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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.


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