Whereas we are all endowed with a natural skill for speaking, we are not for writing and reading. If you're reading these lines, it's because, among all of the alphabets of the world, you've memorized your first alphabet a few years or a few dozen years ago and you've used it so often since then that you've not forgotten it. With this first tool given to you at a very early age, you've entered a magic world, perhaps the only really democratized one of our times the world of written records.
First writings ever: when exactly ?
It all started more than five thousand years ago in ancient Mesopotamia in the vast region of Sumer, nestled between the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers north of the Persian Gulf. After having used rudimentary forms of writing for keeping track of groceries bought or other menial jobs, we’ve in fact started writing (approximately) in the -3200s. Clay tablets from the Sumer region written on in cuneiform script and Sumerian language attest to this.
At the same period, it may also have all started in the region of Elam, the eastern (nowadays Iranian) neighbor of the Sumer region, comprised between the Persian Gulf and the Zagros Mountains. Tablets carved with Proto-Elamite script were found there. The fact that this writing system has not yet been deciphered should for sure not be a reason to discard it ! I invite you by the way on the contrary to try your sleuth abilities on this ongoing mystery.
A mystery themselves up until the 19th century, Egyptian hieroglyphs were given birth to shortly after Sumerian and Proto-Elamite. Then followed Chinese characters around the years -1400 to -1200 and the Phoenician alphabet around the years -1300. In India, the Brahmi script seems to be the most ancient of that region with its around -250 years of age.
Alphabets of the world, syllabaries or logographies ?
Around the 2000s, in our present times, the five most common scripts are the following* :
#1. Latin alphabet
#2. Chinese characters
#3. Arabic alphabet
#4. Cyrillic alphabet (adopted by the Russian language among others)
#5. Devanagari script (adopted by the Hindi language among others)
English alphabet, with which I wrote this text and in which you are presently reading it, is a close descendant of the latin alphabet. But, alphabets of the world are not all; you may also be literate in another writing system, one that doesn’t use letters.
Some languages are indeed written with the help of syllabaries, which units depict syllables, not letters. Others are written with the help of logographies, which characters mainly depict whole ideas or words, such as with the Chinese and Maya writing systems for example.
Not all languages are associated to a writing system though. In fact, in the past, most of the world’s languages have not gotten the chance to be put down on paper or an equivalent. It is true that, nowadays, with the huge number and diversity of communication supports, quite a few languages have adopted – and adapted – a script to their own spoken language.
Because of our tendency to prefer images over pure texts, this good habit may however change over time. Let’s at least hope that our great-grandchildren will still be able to trace and read love messages in paradisiac beach sand without having had to prepare for this by taking special reading/writing classes usually reserved to an elite group of eccentric characters …
* To be noted : spoken languages that pertain to the same language family may not be using the same writing system and inversely, languages that are quite different may be using the same script.