Tag Archives: communication

A sea-change

Sure, they would have used Demotic script but hieroglyphics is much funnier.

If you own one of these Phoenician trading ships, you’re carrying cloth or papyrus or books or glass or copper or oil. You need to keep track of all that merchandise, how much it cost you and how much you want to sell it for. You’ll be putting in to different ports, unloading some of your cargo and taking on new merchandise. You need to keep records of what you sold and what you bought and who ordered which merch in advance. Egyptian hieroglyphics are way too complicated—even Demotic is cumbersome with symbols for entire syllables—and having a scribe aboard was an additional expense.

The Phoenicians looked at the Egyptian writing system and threw out all the pictograms and ideograms. They kept only the symbols that represented sounds and wound up with a 22 letter alphabet. That’s it. The alphabet was so simple that a sea-captain could write a list of all the stores in his ship without a scribe’s help.

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

I, Darius, proclaim

And in what language were Darius’ messages written? The Persian Empire was a big place. By the time Darius was in charge, he ruled over different cultures that spoke/read different languages. To make sure everybody got the message when he made official announcements, Darius had them translated. For instance, there’s a royal proclamation carved in stone near Behistun, a village in Iran. It’s written 3 times, in 3 languages: Babylonian, Old Persian, and Elamite. To drive the message home, there are pictures helpfully carved into the stone for people who couldn’t read.

The proclamation at Behistun tells the story of how Darius’ throne was stolen while he was away, how Darius returned and killed the usurper, how Darius then conquered the nations that were now part of the Persian Empire, and how those nations would be overseen by Persian governors (satraps). When Darius took over he had these proclamations put up all over his empire.

https://www.tasnimnews.com/en/news/2017/04/03/1364911/the-behistun-inscription-a-multilingual-inscription
https://www.livius.org/articles/concept/satraps-and-satrapies/
https://www.ancient.eu/Persian_Governor/

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

The Persian Postal Service

Darius built a road system to criss-cross the Persian Empire. His roads made it possible to send messages back and forth at unheard-of speed. There were changing stations along the way so his messengers could get a fresh horse and a meal. Persian royal mounted messengers became the primo reliable mail service. The Greek historian Herodotus’ description of their dependability became the unofficial motto of the United States Postal Service in our time—“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

Ancient Persia’s Pony Express

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

Learn to be a scribe! Earn big money!

A scribe is—or was—someone people hired to write and read cuneiform. As I mentioned, cuneiform wasn’t easy to read. You had to go to a special ‘tablet-school’ to learn how. Both boys and girls went to tablet-school. All you needed was lots of money to pay for it. Once you graduated, you were set for life in the scribe business. Scribes always had work and were at the top of Sumerian society.

Cuneiform was used to record several languages. Cuneiform symbols had different meanings in different contexts. A scribe had to know if he were reading an invoice or a royal decree or a poem. These symbols were pictograms and ideograms. Some symbols represented a sound, too, so cuneiform was sometimes a phonetic writing system. These sounds were syllables.

Wait a minute, how does that work? Well, it works like a rebus. You’ve seen rebus puzzles in kids’ magazines. For the word ‘syllable,’ you’d write this:

Sill + a + bull.

Most spoken languages have hundreds—if not thousands—of different syllables, so cuneiform needed a load of symbols.

Aaaaand, it’s important to realize that writing didn’t have much resemblance to how people spoke. That seems weird to us now, because we have an alphabet that’s designed to track the spoken word as closely as possible. The best way I can describe cuneiform is to compare it to coding, like for a website.

Here’s a very good post about scribes: https://allmesopotamia.wordpress.com/2015/06/26/the-lives-of-scribes-in-ancient-mesopotamia/
https://mesopotamia.mrdonn.org/cuneiform.html
http://www.mesopotamia.co.uk/writing/home_set.html
http://sumerianshakespeare.com/34101/index.html
Here’s a nice character design of a lady scribe by artist Beth Hobbs: https://www.artstation.com/artwork/qqwOn
https://www.facebook.com/RebusConcentrationPuzzles/

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

Ideograms

This ideogram says “Turn right!”

ideo·​gram
1 : a picture or symbol used in a system of writing to represent a thing or an idea but not a particular word or phrase for it
especially : one that represents not the object pictured but some thing or idea that the object pictured is supposed to suggest
https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ideogram

Numbers are ideograms. They represent the idea of quantity or amount. Mathematical symbols are ideograms, too—‘+’ means added to, ‘-’ means subtracted from. Those are abstract ideas. The plus or minus sign doesn’t represent anything you can see or touch.

A red circle with a bar through it means ‘no’ or ‘not allowed.’ That’s an idea. If you put the red circle and bar across a picture of a cigarette or dog or a skateboard, you know those things aren’t allowed. The cigarette or dog or skateboard are pictograms. They represent something you can see or touch. The red circle and bar turn them into ideograms: the idea of something being forbidden.

I put these signs up in my house but it’s like the dogs don’t even see them

Skateboarding dog doesn’t care about ideograms

Can you think of any ideograms? You see them everywhere. They’re especially useful to communicate without needing to speak a particular language. Anyone at an international airport can find someplace to eat, a gender-appropriate potty, the baggage claim or a taxi thanks to pictograms and ideograms. Ideograms on the road tell a driver when to slow down, merge with other traffic, or stop. Do you see any ideograms at home? At school? On your computer?

https://penandthepad.com/types-imagery-poetry-19888.html (scroll down)

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

Writing gets complicated

The Sumerians used a stylus to make symbols in soft clay. The symbols represented things they wanted to count, like stuff they were buying or selling. Think about sheaves of barley; poultry or livestock; pots of olive oil; baskets of dried fish. It was an accounting system for business. There were symbols for counting—numbers—and symbols to represent things—pictograms.

Over a long period of time, though, these symbols developed into a writing system that could record things people say. New meanings were introduced. Sometimes a symbol represented an idea—that’s called an ideogram. For instance, a symbol that looks like the sun may represent the sun (pictogram), or maybe a day or noon or the passage of time (ideogram). A foot symbol might mean a foot (pictogram), or walking or running or a distance (ideogram).

This writing system became pretty complicated. There were thousands of these symbols and more than one meaning for a lot of them. The ordinary shmoes who had used symbols to count their goods could no longer read or write in this system. You had to be trained to do it. You had to be a scribe.

https://saffroninteractive.com/a-brief-history-of-pictograms-and-ideograms/
https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-an-ideogram-1691050
https://www.historyofvisualcommunication.com/02-ideograms

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.