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12 October 2020

The surprising history of the written word

A new BBC series reveals how the first alphabet was created by migrant workers in a turquoise mine.

By Samir Jeraj

Nearly 4,000 years ago, a group of migrant workers were mining for turquoise in the area now known as the Sinai Desert. They spoke the ancient language of Canaanite, but had picked up the written Egyptian language of Hieroglyphics, presumably in order to do their work and navigate the place where they were working and the people they were working with. 

On rocks in an ancient Egyptian temple, they left messages, which survive to this day. (We even know one of their names: Khebded, the brother of a Prince of Canaan.) One small stone sphinx, labelled “the Rosetta Stone of the alphabet” by one researcher, even carries an inscription in Hieroglyphics, translated into a new script below. The workers had simplified the thousands of Hieroglyphs into a few dozen symbols that conveyed the sounds of their own language, and, in doing so, created the basis of every alphabet from Arabic to Latin to Gujarati.  

BBC Four’s The Secret History of Writing is a fascinating joy for anyone interested in languages and writing. Over three episodes, Lydia Wilson takes us from the development of written languages, through the technology of writing to spread scripts like Latin and Cyrillic. 

We encounter early Hieroglyphics, like those found in the pyramid tomb of Pharaoh Teti, its walls inscribed with spells to resurrect him in the afterlife: “Rise up, O Teti, you shall not die!” It is a reminder that while human beings have existed on this planet for hundreds of thousands of years, the ability to write (or, as the documentary puts it, the ability to know the “inner thoughts” of another person without directly speaking to them, and to have your name preserved after your death) has only been with us for a few thousand years. 

For others, writing has always been more functional and less spiritual. We meet the Sumerians of 3,000-2,000 BC. As they developed cities, they needed the means to keep records as simple as how much barley had been produced: these are essentially early spreadsheets. Cuneiform tablets also record some of the earliest customer service complaints. Later came those devices now beloved by people who try (and often fail) to be funny: puns. Writers of Cuneiform and other pictorial languages used pictures of unrelated things that, when spoken together, formed a completely different word or meaning (“pretty” is apparently a combination of the sounds, and therefore symbols, for barley and milk). 

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Wilson, an academic at the University of Cambridge, calls upon the skills and talents of calligrapher Brody Neuenschwander to show this change from pictures to letters: it’s hard not to marvel as hieroglyphs morph into letters before our eyes. These conceptual links across cultures reveal the world to us as seen by others from radically different times and cultures.  

Neuenschwander also helps Wilson to examine how the technology of what we write with and on has had a dramatic impact on our intellectual history. Parchment, while virtually indestructible, was far more expensive to produce and slower to write on than papyrus: this meant few books could be produced in Medieval Western Europe and the reading public was small.  

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By contrast, mass-produced paper in China meant the ordinary person could buy a blank notebook to record their thoughts. When this state secret passed into the Muslim world, the availability of cheap books fuelled the Golden Age of Islamic writing and then continued on into Europe. This was where the Latin script, Wilson explains, was best suited to the printing revolution. The final episode charts the supremacy of the Latin alphabet as figures as diverse as Attaturk, Lenin and Mao introduced it, with mixed results, into their states. Later, computer programming deployed the Latin script further, making it, in many ways, the language of the internet.   

The series ends where it began, as Wilson meets the artist Xu Bing who wrote The Book from the Ground using emoji and symbols to write a book that can be read by anyone. Thousands of years after Hieroglyphics fell out of use, are we headed towards a common written language based on emoji?️