The history of writing traces the development of expressing language by letters or other marks and also the studies and descriptions of these developments.
In the history of how systems of representation of language through graphic means have evolved in different human civilizations, more complete writing systems were preceded by proto-writing, systems of ideographic or early mnemonic symbols. True writing, in which the content of a linguistic utterance is encoded so that another reader can reconstruct, with a fair degree of accuracy, the exact utterance written down, is a later development. It is distinguished from proto-writing, which typically avoids encoding grammatical words and affixes, making it more difficult or impossible to reconstruct the exact meaning intended by the writer unless a great deal of context is already known in advance. One of the earliest forms of written expression is cuneiform.
Inventions of writing
See also: List of languages by first written accounts
Writing numbers for the purpose of record keeping began long before the writing of language. See History of writing ancient numbers for how the writing of numbers began.
It is generally agreed that true writing of language (not only numbers) was independently conceived and developed in at least two ancient civilizations and possibly more. The two places where it is most certain that the concept of writing was both conceived and developed independently are in ancient Sumer (in Mesopotamia), around 3100 BC, and in Mesoamerica by 300 BC, because no precursors have been found to either of these in their respective regions. Several Mesoamerican scripts are known, the oldest being from the Olmec or Zapotec of Mexico.
Independent writing systems also arose in Egypt around 3100 BC and in China around 1200 BC, but historians debate whether these writing systems were developed completely independently of Sumerian writing or whether either or both were inspired by Sumerian writing via a process of cultural diffusion. That is, it is possible that the concept of representing language by using writing, though not necessarily the specifics of how such a system worked, was passed on by traders or merchants traveling between the two regions.
Ancient Chinese characters are considered by many to be an independent invention because there is no evidence of contact between ancient China and the literate civilizations of the Near East, and because of the distinct differences between the Mesopotamian and Chinese approaches to logography and phonetic representation.Egyptian script is dissimilar from Mesopotamian cuneiform, but similarities in concepts and in earliest attestation suggest that the idea of writing may have come to Egypt from Mesopotamia. In 1999, Archaeology Magazine reported that the earliest Egyptian glyphs date back to 3400 BC, which "challenge the commonly held belief that early logographs, pictographic symbols representing a specific place, object, or quantity, first evolved into more complex phonetic symbols in Mesopotamia."
Similar debate surrounds the Indus script of the Bronze AgeIndus Valley civilization in Ancient India (2600 BC). In addition, the script is still undeciphered, and there is debate about whether the script is true writing at all or, instead, some kind of proto-writing or nonlinguistic sign system.
An additional possibility is the undeciphered Rongorongo script of Easter Island. It is debated whether this is true writing and, if it is, whether it is another case of cultural diffusion of writing. The oldest example is from 1851, 139 years after their first contact with Europeans. One explanation is that the script was inspired by Spain's written annexation proclamation in 1770.
Various other known cases of cultural diffusion of writing exist, where the general concept of writing was transmitted from one culture to another, but the specifics of the system were independently developed. Recent examples are the Cherokee syllabary, invented by Sequoyah, and the Pahawh Hmong system for writing the Hmong language.
Main article: Writing system
Symbolic communication systems are distinguished from writing systems in that one must usually understand something of the associated spoken language to comprehend the text. In contrast, symbolic systems, such as information signs, painting, maps, and mathematics, often do not require prior knowledge of a spoken language. Every human community possesses language, a feature regarded by many as an innate and defining condition of mankind (see Origin of language). However the development of writing systems, and their partial supplantation of traditional oral systems of communication, have been sporadic, uneven, and slow. Once established, writing systems on the whole change more slowly than their spoken counterparts and often preserve features and expressions that no longer exist in the spoken language. The greatest benefit of writing is that it provides the tool by which society can record information consistently and in greater detail, something that could not be achieved as well previously by spoken word. Writing allows societies to transmit information and to share knowledge.
Main articles: Recorded history and Early literature
Scholars make a reasonable distinction between prehistory and history of early writing but have disagreed concerning when prehistory becomes history and when proto-writing became "true writing." The definition is largely subjective. Writing, in its most general terms, is a method of recording information and is composed of graphemes, which may in turn be composed of glyphs.
The emergence of writing in a given area is usually followed by several centuries of fragmentary inscriptions. Historians mark the "historicity" of a culture by the presence of coherent texts in the culture's writing system(s).
The invention of writing was not a one-time event but was a gradual process initiated by the appearance of symbols, possibly first for cultic purposes.
A conventional "proto-writing to true writing" system follows a general series of developmental stages:
- Picture writing system: glyphs (simplified pictures) directly represent objects and concepts. In connection with this, the following substages may be distinguished:
- Mnemonic: glyphs primarily as a reminder.
- Pictographic: glyphs directly represent an object or a concept such as (A) chronological, (B) notices, (C) communications, (D) totems, titles, and names, (E) religious, (F) customs, (G) historical, and (H) biographical.
- Ideographic: graphemes are abstract symbols that directly represent an idea or concept.
- Transitional system: graphemes refer not only to the object or idea that it represents but to its name as well.
- Phonetic system: graphemes refer to sounds or spoken symbols, and the form of the grapheme is not related to its meanings. This resolves itself into the following substages:
- Verbal: grapheme (logogram) represents a whole word.
- Syllabic: grapheme represents a syllable.
- Alphabetic: grapheme represents an elementary sound.
The best known picture writing system of ideographic or early mnemonic symbols are:
In the Old World, true writing systems developed from neolithic writing in the Early Bronze Age (4th millennium BC). The Sumerian archaic (pre-cuneiform) writing and the Egyptian hieroglyphs are generally considered the earliest true writing systems, both emerging out of their ancestral proto-literate symbol systems from 3400–3100 BC, with earliest coherent texts from about 2600 BC.
Literature and writing
Literature and writing, though obviously connected, are not synonymous. The very first writings from ancient Sumer by any reasonable definition do not constitute literature. The same is true of some of the early Egyptian hieroglyphics and the thousands of ancient Chinese government records. The history of literature begins with the history of writing. Scholars have disagreed concerning when written record-keeping became more like literature than anything else, but "literature" can have several meanings. The term could be applied broadly to mean any symbolic record from images and sculptures to letters. The oldest surviving literary texts date from a full millennium after the invention of writing to the late 3rd millennium BC. The earliest literary authors known by name are Ptahhotep (who wrote in Egyptian) and Enheduanna (who wrote in Sumerian), dating to around the 24th and 23rd centuries BC, respectively. In the early literate societies, as much as 600 years passed from the first inscriptions to the first coherent textual sources: i.e., from around 3100 to 2600 BC.
Locations and timeframes
Main article: Proto-writing
Further information: Prehistoric numerals
See also: History of communication
The first writing systems of the Early Bronze Age were not a sudden invention. Rather, they were a development based on earlier traditions of symbol systems that cannot be classified as proper writing but have many of the characteristics of writing. These systems may be described as "proto-writing." They used ideographic or early mnemonic symbols to convey information, but it probably directly contained no natural language. These systems emerged in the early Neolithic period, as early as the 7th millennium BC evidenced by the Jiahu symbols in China.
In 2003, tortoise shells were found in 24 Neolithic graves excavated at Jiahu, Henan province, northern China, with radiocarbon dates from the 7th millennium BC. According to some archaeologists, the symbols carved on the shells had similarities to the late 2nd millennium BC oracle bone script. Most archaeologists have dismissed this claim as insufficiently substantiated, claiming that simple geometric designs, such as those found on the Jiahu shells, cannot be linked to early writing. Other neolithic signs have also been found in China.
The Vinča signs show an evolution of simple symbols, beginning in the 7th millennium BC, gradually increasing in complexity throughout the 6th millennium and culminating in the Tărtăria tablets of c. 5300 BC with their rows of symbols carefully aligned, evoking the impression of a text.
The Dispilio Tablet of the late 6th millennium is similar. The hieroglyphic scripts of the Ancient Near East (Egyptian, Sumerian proto-Cuneiform, and Cretan) seamlessly emerge from such symbol systems so that it is difficult to say at what exact time writing developed from proto-writing. Further, very little is known about the symbols' meanings.
Even after the Neolithic, several cultures went through an intermediate stage of proto-writing before they used proper writing. The "Slavic runes" from the 7th and 8th centuries AD, mentioned by a few medieval authors, may have been such a system. The quipu of the Incas (15th century AD), sometimes called "talking knots," may have been of a similar nature. Another example is the pictographs invented by Uyaquk before the development of the Yugtun syllabary (c. 1900).
Bronze Age writing
Further information: History of the alphabet
Writing emerged in many different cultures in the Bronze Age. Examples are the cuneiform writing of the Sumerians, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Cretan hieroglyphs, Chinese logographs, Indus script, and the Olmec script of Mesoamerica. The Chinese script likely developed independently of the Middle Eastern scripts around 1600 BC. The pre-ColumbianMesoamerican writing systems (including Olmec and Maya scripts) are also generally believed to have had independent origins. It is thought that the first true alphabetic writing was developed around 2000 BC for Semitic workers in the Sinai by giving mostly Egyptian hieratic glyphs Semitic values (see History of the alphabet and Proto-Sinaitic alphabet). The Ge'ez writing system of Ethiopia is considered Semitic. It is likely to be of semi-independent origin, having roots in the Meroitic Sudanese ideogram system. Most other alphabets in the world today either descended from this one innovation, many via the Phoenician alphabet, or were directly inspired by its design. In Italy, about 500 years passed from the early Old Italic alphabet to Plautus (750 to 250 BC), and in the case of the Germanic peoples, the corresponding time span is again similar, from the first Elder Futhark inscriptions to early texts like the Abrogans (c. AD 200 to 750).
Main article: Cuneiform script
The original Sumerian writing system derives from a system of clay tokens used to represent commodities. By the end of the 4th millennium BC, this had evolved into a method of keeping accounts, using a round-shaped stylus impressed into soft clay at different angles for recording numbers. This was gradually augmented with pictographic writing by using a sharp stylus to indicate what was being counted. Round-stylus and sharp-stylus writing were gradually replaced around 2700–2500 BC by writing using a wedge-shaped stylus (hence the term cuneiform), at first only for logograms, but developed to include phonetic elements by the 29th century BC. About 2600 BC, cuneiform began to represent syllables of the Sumerian language. Finally, cuneiform writing became a general purpose writing system for logograms, syllables, and numbers. From the 26th century BC, this script was adapted to the Akkadian language, and from there to others, such as Hurrian and Hittite. Scripts similar in appearance to this writing system include those for Ugaritic and Old Persian.
Main article: Egyptian hieroglyphs
Writing was very important in maintaining the Egyptian empire, and literacy was concentrated among an educated elite of scribes. Only people from certain backgrounds were allowed to train as scribes, in the service of temple, royal (pharaonic), and military authorities.
Geoffrey Sampson believes that most scholars hold that Egyptian hieroglyphs "came into existence a little after Sumerian script, and ... probably [were] invented under the influence of the latter ..." This view, however, is strongly contested by other scholars. Dreyer's findings at Tomb UJ at Abydos in Upper Egypt clearly show place names written in hieroglyphs (up to four in number) recognizable as signs, which persisted and were employed during later periods and which are written and read phonetically. The tomb is dated to c. 3250 BC and demonstrates that such writing (on bone and ivory labels) is a more advanced form of writing than was evident in Sumer at that date. It is argued, therefore, that the Egyptian writing system, which is in any case very different from the Mesopotamian, could not have been the result of influence from a less-developed system existing at that date in Sumer.
Main article: Proto-Elamite script
The undeciphered Proto-Elamite script emerges from as early as 3100 BC. It is believed to have evolved into Linear Elamite by the later 3rd millennium and then replaced by Elamite Cuneiform adopted from Akkadian.
Main article: Indus script
The Middle Bronze AgeIndus script, which dates back to the early Harappan phase of around 3000 BC in ancient north western India and what is now Pakistan, has not yet been deciphered. It is unclear whether it should be considered an example of proto-writing or whether it is actual writing of the logographic-syllabic type of the other Bronze Age writing systems. Mortimer Wheeler recognises the style of writing as boustrophedon, where "this stability suggests a precarious maturity."
Early Semitic alphabets
Main article: Middle Bronze Age alphabets
The first pure alphabets (properly, "abjads", mapping single symbols to single phonemes, but not necessarily each phoneme to a symbol) emerged around 1800 BC in Ancient Egypt, as a representation of language developed by Semitic workers in Egypt, but by then alphabetic principles had a slight possibility of being inculcated into Egyptian hieroglyphs for upwards of a millennium.[clarification needed] These early abjads remained of marginal importance for several centuries, and it is only towards the end of the Bronze Age that the Proto-Sinaitic script splits into the Proto-Canaanite alphabet (c. 1400 BC) Byblos syllabary and the South Arabian alphabet (c. 1200 BC). The Proto-Canaanite was probably somehow influenced by the undeciphered Byblos syllabary and, in turn, inspired the Ugaritic alphabet (c. 1300 BC).
Main article: Anatolian hieroglyphs
Anatolian hieroglyphs are an indigenous hieroglyphic script native to western Anatolia, used to record the Hieroglyphic Luwian language. It first appeared on Luwian royal seals from the 14th century BC.
Main articles: Chinese writing and Chinese characters
The earliest confirmed evidence of the Chinese script yet discovered is the body of inscriptions on oracle bones from the late Shang dynasty (c. 1200–1050 BC). From the Shang Dynasty, most of this writing has survived on bones or bronze implements (bronze script). Markings on turtle shells, or jiaguwen, have been carbon-dated to around 1500 BC. Historians have found that the type of medium chosen depended on the subject of the writing.
There have recently been discoveries of tortoise-shell carvings dating back to c. 6000 BC, like Jiahu Script, Banpo Script, but whether or not the carvings are complex enough to qualify as writing is under debate. At Damaidi in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, 3,172 cliff carvings dating to 6000–5000 BC have been discovered, featuring 8,453 individual characters, such as the sun, moon, stars, gods, and scenes of hunting or grazing. These pictographs are reputed to be similar to the earliest characters confirmed to be written Chinese. If it is deemed to be a written language, writing in China will predate Mesopotamian cuneiform, long acknowledged as the first appearance of writing, by some 2,000 years; however it is more likely that the inscriptions are rather a form of proto-writing, similar to the contemporary European Vinca script.
Cretan and Greek scripts
Main articles: Cretan hieroglyphs, Linear A, and Linear B
Cretan hieroglyphs are found on artifacts of Crete (early-to-mid-2nd millennium BC, MM I to MM III, overlapping with Linear A from MM IIA at the earliest). Linear B, the writing system of the Mycenaean Greeks, has been deciphered while Linear A has yet to be deciphered. The sequence and the geographical spread of the three overlapping, but distinct, writing systems can be summarized as follows (note that the beginning date refers to first attestations, the assumed origins of all scripts lie further back in the past):
Main article: Mesoamerican writing systems
A stone slab with 3,000-year-old writing, the Cascajal Block, was discovered in the Mexican state of Veracruz, and is an example of the oldest script in the Western Hemisphere, preceding the oldest Zapotec writing dated to about 500 BC.
Of several pre-Columbian scripts in Mesoamerica, the one that appears to have been best developed, and has been fully deciphered, is the Maya script. The earliest inscriptions which are identifiably Maya date to the 3rd century BC, and writing was in continuous use until shortly after the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores in the 16th century AD. Maya writing used logograms complemented by a set of syllabic glyphs: a combination somewhat similar to modern Japanese writing.
Iron Age writing
Main article: History of the alphabet
The Phoenician alphabet is simply the Proto-Canaanite alphabet as it was continued into the Iron Age (conventionally taken from a cut-off date of 1050 BC). This alphabet gave rise to the Aramaic and Greek alphabets. These in turn led to the writing systems used throughout regions ranging from Western Asia to Africa and Europe. For its part the Greek alphabet introduced for the first time explicit symbols for vowel sounds. The Greek and Latin alphabets in the early centuries of the Common Era gave rise to several European scripts such as the Runes and the Gothic and Cyrillic alphabets while the Aramaic alphabet evolved into the Hebrew, Syriac and Arabic abjads and the South Arabian alphabet gave rise to the Ge'ez abugida. The Brahmic family of India is believed by some scholars to have derived from the Aramaic alphabet as well.
Writing in the Greco-Roman civilizations
The history of the Greek alphabet started when the Greeks borrowed the Phoenician alphabet and adapted it to their own language. The letters of the Greek alphabet are more or less the same as those of the Phoenician alphabet, and in modern times both alphabets are arranged in the same order. The adapter(s) of the Phoenician system added three letters to the end of the series, called the "supplementals". Several varieties of the Greek alphabet developed. One, known as Western Greek or Chalcidian, was used west of Athens and in southern Italy. The other variation, known as Eastern Greek, was used in present-day Turkey and by the Athenians, and eventually the rest of the world that spoke Greek adopted this variation. After first writing right to left, like the Phoenicians, the Greeks eventually chose to write from left to right.
Greek is in turn the source for all the modern scripts of Europe. The most widespread descendent of Greek is the Latin script, named for the Latins, a central Italian people who came to dominate Europe with the rise of Rome. The Romans learned writing in about the 5th century BC from the Etruscan civilization, who used one of a number of Italic scripts derived from the western Greeks. Due to the cultural dominance of the Roman state, the other Italic scripts have not survived in any great quantity, and the Etruscan language is mostly lost.
Writing during the Middle Ages
With the collapse of the Roman authority in Western Europe, the literary development became largely confined to the Eastern Roman Empire and the Persian Empire. Latin, never one of the primary literary languages, rapidly declined in importance (except within the Church of Rome). The primary literary languages were Greek and Persian, though other languages such as Syriac and Coptic were important too.
The rise of Islam in the 7th century led to the rapid rise of Arabic as a major literary language in the region. Arabic and Persian quickly began to overshadow Greek's role as a language of scholarship. Arabic script was adopted as the primary script of the Persian language and the Turkish language. This script also heavily influenced the development of the cursive scripts of Greek, the Slavic languages, Latin, and other languages. The Arabic language also served to spread the Hindu–Arabic numeral system throughout Europe. By the beginning of the second millennium the city of Cordoba in modern Spain, had become one of the foremost intellectual centers of the world and contained the world's largest library at the time. Its position as a crossroads between the Islamic and Western Christian worlds helped fuel intellectual development and written communication between both cultures.
Renaissance and the modern era
By the 14th century a rebirth, or renaissance, had emerged in Western Europe, leading to a temporary revival of the importance of Greek, and a slow revival of Latin as a significant literary language. A similar though smaller emergence occurred in Eastern Europe, especially in Russia. At the same time Arabic and Persian began a slow decline in importance as the Islamic Golden Age ended. The revival of literary development in Western Europe led to many innovations in the Latin alphabet and the diversification of the alphabet to codify the phonologies of the various languages.
The nature of writing has been constantly evolving, particularly due to the development of new technologies over the centuries. The pen, the printing press, the computer and the mobile phone are all technological developments which have altered what is written, and the medium through which the written word is produced. Particularly with the advent of digital technologies, namely the computer and the mobile phone, characters can be formed by the press of a button, rather than making a physical motion with the hand.
The nature of the written word has recently evolved to include an informal, colloquial written style, in which an everyday conversation can occur through writing rather than speaking. Written communication can also be delivered with minimal time delay (e-mail, SMS), and in some cases, with an imperceptible time delay (instant messaging). Writing is a preservable means of communication. Some people regard the growth of multimedia literacy as the first step towards a postliterate society.
Main article: Writing material
There is no very definite statement as to the material which was in most common use for the purposes of writing at the start of the early writing systems. In all ages it has been customary to engrave on stone or metal, or other durable material, with the view of securing the permanency of the record; and accordingly, in the very commencement of the national history of Israel, it is read of the two tables of the law written in stone, and of a subsequent writing of the law on stone. In the latter case there is this peculiarity, that plaster (sic, lime or gypsum) was used along with stone, a combination of materials which is illustrated by comparison of the practice of the Egyptian engravers, who, having first carefully smoothed the stone, filled up the faulty places with gypsum or cement, in order to obtain a perfectly uniform surface on which to execute their engravings. Metals, such as stamped coins, are mentioned as a material of writing; they include lead, brass, and gold. To the engraving of gems there is reference also, such as with seals or signets.
The common materials of writing were the tablet and the roll, the former probably having a Chaldean origin, the latter an Egyptian. The tablets of the Chaldeans are among the most remarkable of their remains.[according to whom?] There are small pieces of clay, somewhat rudely shaped into a form resembling a pillow, and thickly inscribed with cuneiform characters. Similar use has been seen in hollow cylinders, or prisms of six or eight sides, formed of fine terra cotta, sometimes glazed, on which the characters were traced with a small stylus, in some specimens so minutely as to be capable of decipherment only with the aid of a magnifying-glass.
In Egypt the principal writing material was of quite a different sort. Wooden tablets are found pictured on the monuments; but the material which was in common use, even from very ancient times, was the papyrus. This reed, found chiefly in Lower Egypt, had various economic means for writing, the pith was taken out, and divided by a pointed instrument into the thin pieces of which it is composed; it was then flattened by pressure, and the strips glued together, other strips being placed at right angles to them, so that a roll of any length might be manufactured. Writing seems to have become more widespread with the invention of papyrus in Egypt. That this material was in use in Egypt from a very early period is evidenced by still existing papyrus of the earliest Theban dynasties. As the papyrus, being in great demand, and exported to all parts of the world, became very costly, other materials were often used instead of it, among which is mentioned leather, a few leather mills of an early period having been found in the tombs.Parchment, using sheepskins left after the wool was removed for cloth, was sometimes cheaper than papyrus, which had to be imported outside Egypt. With the invention of wood-pulp paper, the cost of writing material began a steady decline.
- Phonetics, Palaeography, logograms, Brahmi, Devanagari, logographic, Vinča signs, Asemic writing
- Alphabet, Palaeography, Inscriptions, Book, Manuscript, Shorthand, Latin alphabet, writing system, ogham, Indus script, Mixtec, uncials, Zapotec, Aurignacian, Chinese characters (kanji, hanja), Ugarit, katakana, Acheulean, Ethnoarchaeology, Hoabinhian, Gravettian, Oldowan, Uruk, Etruscan, Cretan hieroglyphs, Nabataean, Luwian, Olmec, Busra, Tamil, Kannada, Grakliani Hill
- History of numbers, History of art (Ancient art), Oral literature, History of developmental dyslexia
- ^Peter T. Daniels, "The Study of Writing Systems", in The World's Writing Systems, ed. Bright and Daniels, p.3
- ^Empires of the Plain: Henry Rawlinson and the Lost Languages of Babylon, New York, St. Martin's Press (2003) ISBN 0-312-33002-2
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- ^David N. Keightley, Noel Barnard. The Origins of Chinese civilization Page 415-416
- ^Sex and Eroticism in Mesopotamian Literature. By Dr Gwendolyn Leick. Pg 3.
- ^Peter T. Daniels, "The First Civilizations", in The World's Writing Systems, ed. Bright and Daniels, p.24
- ^Mitchell, Larkin. "Earliest Egyptian Glyphs". Archaeology. Archaeological Institute of America. Retrieved 29 February 2012.
- ^Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel, page 231
- ^ abShotwell, James Thomson. An Introduction to the History of History. Records of civilization, sources and studies. New York: Columbia University Press, 1922.
- ^Smail, Daniel Lord. On Deep History and the Brain. An Ahmanson foundation book in the humanities. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.
- ^Bricker, Victoria Reifler, and Patricia A. Andrews. Epigraphy. Supplement to the Handbook of Middle American Indians, v. 5. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992.
- ^ abHaarmann, Harald: "Geschichte der Schrift", C.H. Beck, 2002, ISBN 3-406-47998-7, p. 20
- ^Helen R. Pilcher 'Earliest handwriting found? Chinese relics hint at Neolithic rituals', Nature (30 April 2003), doi:10.1038/news030428-7 "Symbols carved into tortoise shells more than 8,000 years ago [...] unearthed at a mass-burial site at Jiahu in the Henan Province of western China". Li, X., Harbottle, G., Zhang, J. & Wang, C. 'The earliest writing? Sign use in the seventh millennium BC at Jiahu, Henan Province, China'. Antiquity, 77, 31 - 44, (2003).
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- ^David N. Keightley, "Art, Ancestors, and the Origins of Writing in China", Representations, No. 56, Special Issue: The New Erudition. (Autumn, 1996), pp.68–95 (68).
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In 1886, the keeper of the Ashmolean Museum and prominent Hellenic archaeologist Arthur Evans was given an ancient seal stone from Crete engraved with an unknown writing system. Intrigued, Evans continued to investigate in Greece and Crete and found much more evidence that connected this writing system with the Aegean empire of the ancient Minoans. Through the excavation of Minoan ruins on Crete (and Mycenaean ruins on the Greek mainland) Evans discovered two unique, but very similar, writing systems. He called them Linear A and Linear B because it utilized a linear structure in the construction of its characters unlike much of the other writing of the day which was pictographic. He also determined that Linear A was a predecessor of Linear B and that Linear A was mostly used in religious and administrative writings, while pictographic writing was used for everyday use. Despite gaining all this knowledge, Evans and many other archaeologists, linguists, and historians were at a loss as to how to decipher Linear A and B.
The first major breakthrough in deciphering these writing systems came in the early 1950s when American archaeologist Alice Kober constructed a method of determining the grammatical relationship between various symbols in Linear B. The result of her work was connecting certain symbols to others grammatically within Linear B, and determining that the symbols of Linear B had to represent syllables, not letters. Not long after this discovery, Michael Ventris made a breakthrough that would crack Linear B wide open. By comparing the texts from mainland Greece to those from Crete, Ventris noticed that certain words appeared on the Cretan texts and not on the Greek ones. Ventris guessed that these words represented city and place names in Crete and by deciphering these names he was able to unlock much of the language. As a result, Ventris determined that the underlying language of Linear B was Greek.
However, Linear A presents a different beast altogether. Although these two writing systems look very similar, most scholars agree that the underlying language must be completely different for the two systems. This is because when Linear A was deciphered using symbols from Linear B, the result was a garbled mess that did not make any sense. Even when similar syllabic values of Linear B are applied to Linear A the underlying language of Linear A appears unrelated to any other presently known language. While deciphering Linear A has proven out of reach, many scholars have hypothesized its origins. Some believe it to be Greek in origin, but as we have seen, the linguistic structure is unique from other contemporary languages. Others believe that Linear A is a descendant of an Anatolian language, but there is little resemblance between Minoan and contemporary Anatolian writing, there is very little evidence for migration of Hitto-Luwian peoples (the people of Anatolia) to Crete, and a distinct lack of connection exists between the two peoples. Another theory is that Linear A is a descendant of Phoenician; however, while a few terms may be Semitic in origin, Linear A presents many written vowels – a direct contrast to Semitic script. Indo-Iranian is another candidate, however, the work done by Hubert La Marle to prove this connection ignored established evidence and used different script systems at will. The most widely accepted theory to date is that Linear A is somehow related to the Tyrrhenian family of languages which is pre-Indo-European and comprises of Etruscan, Rhaetic and Lemnian. However, even the most robust arguments for any of these theories is lacking and the mystery of Linear A remains.