By Kamil Wiśniewski, Aug. 12th, 2007

The oldest cave drawings representing important information were made 20,000 years ago and clay tokens with marks suggesting some writing attempts are about 10,000 years old, yet they are considered to be only the precursors of writing and not fully developed writing systems. The first systematic writing systems were developed about 5,000 years ago. Cave drawings are treated as a tradition of pictorial art as the history of writing systems starts with pictograms.

A pictogram is a drawing which is used in a consistent way in order to represent an object. Thus, a form such as might be used to represent sun. It is remarkable that thanks to the conventional relationship between the symbol and its referent users of different languages should understand the meaning of pictograms in a similar way, as with the contemporary pictograms in common use:


With time the sign representing sun might develop into a more symbolic and abstract form, like pictogram for example, and start to be used with several additional meanings such as ‘heat’ and ‘daytime’. Then, such a type of symbol is no longer a pictogram, but it is a part of a system based on idea-writing called ideogram. The difference between pictograms and ideograms is that the former represent their referent in a conventional way and the latter are more abstract and arbitrary, as well as less picture-like.

When a further development of the writing system occurred one symbol started to represent one word. A writing system based on arbitrary relationships between the written form and the object it represents is known as word-writing or logogram. The oldest logographic writing was used by the Sumerians about 5,000 years ago, yet because of the shapes they used as symbols their writing system is known as cuneiform. The arbitrary forms of logograms have no resemblance to the entities they represent which the example of cuneiform symbol for sun clearly shows: pictogram.

The next step in the development of writing was using symbols to represent the sounds of language. In rebus writing the symbol for an entity starts to be used as the symbol for the spoken word, subsequently used in any place the sound of the word occurs. In such a way it is relatively easy to reconstruct how this system worked. Taking the pictogram pictogram as an example, supposing it developed into the logogram pictogram meaning ‘eye’. In rebus writing it could be used always when the sounds which are pronounced when saying ‘eye’ are used as in ‘I’, or ‘cross-eye’. Therefore, you might refer to yourself as pictogram, or to the latter example as pictogram.

The last but one step of writing system development towards the most popularly used system nowadays is the syllabic writing. In syllabic writing (also known as syllabary) each symbol represents one syllable. The first fully developed syllabic writing systems were used by Phoenicians in between 3,000 and 4,000 years ago. The final stage of the evolution of writing systems so far is the inventing writing by use of an alphabet. An alphabet is a set of symbols in which one symbol represent one sound. Interestingly, the first alphabets of languages such as Arabic and Hebrew consisted only of sounds representing consonant. The history of the majority of alphabets used nowadays can be traced back to the Phoenicians and their writing system.

Finch G. 1998. How to study linguistics. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan. Yule G. 1996. The study of language. Cambridge: CUP.

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