Posted by: Corina Paraschiv | July 1, 2009

Story of Writing

Here’s something I had never thought about.  You’re told when you’re a kid that the first form of writing ever was invented in Mesopothamia – the cuneiform writing.

Here is an example of how the Mesopothamians wrote in clay

Here is an example of how the Mesopothamians wrote in clay

You know, those little corners and dots and all that.  The funny thing is I never had asked myself how they came to make this : I thought they had just magically woken up one morning and invented writing.  Turns out they did have something before this : every time someone sent out to get some animals, the messenger came back not only with the animals, but with a curious clay “envelope”.  The envelope  contained cones, spheres, and other shapes.  Scientists recently found out these shapes were meant to symbolize the type of heard (and quantity of animals) transferred in the transaction so that the owner could have a proof, a “receipt” of what was purchased and what he should be received.

Fired clay tokens, stored in round clay “envelopes,” were the first visual means of keeping track of goods. When people began impressing the tokens onto the outside of the envelope, they invented writing.

"Fired clay tokens, stored in round clay “envelopes,” were the first visual means of keeping track of goods. When people began impressing the tokens onto the outside of the envelope, they invented writing."

Prior to the writing invention, trade was very problematic indeed — there was little way of accounting for what was exchanged unless someone went face to face to acquire the goods.  If a middleman were used, there was no way to prove whether missing or damaged material came because of the sender shipping off less than promised (or of lesser quality), because of the material worn out or broke during the transportation or because of theft from the middle man.  With the apparition of written records, a middle man could then be sent and all the merchandise could be accounted for.

It’s interesting to note in all cases that writing got developed all over the world fairly independently, with different systems.  The one thing that was constant was that all systems had arithmetics/numbers and calculations written down before poetry and the likes appeared!  In many societies, numbers were like black magic for most people – those scribbly things most of them could not understand nor read could get them into jail, or depossed of all possessions, with the visit of a lawyer or someone of the court.

Luckily, we’re gone a long way since!  Today, still,  5 adults out of 100 cannot read in North America.  There’s a really amazing program I discovered not long ago called Souns where you can buy a special literacy kit for 100$ and teach mothers and toddlers how to read and write through an accelerated method using sounds.  I thought this is definitely a cool project to undertake one of these days.  Last month,  I organized a book exchange in the park – we set out books for children and adults all over a public park after registering them on the internet, to help promote literacy and the joy of reading.  I got curious to see who had picked up my book, and my book’s status is “still traveling”.  I hope whoever caught it will pass it on and share the pleasure 🙂   I think that might become my good action in the next few months as I move out of my house and need to do somethign with all those books I have!

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