+ The First Written Language Systems

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From Marcia Henry’s  indispensible book, Unlocking Literacy: Effective Decoding & Spelling Instruction, a quick peek at the development of our writing system.

She notes that approximately 6800 languages now exist; 90 percent are at risk; and only 600 are currently being taught to children.

English is one of around 130 languages composing the Indo-European linguistic family, spoken as a first language by 320 million people and as a second language by about 350 million people.  (Compare those numbers with Mandarin Chinese, which is the most common tongue — spoken by 900 million people.)

But as many as a billion people, it is estimated, are learning English as a foreign language.  English is becoming the common world language for global communication in business, especially via the web.

Every child is a language learner, born into a linguistic community where the relationship between sound and meaning is prescribed by local custom.

Where there are written languages, children begin formal instruction in the system between the ages of five and seven.

It’s difficult to say when early writing systems were first established.  The cave paintings at Lascaux, France were made approximately 30 thousand years ago.  Some authorities suggest that modern human written communication developed in Africa as early as 77,000 years ago.    There are etchings on numerous ochre stones in the Blombas Cave, near Cape Town in South Africa: these are intricate geometric patterns and chiseled lines.  

While such early drawings seem not to be “languages” but probably represent agricultural or religious symbols, they are human “written communication.”

The advent of written language marked the beginning of civilization and the start of history.

The first written languages began with visual symbols impressed in clay or marks inscribed on papyrus scrolls 5 thousand years ago by Egyptian and Sumerian people.  These are cuneiform or pictographs  and are a form of “logographic” writing.  Each symbol stood for whole words or syllables.

The symbols are difficult to interpret.  They surely took considerable time and space to create, as well as artistic talent.  Pictographs have been noticed in Scandinavian Stone Age and Bronze Age carvings found in Norwegian fields, as well as in drawings found on teepees of 19th century American Indians.

But as life became less nomadic and people began to own property, written accounts became necessary.  Language as a medium of drama or narrative came somewhat later.

Around 3200 BCE or earlier, hieroglyphics developed in ancient Egypt.  These pictograms connected symbols with sounds and represented associated ideas, abstractions, or metaphors.  And even in these ancient societies, writing was taught systematically, through educational systems designed to transmit knowledge to successive generations.

The Chinese today use a form of logographic writing.  Literate Chinese writing requires six thousand characters, representing 40 thousand words.  And professionals writing in the language must learn a significantly larger body of characters.

Contrast the thousands of characters Chinese need in order to become literate with the 26 letters of the Roman alphabet, our writing system.

The final major type of writing is phonetic writing.

In phonetic writing, the signs of written language correspond to the individual sounds of spoken language.  Both syllabaries and alphabets correspond to spoken language.  They use signs to represent sounds. 

Japanese Kana is a syllabary in which symbols stand for the sounds made when words are separated into syllables. 

Alphabet writing is easier to master.  It uses fewer elementary symbols.

The very first alphabets contained only consonants.  Although spoken language embedded vowel sounds, it was considered unnecessary to write them down.  We have Arabic and Hebrew alphabets even today in which nothing but consonants are used.

Early writing went from right to left on a page.  The Greeks changed the system in the sixth century BCE to boustrophedon order, alternating right-to-left with left-to-right (as an ox plows a field).  

It was the Greeks who created the first true alphabet.  They reassigned some early Semitic and Phoenician consonant symbols to symbols that represent  vowel sounds.  They also modified letters to signify other needed sounds.  The Etruscan alphabet evolved from the Greek, and contained 23 letters.

The Roman alphabet is the basis for the English alphabet.  It was developed between 1700 and 1500 BCE, as the Romans adapted Etruscan script and wrote from left to right.

By the first century BCE, letter formations were refined and mastered.  But capitals were used exclusively.  Uncial letters (precursors of modern lowercase letters) appeared in the fourth century CE.

The English alphabet reached 26 letters after medieval scribes added  w   and Renaissance printers separated  i  and  j  as well as  u  and v .

The alphabet is our  gateway to learning and knowledge. 

sole souce: Marcia Henry’s “Unlocking Literacy: Effective Decoding & Spelling Instruction,” Brookes Publishing.  ISBN 13: 978-1-55766-664-2.

tutoring in Columbus OH:   Adrienne Edwards   614-579-6021   or email  aedwardstutor@columbus.rr.com

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