Words have played a key part in the development of civilization. Spoken language, picture-symbols and written alphabets based on sounds have all been used to communicate ideas, beliefs, histories, technologies and laws. Just as importantly, they have also been used to educate and entertain.
Stories were told for thousands of years before they were written down. They were memorized, then passed on from one generation to the next by word of mouth.
Some of the earliest stories were epics – long tales, recited as poetry that told the adventures of revered heroes and leaders from the distant past. Other stories were based on religious beliefs, or gave a warning against possible dangers, or passed on a moral message.
To hold listener’s attention, spoken tales were full of exciting events, strong characters, practical wisdom, humour, romance and suspense. Storytellers would sing, dance, use gestures and make dramatic sounds, to make their recitals even more entertaining.
Many early stories aimed to give young people guidelines as to how they should behave. For example, epics about soldiers and knights taught young boys to grow up as fighters, and to be brave when in battle. They also encouraged adults who heard them to live up to the great exploits of the heroes in epic tales.
Writing allowed stories and many other kinds of information to be stored and learned by others. It also made it much easier to send information from one place to another.
The World’s earliest writing was invented in Mesopotamia (now Iraq), around 3400 BC. At first, it was used to make lists, recording goods handed over to government tax-collectors, and stocks stored by merchants.
Early writing used picture symbols. Each symbol stood for one item, such as a cow or a tree. Later, around 1000 BC, scribes in Phoenicia (now Syria and Lebanon) invented the alphabet – a system of writing in which each symbol stood for a separate sound. Today, most languages use alphabets. However, Chinese and Japanese languages both still use picture symbols.
Alphabets were simpler to use than picture-writing, and easier to learn. Instead of memorizing thousands of different picture-symbols, readers and writers only had to learn the sound of each letter of the alphabet. Most alphabets contained around 30. By combining these, they could produce the sound of each word.
Over the centuries, people have used many different writing materials. The first scribes (trained writers) in Mesopotamia used pointed sticks to make marks in wet clay slabs and cylinders. Ancient Egyptians made sheets of papyrus (an early kind of paper) from reed plants that grew by the River Nile. Chinese and Japanese people wrote with delicate brushes.