Tag Archives: numbers

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.

Counting your chickens before numbers

6000-2200 bc. Eventually people figured out it was a lot easier to raise livestock—animals that provide food—than chasing after them with bows and arrows. Human beings domesticated certain kinds of animals, like poultry (chickens), cattle, sheep and goats.

If you wanted to tell somebody how many chickens you owned, you couldn’t, because there weren’t any symbols for numbers.

My version of a clay chicken token.

It was pretty important to know how many chickens—or goats, or sheep—you owned. Sometimes people would keep a bag of pebbles. Each pebble represented a chicken or a goat. Eventually someone had the idea to make little clay chickens and goats. At the end of every day, the animals went back into their pens. As each chicken entered the coop, you could keep track by putting a clay chicken in your bag for every real chicken. As each goat entered the pen, you put a clay goat in your bag.

You get what’s happening here? We switched from making images of animals as grand wall paintings to inventing a token or symbol (a clay chicken) that represents a unit (a real chicken). That’s a big deal. These symbols were the first step toward a written language.

“What do you mean by that, Manders? Stop spewing gibberish!” Okay, okay. To make my point more clearly: look at the cartoons in this post. A cartoon will only represent what it was drawn to represent. Now look at the letters in this text. They’re symbols. The letters can be rearranged to make different words, to say anything you like. It will take a loooooong time to get from chicken tokens to an alphabet, but we’re on our way.


Early Counting Systems

View at Medium.com

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