How Writing Has Spread Across the World, from 3000 BC to This Year: An Animated Map

The old­est known writ­ing sys­tems first emerged in Mesopotamia, between 3400 and 3100 BC, and Egypt, around 3250 BC. The Latin alpha­bet, which I’m using to write this post and you’re using to read it, grad­u­al­ly took the shape we know between the sev­enth cen­tu­ry BC and the Mid­dle Ages. Over the eras since, it has spread out­ward from Europe to become the most wide­ly used script in the world. These are impor­tant devel­op­ments in the his­to­ry of writ­ing, but hard­ly the only ones. It is with all known writ­ing sys­tems that his­tor­i­cal map ani­ma­tor Ollie Bye deals in the video above: not just those used today, but over the whole of the past five mil­len­nia.

The con­quests of Alexan­der the Great; the Gal­lic Wars; the col­o­niza­tion of Latin Amer­i­ca; the “scram­ble for Africa”: these and oth­er major his­tor­i­cal events are vivid­ly reflect­ed in the spread of cer­tain writ­ing sys­tems.

Up until 1492 — after the expi­ra­tion of eight and a half of the video’s eleven min­utes — the map con­cerns itself only with Europe, Asia, and the north­ern three-quar­ters of Africa (as well as an inlaid sec­tion depict­ing the civ­i­liza­tions of what is now Cen­tral Amer­i­ca). There­after it zooms out to include the New World, and indeed the whole world, though cen­turies pass before most of its blank spaces fill up with the col­ors that indi­cate the adop­tion of a dom­i­nant script.

Ara­bic and Per­sian appear in lime green, sim­pli­fied Chi­nese in red, and Cyril­lic in light blue. Before Bye’s ani­ma­tion reach­es the mid­dle twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, most of the world has turned medi­um blue, which rep­re­sents the now-mighty Latin alpha­bet. The use of these very let­ters for all writ­ten com­mu­ni­ca­tion by such a wide vari­ety of cul­tures mer­its a vol­umes-long his­to­ry by itself. But per­haps most intrigu­ing here is the per­sis­tence of rel­a­tive­ly minor scripts: Cree, used among the natives of north­ern Cana­da; hira­ganakatakana, and kan­ji in Japan; and also hangul in Korea — which I read and write myself every day of my life in Seoul, and to whose con­tin­ued dom­i­nance here I can con­fi­dent­ly attest.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Atlas of Endan­gered Alpha­bets: A Free Online Atlas That Helps Pre­serve Writ­ing Sys­tems That May Soon Dis­ap­pear

The Evo­lu­tion of the Alpha­bet: A Col­or­ful Flow­chart, Cov­er­ing 3,800 Years, Takes You From Ancient Egypt to Today

Dic­tio­nary of the Old­est Writ­ten Language–It Took 90 Years to Com­plete, and It’s Now Free Online

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

The Improb­a­ble Inven­tion of Chi­nese Type­writ­ers & Com­put­er Key­boards: Three Videos Tell the Tech­no-Cul­tur­al Sto­ry

You Could Soon Be Able to Text with 2,000 Ancient Egypt­ian Hiero­glyphs

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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