An Animated History of Writing: From Ancient Egypt to Modern Writing Systems

He would be a very sim­ple per­son, and quite a stranger to the ora­cles of Thamus or Ammon, who should leave in writ­ing or receive in writ­ing any art under the idea that the writ­ten word would be intel­li­gi­ble or cer­tain. — Socrates

The trans­mis­sion of truth was at one time a face-to-face busi­ness that took place direct­ly between teacher and stu­dent. We find ancient sages around the world who dis­cour­aged writ­ing and priv­i­leged spo­ken dia­logue as the best way to com­mu­ni­cate. Why is that? Socrates him­self explained it in Plato’s Phae­drus, with a myth about the ori­gin of writ­ing. In his sto­ry, the Egypt­ian god Thoth devis­es the var­i­ous means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion by signs and presents them to the Egypt­ian god-king Thamus, also known as Ammon. Thamus exam­ines them, prais­ing or dis­parag­ing each in turn. When he gets to writ­ing, he is espe­cial­ly put out.

“O most inge­nious Theuth,” says Thamus (in Ben­jamin Jowett’s trans­la­tion), “you who are the father of let­ters, from a pater­nal love of your own chil­dren have been led to attribute to them a qual­i­ty which they can­not have; for this dis­cov­ery of yours will cre­ate for­get­ful­ness in the learn­ers’ souls, because they will not use their mem­o­ries; they will trust to the exter­nal writ­ten char­ac­ters and not remem­ber of them­selves. The spe­cif­ic which you have dis­cov­ered is an aid not to mem­o­ry, but to rem­i­nis­cence, and you give your dis­ci­ples not truth, but only the sem­blance of truth.”

Oth­er tech­nolo­gies of com­mu­ni­ca­tion like Incan khipu have the qual­i­ty of “embed­ded­ness,” says YouTu­ber Native­Lang above, in an ani­mat­ed his­to­ry of writ­ing that begins with the myth of “Thoth’s Pill.” That is to say, such forms are insep­a­ra­ble from the mate­r­i­al con­text of their ori­gins. Writ­ing is unique, fun­gi­ble, alien­able, and alien­at­ing. Its great­est strength — the abil­i­ty to com­mu­ni­cate across dis­tances of time and space — is also its weak­ness since it sep­a­rates us from each oth­er, requir­ing us to mem­o­rize com­plex sys­tems of signs and inter­pret an author’s mean­ing in their absence. Socrates crit­i­cizes writ­ing because “it will de-embed you.”

The irony of Socrates’ cri­tique (via Pla­to) is that “it comes to us via text,” notes Bear Skin Dig­i­tal. “We enjoy it and think about it pure­ly because it is record­ed in writ­ing.” What’s more, as Phae­drus says in response, Socrates’ sto­ry is only a sto­ry. “You can eas­i­ly invent tales of Egypt, or of any oth­er coun­try.” To which Socrates replies that a truth is a truth, no mat­ter who says it, or how we hap­pen to hear it. Is it so with writ­ing? Does its ambi­gu­i­ty ren­der it use­less? Are writ­ten works like orphans, as Socrates char­ac­ter­izes them? “If they are mal­treat­ed or abused, they have no par­ents to pro­tect them; and they can­not pro­tect or defend them­selves….”

It’s a lit­tle too late to decide if we’re bet­ter off with­out the writ­ten word, so many mil­len­nia after writ­ing grew out of pic­tographs, or “pro­to-writ­ing” and into ideo­graphs, logographs, rebus­es, pho­net­ic alpha­bets, and more. Watch the full ani­mat­ed his­to­ry of writ­ing above and, then, by all means, close your brows­er and go have a long con­ver­sa­tion with some­one face-to-face.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How to Write in Cuneiform, the Old­est Writ­ing Sys­tem in the World: A Short, Charm­ing Intro­duc­tion

40,000-Year-Old Sym­bols Found in Caves World­wide May Be the Ear­li­est Writ­ten Lan­guage

A 4,000-Year-Old Stu­dent ‘Writ­ing Board’ from Ancient Egypt (with Teacher’s Cor­rec­tions in Red)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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