We take for granted that the written word in today’s world, in whatever language, conveys the same meaning as the spoken language, but this has not always been the case. The earliest forms of writing, or proto-writing, were developed around 5000 years ago, in the Middle East, although symbols had been used as a record for perhaps another two thousand years earlier in parts of South America.
Cuneiform, one of the best known examples of such proto-writing, used symbols scratched onto clay tablets to communicate information, perhaps giving titles of rulers, or indicating places or religious icons, for example. Similarly, the Egyptian hieroglyphs used reeds, rushes or quills and inks made from plant dyes to write on papyrus. These hieroglyphic symbols look like pictures, but actually represent the sounds used in the spoken Egyptian language. Hieroglyphics, cuneiform and other proto-writing was primarily used as a kind of record keeping code, rather than communicating an actual language.
This is very different from the modern written word, which is used both to convey information in exactly the same way as the spoken word and as an art form, to express emotions, or tell a story through poetry, plays and novels. Everyday life depends on the written word, from such simple tasks as writing a shopping list, to education, instructions for using household appliances or information on the whole gamut of modern living. We take for granted, for instance, that goods we purchase will have labels describing the product, with instructions about their use, care and contents as appropriate.
All written languages in the Western world, as we know them today, originated from the Greeks, who actually adopted the Phoenician alphabet and modified it as their own. Whilst there are some variations with accents and pronunciation, it is also possible to identify common sources of particular words in several different languages. Indeed, the whole practice of written language is now so sophisticated that complex codes have been developed to try to keep sensitive information secure. One example of this is the Enigma code, developed by the Germans post World War 1, and used for military instructions.
Other forms of “language” include computer codes used to programme the huge range of modern technological equipment, and barcodes, which compress a great deal of unique information into a very small space and are used universally in retail, travel, medicine and manufacturing, to name just a few. However, nothing has quite the depth and range of the written language of literature.