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Ancient Writing

Reprinted by permission from "Artifacts of Ancient Civilizations" by Alex G. Malloy. Updates by Joseph Sermarini

The written word, the most important means of communication, has always been the main aspect by which, a people establishes itself as a civilization. By inventing a writing system, a people could progress from a simple agrarian group to a more complex society which has the ability to form governmental system, and to educate its members. Writing, as the tool of mankind, has enabled men to become learned scholars, brought separate cultures within each otherís reach, and preserved historical events and happenings for posterity.


Cuneiform, probably the oldest system of writing, was employed by the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, and Assyrians over 200 years before Christ. At first, this wedge-shaped writing represented, in pictorial form, a few animate and inanimate objects. These signs then arose to depict phonetic values. Therefore, before long, cuneiform developed into a clearly defined linear script which could be used consistently and easily by Western Asiatic scribes.

Hieroglyphic Writing

This ancient script, called by the Egyptians "the speech of the Gods" was used mainly for inscriptional writing. Even as early as 3000 B.C., hieroglyphic writing was a highly developed pictorial and ideographic system. Strangely enough, although this formal style was to last over 3000 years, it never flourished, nor, indeed, spread past the borders of Egypt. Subsequently, with the rise of the incoming Greek and Latin languages, this beautiful script died along with great dynasties of the pharaohs of ancient Egypt.

Hieratic Writing

When writing on papyrus and ostraca for business purposes, the ancient Egyptian scribe turned from hieroglyphic script to hieratic, which was a cursive derivative. Not only was hieratic used for business and religious texts, it was, in contrast, also used for profane writing. Hieratic was not utilized instead of hieroglyphic writing, but rather in conjunction with it- a quicker, "shorthand" script of a sometimes laborious hieroglyphic script.


Not to be confused with Jewish-Aramaic, Aramaic was often called Syriac by the Jews. It was a script used by the heathen neighbors of the Jews- the Aramaeans. The Aramaeans were wandering tribesmen who eventually settled in modern-day Syria around the 11th or 12th B.C. Their script was alphabetic rather than pictorial, and from its conception progressed into a rather cursive script. By the 7th century B.C., Aramaic had become not only prominent, but the official language of the Near East, particularly of the Persian Empire.


Originally an offshoot of the Canaanite language, Hebrew began to become distinct around the 11th century B.C. Its use continued for 500 years, until somewhere around the 6th century B.C. For a long time, sample of early Hebrew writing were scarce, but over the past century hundreds of inscriptions have been founded, are an important source of information about the language and period of the Old Testament.

Edessan Syriac

Edessa, in northwest Mesopotamia, was one of the first centers of Christianity in the Syriac-speaking world. It was an island in a primarily Greek-speaking area. Edessan Syriac was a branch of Aramaic which became the most important language in the Eastern Roman Empire after Greek. The language gradually died out, except for some liturgical passage, because of the conquering foreigners Ė first the Persians and then the Arabs.


One can never underestimate the importance of the Greek language, because most of the European languages are related to ancient Greek. The Greeks attributed the invention of their alphabet to the Phoenicians, from whom they learned the ability to write in approximately the 11th century B.C. At first written from right to left, Greek the progressed into being written alternatively from either right to left or left to right. However, it was only after 800 B.C. that it became commonplace to write left to right.  Greek writing is not frequently available. Usually when it is encountered, it is in the form of an inscription on an object, or a name signed on a Greek vase by its maker. Papyrus fragments with Greek writings are highly sought after.


The Coptic language is the only offshoot of the Greek which developed into a non-European language. Up until the 20th century, Coptic liturgical verses were still spoken in the Christian villages of Upper Egypt. Consisting mainly of Greek letters, Coptic does contain a part of its Egyptian heritage by using seven letters of the Demotic languages or script. Demotic script was used in the Late period of ancient Egypt.

Classical Latin

The Latin language was spread by Roman legionaries throughout most of the Roman Empire. It is the ancestor and basis of the Romance languages, for example, French or Spanish, and has influenced the majority of all the Europeans languages. Today, it is thought that Latin originates from both the Greek and Etruscan alphabets, not purely from the Greek languages, as was previously believed. An accurate date for the beginning of Latin is unobtainable; however, it was probably created approximately in the 7th century B.C.


Diringer, D. The Alphabet: A Key to the History of Mankind. (New York, 1948).
Diringer, D. Writing. (New York, 1967).
Malloy, A. Writings of Mankind 1990. (South Salem, NY, 1990).

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