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Origins of written language

Created by Brit Cruise.

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Video transcript

Voiceover: Imagine Alice traveled back over 50,000 years to find her distant ancestor, Bob. Now up until this time, human culture was relatively unsophisticated, utilizing the same primitive stone tools which went unchanged for thousands of years. But somewhere around 50,000 years ago something interesting happened. And nobody knows for sure why. There was a sudden explosion of diverse cultural artifacts, including instruments for making music, new tools, and other forms of creative expression. (chanting and clapping) Voiceover: Humans developed the ability to externalize their inner thoughts. They began to communicate using language. So Alice begins her search by looking for water. She knows that human and animal populations tend to migrate towards and along rivers which are the life blood of ecosystems. Eventually she comes across an interesting marking, Bob's hand print. This marking contains very little information. Simply that he was here and could possibly return. Alice knows Bob is equally intelligent. He can communicate orally. Although his culture has not yet developed the ability to read or write in their native language. At the time, the universal written language was art. So she finds natural materials around her to paint him a picture in case he returns. She renders an animal she is tracking, hoping this will offer a clue of the direction she is traveling in the future. Our ancestors use natural materials to create pictorial representations of their reality. Here is an actual cave painting from around 30,000 years ago found preserved deep inside Chauvet cave in France. Similar renderings are found in the caves of Spain as well. A common theme among these ancient paintings are animal forms, as well as the human hand. Perhaps a signature, a story, or a ritual calling. Voiceover: When Bob returns to the waterfall he finds her painting and proceeds towards the river where he thinks she might be. When he arrives he does not find her, though he finds a sign that she was here before. He decides to paint her a picture explaining where he is going next, which is half way up the river towards the setting sun. He has little time to paint a picture as night is approaching. Therefore, he needs a fast way to visualize his message. He thinks about it for a moment and realizes his message only contains three distinct mental objects, middle, river, west. So he decides to use simplified pictures to represent them. For river, he draws a symbol which resembles its natural form, known as a pictogram, which is a drawing that resembles the physical object it represents. Pictograms are an important step in the evolution of writing. Here is a ceremonial slate palette found in Egypt dated before 3,000 B.C. The surrounding scene shows the stuggle between civilized humans and the wild and ferocious animals. However, it's difficult to draw pictures of abstract concepts such as calm, old, dangerous, or in Bob's case, middle. For this, he draws a line with a box over the middle. It represents half way. This is knows as an ideogram, or conceptual picture of an abstract idea. Here is an example of this same symbol on an ancient Chinese bronze inscription. For the idea of west he decides on a picture of the setting sun. Now he does something interesting. He combines these individual symbols in terms of their meaning to create a message, meaning plus meaning equals new meaning. He leaves this in hope of Alice finding it. Voiceover: Some of the earliest artifacts of this symbolic merging are found in ancient Mesopotamia, now modern Iraq, home of the Sumerians. This is the birth place of many of the world's earliest civilizations. Here we find clay accounting tablets which are some of the oldest written documents ever found, some dating before 3,000 B.C. The rectangular tablets record the payments in cattle, shipments of cattle to shepherds for fattening, and gifts of cattle as an offering. Notice that instead of drawing a picture of 10 sheep, they draw a symbol representing 10 using small notches and another symbol representing sheep or donkey, meaning simply, 10 sheep. We call this proto-writing. Finally, Alice returns to the base of the river and finds Bob's message. She interprets the meaning correctly, half way west down the river. So she marches down river towards the setting sun, and eventually they finally meet. Voiceover: Over time, Bob learns to speak Alice's language, allowing them to use the same oral language to communicate shared concepts and ideas. This gives them an idea, the root of a more powerful written language. It starts with something very simple, writing her name. She disassociates the sound from the picture. For her name, Alice, Alice, Alice. She combines the mathematical symbol for all and the picture of ice. All ice. Alice. Notice her name has nothing to do with the individual symbols. Sound plus sound equals new meaning. This is know as the Rebus Principle. Voiceover: A great example of this was found in Egypt along the Nile River. Dated to around 3,100 B.C., it contains some of the earliest hieroglyphic inscriptions ever found. The Narmer Palette depicts the Egyptian pharaoh, Narmer. On the back we see him to the left of a kneeling prisoner who is about to be struck down by Narmer, who we see standing tall, wearing a crown. What we are looking for is on the other side. Between the two bovine heads at the top we see an inscription of his name. It's written as a fish and a chisel, which translates to nar mer. Narmer. Two sounds separated from the pictures together giving new meaning, a key development in the history of written language. But before they could advance towards what we know of as an alphabet, something had to happen. They needed to save time.