Historia of Type – The Dawn of Letters
In order to keep exploring and respect where we are today in Type we have to take a trip back in history and get a glimpse of its Chronicle, Shall we?
Definition of Type – Letters that are printed on paper mediums or seen on screen mediums. For example – a,b,c,d…
The System of Proto-Writing (c.a. 7th millennium BCE)
There was an evolution of simple symbols systems in the Pottery Neolithic Period (c.a. 6400 BC). The Vinča symbols (6th to 5th millennia BCE) are an evolution of simple symbols beginning in the 7th millennium BCE.
Proto-Writing System is the earliest writing system known in the Historia of the type. It emerged from earlier traditions of symbol systems in the early Neolithic, as early as the 7th millennium BCE.
The users of Proto Writing used ideographic or early mnemonic symbols (a.k.a pictures or drawings) both to represent a limited number of concepts.
The transition from proto-writing to the earliest fully developed writing systems took place in the late 4th to early 3rd millennia BCE in the Fertile Crescent. Proto-Writing system was responsible for the further development of the other Two Writing Systems which were Cuneiform Writing System and Egyptian Hieroglyphs in the dusk of Fourth Millennium BCE and the dawn of Third Millennium BCE.
The System of Cuneiform Writing (c.a. 3200 BC)
After Proto-Writing System, Cuneiform is one of the forms of writing system originated in the Age of Bronze (3000 BC – 1200 BC). The Sumerians are credited with inventing the system of cuneiform writing. Other writing systems in Bronze age were Egyptians Hieroglyphs, Cretan Hieroglyphs, Chinese Logographs, Indus Script and the Olmec script of Mesoamerica.
Cuneiform Writing System (a.k.a Sumerian Cuneiform) first appeared in Fertile Crescent, Mesopotamia in the Middle East. It is distinguished by its wedge-shaped marks on clay tablets, made by means of a blunt reed for a stylus. The name cuneiform itself simply means “wedge-shaped”.
One of the Sumerian legends said that writing was invented by the god Enmerkar, but Denise Schmandt-Besserat, The French-American archaeologist ruins this story by arguing that writing evolved out of the use of clay tokens and envelopes (bulla) used for bookkeeping. Impressions of tokens into wet clay bulla evolved into simple pictograms that represented specific Idea, Object, and Action.
In the course of time, the pictograms went through a number of transformations to reduce complexity and by 2500 BC Sumerian scribes had reduced the script to only five basic wedge-shaped strokes impressed into clay tablets with a triangularly shaped reed stylus tool. These five basic signs were, in turn, combined into even more complex logograms or ligatures, some requiring as many as 30 different impressions.
The cuneiform writing system was in use for more than three millennia, from the 31st century BC down to the 2nd century AD. Over the centuries many civilizations rose and fell in the Fertile Crescent and many adopted cuneiform for their everyday language. The Sumerians, the Akkadians, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Hittites, and the Hurrians all wrote in cuneiform and left behind some of the earliest examples of literate societies. Like The Epic of Gilgamesh (2700 BC) was perhaps the first literary work in history in Cuneiform Writing. Enheduanna’s hymns (2250 BC) were the first works by a known author. The Code of Hammurabi (1760 BC) was the first codification of law. The Armana letters (1400 BC), were the first examples of diplomatic correspondence.
The use of Cuneiform writing system started to fade after the rise of Aramaic Language around 600 BC and was completely gone by the 1st Century AD. And it didn’t take long for all knowledge and system of cuneiform to be lost, and by the middle ages, the script appeared to be inscrutable.
Sir Thomas Herbert, in the 1664 edition of his book, A Relation of Some Yeares Travaile, was the first to suggest that these signs from Persepolis were ‘legible and intelligible,’ but it would be almost 200 more years until another Englishmen, Sir Henry Rawlinsen, began a serious decipherment. He studied the Behistun Inscription in Iran, and by 1851 he could read 200 cuneiform signs. In 1857 Rawlinsen, Edward Hincks, Julious Oppert, and William Henry Fox Talbot took part in the famous Royal Asiatic Society experiment. They each deciphered a newly-discovered Assyrian text and their results were so similar that the decipherment of cuneiform, at least Akkadian cuneiform, was considered complete.
A Short Video on Cuneiform Writing System from the Film ‘The Cyrus Cylinder’ | Source: Youtube Channel – @gettymuseum
Want to know more about the Cuneiform Writing System? Check Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative.
The System of Egyptian Hieroglyphs (c.a. 3200 BC)
Egyptian Hieroglyphs is one of the other writing systems which is developed in the Nile River Delta, Egypt, around the beginning of the first dynasty, c.a. 3200 BC. It combined logographic, syllabic and alphabetic elements, with a total of some 1,000 distinct characters.
Cuneiform and Egyptian Hieroglyphs were developed in the same century but Geoffrey Sampson stated that Egyptian hieroglyphs came into existence a little after Sumerian script and were probably invented under the influence of the latter and that it is “probable that the general idea of expressing words of a language in writing was brought to Egypt from Sumerian Mesopotamia”.
But unlike the Cuneiform Writing System, there is not much understanding of the origins of Egyptian Hieroglyphs. Instead, it is pointed out and held that “the evidence for such direct influence remains flimsy” and that “a very credible argument can also be made for the independent development of writing in Egypt…” Since the 1990s and discoveries such as the Abydos glyphs, it has been held as doubtful whether the Mesopotamian symbol system can be said to predate the Egyptian one.
The first full sentence, which was written in hieroglyphs so far discovered was found on a seal impression found in the tomb of Seth-Peribsen at Umm el-Qa’ab, which dates from the Second Dynasty (28th or 27th century BC).
Visually, Hieroglyphs are all more or less figurative, they represent real or illusional elements, sometimes stylized and simplified, but all are generally perfectly recognizable in form. And can be used in three ways:
- Phonetic – Representing a Sound
- Ideogram – A Picture/Symbol Representing a Concept
- Determinatives, which narrow down the meaning of logographic or phonetic words and clarify meaning.
Over the next three millennia, Hieroglyphs would appear everywhere: on faience statues, on alabaster canopic jars and papyrus Books of the Dead. The formal script grew from some 750 or so signs to a few thousand by the Ptolemaic period. By 600 BC the cursive version of the hieroglyphs – hieratic – had evolved into demotic, which shows almost no trace of its hieroglyphic roots. Demotic was eventually mixed with Greek by becoming Coptic, then Latin, and by about 300 BC all knowledge of the hieroglyphs had been lost, even among the Egyptians.
A Short Video on Egyptian Hieroglyphs | Source: Youtube Channel – @TheGreatCourses
The System of Hieratic (c.a. 3200 BC)
Hieratic is a cursive writing system developed in c.a. 3200 BC, which was used for Ancient Egyptian Language. It was used until the rise of Demotic Writing System in the middle of 1st millennium BCE.
Egyptian Hieroglyphic was perfectly suitable for labor-intensive projects like royal tombs or the accouterments of a boy king. But it was not suitable for an administrative decree, or a payment voucher, or a shopping list. So the scribes developed Hieratic – a cursive, shorthand version particularly suitable for writing on Papyrus. Hieratic existed in two forms, a highly cursive “businesshand” for administrative texts, and an uncial “bookhand” for formal texts.
Egyptian Hieroglyphs was not responsible for the development of hieratic. Instead, Hieratic was developed early on as an alternative to the Egyptian Hieroglyphs. And for the next three millennia, they existed in parallel. As the formal script grew Hieratic became even more cursive and abbreviated, adapting to a very large number of ligatures. By 600 BC hieratic had evolved into demotic, which shows almost no trace of its hieroglyphic roots. Demotic was eventually mixed with Greek Alphabets, becoming Coptic. Hieratic was said to be the ancestor of nearly every non-Chinese-based script, including the Latin alphabet. The family tree goes something like this: hieratic → proto-Sinaitic → Canaanite → Phoenician → Greek → Etruscan → Latin. We will explore some of the alphabets in the next article.