The History Of Writing
This blog is prompted by Walter Stephens’ wonderful book, “How Writing Made Us Human, 3000 BCE to Now.” In his great book, On Writing, Stephan King got close to the essence of writing. He quoted Miguel de Cervantes, “Honesty’s the best policy.” Then he countered by quoting an anonymous author; “Liars Prosper.” As full-time writers, novelists, storytellers, historians, scriveners, researchers, and other dabblers in the writing sphere, we ought to occasionally visit how we got here—we wrote our way—starting with crayons and now using digital devices. In retrospect, a few centuries ago, it seems unfathomable that early humans did not write. They scratched images on stones and carved things on trees. They were humans, with disposable thumbs and creative minds. But it took a few centuries before an ancient folk invented writing.
Millions of years ago people stored information in a single place—their brains. But brains are not good storage devices for empire-sized databases. Brains have limited capacity. Humans die and their brains die with them. Human brains adapted over time to store and process information. And fortunately, human brains adapted. “Between the years 3500 BC and 3000 BC, some unknown Sumerian geniuses invented a system for storing and processing their social order from the limitations of the human brain, one that was custom-built to handle large amounts of mathematical data. The Sumerians thereby released their social order from the limitations of the human brain, opening the way to for the appearance of cities, kingdoms, and empires. The data processing system they invented is called ‘writing’”.
Throughout written recorded history, humans have regarded the art of writing with awe and reverence. To imagine humanity without writing was not impossible, but it necessitates a visit to an old reality—we write so others can read. The word, prehistory, defined by the absence of written records, only entered the English language in 1836. A few years previously, in 1828, a North American schoolgirl praised writing as miraculous, “The wondrous, mystic art of painting speech, and speaking to the eyes.” Describing what writers do every day as “the mystic art of painting speech” takes my breath away. And who among us think that when we write we are “speaking to the eyes?”
Wow, that’s vivid writing—the kind of vivid writing John Gardner told most of us in On Becoming A Novelist. He said, “Normal people who haven’t been misled by a faulty college education, do not read novels for words alone. They open a novel with the expectation of finding a story . . . a moving story that makes the reader laugh, or cry or endure suspense, a story told at its best.”
In his prodigious book, Walter Stephens said, “The history of writing is ready for its emotional close-up: what people have done with writing is now well known, but how they felt about it over time remains uncharted. The conviction that writing was worthy of the highest admiration, a marvel so astonishing that only a god or godlike human could have invented it, permeated countless stories about it before 1800. Writing enabled memory to outlast the human voice and transcend the individual person; written thoughts could remain stable over generations or centuries. By bridging space as well as time, writing abolished isolation and created community. It could even enable interaction between the ephemeral human world and the invisible society of gods, demons, and spirits. Writing was so central to definitions of humanity that the concept of prehistory only emerged around 1800, while the notion that Adam, Moses, or another biblical patriarch had invented writing lingered among the religious.”
“Once writing took hold, plagiarizers were not far behind. Forged texts were common in ancient Greece, and even earlier in Egypt. During the Renaissance, when genuine Greek and Roman texts and epigraphic inscriptions were being rediscovered in droves, forgery and falsification ran rife. Scholars developed techniques for detecting them, but forgers stayed a step ahead of their critics. Moreover, by the eighteenth century, novelists were using narrative techniques—some dating back to ancient Greece—that blurred the boundaries between fact, forgery, and fiction in suggestive and often disturbing ways. In 1719, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, subtitled “the life and strange, surprising adventures” of an Englishman from York, “written by Himself,” was told so realistically that a century later many readers, including a notorious forger of Shakespeare manuscripts, still mistook it for a factual account.
Eventually, books and libraries showed up. In time monks, scriveners, poets, historians, journalists, lawyers, and novelists began collecting what earlier ages thought and felt about writing as an art, that is, as a whole phenomenon. You could call it an “organic relationship to humanity and civilization. Essential evidence for the emotional history of writing is only infrequently found in revered masterworks by Homer, Dante, or Jane Austen. The best sources are often lurking in outmoded scholarship: their technical obsolescence actually makes their defunct erudition more compelling as emotional history. Hiding under the dunes of dusty bygone scholarship are stories as captivating as Percy Shelley’s “Ozymandias”—a familiar poem inspired by an ancient, now-forgotten anecdote about writing.”
“Biblioclasms—lost libraries and damaged manuscripts—inspire a romantic nostalgia so intense that writers have often imagined whole utopias of extinct wisdom. Sometimes hard evidence of destruction inspired these bookish fantasies, but paradoxically, daydreams of loss were often provoked by exciting rediscoveries. Until the eighteenth century, sapientia veterum, the wisdom of the ancients, was the scholar’s imagined paradise, his (or increasingly her) Garden of Eden. Democratized literacy since 1800 has made reveries about the stupendous achievements of Egypt and Atlantis into perennial favorites of popular culture. Plato imagined Atlantis 2400 years ago, yet modern daydreams about lost utopias, from Jules Verne and H. G. Wells to the 1985 film Back to the Future, differ from their ancient counterparts mainly through their anachronistic or pseudoscientific assumptions about technology and science.”
Remember the anatomy phrasing—the ankle bone is connected to the leg bone; the leg bone is connected to the hip bone, and on and on all the way up to the brain. That’s how writing was invented, or at least inspired. “Most writing systems that have been invented through the ages took inspiration from another writing system: the Latin alphabet was inspired by the Greek alphabet; the Greek alphabet was inspired by the Phoenician abjad; the Phoenician abjad was inspired by Egyptian hieroglyphs. In another line of transmission, the Phoenician abjad, which, with the exception of the Chinese script, is the ancestor of all writing systems in use today, also inspired the Old Hebrew script (ca. 1000 BCE), which inspired the Aramaic script, which inspired the Syriac script (ca. 500 CE), which inspired the Sogdian script, which inspired the Uighur script (ca. 800 CE), which inspired the Mongolian script (1200 CE).”
Unsurprisingly, there is also a Twitter feed, now known as X. It has a twit or two about writing but not worth an actual sentence here. A long-form site, known as Google, has much to say about the invention of writing. “In a world in which immediate access to words and information is taken for granted, it is hard to imagine a time when writing began. Archaeological discoveries in ancient Mesopotamia, now mostly modern Iraq, show the initial power and purpose of writing. . . Mesopotamia was a region comprising many cultures over time speaking different languages. The earliest known writing was invented there around 3400 B.C. in an area called Sumer near the Persian Gulf. The development of the Sumerian script was influenced by local materials: clay for tablets and reeds for styluses. At about the same time, or a little later, the Egyptians were inventing their own form of hieroglyphic writing. . . Even after Sumerian died out as a spoken language around 2000 B.C., it survived as a scholarly language and script. Other peoples within and near Mesopotamia, from Turkey, Syria, and Egypt to Iran, adopted the later version of this script developed by the Akkadians, the first recognizable Semitic people, who succeeded the Sumerians as rulers of Mesopotamia. In Babylonia itself, the script survived for two more millennia until its demise around 70 C.E.”
In time crude writing became “true writing.” To get to true writing, our ancestors devised the content of a spoken language, encoded so that another reader may reasonably reconstruct the identical utterance written down. It differs from proto writing, which often forgoes recording grammatical words and affixes, making it harder or even impossible to reassemble the precise meaning intended by the writer unless substantial context is already known in advance.
True writing morphed into what was called “monogenesis.” Most academics agree that all writing originated in Mesopotamia’s ancient Sumer and spread around the world because of cultural diffusion. This argument holds that traders or merchants traveling between geographical locations passed on the idea of representing language by written signs, though perhaps not necessarily the specifics of how this system operated. True writing comes with standards. “First, writing must be comprehensive; it must have a meaning or purpose, and it must make a point or be able to convey that message. Second, whether they are physical or digital, all writing systems must include some kind of symbol that can be created on a surface. In order to facilitate communication, the writing system’s symbols must resemble spoken words or speech.”
The world’s first novel is “The Tale of Genji,” written in 11th Century Japan by a woman known to us only as Murasaki Shikibu. The short biography of her that goes along with the novel’s Modern Penguin edition translation says, “After the death of her husband, she cloistered herself to study Buddhism, raise her daughter, and write the world’s first novel, Genji Monogatari, the tale of the shining Prince Genji.”
At least ten novels claim as first to be written in English. The code of Hammurabi is the first written code of laws known to history. This had earned Hammurabi the title ‘The World’s first law giver.’ The first legally binding contract was likely written in England, but was heavily influenced by Ancient Greek and Roman thought. “In The Laws, Plato devoted little attention to forms of agreement, but recognized the same basic categories for cancelling agreements as exist today. Roman law identified discrete categories of contractual transaction, each with its own requirements, which needed to be fulfilled in order for promises to be enforced. The general kind, stipulatio, required various words to be used to generate an obligation, or in a contractus litteris it could be written down.
Today’s cursive writing is usually credited to 15th-century Italian Niccolo Niccoli. His unique script evolved over time into what we now call italics. However, forms of cursive writing had been in use long before. Some date back to the ancient Egyptians, Romans, and Greeks. Cursive writing is handwritten. Penmanship is the art or skill of having excellent handwriting. Penmanship is the ability to write legibly.
While writing by hand was the norm, the 20th Century gave us typewriters, word processors, and computers. We upped the ante some in the 21st Century with iPhones, iPods, iPads various other devices destined to make handwriting a faint custom. Children, teenagers and schools more or less gave up practicing penmanship. Today, most states use the Common Core State Standards, which don’t require kids to learn cursive writing. Some states have stopped teaching it completely. Others have kept cursive instruction and even required it.
However, cursive writing will surely survive in business, law, and government because we have to “sign” checks, applications, driver’s licenses, receipts, contracts, medical permissions, bonds, votes, passports, confessions, hotel registrations, restaurant bills, NDAs, leases, loan agreements, mortgages, thank you notes, and kidnapping demand notes. But today’s world is quickly smitten by electronic signatures. Reportedly, the business world loves e-signatures. They can facilitate online purchases, and speed up document workflows for businesses. On average, the business world saves 1.3 hours for every transaction they perform with digital signatures instead of traditional cursive signatures on websites, grocery stores, or marijuana stores.
States and the federal government have statutes that control the validity and need for signed documents. “The original of each document must be signed by the participant or its authorized representative, or by an attorney having authority with respect to it. The document must state the capacity of the person signing; his or her address, phone number, and e-mail address; and the date of signature. The signature of a person signing a pleading or other similar document submitted by a participant is a representation that the document has been subscribed in the capacity specified with full authority, that he or she has read it and knows the contents, that to the best of his or her knowledge, information, and belief the statements made in it are true, and that it is not interposed for delay. Etcetera, etcetera.
So much for the history of writing—on to its future. The Atlantic says, “The Future of Writing Is a Lot Like Hip-Hop.” Their writer predicts a new kind of literary curation will be the defining skill for the next era of human creativity. AIContify says, “In a world where technology is progressing at an unprecedented pace, AI tools have begun to permeate various industries, revolutionizing the way we work. Writing, a skill long cherished as a quintessentially human endeavor, is no exception to this transformative wave. As artificial intelligence creeps into every nook and cranny of our lives, a question lingers in the minds of both seasoned wordsmiths and aspiring writers: are these sophisticated AI tools replacing human writers altogether?”
No writing about writing’s past or its future is complete without some reference to Socrates and his concerns about writing. “One of the main reasons was that Socrates believed that writing would cause people to rely too much on the written word, rather than their own memories and understanding. He believed that people who read a text would only be able to interpret it in the way that the author intended, rather than engaging in a dialogue with the ideas presented and coming to their own conclusions. Moreover, Socrates was concerned that writing could be used to spread false ideas and opinions, and that it could be used to manipulate people.”
Creative Writing—True Stories—Well Told is a website dedicated to the art and future of creative writing. It says, “Writing isn’t the future of writing. Writing of all kinds becomes more challenging each year as there is more to know, more to opine on, more to reference, more varied audiences and more to avoid repeating than ever before. That ‘media lives and dies by its content’ sounds so true-by-definition that the new era we’ve already entered has crept up on us relatively unheralded: Making the content is harder than ever, but content is losing its place as the most valuable commodity in media. The most valuable commodity today is no longer what the thing to be read says but rather the precious time it takes the reader to find and read that thing, which means that the future of writing—the ways in which writing becomes more valuable or redefines its value over the next few decades—lies in helping readers find and consume what they would be most interested in reading when they would be most interested in reading it.”
Much of the angst about writing’s future is how we think, communicate and live. Is it possible that writing will go away because we can think, communicate, and live a full and happy life without writing? Is writing essential in our rapidly expanding technological world? At least some philosophers think that will happen. Vilém Flusser says we don’t need writing. He thinks written communication will inevitably give way to digital expression. His reasoning is simple: Everything now conveyed in writing—and much that cannot be—can be recorded and transmitted by other means.
While the main question is whether writing will survive, there are other consequences to advanced technology and digital communication. Will the aesthetic value of a well-written letter continue to appeal to generations of technology-driven Americans? Will proponents of the epistolary format persevere in the realms of art and literature, thus keeping the letter alive? Will e-mail etiquette preserve the rules of proper letter writing long after the paper letter becomes an object most often seen in a museum? The answers are both debatable and tightly focused.
“Whatever the future of letter writing in America, the value of letters themselves can only increase. Priceless historical documents revealing glimpses of life in a bygone era, the letters of Americans offer modern readers insight into our own history and the desires and concerns of our ancestors. As Thomas Dublin said in Farm to Factory: Women’s Letters, 1830-1860, ‘Increasingly, historians are becoming aware of the need to expand our vision of history to incorporate the experiences of the not-so-famous Americans who have until now found scant place in the story of our nation’s past. To limit history to the study of presidents, generals, and leading reformers is to focus only on the most visible and accessible individuals and events in the past. Such a view is not only incomplete; it is, more importantly, distorted.’ Letters will live on as the rounding out of that picture, the coloring of times, places and events that were experienced by ordinary Americans who had something to say. The letters of a nation reflect that nation’s history—for that reason, if for no other, letters and letter writing will continue to be important to Americans and to the identity of the country they helped to shape.”
In a 2019 article, The Guardian asked a ridiculous question: “Will androids write novels about electric sheep? The dream, or nightmare, of totally machine-generated prose seemed to have come one step closer with the recent announcement of an artificial intelligence that could produce, all by itself, plausible news stories or fiction. . . But writing is not data, it is a means of expression, and a non-sentient computer program has nothing to express, quite apart from the fact that it has no experience of the world to tell it that fires don’t happen underwater. Training it on a vast range of formulaic trash can, to be sure, enable it to reshuffle components and create some more formulaic trash.”
Artificial Intelligence systems can write books. For sure. While this was once a topic for sci-fi books, it’s today’s reality. “Ross Goodwin took an AI on a road trip to generate a twenty-first century take on Jack Kerouac, The Road, Jean Boîte Éditions, 2018, marketed as “the first novel written by a machine.” In February 2023, nearly 300 ChatGPT-authored books went on sale on Amazon. The turnaround for low-quality books can be less than a day. Murder mysteries might be easier to produce via algorithm because the plots follow formulae. Laura Miller, reviewing the 95 percent AI-written novella Death of an Author, Pushkin Industries, 2023, by Stephen Marche, aka ‘Aidan Marchine,’ for Slate, called it ‘more intriguing than many of the human-written mysteries I dip into’ and dubbed the prose “better than average.”
I started this blog by identifying what prompted it—Walter Stephen’s wonderful book titled, “How Writing Made Us Human, 3000 BCE to Now.” I’ll end it by telling you he was right on all points. Writing has made us human. The story of writing is the story of humanity. In his November 12, 2023, article, he wrapped a blue ribbon around his gift to the world of writing. “Imagine our world without writing. No pencils, no pens, no paper, no grocery lists. No chalkboards, typewriters or printing-presses, no letters, or books. No computers or word-processors, no e-mail or Internet, no ‘social media’; and without binary code—strings of ones and zeroes that create computer programs—no viewable archives of film or television, either. Writing evolved to perform tasks that were difficult or impossible to accomplish without it; at some level, it is now essential for anything that human societies do, except in certain increasingly threatened cultures of hunter-gatherers. Without writing, modern civilization has amnesia; complex tasks need stable, reliable, long-term memory.”
Here are five compelling reasons why writing is the greatest invention of all time.
- “It is our most powerful form of self-expression. It allows individuals to communicate their thoughts, feelings, and experiences in a way that transcends the limitations of spoken language. Through writing, people can explore their innermost emotions, confront difficult experiences, and share their unique perspectives with others. . . . Whether through poetry, fiction, or personal essays, writing provides an outlet for individuals to explore their emotions, make sense of their experiences, and connect with others on a deeper level.
- Throughout history, writing has been a powerful force for social change. From the impassioned essays of civil rights activists to the fiery speeches of political revolutionaries, the written word has the power to inspire, motivate, and unite individuals in the pursuit of a common goal. Social media platforms, blogs, and online publications provide a space for activists, scholars, and ordinary citizens to share their thoughts and opinions on pressing social issues. This democratization of writing has made it possible for marginalized voices to be heard and for grassroots movements to gain traction.
- Writing plays an essential role in the preservation of culture. By documenting history, traditions, and customs, the written word helps to ensure that the rich tapestry of human experience is not lost to the sands of time. In this way, writing serves as a bridge between generations, allowing the wisdom and experiences of the past to inform and enrich the lives of those in the present. Literature, in particular, plays a crucial role in preserving culture. Through stories, poems, and essays, writers capture the essence of their societies, reflecting the values, beliefs, and experiences of their time. These works of art serve as a cultural record, providing a window into the lives of those who came before us and helping to shape our understanding of the world around us.
- Writing is a fundamental component of education. From the earliest stages of learning to read and write, children are taught the importance of literacy as the foundation for acquiring knowledge and developing critical thinking skills. As students progress through their education, the ability to effectively communicate through writing becomes even more crucial. In higher education, writing is the primary means by which students convey their understanding of complex concepts and engage in intellectual discourse with their peers and instructors. Whether through essays, research of academic success.
- The digital papers, or dissertations, writing is the cornerstone age has undoubtedly transformed the landscape of writing. With the advent of the internet and the proliferation of digital devices, writing has become more accessible and more diverse than ever before. Today, anyone with an internet connection can publish their own blog, share their thoughts on social media, or contribute to online forums and discussions. This democratization of writing has had both positive and negative effects on society. On one hand, the digital age has made it possible for a wider range of voices and perspectives to be heard, fostering greater diversity and inclusivity in the world of writing. In addition, the internet has made information more accessible than ever before, promoting the exchange of ideas and knowledge on a global scale. While the digital age has brought about significant changes in the way we write and consume information, the fundamental importance of the written word remains unchanged.”
Writing, at least for me, stretches my imagination to levels nonwriters cannot imagine. In fiction I can imagine things which are not really there. In nonfiction I can reach up and out for things which are there, but are new to me. The more I write, the more I see things differently. Somehow, always to my astonishment, everything I write gains in importance, at least for me, and hopefully for my readers. Writing, unlike peace or ultimate truth is here to stay.
 Walter Stephens, Author, How Writing Made Us Human, 3000 BCE to Now. Copyright 2023. Published with permission of Johns Hopkins University Press. Available at https://bookshop.org/p/books/how-writing-made-us-human-3000-bce-to-now-walter-stephens/19780340?ean=9781421446646
 Yuval Noah Harari, “Sapiens—A Brief History of Humankind” Harper Prennial, New York, 2015, at page 122. See also https://www.amazon.com/Sapiens-Humankind-Yuval-Noah-Harari/dp/0062316117/
 John Gardner, “On Becoming A Novelist.” Harper & Row Publishers, New York, 1983, at page 5.
 How Writing Made us Human, Citation above—footnote 1.
I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.
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