Writing Independently Invented Four Times

That question has at least four answers because writing was independently invented at least four times in human history: in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, China and Mesoamerica. The scripts of these civilizations are considered pristine, or developed from scratch by societies with no exposure to other literate cultures. All other writing systems are thought to be modeled after these four, or at least after the idea of them.

With future research, the number of pristine scripts could decrease, if archaeologists find evidence that any of these cultures copied the idea of writing from one another (most likely Mesopotamia and Egypt, because geography). And the number could grow, if other ancient symbol systems are deciphered and proven to represent true writing. But as it stands, most scholars believe that just these four scripts had independent origins.

A remarkable peak into the origins of a distinctly human activity. I wonder what internet forums would look like without the written word?


They would look like Youtube. :wink:

(I’ve always thought it amazing that our English language uses characters which have ancient “stories” behind them due to their ultimate dependence on an alphabet from Phoenicia, which was basically coastal Palestine.)

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What about the Harappan script?

I do not know. Maybe @deuteroKJ does.

M&+h’>× $(ow&<, <'g+? : )

I wonder if this is evidence agajnst neanderthals having language? Maybe not, but it’s interesting that it didn’t take too long (how long were neanderthals around?) after humans show up for written language to evolve independently more than once.

Please poke holes in what I said.

It is fairly certain Neanderthals did not have written language.

Nor Sapiens when Neanderthals were admixing around 40,000 years ago.

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one can not know nobody else, independently , created a written language as absence of evidence is not evidence.
I think its possible but timelines are so short anyone would be in reach of the other written languages.
Our written language is superior as its based on symbols for sounds. I understand the others are symbols for ideas etc.
The bible was written early in our alphabet and so thats about 1400BC. It does likely it was invented by someone in the Cannanite cities on the coast.
Phonecia is probably a corruption of the word phistinia as is palestine.
I don’t think it would be Philistines as they are related ti Egyptians, according to genesis, and came from create.
it probably was just one guy but failed to get a patent.

It would appear to be at least 100,000 years. Is that “too long”?

@Robert_Byers when did you invent your writing? It is getting harder and harder to comprehend your posts. Can you please enroll in @Eddie 's eloquent writing class.

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Perhaps this fascinating article concerning Norse runes will be of interest to this discussion…

“We don’t know why or when that happened,” he says of the new alphabet being used. “It doesn’t seem to be gradual.”

Meaning the new alphabet was likely created by one person or one institution and then disseminated. But why, when, and by whom? Archaeologists aren’t sure.

(The talk of letters having “ancient stories behind them” made me think of Norse runes, and that in turn [given the topic of the discussion] made me think of this article :wink: ).


But it wasn’t created from nothing. It borrowed extensively from the pre-existing Latin alphabet. Likewise Cyrillic is another created alphabet, but it was based on the Greek alphabet. A better choice would be the Cherokee and Hmong syllabaries, but even those were based on the idea of an alphabet, gained from contact with cultures that had alphabets. All four of them can be traced back to Phoenecia and then to Egypt.

This topic brings to mind the amazing inventor of the Cherokee written language, Sequoyah. He didn’t independently create a written language but the processes by which he applied what little he knew about written languages to his own native language are quite instructive concerning the invention of writing in general.

Rather than build and apply a phonetic alphabet as with English, Cherokee eventually realized on his own that a syllabary system was more practical. That is, by assigning symbols to the 85 most common syllables in the Cherokee language, he developed a written language which could be learned in a relatively few hours! A group of warriors asked Sequoyah to teach them to read and write the language—and they were functionally literate within a week. Within just a few months of its invention, the entire tribe had embraced the advantages of literacy. Soon a Cherokee newspaper enjoyed an impressive circulation. Within a few years there was a Cherokee Bible.

When applied to an appropriate language, syllabary writing systems are tremendously valuable in quickly improving the circumstances of entire cultures. It is difficult to overestimate the great gift Sequoyah gave his people. His story is worth reading:


I have emphasized Sequoyah’s contributions here because his efforts, including the false starts and abandoned experiments, help us to imagine what it was like for individuals long ago who tried to record spoken languages in symbolic forms.


I was thinking about this as well. It is truly a fascinating story!

The invention of the Cherokee syllabary was definitely an impressive accomplishment (and I was further impressed when I heard how quickly people were able to learn it! :wink: ).
(A stop sign written with the Cherokee syllabary [credit: Wikipedia]).

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True. But I think @J.E.S.'s point was that we can learn a lot about the invention of alphabets in the long-ago ancient mists of time from more recent language developments. The Runic alphabet is a fascinating example. Scholars still argue about its development (was it via the Goths from their exposure to the Etruscans from their exposure to the Greeks?) but its complex influences and likely path of development are mind-boggling puzzlers for any inquisitive historical linguist.

I was not a historical linguist by any means but I had the great privilege of working with Fred Householder long ago. His very memorable anecdotes and his great classic, Linguistic Speculations, come to mind whenever I come upon topics like this one.

[The best money I ever made as a lowly university instructor not yet blessed with faculty status was teaching a doctoral research methodologies course with Householder, who still seemed to be a bit miffed that many years before the young upstart Walter Ventris had deciphered Linear B before he did! Householder also had a ongoing scholarly disagreement with Noam Chomsky—and some more private ones over politics—and I enjoyed listening to his stories about such topics. They had dueling debates in the linguistics literature for a good while. @Michael_Callen, chalk that one up to yet another of this old man’s endless dronings about things said and done so long ago!]


I’ve always found it fascinating that not only are traffic signs in Cherokee cities bilingual, they also include a Roman alphabet transliteration. I assume that that is for the benefit of Cherokee children and other bilingual readers. It seems like a great way to encourage preservation of the language—as readers can “double-check” their reading of the Cherokee characters in real time!


i agree the Runic is likely not created from nothing. These backward tribes were bumping into roman civilization and saw written language as prestigious there. I don’t think they had any need of it otherwise. it was a prestige thing. lIke the way the Britons suddenly started using their own coins soon after Caesars invasion.
It probably was just one man who worked from a order from some King.
They don’t say our written language comes from Egypt but instead the coastal Canaanite cities.
I doubt there was a written language before the flood but soon after everyone had the idea.
There is a good on the BBC show IN OUR TIME.
I always hope more archaeology digs will find libraries in the old cities. I understand Hittite writings still have not all been translated. Why the lack of interest?