule alternately from or on behalf of the Vatican or by Islamic leaders such as Saladin. [Alternately Arabic or Western]

Mameluke (1291 - 1516 AD): Rule from Cairo as part of the Mameluke Islamic Sultanates. [Arabic]

Ottoman (1516 - 1917 AD): Rule from Istanbul again as part of the Turkish Islamic empire. [Arabic]

British (1917 - 1948 AD): Military occupation 1917-1923, followed by rule from London under League of Nations mandate. Period of Jewish resettlement. [English, Arabic, Hebrew (3)]

Modern (1948 to date): The modern state of Israel. Set up by order of the United Nations, originally as Arab Palestine and Jewish Palestine, but amended de facto by military action in 1948, 1967 and 1973. [Hebrew (3), Arabic]

Ligature: A cursive fusion of originally separate signs into what is then effectively a new single sign, thus allowing the desired meaning to be expressed more quickly. A common occurrence, but also a frequent cause of corruption and gradual change to the writing systems concerned.

Logogram: One of the types of signs used in writing systems. One where there is a one-to-one correspondence between the sign and a complete spoken word (and therefore a one-to-many correspondence between the sign and the phonemes making up that word). See under Chinese for examples.

Logographic: A type of writing system. One based primarily on logograms, and therefore lacking an alphabet. A system where the written symbol represents and must be pronounced as a complete spoken word. Chinese is the closest surviving approximation to a fully logographic language, although even it falls slightly short of having a separate sign for every word in the spoken lexicon. The Japanese Kanji system is another.

Minoan: See Cretan.

Mycenean: The language of Homeric - that is to say, pre-Classical - Greece during the second half of the second millenium BC. Devised the Linear B writing system, possibly a derivative of Minoan Linear A or early Phoenician. Died away in the Greek dark ages (1100 - 800 BC) and then replaced by Classical Greek. Linear B consisted of a 73-character syllabary, for details of which see Sampson (1985:65).

Mythogram: Leroi-Gourhan's (1968) term for the sort of complex scenes found in cave art. These are conventionally believed to have had some sort of mystic or ritual value to their perpetrators, just as the dove still symbolises the Holy Spirit in Christian iconography. Lawson (1991) explains that much cave art is located deep underground and would therefore have been both difficult and dangerous to get at. "It was obviously not done purely for amusement", he says (p57). For more detail of the competing explanations, see Exercise 4.2 and Callahan (1997).

Nabatean: The writing system of the Arabian peninsular around the time of Christ. It emerged out of Aramaic around 150 BC and evolved in turn into the Arabic alphabet by around 150 AD.

Palestine, Modern: See Levant.

Palestine, Historic: See Levant. Generally, the land of the Philistines.

Philistines: A non-Semitic people (Greek = palestini) who settled the southern coastal Levant during the twelfth century BC, perhaps from Crete or beyond (Ragozin, 1888), and from whom the geographical term "Palestine" derives. Enemies of the Israelites in King David's time, of the Jews in Roman times, and - although the intervening history is woefully confused - of the Israelis today.

Phoenician: The Semitic civilisation of the northern Levant after the demise of the Cretans. The Phoenician writing system started to emerge from Proto-Canaanite around 1500 BC, and was fully established by around 1200 BC. It was a 22-character consonantal system, that is to say, it had no symbols for the spoken vowels. It is nevertheless historically very important because it was the "parent script" of Greek, Etruscan, Latin, and Aramaic, and thus of all modern European and Middle Eastern writing systems (Coulmas, 1989:141). The system fell from use in favour of Greek after the success of Alexander the Great's Macedonian Empire in the fourth century BC.

Phonogram: One of the types of signs used in writing systems. One where there is a one-to-one correspondence between the sign and its sound. In practice, this means (a) that the signs are the individual letters of the alphabet, and (b) that several of them are needed to represent all but the simplest words. First invented by the Akkadians and partly present in Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Phonographic: A writing system based on phonograms. That is to say, one which has an alphabet. The most comprehensive and consistent phonographic system - because it was explicitly designed to be so - is the artificial International Phonetic Alphabet.

Pictogram: One of the types of signs used in writing systems. A pictorial representation of an object, person, or scene in the outside world, but rendered different from a picture per se by being drawn as part of a linguistically structured communication rather than for any artistic merit. A picture as a word, therefore, but not as a sentence! Arguably the second stage in developing an alphabet from a system of tokens. Also the source of the logograms used in logographic writing systems such as Chinese. See Exercise at end.

Pictographic: A writing system based primarily on pictograms.

Proto-Canaanite: (Alternatively Proto-Sinaitic.) The writing system of the Canaanite peoples prior to their conquest by the Israelites in the closing years of the first millenium BC. Heavily influenced by both Akkadian and Egyptian hieroglyphics, it started to emerge in the southern Levant around 1700 BC, but by 1500 BC was already beginning to shade into Phoenician, whence - in due course - Greek, Latin, the modern Western alphabet, Hebrew, and Aramaic. (See Naveh, 1988, for a fuller account.)

Rebus: A system of having one thing "stand for" another. Using pictures of things "to indicate certain other entirely different things not easily susceptible of pictorial representation, the names of which chanced to have a similar sound. [] The method was that by which Prior Burton, in the Middle Ages, playfully symbolised his name by a thistle or burr placed upon a barrel or tun" (Gardiner, 1957:7; italics original). An earlier example was the Egyptian King Narmer, who drew his name as a nar (a type of fish) over a mer (a chisel). We find the same picture-sound game in modern children's game books, and also in Chinese where it is used to transliterate foreign names like Tchaikovsky. Contrived though the method might be, Gardiner argues that in the absence of a fully phonographic system there would have been no better way of dealing with foreign names! Here is an example of the new alongside the old:

Rune: Strictly speaking, one of the characters making up the Runic (1) alphabet (the Germanic version), but loosely any non-Latin dark ages lettering, especially if used for occult purposes (which is why the term is so commonly used in modern Dungeons and Dragons adventure gaming). (On the use of writing systems for mysticism, see Gematria.)

Runic (1) - Germanic: (See firstly rune.) The futharc - the writing system of the Norse and Germanic races during the European Dark Ages. Possibly derived from Etruscan and/or early Latin due to trading contacts across the Alps. In common use - albeit with considerable local variation - by 800 AD, and widely spread thanks to the voyages of the Vikings. Replaced by Latin with the spread of Christianity. Here are the 32-character Anglo-Saxon and 24-character Norse versions (see Gordon, 1957, for full details):

Runic (2) - Hungarian: (See firstly rune.) The writing system of the ancient Magyar races. According to Szabados (1996), it started to emerge from Sumerian at a time when the ancestral Hungarians lived just north of Mesopotamia.

Samaritans: Historically, the people of Samaria. Possibly descended from lower class Israelites who - as common clay - escaped the exile of 721 BC (Samaria having been the capital of the northern kingdom), intermixed with other peoples brought forcibly from Persia. Noteworthy because the tiny "Samaritan Sect" retains to this day a ritual usage of otherwise very long-dead Hebrew (1) (Goody 1981).

Semitic (1) - Racial Grouping: An ancient Middle Eastern race. The Akkadians, Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Canaanites, for example, were racially semitic, whilst the Philistines and Sumerians were not.

Semitic (2) - Linguistic Grouping: A branch of ancient North African and Middle Eastern spoken languages within the Afro-Asiatic language family, including Akkadian, Aramaic, Arabic, Hebrew, Maltese, Canaanite, and Phoenician. Includes also the Proto-Canaanite and Phoenician writing systems, the branch "from which most or all alphabetic writing systems descend" (Sampson, 1985:77). The most important characteristics of semitic writing systems is that they record the consonants but not the vowels, and are written from right to left (sht kl kl hslgN km dw hcW).

Sumerian: Southern Babylonian during the fourth millenium BC. The ancient non-Semitic civilisation of the Tigris-Euphrates basin, south of modern Baghdad. "A people of unknown descent" (Coulmas, 1989:72). In what Lecours (1995:219) describes as "the Sumerian invention", they developed the world's "very first writing system" around 3300 BC. This was a 1200-sign pictographic system possibly deriving from the use of tokens. It developed, in turn, into the cuneiform system around 3000 BC.

Syllabary: A type of writing system. One where each sign represents a syllable rather than an individual phoneme. Syllabaries typically have a hundred or so signs. This is many less than a logographic system, but appreciably more than an alphabet. In Japanese Kana, for example, there are 49 different symbols to learn, but - once learned - spellings are very concise and regular. In hieroglyphics, there are around 100 common biliteral signs approximating to CV or CVC syllables, and another 15 or so triliteral signs approximating to CVCV or CVCVC double syllables (Gardiner, 1957; Davies, 1987; Zauzich, 1992).

Token: A primitive way of keeping records, probably as an aid to trading and/or the collecting of taxes, and apparently in widespread use in the fertile crescent during the neolithic period (say from 8000 to 3300 BC). A possible precursor of the writing systems which then emerged between 3300 and 3100 BC. Schmandt-Besserat (1978, 1992) describes how the Jarmo village site in Northern Iraq (first occupied around 6500 BC - see Map (a)) yielded more than a thousand simple clay shapes - spheres, disks, cylinders, etc. She also points to similarities between the inscriptions on tokens from Uruk in Southern Iraq (3500 BC - see Map (b)) and some of the characters in the Sumerian writing system which developed in that region a few centuries later. Here, redrawn from Schmandt-Besserat (1978:44-45), are some examples:

Transliteration: The task of converting written material from one writing system to another, retaining (or occasionally improving) the sound but without necessarily understanding it. The first stage in translating hieroglyphics, for example, is to transliterate the (unsegmented) pictograms into their alphabetical equivalents (as shown in the examples given under ideogram). This greatly assists their segmentation into words, and the word roots may then be looked up in a dictionary in the normal way.


Exercise - Devising Pictograms

1 Draw the pictograms which conventionally express the following messages .....

Men At Work; Contains Glass - Handle With Care; Left Turn Ahead; Love; Hate; Christmas

2 Devise single sign pictograms to express the following nouns .....

Camp (= the place); Ear; Earthquake; East; Father; Flour; Head (= top of body); Horse; Horses; Inhabitants; Jack; Lightning; Moon; Sheep; Thunder; Tomb; Wolf

3 Devise single sign pictograms to express the following verbs .....

Adorn; Attack; Camp (= the activity); Eat; Flourish; Head (= move in the direction of); Hear; Inhabit; Is/Are; Owe; Pass; Rain (=the activity)

4 Devise single sign pictograms for the following .....

Camp (= effeminate); Forty; Friendly; Full (of moon); His; Many; My; One; Pregnant; Red; This; Today; Two; Very

5 Devise multiple sign pictograms to express the following messages .....

A wolf attacked two of my sheep today; Two of my sheep attacked a wolf today; Jack Miller owes you one sack of flour; Dick Turpin robbed the mail coach last night; Many horses passed this way, heading East, when the moon was full; Do not camp here when you hear thunder in the hills; The inhabitants of this place are friendly to strangers; The inhabitants of this place are not very friendly to strangers; The inhabitants of this place are very unfriendly to strangers; It rained for 40 days and 40 nights; Never eat hard red berries; "I adorned this tomb for my father, that his name might flourish therein for eternity"

6 Research the Hebrew system of allocating a numeral to each of its alphabetic signs (a system known as gematria or isopsephia).





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