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A (Brief) History of Writing

By Tom Ashford

Language comes naturally to practically everyone across the globe, regardless of country, culture or upbringing. Some people even learn multiple tongues throughout their life, and those who can’t speak can usually sign. The blind can read braille. We pick up regional slang and learn new words almost every day. Without language there would be no sharing of ideas. The world we live in would be utterly different; it would likely be utterly bland, too.

Estimates on when humans first started talking to one another vary wildly. Some say it was as late as fifty thousand years ago; others claim we began gossiping as early as two million years back, at the beginning of the human genus. We’ll probably never know. The spoken word leaves no record.

What we do know is that cave paintings were one of the first efforts to communicate via a more “permanent” medium. Some of the oldest examples are found in the Franco-Cantabrian region in Western Europe and Sulawesi, Indonesia. Earlier this month (November, 2018), scientists reported the discovery of what they believe to be the oldest known example of figurative art – a painting of an unknown animal in the cave of Lubang Jeriji Saleh in Borneo. It’s dated to between 40,000 and 52,000 years old. Non-figurative paintings (simply shapes and hand stencils) have been found that are even older; at 64,000 years, the cave art in Iberia suggests that the Neanderthals beat us Homo Sapiens to the punch.

After that, things get a little hazy. Eventually what’s referred to as “proto-writing” emerged – simple markings to convey simple messages. Not exactly a language as such, but certainly communication, these first came about as early as the 7th Century BCE. Some of the oldest examples of this are the Tartaria tablets, discovered in Romania.

Eventually the cuneiform script (Sumerian) was developed (estimated around 3,500 to 3,200 BCE) in Mesopotamia, and used until approximately the second century AD, when it was replaced by the alphabetic writing we’re used to seeing today. This is considered to be where the first “true” written language was invented. The first example is that of the Kish tablet from the Sumer region of Mesopotamia, though it’s possible that the Egyptians were producing hieroglyphics around the same time.

One of the languages to emerge following the cuneiform period is still used today – in fact, it’s now the twentieth most commonly-spoken language in the world. Tamil is recognised as an official language of India, Sri Lanka and Singapore, and is the only classical language to survive until today. Inscriptions have been found from as early as the 3rd Century BCE.

Of course, a lot of this has to be taken with a pinch of salt. The written word survives only slightly better against time than the spoken word, and much of our history has probably crumbled into dust. (Also, I’m no literary historian. If I’ve got anything wrong, please correct me in the comments below!)

Fast forward a bunch, past all the scrolls and Magna Carta, etc., to the printing press.

Although East Asia had developed ink rubbings and woodblock printing from the eighth century, and the latter was already common in Europe by the fourteenth, it was in 1439 that Johannes Gutenberg took those existing technologies and adapted them into something far more efficient. Using his newly invented “hand mould” he could quickly and accurately produce moveable type, which together with the printing press drastically reduced the cost of printing books.

By 1500, more than twenty million volumes of books had been printed across Western Europe using his invention. By 1600, with the presses available throughout even more of Europe, an estimated 150 to 200 million copies had been produced. By the eighteenth century, Europe alone had printed almost a billion of them! When the steam-powered presses replaced Gutenberg’s hand-operated model in the nineteenth century, printing rose to an industrial scale.

This did more than just allow for the distribution of fiction and non-fiction books. This introduced mass communication to the people of the world, allowing for ideas to spread and threatening the power of political and religious elites. It helped usher in the scientific revolution. People started to read more, changing the very structure of society for the better.

Of course, it also lead to the rise of traditional publishers. As early as the nineteenth century, they were paying percentages on books sold. Some thought of books as works of art. Others thought they were a quick way to make a lot of money, publishing as many “penny dreadfuls” as they could get their hands on.

I’m sure we can fast forward through the rest. The books changed a lot, the industry… not so much, it seems.

Not until circa 2007, at least.

Although some authors had already seen success through publishing online (Stephen King released a digital novella in 2000 and it sold 500,000 copies in forty-eight hours), it was the launch of Amazon’s Kindle that truly saw a change in the marketplace. It was now popular to read novels not in a book, but on a screen. And not just by the big-name authors, either. It didn’t take long for the gatekeepers to be moved aside and for anyone with a good idea to publish their own stories.

Similarly, although audiobooks have technically existed since the 1930s and been popular in cassette tape form since the 70s, the internet, the smartphone and the self-publishing revolution has allowed for unprecedented levels of audiobook growth.

But I’m sure you already know that. You are reading a blog about writing and self-publishing, after all. The real question is: where does it all go from here?

It’s a difficult, perhaps even impossible question to answer. Authors are adapting to changes in technology all the time – just look at James Patterson. His latest novel, The Chef, is being released on Facebook before going to print. Perhaps one day we’ll have stories told to us via an endless steam of words running down screens on the inside of our eyelids.

All that being said, it’s worth remembering what the UK’s fastest growing language is right now: emoji. Yep, I’m ashamed too. The Oxford Dictionary even announced “Face With Tears of Joy” as their 2015 Word of the Year (though given that pictograms are considered proto-writing and therefore not technically writing, I’m sure it shouldn’t have even qualified).

Perhaps we’ll regress. Maybe our children and our children’s children will be reading novels written entirely with faces of vague, false, cartoon emotions. And historians far into the future will look back at our culture, and wonder how on earth we went from cave paintings to clay tablet markings to the works of Shakespeare and Dickens… and finally ended up communicating with a picture of a happy poo.

Tom Ashford

Tom Ashford

Tom Ashford is a professional copywriter, author of numerous dark fantasy and sci-fi novels, and the Head of Content at the Self Publishing Formula Blog. His books include the Blackwater trilogy and the Checking Out series.

He lives in London with his wife, in an apartment that doesn’t allow pets. Find out more about Tom here.