History of Technology 6: Proto-Writing Systems

Proto-writing systems were great, but we're pretty sure your teacher isn't going to accept an essay in Cuneiform. Just a wild guess.

LanguageEnglish Language
TechnologyHistory of Technology

Transcript

00:24

Here are the two main differences…

00:26

For one thing, a fully developed writing system has to have a symbol for every sound in a [Drawing of man chucking a spear at an animal]

00:32

language.

00:33

That means that everything we say out loud can be transcribed into a written form. [Man talking as woman transcribes onto paper]

00:39

Proto-writing systems only have some of the sounds represented.

00:43

Proto-writing systems are also typically pictorial, which means that they rely on little drawings.

00:49

Most of those drawings directly represent their meanings, rather than representing them [Examples of drawings]

00:53

symbolically...

00:54

Like…they might have a symbol that represents porcupines, but not letters that represent [Man painting a portrait of a porcupine]

00:59

the sounds we make when we say that word.

01:03

Proto-writing may sound primitive to some, but we still use some forms of it today. [Examples of modern signage]

01:08

Like how about those little round headed people on bathroom doors?

01:11

We know which one is which because when they were made, way back when, girls equaled skirts, [Toilet doors with male and female signs on]

01:18

and boys equaled pants.

01:20

Guess the people who made those forgot about the Scots. [Man in a kilt walks into the wrong bathroom]

01:22

The other potential ancestors of modern writing were ancient number systems.

01:27

Counting probably started with cave folks counting on their fingers. [Man pointing to his fingers]

01:31

It’s useful to keep track of just how many saber-tooth tigers are prowling outside the

01:36

cave.

01:37

But eventually people moved on from fingers and toes and started making marks on stones or in clay

01:43

that represented numbers.

01:45

That same kind of symbolic thinking was useful in the development of symbols that represented [Man etching into a rock]

01:50

sounds.

01:51

So, eventually, these systems stewed together in the cauldron of human history and turned [Cauldron bubbling]

01:55

into a lovely soup of writing.

01:58

An…alphabet soup, perhaps…?

02:00

Anyway, this magical process happened in three different places around the world. [The Earth spinning]

02:04

To be fair, there's still some debate about the precise whens and wheres of the writing, but

02:08

what follows is a pretty good guess…

02:10

The earliest formal writing system was Sumerian cuneiform, which developed [Iraq is highlighted on a globe]

02:16

in modern day Iraq.

02:18

The Sumerians created a system of glyphs that directly represented things. [Pictures of glyphs]

02:24

They pressed these glyphs into clay tablets with reed styluses.

02:27

Later, the Sumerian written language got fancier, with glyphs being used to represent sounds. [Man drawing on a clay tablet]

02:34

One of the other really old writing systems began in China. [China highlighted on a globe]

02:38

Some people think they got the idea from the Mesopotamians…

02:41

But the Chinese probably mostly thought of it all on their lonesome. [Chinese man kicks Mesopotamian away]

02:46

The oldest examples of Chinese writing were found on these things called oracle bones. [Picture of an oracle bone]

02:51

The ancient Chinese would carve letters into ox bones with a bronze pin and then throw [Man carving into a bone]

02:56

the bones into a fire.

02:58

Afterwards, they would examine the cracks made in the bones to try and divine the future. [Man picks the bone out of a fire]

03:03

Sounds a lot cooler than the Magic Eight Ball.

03:06

And last but not least, writing was developed independently in Mesoamerica, which is modern [Mexico highlighted on a globe]

03:12

day Mexico and Central America.

03:14

This area was home to lots of advanced ancient civilizations like the Olmec, Maya, Aztec,

03:20

and more.

03:22

Many of these civilizations developed written languages that represented whole concepts, [Ancient kid drawing on a wall]

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or even syllables of sound. [The kids mum hits him on the head for drawing on the wall]

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And perhaps most importantly, these systems may have allowed people to spell their names

03:33

with a picture of a jaguar head.

03:35

Not gonna lie… we're kind of jealous… [Man signs a reciept with a jaguar head]