What Were the First Written Languages?

The invention of writing is one of the most significant historical events. It was a watershed moment in human communication, allowing people to record their thoughts and ideas in a permanent, tangible form. What, however, were the first written languages? Who originated writing, and what was it about? For decades, historians and archaeologists have been interested in these issues, and the solutions provide a fascinating peek into our species’ early civilizations and cultures. Join us on a fascinating journey back in time as we investigate the roots of the world’s first written languages.

The History of Writing

Bureaucracy, with its necessity for record-keeping, was critical in developing writing. A complicated, bureaucratic culture invented writing, described as a system of pictorial symbols that may be utilized to convey ideas. Writing can be traced back to the Ice Age when cave art was used as a type of proto-writing. However, the first steps toward comprehensive writing were not taken until the beginnings of agriculture in the 9th millennium BC.

This period’s clay tokens discovered in excavations in the Middle East were regarded as counting mechanisms. These tokens were replaced by clay bullae with scratched symbols signifying the contents. These clay tokens and bullae were gradually replaced by flat tablets, and two-dimensional symbols began to supplant three-dimensional tokens.

Around 3000 BC, scribes began to shorten their scratchings to recall not just the notion of an object but also the sounds of the words. Elements were mixed with other letters, and complex words could be spelled even if they could not be represented graphically as a sign. Because there was so much material to record, writing began to be used in various ways, including recording battles, deeds, instructions, and payments.

The Oldest Written Languages

1. Cuneiform

Cuneiform is commonly regarded as the world’s oldest written language, though there were a few proto-writing systems that primarily utilized older symbols. It was developed in 3200 BCE by the Sumerians of southern Mesopotamia, one of the world’s oldest modern civilizations. Cuneiform is derived from Latin and means “wedge-shaped,” referring to how the symbols were written on clay tablets with a reed stylus.

Cuneiform was initially employed to keep track of products and commerce transactions, as well as to record laws and legal papers. The system expanded and became more sophisticated throughout time, finally allowing for the recording of myths, legends, and histories, as well as personal and literary correspondence.

Cuneiform was written using a series of pictographic and ideographic symbols, each of which represented a word or notion. The method was streamlined over time, and phonetic components were incorporated, allowing for the representation of both sounds and thoughts. The symbols were organized in rows and columns, with writing alternating between left-to-right and right-to-left.

Cuneiform writing lasted over 3,000 years and influenced numerous early writing systems in Mesopotamia, including Akkadian and Elamite. The Phoenician alphabet, which was more efficient and easier to learn, eventually superseded it. Cuneiform had been extinct by the 1st century CE, and no one knew how to read it for many years after that. During the nineteenth century, the language was painstakingly stitched together by interpreting repeating words in Persian, providing us with a fascinating peek into Mesopotamia’s ancient world.

Sumerian inscription in monumental archaic style, c. 26th century BC

2. Egyptian Hieroglyphs

Egyptian hieroglyphs are, without a doubt, one of history’s most interesting writing systems. For nearly 3,500 years, the Ancient Egyptians used visual symbols to preserve their history, religion, and daily life. With over 700 different symbols and various variations, the hieroglyphs were not only beautiful and artistic but also exceedingly complicated.

Egyptian hieroglyphic writing was a hybrid of logographic and phonetic writing. It had phonetic symbols that represented individual sounds as well as symbols that represented complete phrases or concepts. Because of this, it was a flexible writing system that could be used to express a wide variety of ideas.

The meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphs was veiled in obscurity for many centuries. The Ancient Egyptians utilized the alphabet for millennia, but it fell out of favor with the development of Christianity and the expansion of the Arabic language. Before the Rosetta Stone was discovered in 1799, scholars had no way of deciphering the hieroglyphs.

The Egyptian hieroglyphic script was deciphered by the French scholar Jean-François Champollion. Years later, in 1822, he announced that he had decoded the hieroglyphs after examining the Rosetta Stone and other ancient inscriptions. This paved the way for much new information to be uncovered about Ancient Egyptian history and culture.

Hieroglyphs from the tomb of Seti I (KV17), 13th century BC

3. Akkadian Cuneiform

The Akkadian language was a Semitic language spoken in ancient Mesopotamia that differed significantly from Sumerian, which was an agglutinative language. The Akkadians borrowed the Sumerian cuneiform writing system but simplified and adapted it to better fit their language.

The Akkadians reduced the number of symbols used in cuneiform, which was one of the most significant developments. The Sumerians employed hundreds of pictographs to represent various things and concepts, but the Akkadians reduced this to roughly 400, making the writing system easier to learn and use.

Another innovation made by the Akkadians was the adoption of cuneiform to symbolize their own language. They created new signs to indicate sounds peculiar to their language and shortened the pronunciation of some Sumerian words to match their own.

Akkadian language inscription on the obelisk of Manishtushu

4. Elamite Cuneiform

Elamite cuneiform is a writing system used in Elam, an ancient civilization located in what is now southwestern Iran. Elamite cuneiform, like Akkadian cuneiform, was written on clay tablets with a stylus, although it was simpler and contained fewer symbols.

Elamite cuneiform comes in two varieties. The first, used from the third to second millennia BCE, was influenced directly by Akkadian cuneiform and was more complicated than the reduced form used in the first millennium BCE. The simpler form, which used fewer scripts, was used subsequently in Elamite culture.

In comparison to Akkadian cuneiform, which had hundreds of different signs, Elamite cuneiform had only roughly 130 to 206 different signs. Some Elamite cuneiform signs were adopted from Akkadian cuneiform, while others were unique to Elamite.

The most famous Elamite tablets dated from the late first millennium BCE and were written in three languages: Old Persian, Babylonian, and Elamite. Because researchers were already familiar with Old Persian and Babylonian cuneiform, these tablets were utilized to decipher Elamite cuneiform. Scholars were able to learn more about the Elamite language and culture by deciphering these tablets.

Elamite cuneiforms, c. 2250, Susa, Louvre Museum

5. Cretan Hieroglyphs 

The Minoans, an ancient civilization that resided on the island of Crete from around 2700 to 1420 BCE, are thought to have utilized Cretan hieroglyphs. The Minoans were famed for their advanced art, architecture, and trading networks, and they are regarded as Europe’s first literary civilization.

There is little known about Cretan hieroglyphs because only a few specimens of the writing system have been discovered, and they are relatively short. The majority of known Cretan hieroglyphs are found on clay seals, which are little items used to stamp designs onto clay or wax.

Cretan hieroglyphs appear to be mostly pictographic, with basic images representing objects or concepts. However, certain Cretan hieroglyphs contain more linear text, implying that the writing system was more complicated than previously supposed.

A green jasper Minoan seal with Cretan hieroglyphs, 1800 BC

6. Linear A

Linear A is a syllabic writing system used by the Minoans on Crete throughout the Middle Minoan period (approximately 2000-1700 BCE) and the Late Minoan period (about 1700-1400 BCE). British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans found the script in the early 20th century, together with the associated writing system Linear B.

Linear A’s language has not been deciphered, but it is thought to be an early variant of the Minoan language or a similar language. Because written documents are essential to comprehending a society’s culture, politics, and history, the lack of a recognized decipherment for Linear A has made it difficult to completely appreciate the Minoan civilization.

Some experts believe Linear A and Cretan hieroglyphs were part of the same writing system or that Linear A evolved from Cretan hieroglyphs. Linear A is also related to Linear B, which was employed by the Mycenaean Greeks when the Minoan civilization fell. 

Linear A tablet from the palace of Zakros

7. Linear B

Linear B is a syllabic writing system, meaning each symbol represents an entire syllable rather than simply a single letter or sound. Linear B contains around 87 different characters, each representing a different syllable in the Mycenaean Greek language.

Linear B tablets were uncovered at several ancient sites around Greece and were used for a range of purposes, including administrative and economic records, inventories, and listings of godly gifts. The texts are often brief and often difficult to decipher, but they provide vital insights into Mycenaean Greek daily life and rituals.

Many common Greek sounds are absent from Linear B, but modern scholars eventually figured out how the writing system operated by examining subsequent Greek dialects. Instead of utilizing multiple symbols for each sound, they realized that comparable sounds might be represented by a single symbol.

Tablet KN Fp 13, discovered by Arthur Evans

In conclusion, the study of the first written languages provides us with a glimpse into the origins of human communication and the development of civilization. From the pictographic symbols of the Sumerians to the complex scripts of the Egyptians and the Greeks, the first written languages paved the way for the creation of literature, history, and science. While many of these early writing systems remain a mystery to us, the efforts of archaeologists and linguists have enabled us to unlock the secrets of some of the most ancient and fascinating written languages in human history.