Sumerians Invent Writing Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Sumerians, the first peoples known to use a writing system, contributed to one of the most significant cultural breakthroughs in the history of humankind.

Summary of Event

The Sumerians are generally credited with practicing the first known form of writing, toward the end of the fourth millennium b.c.e. The exact date for such an invention is difficult to pinpoint because writing developed over time, and it is difficult to draw a line between rudimentary protowriting and true writing. Many scholars, pointing to tablets from the city of Uruk that date to c. 3100 b.c.e., have pegged the start of writing to that date. However, the unearthing of additional artifacts as well as new interpretations of existing facts has caused this date to come into question. Evidence now suggests that writing was in development as early as 3300 b.c.e. in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Indus Valley. The traditional theory that the Sumerians influenced the beginning of writing in these other areas is also being challenged by the possibility that the three cultures developed writing systems independently or that Egypt possibly was the first to develop a writing system.

The invention of writing was a reflection of humankind’s ability to adapt to the changing needs of society. The Sumerians were farmers living between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in southern Mesopotamia. By the fourth century b.c.e., the agricultural lifestyle was in full swing. In this region, roaming hunter-gatherers had long since settled down as farmers and shepherds. As settlements grew, merchants and craftspeople grew more numerous, and these early societies became increasingly complex. With this complexity came the need to keep track of inventories, accounts, and transactions. Simple prehistoric mnemonic devices, such as tally sticks, knotted cords, and tokens, were not adequate to record the details of these more sophisticated interactions. The earliest writing, therefore, which was created to avoid ambiguity and provide permanence, was for the purpose of accountancy.

The earliest writing form was not phonetic. There was no relationship between the symbols used and the speech sounds of the language. Rather, Sumerian writing started out as a pictographic system, consisting of simplified drawings of animals and objects. The early clay tablets of Uruk contained concrete representations of such things as cattle and bags of grain along with symbols representing numbers. Over time, ideographic signs developed, which symbolized more abstract concepts relating to the original pictograms. For example, a picture of the Sun might also connote “day” or “light.” This allowed for an expansion of the concepts that could be represented in written form. Further abstraction led to logographic signs, which were symbols that stood for words but had no direct pictorial connection.

The evolution of writing was also influenced by the surrounding environment and the tools used to record communications. Clay was the most abundant writing medium in Mesopotamia, and a pointed stylus made from reeds, bone, or wood was used to draw the symbols in the wet clay. Over time, scribes looked for ways to make their inscriptions more quickly and efficiently. It was somewhat awkward to pull the stylus through the quick-drying clay, and doing so left ridges along the edges of the writing. The pointed stylus was discarded in favor of a stylus with a triangular-shaped tip that could be pressed quickly into the clay. Because of this practical adaptation, by 2900 b.c.e., the style of the symbols had changed from curving lines to straight, angular, wedge-shaped markings. This marked the beginning of the writing system known as cuneiform, from the Latin word cuneis, meaning “wedge.” The symbols also became more stylized so that they could be impressed on the clay more quickly. A benefit of using clay as a writing medium was that it could be baked and hardened to preserve it indefinitely. Thus, the newly developing system of written communication was provided even more permanence by virtue of using a nonperishable medium.

A significant advancement in the development of writing was when signs began to represent the sounds of the language. Before this, the writing symbols were purely conceptual. A symbol stood for the image it depicted or for an abstract concept related to the picture. At some point, the Sumerians hit on the idea of using pictograms to stand for sounds in the words they represented. The pictograms thus began to stand for parts or syllables of words. For example, the pictogram of a bee would be combined with the pictogram for a leaf to make the abstract word “belief.” This rebus principle was a pivotal development toward a true writing system, which is defined as a system of symbols that represent the sounds of a language. As cuneiform transitioned from a pictographic to a logosyllabic system, the number of symbols decreased dramatically, from an unwieldy two thousand symbols to six hundred symbols by the end of the third millennium b.c.e.

Once cuneiform became systemized, it began to spread throughout Mesopotamia and eventually to almost all of the peoples of the ancient Near East. Because of its primary dependence on logographic signs as opposed to phonetic signs, it was easily adaptable to other languages. The Akkadians of northern Mesopotamia, the Babylonians, and Assyrians succeeded each other as the dominant powers in Mesopotamia from 2500 to 700 b.c.e. They adopted cuneiform to record their own Semitic language and over time simplified it to an increasingly syllabic system. The Elamites of Persia adapted cuneiform, creating some of their own signs for their non-Semitic language. The Eblaites and Hurrians of Syria also employed cuneiform, as did the Hittites of Asia Minor.

Although credited as the first true writing system, cuneiform never developed into a fully syllabic writing system, much less a phonetic system. It had done its job, however, of introducing the ancient world to the utility of the craft of writing, an art and invention that would eventually lead to the truly phonetic systems of today.

Significance

The impact of the invention of writing on human civilization cannot be underestimated. This cultural achievement serves as the vehicle of civilization and recorded history. Writing evolved because of the needs of an increasingly urbanized society, and it became a basic and essential tool for everyday activities. The development of writing was inextricably intertwined with the increasing sophistication of society, in that it was a product of, as well as a facilitator of, human utilitarianism. It allowed the Sumerians to communicate effectively, to organize relationships, and to create permanent records of the happenings of their world.

Writing also facilitated the development of philosophic and scientific thought and consequently people’s ability to understand themselves and their environment. With writing came opportunities for self-expression, the transmittal of ideas, and the recording of these thoughts, opinions, and feelings for posterity. Writing became an integral element of religion. Hymns and divination texts could be recorded and systemized, and their permanent recording added to their sanctity. In short, the beginning of writing marked the beginning of a body of literature that included accountancy, astronomical charts, legal and medical writings, philosophy, religion, and literature.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Claiborne, Robert. The Birth of Writing. New York: Time-Life Books, 1974. Covers the evolution of writing in the ancient world, with good coverage of writing tools and scribal arts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Diringer, David. Writing. New York: Praeger, 1962. A classic text on the subject of the origins of writing.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jean, Georges. Writing: The Story of Alphabets and Scripts. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1992. Describes the evolution of writing in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and China, with chapters on the emergence of the alphabet.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lawler, Andrew. “Writing Gets a Rewrite.” Science 292, no. 5526 (June 29, 2001): 2418-2420. A concise discussion of the newest thoughts concerning the evolution of writing.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robinson, Andrew. The Story of Writing: Alphabets, Hieroglyphics, and Pictograms. London: Thames and Hudson, 1995. Provides good coverage of protowriting, Sumerian cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphics, and Mayan script.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Van de Mieroop, Marc. Cuneiform Texts and the Writing of History. New York: Routledge, 1999. Explores how historians have gained insight into Mesopotamian history through the study of cuneiform texts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Walker, C. B. F. Cuneiform. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987. Surveys the development of cuneiform and analyzes sample texts to give insight into the structure of the script.

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