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Video transcript

informally we can think of information as some message stored or transmitted using some medium when you paint you are representing your message using a continuous pattern with the seemingly endless numbers of possible forms you are free to express yourself when humans began developing writing systems we naturally had to divide our world into a finite number of atomic units which we express using symbols now any written language can be thought of in this way messages are formed by arranging symbols in specific patterns let's return to 3000 BC and explore two ancient writing systems first in ancient Egypt we had hieroglyphics a priestly form of communication reserved for governmental fiscal magical and religious purposes it was practiced by a select few writers known as scribes and writing was generally unintelligible to the common people the symbols themselves broadly fall into two categories word signs which are symbols that represent a single meaningful concept and sound signs these symbols represent chunks of sound xenca now the total number of different symbols in common use was over 1500 and if you divide all of these symbols into word signs versus sound signs we find a much smaller portion of sound signs there were around 140 sound signs and of these only 33 represented distinct consonants a tiny fraction of all of the symbols in use at the time the medium used to store the symbols was primarily rock and this was ideal for durable inscriptions allowing messages to travel into the future mobility was not a main concern when communicating messages in this way however a new physical medium for storing symbols was emerging at the time along the Nile silt deposits left from flooding made the surrounding land extremely fertile and one of the many crotch they grew was to Pyrus it could be sliced into strips and these strips were then soaked and weaved together and finally pressed allowing the natural sugars to act as glue after several days it dried and formed an almost weightless tablet this medium was ideal for sending messages across greater spaces rather than the more durable inscriptions focused on time now this shift towards cheap portable mediums for storing symbols coincided with the spread of writing into the hands of more people for new purposes gradually as people began to write more on papyrus the symbols evolved to suit more rapid writing this led to a cursive script known as higher attic for example here is the world's oldest surviving surgical document it's written in higher attic script dated to around 1600 BC now these symbols were based on hieroglyphics however the pictures were simplified to match the swiftness of writing an ancient shorthand also the number of common symbols in use began to shrink down to around 700 by escaping from the heavy medium of stone thought gained lightness a marked increase in writing by hand was accompanied by the secularization of writing thought and active this led to a new writing system called demotic around 650 BC which was devised specifically to facilitate the ease of rapid writing for example this text is known as a marriage contract and is one of the earliest known examples of demotic script it's interesting to notice that there was a dramatic reduction again in the total number of symbols with this new system roughly 10% of the total number of symbols used before this was due to a shift towards the use of phonetic symbols or sound signs be zipped incur over word symbols or meaning signs and the new simplicity meant that children could be taught to write at a young age we see the same pattern in other cultures let's return back to 3000 BC and visit Mesopotamia where cuneiform was the writing system originally used for fiscal purposes as it was a powerful method of tracking depth and surplus commodities before the invention of coins for example here is a document recording someone's stock of animal hides and this type of writing evolved to suit other needs for example this tablet contains a recipe for bread and beer and here's another tablet which contains a legal document now originally the writing system was used by the Sumerians and there were over 2,000 different symbols in use which could also be divided into word signs and sound signs Akkadian gradually replaced Sumerian as the spoken language and here is the earliest known dictionary from 2300 BC it contains word lists in Sumerian and Akkadian and this was discovered in modern Syria when it was adapted by the Akkadians and fitted to their language they reduced the number of symbols to around 600 and they did this again by moving towards sound signs again we see both hieroglyphics and cuneiform using several hundred sound symbols in their more evolved forms and as writing systems escaped formal usage and spread to more and more people the soil was ripe for the invention of a brand new writing system for the people one of the great discoveries in the history of writing is dated to around 1700 BC the Sinai inscriptions were found in the Sinai Peninsula and they were about 20 feet apart this was important because each picture denotes a consonant sound and no word signs are used when sounded out correctly the letters would produce words in ancient Semitic although not fully deciphered this message appears to be of the form name rank and prayer the two words deciphered are chief and God this innocent example was part of a writing revolution creating meaning by merging sound signs only by 1000 BC we arrive at the phony ssin alphabet which emerges along the Mediterranean used by the Phoenicians who are a maritime trading culture the Phoenician writing system was based on the principle that one sign represents one consonant and it was used to write a northern Semitic language containing only 22 symbols total these symbols chosen to represent these sounds were often Boer road from hieroglyphic pictures so that the letters name began with the letters sound for example mem which stood for water became what we know of as the letter M alfe which stood for ox became what we know of as the letter A but the secret power of this alphabet unknown to its inventors was that it did not need semitic speech in order to work d ah with modest adjustments these miraculous letters would be fitted to diverse tongues of RUP India and Southeast Asia carrying literacy around the globe this was the source of the Greek and later Roman alphabet forms we know today the idea of an alphabet is a powerful method for transmitting and storing information realize it doesn't really matter what the symbols are or how you choose them or even what languages in information is just a selection from a collection of possible symbols and over time we have always looked for faster more efficient ways of transporting information across greater and greater spaces and when we try doing this using new mediums which travel faster than any human or animal an engineering problem presents itself