'Story or History of writing'/Part:06

Most early writing systems begin with small images used as words, literally depicting the thing in question. But pictograms of this kind are limited. Some physical objects are too difficult to depict. And many words are concepts rather than objects. Many belief that writing, if not developed under foreign influence, always starts with some kind of representation of words by pictures, called pictograms. Recent archaeological research indicates that the origin and spread of writing may be more complex than previously thought. Complex state systems with proto-cuneiform writing on clay and wood may have existed in Syria and Turkey as early as the mid-fourth millennium B.C. If further excavations in these areas confirm this assumption, then writing on clay tablets found at Uruk,corresponding to the Uruk III [circa 3100 BCE/Picture:1]  would constitute only a single phase of the early development of writing. The Uruk archives may reflect a later period when writing “took off” as the need for more permanent accounting practices became evident with the rapid growth of large cities with mixed populations at the end of the fourth millennium B.C. Clay became the preferred medium for recording bureaucratic items as it was abundant, cheap, and durable in comparison to other mediums. Initially, a reed or stick was used to draw pictographs and abstract signs into moistened clay. Some of the earliest pictographs are easily recognizable and decipherable, but most are of an abstract nature and cannot be identified with any known object. Over time, pictographic representation was replaced with wedge-shaped signs, formed by impressing the tip of a reed or wood stylus into the surface of a clay tablet. Modern (nineteenth-century) scholars called this type of writing cuneiform after the Latin term for wedge, cuneus.

As human societies emerged, the development of writing was driven by pragmatic exigencies such as exchanging information, maintaining financial accounts, codifying laws and recording history. Around the 4th millennium BCE, the complexity of trade and administration in Mesopotamia outgrew human memory, and writing became a more dependable method of recording and presenting transactions in a permanent form. In both ancient Egypt and Mesoamerica, writing may have evolved through calendric and a political necessity for recording historical and environmental events. Further, writing has the ability to "put agreements, laws, commandments on record. It made the growth of states larger than the old city states possible. It made a continuous historical consciousness possible. The command of the priest or king and his seal could go far beyond his sight and voice and could survive his death".

The Sumerians started out with a system of picture writing, where every character stood for a complete word. For example, the word du, meaning "foot," was represented with a picture of a foot, but a picture of a foot could also mean "to stand," "to go," "to come" or "to bring."Also to express verbs, two or more symbols were put together. For example, a head next to a bowl meant "eat.

5,000-year-old clay tablet (Picture:3) found among the ruins of the ancient city of Uruk in modern-day Iraq could be the world's oldest payslip to ever be discovered. The cuneiform writing depicts a human head eating out of a bowl - meaning 'ration' - and a conical container meaning 'beer' Scratches on each of these are thought to denote the payment given to each worker. Experts believe this is evidence that in this early civilisation to emerge in Mesopotamia there were already concepts of workers and employers. It also help to explain what keep it inhabitants happily living together for so long – they were paid in beer! It was one of the first fully functioning cities to emerge in the ancient world and it survived for more than 4,000 years before being finally abandoned. Also,A 4,000-year-old cuneiform writings found near present day Turkey, the Sumerian Hymn to Ninkasi ( but presumed to be much older), is both a praise song to the goddess of beer and a recipe for brewing. It describes the entire process from sourcing the yeast, soaking malts and grains and keeping the liquid in fermentation vessels and filtering into another vessel.It is thought to be the world first beer recipe! 

".........Ninkasi, you are the one who handles the dough [and] with a big shovel,
Mixing in a pit, the bappir with [date] - honey,.......

Ninkasi, you are the one who bakes the bappir in the big oven,
Puts in order the piles of hulled grains,.....

Ninkasi, you are the one who waters the malt set on the ground,
The noble dogs keep away even the potentates,......

Ninkasi, you are the one who soaks the malt in a jar,
The waves rise, the waves fall.....

Ninkasi, you are the one who spreads the cooked mash on large reed mats,
Coolness overcomes,....

You are the one who holds with both hands the great sweet wort,
Brewing [it] with honey [and] wine .... 

Ninkasi, the filtering vat, which makes a pleasant sound,
You place appropriately on a large collector vat....."   

Some of the earliest signs inscribed on the tablets picture rations that needed to be counted, such as grain, fish, and various types of animals. These pictographs could be read in any number of languages much as international road signs can easily be interpreted by drivers from many nations. Personal names, titles of officials, verbal elements, and abstract ideas were difficult to interpret when written with pictorial or abstract signs. A major advance was made when a sign no longer just represented its intended meaning, but also a sound or group of sounds. To use a modern example, a picture of an “eye” could represent both an “eye” and the pronoun “I.” An image of a tin can indicates both an object and the concept “can,” that is, the ability to accomplish a goal. A drawing of a reed can represent both a plant and the verbal element “read.”  When taken together, the statement “I can read” can be indicated by picture writing in which each picture represents a sound or another word different from an object with the same or similar sound. This new way of interpreting signs is called the rebus principle. Only a few examples of its use exist in the earliest stages of cuneiform from between 3200 and 3000 B.C. The consistent use of this type of phonetic writing only becomes apparent after 2600 B.C. It constitutes the beginning of a true writing system characterized by a complex combination of word-signs and phonograms—signs for vowels and syllables—that allowed the scribe to express ideas. By the middle of the third millennium B.C., cuneiform primarily written on clay tablets was used for a vast array of economic, religious, political, literary, and scholarly documents.

[Kandiah Thillaivinayagalingam]

Part:07 will follow


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