Which undeciphered writing system has the largest corpus of text?

Which undeciphered writing system has the largest corpus of text?

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Dozens of ancient writing systems are still undeciphered. My question is: Which of them has the largest number of known inscriptions (and might thus be most accessible to future decipherment, though that is not part of my question)?

For example, the Phaistos Disc, whose inscription is in a unknown writing system, has only 241 symbols in total, and no other specimens of that writing system are known.

On the other hand, in the early 19th century, both Akkadian cuneiform and the Egyptian hieroglyphs, for each of which thousands of inscriptions comprising millions of tokens were known, were still undeciphered (of course, they have both been deciphered since).

That's a very interesting question, and the result does not only evolve when one deciphers a text, but also when new inscriptions are found.

Thus, even though only one tablet was found outside of Crete before 1973, I would say the answer to your question is Linear A: there are 1427 Linear A documents with a total occurrence of 7362-7396 signs.

The linear A is a religious writing of the Minoan civilization. It is believed to be the origin of the Linear B, the most ancient written form of written Greek, used until the arrival of the alphabet. The main difference with Linear B is that

  • Linear A is not deciphered while Linear B is.
  • If Linear A is pronounced similarly as Linear B, then it is unlikely to be Greek and could in fact be a language with different origins (possibly semitic).

I am giving this answer considering that, on the contrary to Mayan - previously given, Linear A is completely undeciphered while Maya script is actually deciphered although many inscriptions remain a mystery.

Of course you need to keep in mind that Linear A may answer your question only because many searches were made in ancient Greece (same goes with Egypt for instance), while there could be some unknown script, or one for which only a few tablets was found, for which we might find a much bigger corpus after all. I am aware that you asked about the largest known corpus of text, and I only mean to say that you might have bigger chances deciphering a mysterious script language by actually looking for more inscriptions of it, than you would have by studying the script that has the biggest corpus of text.

Probably the Mayan writings and inscriptions are the largest body of undecipered writings with the most historical importance.

Also, do not blithely assume ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics are well understood. Many of the "translations" of hieroglyphics, especially those found in royal tombs, are highly conjectural, and we cannot really be certain what they say.

Which undeciphered writing system has the largest corpus of text? - History

Complexity is probably the most important characteristic of ancient writing systems for students to confront. The issue of complexity is important not only to an understanding of writing itself, but also to an understanding of how early writing systems impacted the level of literacy in a society, the social status of those who could write, and, in more recent times, the decipherment of those writing systems.

Man decays, his corpse is dust,
All his kin have perished:
But a book makes him remembered
Through the mouth of the reciter.
Better is a book than a well-built house,
Than tomb-chapels in the west
Better than a solid mansion,
Than a stela in the temple! 10

The Flexibility of Ancient Writing Systems.

The Lingua Franca of International Relations and Trade

Cross-cultural interactions require communication and thus have always been dependent to a certain degree on language and writing. At different points in history, individual languages have dominated these interactions, a fact that has given rise to the phrase "lingua franca." 18 Writing, as the medium of spoken language, has played a similarly important, though perhaps less celebrated, role in the history of these interactions. While verbal communication was clearly critical to cross-cultural interaction among people of differing classes and levels of literacy, some interactions could not have been undertaken confidently without the aid of writing. Merchants needed to record the specific details of economic transactions government officials needed to record the various elements of treaties monks needed to copy and preserve sacred texts and all of these actions depended on writing.

The Decipherment of Ancient Writing

Many of the writing systems that dominated the world of the ancient scribe fell into disuse long before modern times. Ancient languages died, and, as a result, the writing systems that had been developed to convey them were abandoned. One of the most interesting aspects of the story of ancient writing systems is how these lost writing systems have been recovered. Key to understanding this story is recognizing the significant challenge these writing systems pose to would-be decipherers.

In many instances the availability of bilingual or trilingual texts that provide the decipherer with a text in multiple scripts and languages, some known and some unknown, has been critical to the decipherment of unknown writing systems. The Rosetta Stone is perhaps the most familiar example. It contains an inscription praising the thirteen-year-old pharaoh Ptolemy V, and the same inscription is presented in two versions of Egyptian (one in hieroglyphics, the other in demotic, a simplified form of the script) and in Greek. The final line of the Greek inscription, and of the other inscriptions it turned out, translates as follows: "This decree shall be inscribed on a stela of hard stone in sacred and native and Greek characters and set up in each of the first, second and third rank temples beside the image of the ever-living king." 36 Scholars are rarely this lucky, but those working on the Rosetta Stone knew from this line that the stone held out the promise for unlocking the mystery of hieroglyphics because of the stated relationship among the texts in the inscription.


Writing is a recent development in human history. Many distinctively human behaviors such as burial of the dead, the creation of art, and the control and use of fire, all of which developed in the Paleolithic Age, have roots much deeper in human history. Agriculture and a sedentary lifestyle, while more recent developments, can still be placed in the Neolithic Age, originating some ten to twelve thousand years ago. By contrast, the oldest forms of writing are much more recent, having originated only about five thousand years ago in western Asia and Egypt. The development of writing in other parts of the world took place even more recently. Thus writing is a new human behavior, having appeared very recently in evolutionary terms.

Biographical Note: David Burzillo teaches world history at the Rivers School in Weston, Massachusetts.


The author gratefully acknowledges the comments provided by his colleagues Cathy Favreau, Jennie Jacoby, Jack Jarzavek, and Ben Leeming.

1 At the outset it should be made clear to students that language and writing are not the same and developed at different times in human history. Hieroglyphics and cuneiform, which will be discussed later in the article, are writing systems used for a variety of languages but are not themselves languages.

2 Although it is not possible to say when humans began nonverbal communication, human groups clearly needed this ability very early in their history in order to hunt and survive in a group setting. Speech is a more recent development. Current evidence suggests that humans were physically capable of speech about fifty thousand years ago. Writing was first used approximately five thousand years ago.

3 According to U.S. Census reports, English is the language spoken at home for 81.5 percent of the some fifty-three million school-aged children in the country. For 12.8 percent of the remainder, Spanish is the primary language spoken at home. United States Census Bureau, "Table 2. Language Use, English Ability, and Linguistic Isolation for the Population 5 to 17 Years by State: 2000," Summary Tables on Language Use and English Ability: 2000 , http://www.census.gov/population/www/cen2000/phc-t20.html (accessed 25 November 2003).

4 Linguists define a phoneme as the smallest unit of distinctive sound in a language. They define a morpheme as the smallest meaningful unit of speech, consisting of one or more phonemes.

5 While scholars have acknowledged the difficulty of confidently placing a value on the level of literacy in ancient societies, they have not necessarily viewed the complexity of ancient writing systems, in and of itself, as placing a limit on the extent to which literacy could permeate a society. According to Herman Vanstiphout, "In any case, the relative complexity of the writing system will have had little or nothing to do with the spread of literacy. Japan has the highest degree of literacy by very far in comparison to some other industrial giants, which goes to prove that literacy is far more dependent on a nation's political and social priorities than on the intricacies of the script" ("Memory and Literacy in Ancient Western Asia," in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, vol. 4, ed. Jack M. Sasson [New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1995], 2188-89). For the discussion of scribal training see chapter three of C. B. F. Walker, Reading the Past: Cuneiform (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989) chapter one of Samuel Noah Kramer, History Begins at Sumer (Garden City: Anchor Doubleday, 1959) chapter five of A. Leo Oppenheim, Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977) and chapter five of H. W. F. Saggs, Civilization before Greece and Rome (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).

6 Saggs relates the story of the Ur III King Shulgi, who instructed his scribes to read his hymns out to singers so that they could perform them (Civilization before Greece and Rome, 104-105). J. Nicholas Postgate concludes that prior to the introduction of an alphabet, "Literacy surely reached its peak in Old Babylonian times . . . both in the variety of roles it played and, one suspects, in the number of people who could read and write" (Early Mesopotamia: Society and Economy at the Dawn of History [London: Routledge, 1994], 69). Barry J. Kemp has written that Old Kingdom Egypt was divided into three classes: "literate men wielding authority derived from the king, those subordinate to them (doorkeepers, soldiers, quarrymen, and so on), and the illiterate peasantry" ("Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period c. 2686-1552 BC," in Ancient Egypt: A Social History, ed. Bruce G. Trigger, Barry J. Kemp, David O'Connor, and Alan Lloyd [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996], 81).

7 It must be noted that these documents were written by the scribes themselves, so there is clearly significant bias in them.

8 Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, vol. 2 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), 170.

9 See Kramer, History Begins at Sumer, 1-16, for material on the Sumerian view of education and scribes.

10 Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, 177. Additional primary sources on Egyptian scribes can be found at James B. Pritchard, ed., Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969), 431-34.

11 The way we make sense of the origin of writing is similar to how we deal with similar issues regarding the development of agriculture. The available evidence suggests that agriculture was independently invented in at least seven of the world's regions and diffused out from them. In each of these seven regions a specific combination of animals and crops were domesticated. See Bruce Smith, The Emergence of Agriculture (New York: Scientific American Library, 1995). See also C. C. Lamberg-Karlovsky and Jeremy Sabloff, Ancient Civilizations: The Near East and Mesoamerica (Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, 1995), 60. With regard to writing, Assyriologists have tended to support the idea of a Mesopotamian influence on the development of Egyptian writing, given the evidence of other cross-cultural influences that preceded the development of writing in Egypt. See Henri Frankfort, The Birth of Civilization in the Near East (New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1956), 129-32 Saggs, Civilization before Greece and Rome, 72 and Postgate, Early Mesopotamia, 56. Lamberg-Karlovsky and Sabloff take the position that "writing may have evolved independently in both areas as a result of the convergence of a parallel evolution" (Ancient Civilizations, 134). A brief summary of the debate over the relationship of hieroglyphics and cuneiform can be found in Trigger, Kemp, O'Connor, and Lloyd, Ancient Egypt, 37-38.

12 Historians have generally considered Sumerian and Egyptian to have been developed at about the same time, with Sumerian usually being given a slight edge. Recent discoveries in Egypt have caused many to revisit this, and some Egyptologists have suggested that hierogylyphs predate cuneiform. In recent years much has appeared in the press on the topic. See John Noble Wilford, "Carving of a King Could Rewrite History," New York Times, 16 April 2002 Elizabeth J. Himelfarb, "First Alphabet Found in Egypt," Archaeology, January/February 2000, 21 Larkin Mitchell, "Earliest Egyptian Glyphs," Archaeology, March/April 1999, 28-29 and Vijay Joshi, "Ancient tablets show Egyptians may have been first to write," Boston Globe, 18 December 1998.

13 The Semitic language family has two major branches, the East Semitic and the West Semitic. Akkadian is considered part of the East Semitic branch of the family, which also includes the Akkadian dialects of Babylonian and Assyrian. The West Semitic branch includes many more languages, including Hebrew and Arabic, with which some students may be familiar.

14 John King Fairbank, China: A New History (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994), 42-43.

15 Joshua Fogel writes of Korean, "The very fact that the Koreans, a culturally advanced country in numerous ways, did not develop an alphabet of their own (hangul) until the fifteenth century, well over a millennium after adopting Chinese, speaks volumes about the honored place of the Chinese written language in their lives" ("The Sinic World," in Asia in Western and World History, ed. Ainslee Embree and Carol Gluck [Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1997], 684). Fogel also discusses the significance of the religious, cultural, and political ideas and institutions that came into each of these countries as a result of the adoption of Chinese characters, connections that helped unify East Asia.

16 Edwin Reischauer has described the situation before the Japanese undertook script reform in this way: "The great cultural advance in Japan during these centuries is all the more remarkable for having been achieved through the medium of an entirely different type of language and an extraordinarily difficult system of writing" (The Japanese [Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1977], 47).

17 Besides the examples cited here, there are other perhaps more familiar examples available, including the borrowing of the Phoenician alphabet by the Greeks. In addition, the Latin alphabet was borrowed from the Greeks, perhaps by way of the Etruscans.

18 The first usage of the phrase "lingua franca," according to the Oxford Old English Dictionary, is by John Dryden. The other examples provided come from both Mediterranean contexts.

19 Given the recent publicity about Mel Gibson's movie The Passion of the Christ, many students may know about the existence of Aramaic. This language replaced Akkadian as the lingua franca of western Asia and was in turn later displaced by Arabic.

20 For a brief overview of the Amarna texts see Barbara Ross, "Correspondence in Clay," Aramco World, November/December 1999, 30-35.

21 Shlomo, Izre'el, "The Amarna Letters from Canaan," in Sasson, Civilizations of the Ancient Near East., vol. 4, 2412.

22 Four letters from the Mari archive and twenty-eight letters from the Amarna correspondence are reproduced in Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament.

23 Saggs, Civilization before Greece and Rome, 182.

24 Saggs, Civilization before Greece and Rome, 184.

25 Ross, "Correspondence in Clay," 31-32.

26 C. W. Ceram, Gods, Graves, and Scholars: The Story of Archaeology (New York: Bantam Books, 1972). Though originally written in 1949, this book has been reissued and is very accessible to high school students. Ceram describes the decipherment of cuneiform and hieroglyphics in detail.

27 For Linear B see John Chadwick, The Decipherment of Linear B (London: Cambridge University Press, 1990) and Andrew Robinson, The Man Who Deciphered Linear B: The Story of Michael Ventris (London: Thames and Hudson, 2002). For Mayan see Michael Coe, Breaking the Maya Code (London: Thames and Hudson, 1999), and "A Triumph of Spirit: How Yuri Knorosov Cracked the Maya Hieroglyphic Code from Far-off Leningrad," Archaeology, September/October 1991, 33-44 and David Roberts, "The Decipherment of Ancient Maya,"The Atlantic, September 1991, 87-100.

28 See Andrew Robinson, Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World's Undeciphered Scripts (New York: McGraw Hill, 2002). Robinson devotes chapters to the current thinking about the undeciphered scripts of Meroitic, Linear A, Etruscan, Proto-Elamite, and Rongorongo.

29 Samuel Noah Kramer, The Sumerians: Their History, Culture, and Character (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), 19-26.

30 See Michael Coe, The Maya (London: Thames and Hudson, 1999).

31 Peter Daniels, "The Decipherment of Ancient Near Eastern Scripts," in Sasson, Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, vol. 1, 82.

32 With reference to Assyrian, Daniels reports, "The interpretation of Sumerian proved to be the work of many decades, during which a serious controversy arose as to whether or not it was an actual language or a code devised by Assyrian priests to conceal the sacred mysteries" ("The Decipherment of Ancient Near Eastern Scripts," 86). Coe cites similar attitudes among mid-twentieth century Mayanists, such as Richard Long and Paul Schellhas, who doubted that the Mayan glyphs represented language (Breaking the Maya Code, 137-44).

33 Maurice Pope, The Story of Archaeological Decipherment: From Egyptian Hieorglyphics to Linear B (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1977), 186.

34 See Pope, The Story of Archaeological Decipherment, and Coe, Breaking the Maya Code.

35 See Coe, Breaking the Maya Code, 43-44, for a nice summary of this and other general issues related to decipherment. See also Robinson's introduction to Lost Languages, esp. 40-43 and Chadwick, The Decipherment of Linear B, 41-43.

36 Stephen Quirke and Carol Andrews, The Rosetta Stone: Facsimile Drawing with Introduction and Translations (London: British Museum Publications, 1988).

37 Rawlinson's transcription involved a good deal of risk, as the inscription was made on the side of a rock cliff about 340 feet above ground. George Cameron of the University of Michigan studied the inscription and made latex molds of it in 1948. His work and many close-up photographs from his study can be found in George Cameron, "Darius Carved History on Ageless Rock," National Geographic, December 1950, 825-44.

38 Pope, The Story of Archaeological Decipherment, 162. The decipherments of Ugaritic and Linear B did not follow this pattern.

39 The identification of individual words in an unknown writing system can be an important step in the translation of the language behind it, but it does not always guarantee that decipherment will follow. Etruscan is a good example of this fact. Because the Etuscan alphabet is related to the Greek alphabet, Etruscan words can be read, including many personal names. But because of the types of texts available, mostly funerary, and length of available texts, scholars have not been able to move from this very basic level of understanding of words to an understanding of the language as a whole.

40 Pope, The Story of Archaeological Decipherment, 189.

41 Pope writes of this method, "But what made the Linear B decipherment unique and caught the imagination of the world was the abstract phonetic grid initiated by Kober and greatly extended by Ventris. Its effect was to define the employment of the syllabic signs more closely than before. Instead of saying 'sign x stands for a syllable' it became possible to say 'sign x stands for a syllable sharing one element with the syllable represented by sign y.' So the writing rules were known more precisely, and this made up for the smallness and imprecision of the target area" (The Story of Archaeological Decipherment, 188).

42 See the suggested Web sites at the end of the article for examples.

43 In at least one case, that of the Myceneans, the existing corpus of documents is entirely administrative in focus. Since most students will probably associate Homer and his Iliad and Odyssey with the Myceneans, it would probably be worth reminding students that Linear B was not the Greek of Homer, and that Homer's works are not examples of Mycenean literature.

44 For example, Paul Halsall maintains a large number of excellent websites with downloadable, primary source documents relating to many historical periods and themes. The address of his Ancient History Sourcebook is http://www.fordham.edu/halsall ancient/asbook.html.

45 See Kramer, History Begins at Sumer, 1-16.

46 Pope makes clear that Thomas Young was very jealous of Champollion and both was critical of his method and took credit for his ideas (The Story of Archaeological Decipherment, 66-68, 84). This jealously was certainly due in part to the fact that Champollion got credit for the breakthrough that Young claimed, so it had a personal aspect to it. It would not surprise me, however, in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars and Anglo-French competition in Asia, if some of the jealousy that Young felt resulted from the fact that a Frenchman rather than an Englishman was responsible for the decipherment.

Suggested Reading

Ceram, C.W. Gods, Graves, and Scholars: The Story of Archaeology. New York: Bantam Books, 1972. The sections on the decipherment of hieroglyphics and cuneiform are very accessible for high school students.

Chadwick, John. The Decipherment of Linear B. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Chadwick, who worked with Michael Ventris, wrote this brief account for the general reader.

Chadwick, John. Reading the Past: Linear B and Related Scripts. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. Each volume in the Reading the Past series contains a roughly sixty-page survey of the topic with excellent descriptions and illustrations. See Davies and Walker below for other volumes from this series.

Coe, Michael. Breaking the Maya Code. London: Thames and Hudson, 1999. An excellent history of the decipherment of the Mayan script.

Davies, W.V. Reading the Past: Egyptian Hieroglyphics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

Erman, Adolf ed. The Ancient Egyptians: A Sourcebook of Their Writings. New York:

Harper Torchbooks, 1966. Contains some primary sources on education in New Kingdom Egypt.

Friedrich, Johannes. Extinct Languages. New York: Philosophical Library, 1957. A very readable treatment of decipherment and ancient scripts. This book was in press when the author heard about the work of Ventris, so an appendix on Linear B was added.

Oppenheim, A. Leo. Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977. Contains good sections on writing and scribes.

Pope, Maurice. The Story of Decipherment: From Egyptian Hieroglyphics to Linear B. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1975. Coe calls this the "best general book on decipherment."

Postgate, J. Nicholas. Ancient Mesopotamia: Society and Economy at the Dawn of History. London: Routledge, 1995. Section on the evolution of writing in Mesopotamia.

Robinson, Andrew. Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World's Undeciphered Scripts. New York: McGraw Hill, 2002. Robinson has written many books on writing and language. He also published a biography of Michael Ventris in 2002.

Saggs, H.W. F. Civilization Before Greece and Rome. New Haven: Yale, 1989. Chapters on writing and education.

Sasson, Jack ed. Civilizations of the Ancient Near East. Volumes 1-4. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1995. Volume 1 contains a section on decipherment by Peter Daniels. Volume 4 contains a section devoted to language, writing, and literature, with contributions form Denise Schmandt-Bessarat, D.O. Edzard, John Huehnegard, Edward Wente, and Laurie Pearce. Many valuable articles can be found in this reference work.

Von Soden, Wolfram. The Ancient Orient: An Introduction to the Study of the Ancient Near East. Grand Rapids: William B. Erdmans, 1994. Chapter on writing and writing systems.

Walker, CBF. Reading the Past: Cuneiform. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

Oracle Bones and Writing the Future in the Shang Dynasty

As it has been previously reported in an Ancient Origins article , oracle bones are a type of artifact best known for its association with the Shang Dynasty of ancient China (1600-1046 BC). As these artifacts were used for the purpose of divination, the bones came to be called ‘oracle bones’. Apart from providing us with information about the beliefs held by the people of the Shang Dynasty, oracle bones are also significant as they form the earliest known major body of ancient Chinese writing.

The main animal bone that was used for creating the oracle bones was the scapula, or shoulder blade. Oxen seem to be the preferred choice of animal, as the archaeological record has yielded a large amount of oracle bones that were made from this animal’s shoulder blade. Nevertheless, oracle bones have also been found that were made from the shoulder blades of deer, sheep, and pigs. As for the second material, it was the plastron (the nearly flat underside of the turtle) that was used. The carapace (the convex upper shell of the turtle) was not suitable for making oracle bones, as it was much more difficult to write on its curved surface.

The inscriptions from the oracle bones were first discovered in 1899 by academician and antiquarian Wang Yirong in Beijing, although a group of Anyang farmers unearthed artifacts way before the professor. During the 20 th century, thousands of oracle bones have been found. Various studies into the oracle bones have showed the way Chinese script developed over time, cast light onto the divinatory practices of the Shang Dynasty.

The process of divining the future with the aid of oracle bones would typically begin with a question asked by a client. These questions involved a diverse range of topics, including meteorological, agricultural and military issues. The diviner would then use a sharp tool to write the question onto the bone / shell, after which a hole / holes would be drilled into it. The oracle bone would then be placed under intense heat until cracks were produced. Finally, these cracks were interpreted by the diviners for their clients.

Data sources and methods

The signs noted in this work reference multiple authors (Mahadevan, 1977 Parpola, 1986, 1994 Wells, 1998), CISI (Joshi and Parpola, 1987 Parpola et al., 2010 Shah and Parpola, 1991), and the ICIT dataset. The data set we focus on was curated and verified in two ways. First, by hand (using sign lists from other authors and CISI), and second, by using the ICIT database as a resource. Each sign on the seals in question were stored in a MongoDB database. The signs we focused on for symmetric/asymmetric were a primary field that enabled us to focus on their relation to other signs in the seal and similar seals. The following attributes were stored for each seal: CISI id, sign number, location, other signs on the seal, length of the seal, and a flag to indicate if it was a multi-line seal. Each seal is stored as a document which has the aforementioned properties. Unlike traditional databases the MongoDB database allows for multiple correlations to be made to a sign and it also allows for an easier analysis. Each of the frequencies listed in this work is easily tabulated via querying the data set. This database setup could expand in the future to further analyze seals with animal symbols.

Ancient Civilizations and Early Writing

Writing evolved independently in various regions, such as the Near East, China, the Indus Valley and Central America. The writing systems that emerged in each of these regions are different and did not influence each other. The earliest known writing system was cuneiform in Mesopotamia, which dates back to 3,100 BC.

Why was writing invented? Perhaps the answer can be found in the first written messages. In most places where writing developed independently, the oldest documents that remain are labels and lists, or the names of rulers. In general, some were much richer than others in the societies that produced these documents, and power was concentrated in the hands of small groups. Therefore, writing is assumed to have been invented as the members of these groups had to organize the distribution of goods and people in order to maintain control over both.

In many societies, writing was also invented for other purposes. For example, in ancient Mesopotamia contracts and other commercial documents, letters, laws, religious rituals and even literary works were written down. On the other hand, in Central America writing was limited for a long time to inscriptions on monuments relating to the monarchy. In these societies where writing was restricted to a small dominant group, there were actually very few people who could read and write.

Logographic Writing

Depending on how they work, writing systems are classified as logographic, syllabic or alphabetic. On occasion, some systems use more than one of these at the same time. For example, the ancient Egyptians used all three systems simultaneously. In logographic writing systems, each symbol represents a word. In many of these systems, grammatical determiners are added to basic symbols these are special symbols indicating semantic or grammatical changes, such as compound or plural forms of words. The most obvious difficulty of this writing system is the enormous number of symbols needed to express every word. The Chinese writing system uses around 50,000 characters, although not all of them are commonly used. This explains why it’s not surprising that very few people could read and write in Imperial China. Even in modern times, it took several decades to create a Chinese language typewriter.

Syllabic Writing

Syllabic writing systems use symbols to represent syllables. Many early writing systems were syllabic: Assyrian and Babylonian cuneiform in the Near East, the two writing systems of pre-classical Greece, Japanese kana, and the ancient Mayan writing of Central America.

Babylonian cuneiform is a good example of how syllabic writing was used and developed. It first developed from Sumerian logographic writing, and both were written by imprinting wedge-shaped marks on wet clay tablets. They would put syllabic signs one after the other to form words.

Cuneiform syllabic writing was used for a long time in the ancient Near East, where it was in use between the years 3,100 and 100 BC. It was used to write other languages as well as Akkadian, such as Hittite and Elamite.

Babylonian cuneiform has around 600 symbols, although many of them are used for their different syllabic values.

Alphabetic Writing

Most modern languages use alphabetic writing systems where each symbol represents a basic sound. Spanish and most modern European languages are written with alphabets that come from the Latin alphabet. The great advantage of alphabetical systems is that far fewer symbols need to be learned than in logographic or syllabic systems, as most alphabets feature fewer than 30 characters.

It’s rather ironic, but it’s possible that the invention of the first alphabet was inspired by the ancient Egyptian script, one of the most complex writing systems ever invented. Egyptian hieroglyphs combined logographic, syllabic, and alphabetic symbols. In the middle of the second millennium BC, communities living in the Sinai Peninsula discovered that all of the sounds of their language could be expressed using a small number of alphabetic symbols.

It’s likely that the alphabetic systems descended from the original Sinai script were widely used throughout the Levant until 1150 BC. However, as this type of script was mostly written on perishable materials like parchment and papyrus, very few original materials remain. However, papyrus has been preserved in Egypt due to of the dryness of the desert and the absence of bacteria.

The earliest examples of alphabetic writing, which date from 1450 to 1150 BC, were found at the site of the ancient Canaanite city of Ugarit. A writing system consisting of 30 cuneiform symbols was invented to write in Ugaritic. Ugaritic written documents were engraved on clay tablets that are almost indestructible when baked. However, the few remaining documents suggest that the inhabitants of Ugarit were more accustomed to the usual Semitic alphabetic writing tradition of writing on perishable materials.

A very late, and particularly special, example of a surviving original Semitic parchment is the so-called Dead Sea Scrolls. Dating from about 100 BC to 68 AD, these mysterious religious texts written in Aramaic and Hebrew were found between 1947 and 1956 in clay pots in an Israeli desert cave. It’s easier to trace the evolution of the Levantine alphabets used in Semitic languages like Phoenician, Hebrew, and Aramaic after 1200 BC, as there are a few inscriptions carved in stone.

These alphabetic scripts differ from how modern European alphabetic writing is used in two important respects. Firstly, in Semitic writing texts are normally written right to left, instead of left to right. Secondly, vowel sounds and diphthongs in languages that use Semitic scripts (a, e, i, o, u, o, ai, oo, etc.) are not written, and only consonants are recorded (b, k, d, f, g, etc.).

It seems that the writing of vowel sounds occurred by accident, and it wasn’t some sort of brilliant invention. The Greeks were aware of the Levantine alphabets by having established regular contact with the Phoenicians and other peoples of the region between 950 and 850 BC, when they both, among others, established markets throughout the Mediterranean. Some letters that represent consonants in the Semitic sense sounded like vowels to the Greeks.

The Greeks also took their alphabet to Italy, where it was adapted for use in Etruscan, Latin, and other languages. The Roman Empire helped to spread their alphabet throughout much of Western Europe, although the Greek alphabet was still used in the Eastern Empire. By the time the Western Roman Empire fell in the 5th century, it was already a Christian empire. Writing (in Latin) had become essential in ecclesiastical administration. Both the Latin writing system and Christianity survived the empire that gave birth to them. During the early medieval period, the Latin alphabet was adapted to transcribe various languages, such as Gothic, Old Irish, French and Old English. Meanwhile, in the East, the Greek Orthodox Church expanded to the north, Russia and the Balkans, taking the Greek alphabet with them. It’s said that two Orthodox clerics, St. Cyril and St. Methodius, adapted the Greek alphabet to write Slavic languages. This is why the alphabet currently used in Russia, Bulgaria and other parts of Eastern Europe is called Cyrillic, in honor of St. Cyril. In this way, the Semitic, Greek, and Latin alphabets served as the basis of most of the alphabets currently used in modern Europe, the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent.


Human communication was initiated with the origin of speech approximately 500,000 BCE [ citation needed ] . Symbols were developed about 30,000 years ago. The imperfection of speech, which nonetheless allowed easier dissemination of ideas and eventually resulted in the creation of new forms of communications, improving both the range at which people could communicate and the longevity of the information. All of those inventions were based on the key concept of the symbol.

The oldest known symbols created for the purpose of communication were cave paintings, a form of rock art, dating to the Upper Paleolithic age. The oldest known cave painting is located within Chauvet Cave, dated to around 30,000 BC. [1] These paintings contained increasing amounts of information: people may have created the first calendar as far back as 15,000 years ago. [2] The connection between drawing and writing is further shown by linguistics: in Ancient Egypt and Ancient Greece the concepts and words of drawing and writing were one and the same (Egyptian: 's-sh', Greek: 'graphein'). [3]

The next advancement in the history of communications came with the production of petroglyphs, carvings into a rock surface. It took about 20,000 years for homo sapiens to move from the first cave paintings to the first petroglyphs, which are dated to approximately the Neolithic and late Upper Paleolithic boundary, about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago.

It is possible that Homo sapiens (humans) of that time used some other forms of communication, often for mnemonic purposes - specially arranged stones, symbols carved in wood or earth, quipu-like ropes, tattoos, but little other than the most durable carved stones has survived to modern times and we can only speculate about their existence based on our observation of still existing 'hunter-gatherer' cultures such as those of Africa or Oceania. [4]

A pictogram (pictograph) is a symbol representing a concept, object, activity, place or event by illustration. Pictography is a form of proto-writing whereby ideas are transmitted through drawing. Pictographs were the next step in the evolution of communication: the most important difference between petroglyphs and pictograms is that petroglyphs are simply showing an event, but pictograms are telling a story about the event, thus they can for example be ordered chronologically.

Pictograms were used by various ancient cultures all over the world since around 9000 BC, when tokens marked with simple pictures began to be used to label basic farm produce, and become increasingly popular around 6000–5000 BC.

They were the basis of cuneiform [5] and hieroglyphs, and began to develop into logographic writing systems around 5000 BC.

Pictograms, in turn, evolved into ideograms, graphical symbols that represent an idea. Their ancestors, the pictograms, could represent only something resembling their form: therefore a pictogram of a circle could represent a sun, but not concepts like 'heat', 'light', 'day' or 'Great God of the Sun'. Ideograms, on the other hand, could convey more abstract concepts, so that for example an ideogram of

Because some ideas are universal, many different cultures developed similar ideograms. For example, an eye with a tear means 'sadness' in Native American ideograms in California, as it does for the Aztecs, the early Chinese and the Egyptians. [ citation needed ]

Early scripts Edit

The oldest-known forms of writing were primarily logographic in nature, based on pictographic and ideographic elements. Most writing systems can be broadly divided into three categories: logographic, syllabic and alphabetic (or segmental) however, all three may be found in any given writing system in varying proportions, often making it difficult to categorise a system uniquely.

The invention of the first writing systems is roughly contemporary with the beginning of the Bronze Age in the late Neolithic of the late 4000 BC. The first writing system is generally believed to have been invented in pre-historic Sumer and developed by the late 3000's BC into cuneiform. Egyptian hieroglyphs, and the undeciphered Proto-Elamite writing system and Indus Valley script also date to this era, though a few scholars have questioned the Indus Valley script's status as a writing system.

The original Sumerian writing system was derived from a system of clay tokens used to represent commodities. By the end of the 4th millennium BC, this had evolved into a method of keeping accounts, using a round-shaped stylus impressed into soft clay at different angles for recording numbers. This was gradually augmented with pictographic writing using a sharp stylus to indicate what was being counted. Round-stylus and sharp-stylus writing was gradually replaced about 2700–2000 BC by writing using a wedge-shaped stylus (hence the term cuneiform), at first only for logograms, but developed to include phonetic elements by the 2800 BC. About 2600 BC cuneiform began to represent syllables of spoken Sumerian language.

Finally, cuneiform writing became a general purpose writing system for logograms, syllables, and numbers. By the 26th century BC, this script had been adapted to another Mesopotamian language, Akkadian, and from there to others such as Hurrian, and Hittite. Scripts similar in appearance to this writing system include those for Ugaritic and Old Persian.

The Chinese script may have originated independently of the Middle Eastern scripts, around the 16th century BC (early Shang Dynasty), out of a late neolithic Chinese system of proto-writing dating back to c. 6000 BC. The pre-Columbian writing systems of the Americas, including Olmec and Mayan, are also generally believed to have had independent origins.

Alphabet Edit

The first pure alphabets (properly, "abjads", mapping single symbols to single phonemes, but not necessarily each phoneme to a symbol) emerged around 2000 BC in Ancient Egypt, but by then alphabetic principles had already been incorporated into Egyptian hieroglyphs for a millennium (see Middle Bronze Age alphabets).

By 2700 BC, Egyptian writing had a set of some 22 hieroglyphs to represent syllables that begin with a single consonant of their language, plus a vowel (or no vowel) to be supplied by the native speaker. These glyphs were used as pronunciation guides for logograms, to write grammatical inflections, and, later, to transcribe loan words and foreign names.

However, although seemingly alphabetic in nature, the original Egyptian uniliterals were not a system and were never used by themselves to encode Egyptian speech. In the Middle Bronze Age an apparently "alphabetic" system is thought by some to have been developed in central Egypt around 1700 BC for or by Semitic workers, but we cannot read these early writings and their exact nature remains open to interpretation.

Over the next five centuries this Semitic "alphabet" (really a syllabary like Phoenician writing) seems to have spread north. All subsequent alphabets around the world [ citation needed ] with the sole exception of Korean Hangul have either descended from it, or been inspired by one of its descendants.

Scholars agree that there is a relationship between the West-Semitic alphabet and the creation of the Greek alphabet. There is debate between scholars regarding the earliest uses of the Greek alphabet because of the changes that were made to create the Greek alphabet. [6]

The Greek alphabet had the following characteristics:

  1. The Greek lettering we know of today traces back to the eighth century B.C.
  2. Early Greek scripts used the twenty-two West-Semitic letters, and included five supplementary letters.
  3. Early Greek was not uniform in structure, and had many local variations.
  4. The Greek lettering was written using a lapidary style of writing.
  5. Greek was written in a boustrophedon style.

Scholars believe that at one point in time, early Greek scripts were very close to the West-Semitic alphabet. Over time, the changes that were made to the Greek alphabet were introduced as a result of the need for the Greeks to find a better way to express their spoken language in a more accurate way. [6]

Storytelling Edit

Verbal communication is one of the earliest forms of human communication, the oral tradition of storytelling has dated back to various times in history. The development of communication in its oral form can be categorized based on certain historical periods. The complexity of oral communication has always been reflective based on the circumstance of the time period. Verbal communication was never bound to one specific area, instead, it had and continues to be a globally shared tradition of communication. [7] People communicated through song, poems, and chants, as some examples. People would gather in groups and pass down stories, myths, and history. Oral poets from Indo-European regions were known as "weavers of words" for their mastery over the spoken word and ability to tell stories. [8] Nomadic people also had oral traditions that they used to tell stories of the history of their people to pass them on to the next generation.

Nomadic tribes have been the torch bearers of oral storytelling. Nomads of Arabia are one example of the many nomadic tribes that have continued through history to use oral storytelling as a tool to tell their histories and the story of their people. Due to the nature of nomadic life, these individuals were often left without architecture and possessions to call their own, and often left little to no traces of themselves. [9] The richness of the nomadic life and culture is preserved by early Muslim scholars who collect the poems and stories that are handed down from generation to generation. Poems created by these Arabic nomads are passed down by specialists known as sha'ir. These individuals spread the stories and histories of these nomadic tribes, and often in times of war, would strengthen morale within members of given tribes through these stories. [ citation needed ]

In its natural form, oral communication was, and has continued to be, one of the best ways for humans to spread their message, history, and traditions to the world. [ citation needed ]

Timeline of writing technology Edit

  • 30,000 BC – In ice-age Europe, people mark ivory, bone, and stone with patterns to keep track of time, using a lunar calendar. [10]
  • 14,000 BC – In what is now Mezhirich, Ukraine, the first known artifact with a map on it is made using bone. [10]
  • Prior to 3500 BC – Communication was carried out through paintings of indigenous tribes. – The Sumerians develop cuneiform writing and the Egyptians develop hieroglyphic writing.
  • 16th century BC – The Phoenicians develop an alphabet.
  • 105 – Tsai Lun invents paper.
  • 7th century – Hindu-Malayan empires write legal documents on copper plate scrolls, and write other documents on more perishable media.
  • 751 – Paper is introduced to the Muslim world after the Battle of Talas.
  • 1250 – The quill is used for writing. [10]
  • 1305 – The Chinese develop wooden blockmovable type printing.
  • 1450 – Johannes Gutenberg invents a printing press with metal movable type.
  • 1844 – Charles Fenerty produces paper from a wood pulp, eliminating rag paper which was in limited supply.
  • 1849 – Associated Press organizes Nova Scotiapony express to carry latest European news for New York newspapers.
  • 1958 – Chester Carlson presents the first photocopier suitable for office use.

The history of telecommunication - the transmission of signals over a distance for the purpose of communication - began thousands of years ago with the use of smoke signals and drums in Africa, America and parts of Asia. In the 1790s the first fixed semaphore systems emerged in Europe however it was not until the 1830s that electrical telecommunication systems started to appear.

Which undeciphered writing system has the largest corpus of text? - History

Ancient History relies on disciplines such as Epigraphy, the study of ancient inscribed texts, for evidence of the recorded past. However, these texts, “inscriptions”, are often damaged over the centuries, and illegible parts of the text must be restored by specialists, known as epigraphists. This work presents PYTHIA, the first ancient text restoration model that recovers missing characters from a damaged text input using deep neural networks. Its architecture is carefully designed to handle longterm context information, and deal efficiently with missing or corrupted character and word representations. To train it, we wrote a nontrivial pipeline to convert PHI, the largest digital corpus of ancient Greek inscriptions, to machine actionable text, which we call PHI-ML. On PHI-ML, PYTHIA’s predictions achieve a 30.1% character error rate, compared to the 57.3% of human epigraphists. Moreover, in 73.5% of cases the ground-truth sequence was among the Top-20 hypotheses of PYTHIA, which effectively demonstrates the impact of this assistive method on the field of digital epigraphy, and sets the state-of-the-art in ancient text restoration.

Authors' Notes

Historians rely on different sources to reconstruct the thought, society and history of past civilisations. Many of these sources are text-based – whether written on scrolls or carved into stone, the preserved records of the past help shed light on ancient societies. However, these records of our ancient cultural heritage are often incomplete: due to deliberate destruction, or erosion and fragmentation over time. This is the case for inscriptions: texts written on a durable surface (such as stone, ceramic, metal) by individuals, groups and institutions of the past, and which are the focus of the discipline called epigraphy . Thousands of inscriptions have survived to our day but the majority have suffered damage over the centuries, and parts of the text are illegible or lost (Figure 1). The reconstruction ("restoration") of these documents is complex and time consuming, but necessary for a deeper understanding of civilisations past.

One of the issues with discerning meaning from incomplete fragments of text is that there are often multiple possible solutions. In many word games and puzzles, players guess letters to complete a word or phrase – the more letters that are specified, the more constrained the possible solutions become. But unlike these games, where players have to guess a phrase in isolation, historians restoring a text can estimate the likelihood of different possible solutions based on other context clues in the inscription – such as grammatical and linguistic considerations, layout and shape, textual parallels, and historical context. Now, by using machine learning trained on ancient texts, we’ve built a system that can furnish a more complete and systematically ranked list of possible solutions, which we hope will augment historians’ understanding of a text.

Figure 1: Damaged inscription: a decree of the Athenian Assembly relating to the management of the Acropolis (dating 485/4 BCE). IG I3 4B. (CC BY-SA 3.0, WikiMedia)


Pythia – which takes its name from the woman who delivered the god Apollo's oracular responses at the Greek sanctuary of Delphi – is the first ancient text restoration model that recovers missing characters from a damaged text input using deep neural networks. Bringing together the disciplines of ancient history and deep learning, the present work offers a fully automated aid to the text restoration task, providing ancient historians with multiple textual restorations, as well as the confidence level for each hypothesis.

Pythia takes a sequence of damaged text as input, and is trained to predict character sequences comprising hypothesised restorations of ancient Greek inscriptions (texts written in the Greek alphabet dating between the seventh century BCE and the fifth century CE). The architecture works at both the character- and word-level, thereby effectively handling long-term context information, and dealing efficiently with incomplete word representations (Figure 2). This makes it applicable to all disciplines dealing with ancient texts ( philology , papyrology , codicology ) and applies to any language (ancient or modern).

Figure 2: Pythia processing the phrase μηδέν ἄγαν ( Mēdèn ágan ) "nothing in excess," a fabled maxim inscribed on Apollo’s temple in Delphi. The letters "γα" are the characters to be predicted, and are annotated with ‘?’. Since ἄ??ν is not a complete word, its embedding is treated as unknown (‘unk’). The decoder outputs correctly "γα".

Experimental evaluation

To train Pythia, we wrote a non-trivial pipeline to convert the largest digital corpus of ancient Greek inscriptions ( PHI Greek Inscriptions ) to machine actionable text, which we call PHI-ML. As shown in Table 1, Pythia’s predictions on PHI-ML achieve a 30.1% character error rate, compared to the 57.3% of evaluated human ancient historians (specifically, these were PhD students from Oxford). Moreover, in 73.5% of cases the ground-truth sequence was among the Top-20 hypotheses of Pythia, which effectively demonstrates the impact of this assistive method on the field of digital epigraphy, and sets the state-of-the-art in ancient text restoration.

Table 1: Pythia's Predictive performance of on PHI-ML.

The importance of context

To evaluate Pythia’s receptiveness to context information and visualise the attention weights at each decoding step, we experimented with the modified lines of an inscription from the city of Pergamon (in modern-day Turkey)*. In the text of Figure 3, the last word is a Greek personal name ending in -ου. We set ἀπολλοδώρου ("Apollodorou") as the personal name, and hid its first 9 characters. This name was specifically chosen because it already appeared within the input text. Pythia attended to the contextually-relevant parts of the text - specifically, ἀπολλοδώρου. The sequence ἀπολλοδώρ was predicted correctly. As a litmus test, we substituted ἀπολλοδώρου in the input text with another personal name of the same length: ἀρτεμιδώρου ("Artemidorou"). The predicted sequence changed accordingly to ἀρτεμιδώρ, thereby illustrating the importance of context in the prediction process.

Figure 3: Visualisation of the attention weights for the decoding of the first 4 missing characters. To aid visualisation, the weights within the area of the characters to be predicted (‘?’) are in green, and in blue for the rest of the text the magnitude of the weights is represented by the colour intensity. The ground-truth text ἀπολλοδώρ appears in the input text, and Pythia attends to the relevant parts of the sequence.

Future research

The combination of machine learning and epigraphy has the potential to impact meaningfully the study of inscribed texts, and widen the scope of the historian’s work. For this reason, we have open-sourced an online Python notebook, Pythia, and PHI-ML’s processing pipeline at https://github.com/sommerschield/ancient-text-restoration , collaborating with scholars at the University of Oxford . By so doing, we hope to aid future research and inspire further interdisciplinary work.

*Specifically, lines b.8- c.5 of the inscription MDAI(A) 32 (1907) 428, 275.

The Story of India’s Many Scripts

While India’s scripts are ancient, technology and modernity are changing their usage patterns.

Only a few years ago, things did not seem to be going well for India’s various alphabets, often known as the Indic or Brahmic scripts after the historical Iron Age script that is the ancestor of modern South and Southeast Asian writing systems. Digitalization and the widespread proliferation of Roman-alphabet keyboards in India meant that Indian users would often transcribe Indian languages using ad hoc Romanizations on the internet and via text.

Yet today, one can’t follow the Indian Twittersphere or Indian content on social media and the rest of the internet without noticing the recent proliferation of Indic script material, particularly Devanagari (the script used for Hindi, Marathi, and Nepali). Technology and innovation helped this process along, and instead of shrinking the sphere of Indic script usage, they allow Indic scripts to be used more broadly, especially at the popular level. The use of Unicode, and the spread of Indic script transliteration and typing interfaces on Google, and on phones—which is how most Indians access the Internet—have all made it much easier to publish online in Indic scripts. Many phones and computers in India are not specifically designed with Indic script keyboards and instead use the Roman alphabet keyboards common in the West. Transliteration software renders this moot. The increased use of Indic-language scripts has also lead to newer and more artistic fonts for Indian languages.

In short, this is a golden age for Indic language script usage, due to technology and increased literacy. This is despite both the proliferation of English-language education in India, and the shoddy quality of public schools in that country. The very nature of modernity, with its mass communication, advertisements, social platforms, and the spread of information and entertainment to everyone with a smartphone, means that everyone will eventually gain and utilize basic literacy, even if by osmosis and not formal education. And most of this literacy in India will be in local languages. This will be the first time in India’s recorded history that its scripts are being used so widely.

India has a long history of writing. While India has been a literate culture for millennia, it has also greatly valued oral knowledge. The ancient Hindu scriptures, the Vedas, the oldest of which dated to around 1500 BCE were memorized verbatim for at least a thousand years, if not more, before being committed to writing. The oldest writing found in the subcontinent is the as yet undeciphered script of the Indus Valley Civilization (IVC), which seems to have been somewhat logo-syllabic in nature. The script fell out of use by 1500 BCE.

The Indus Valley Script. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The linguistic landscape of the subcontinent changed dramatically during the 2nd millennium BCE, so that is is impossible to determine if there is a connection between the IVC script and the next clearly attested script in India, the Brahmi script found in the inscriptions of the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka (ruled 268-232 BCE), especially since they probably represented vastly different, unrelated languages.

The sudden appearance of the Brahmi writing system is one of the great mysteries of writing in India, as there is no evidence of inscriptions beforehand. Another script, the (extinct, childless) Kharosthi of northwest Pakistan and Afghanistan seems to be clearly derived from the imperial Aramaic script used by the Persians who ruled over parts of the Indus Valley for two centuries until the arrival of Alexander the Great. It is unclear if the fully developed Brahmi script was invented by the Mauryan Empire as a result of exposure to Aramaic, but this seems unlikely, particularly since there were advanced states in the Ganges valley and a corpus of Vedic literature dating from before the Mauryan period.

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It is more likely that pre-Mauryan inscriptions may still be discovered, and in fact, some Brahmi inscriptions have been found in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka dating to the 6th century BCE. Is it possible then, that writing spread from the south to the north, countervening the traditional notion that the Indic scripts originate in the Ganges valley? This may quite possibly be the case, especially since the coasts of southern India were more exposed to foreign trade from the Middle East than northern India, and scripts from traders could have been brought to India this way (the same way the Phoenicians brought their script to Greece). This long gestation period and overland route from southern to northern India may explain why the Brahmi script, even if it is vaguely derived from Middle Eastern alphabets, is so different and nativized, especially relative to the more obviously Middle Eastern-inspired Kharosthi.

The Possible Evolution of Brahmi from Middle Eastern Scripts. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Once the Brahmi script was spread throughout India by the subcontinent-wide Mauryan Empire, it was used by the subcontinent’s elites.However, unlike imperial China with its unified central government and bureaucratic exam system, and Christian and Muslim societies that were united by a written scripture, oral culture and regional differences in India led to the Brahmi script differentiating and evolving into different scripts in various regions of India, a phenomenon that was already occurring by the end of the Maruyan period in the 2nd century BCE. This phenomenon—each literary language having a particular and unique script—is not actually that unique to India, as the various languages of the ancient Near East and Mediterranean also evolved their own scripts from a common source.

The increased need for quicker, daily writing, versus use for monumental inscriptions may have led to the predominance of cursive styles that evolved into India’s modern scripts. Various other factors may have been at play, such as the material used for writing: in South India, scripts became more rounded, as a result of writing on palm leaves, while in North India, cloth and birch bark allowed for more angular lines, and indeed the major division amongst Brahmic scripts is between the southern Indian/Southeast Asian scripts and the northern Indian and Tibetan scripts.

The Differentiation of Brahmi Letter Shapes. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Regional linguistic differences also helped Indic writing proliferate into many scripts in both South and Southeast Asia. It became prestigious for every major language to have its own script, though what evolved into today’s Devanagari (which began to emerge by the 7th century CE) script retained a special prestige due to its close association with Sanskrit. It is unclear if the evolution of Indic scripts into new forms would have ever stopped had it not been for the standardization process that is necessary for a print-oriented mass modern society. Relatively recently, for example, Devanagari spawned new, regional variations such as the Gujarati script, indicating that there was no real “final form” in the evolution of letter shapes in Indic writing. This seems to have remained the case, even when Indic-script users were exposed to the more unchanging Roman and Arabic alphabets.

The Evolution of Letter Shapes. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The change in letter forms leading to new scripts was probably so slow, generation by generation, that the process did not necessarily involve conscious change from one script to another, but a slow evolution of differences in letter formation as texts were copied throughout the ages. A similar development occurred in medieval Europe with the Latin script, but the development of the printing press, and Renaissance ideas about how the Latin script ought to look like led to a typographical convergence.

Brahmi and Devanagari found together on a pillar. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The evolution of Brahmi into so many scripts over time in India does however raise the question of what individuals and scribes thought about the changes upon becoming aware—and they were aware, as inscriptions in multiple different Indian scripts have been found together, like Kannada with Devanagari—of the fact that their contemporary writing systems were divergent in separate regions, and were also vastly different from the forms found in inscriptions and ancient documents. While 19th century scribes of Indian scripts were unable to tell the British what was written on ancient pillars from the Mauryan Era (the British deciphered Brahmi in 1837), this inability to read ancient forms of writing does not always seem to be the case. In fact, there have been examples of Mauryan, Gupta, and early Nagari inscriptions found together, with each subsequent script alluding to the content of what was written before it in a predecessor script.

But that fact that this knowledge was lost over time and that Indian scripts differentiated into so many forms does seem to indicate that literacy was not widespread and was limited to pockets of individuals, a trend which probably accelerated due to the eclipse of a pan-Indian literary culture after the 12th century. Before the emergence of a modern, mass culture throughout India, writing styles and scripts were particular to regions, and even castes, with scribes and merchants often utilizing their own scripts, which were usually simpler forms of the more formal monumental alphabets used for official or religious purposes.

However, modern trends such as the emergence of a politically unified, subcontinent-wide state in India, new scholarship, and technology seem to be reversed the differentiation that has characterized Indian scripts for past 2,000 years. The literacy of hundred of millions of people in native scripts makes it unlikely that the shapes of letters used by millions of people everyday for communication will change anytime soon, as that would lead to confusion and a lack of communication. The standardization and use of some scripts for mass print and online have also led to the decline of caste and trade based scripts, as well as many local variations. Many hitherto unwritten modern languages are now written in established scripts, usually the script most prevalent in that particular state of India’s, instead of evolving a new script for the language.

While India’s scripts are ancient, technology and modernity are changing their usage patterns, and are in fact allowing them to thrive as never before in standardized and widely used forms, as more people gain literacy and access to the internet.

Get around [ edit ]

While Corpus Christi is ostensibly laid out in a classic city-block style, the adaptation of that system to the local geography can make navigation a little confusing. Nevertheless, there are several main roads that traverse nearly the entire city, and these can be used to orient yourself if you find yourself lost.

By car [ edit ]

Most visitors and locals travel around Corpus Christi in cars. Most likely, a rental or personal car is the best way for you to see the city.

The main routes one needs to know to get around efficiently in Corpus Christi are I-37, South Padre Island Drive (TX-358), the Crosstown Expressway (TX-286), and Ocean Drive/Shoreline Boulevard (Ocean Drive is an extension of Shoreline Blvd. for about seven miles along Corpus Christi Bay).

I-37 brings you into town from the west and ends on Shoreline Drive downtown on the Bayfront.

Shoreline Blvd. is a section of about four miles in downtown Corpus Christi along the bay. It begins in the area of the Art Museum of South Texas and leads south, becoming Ocean Drive. Following Ocean Drive takes one through the most scenic part of the city and to its end at the Naval Air Station and Texas A&M.

South Padre Island Drive does not go to South Padre Island (a frequent mistake made by visitors), but is better thought of as the southern section of Padre Island Drive. It is a section of 358 running from I-37 down the southern side of the city from northwest to southeast and ending on Padre Island at Padre Island National Seashore. Along it is the main shopping and dining area for the city. Locals will invariably refer to South Padre Island Drive as S.P.I.D., with the letters always pronounced separately. Visitors should remember that there will not be signs reading SPID. Instead, many read NAS-CCAD (for Naval Air Station and Corpus Christi Army Depot) or TX-358.

Connecting the northern end of S.P.I.D. to the downtown area near where I-37 ends is the Crosstown Expressway.

The Harbor Bridge takes drivers over the ship channel from downtown to Corpus Christi Beach, a popular destination for tourists.

By public transit [ edit ]

Corpus Christi has a small trolley service (actually buses poorly disguised as trolleys) and a citywide bus service. Both are run by the Corpus Christi Regional Transit Authority, and schedules can be found at their website [11].

There is no Metro, subway, or any other form of a city rail service.

Car rental services can be found at the airport or along S.P.I.D.

Corpus Christi has a marina, for those few lucky enough to travel by water.

Epi-Olmec script

One of the most important Olmec finds was the discovery of an inscribed slab found under the waters of the Acula River near the village of La Mojarra in 1986 in the Mexican state of Veracruz. Dubbed Stela 1 of La Mojarra, this monument was inscribed with 465 glyphs arranged in 21 columns, and the image of a ruler. The writing on it is nothing like any other writing system in Mesoamerica, such as Maya, Zapotec, Mixtec, or Aztec, although like the Maya it also used the Long Count.

However, Stela 1 of La Mojarra is not the only example of its writing system. Most of the monuments that bear glyphs in the same (or similar) writing system are also found near the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the thin stretch of land that separates the majority of Mexico from its south-eastern states and from Central America, although none has texts as long as the Stela. The famous Tuxtla Statuette, a hand-length nephrite figurine of an almost comedic man dressed in a duck's outfit, bears a Long Count date of 162 CE as well as non-calendric glyphs. Other famous inscriptions include Stela C of Tres Zapotes, with a Long Count date of 32 BCE, and Stela 1 of Chiapa de Corzo (located in Chiapas, Mexico), with an incomplete date conjectured to be 36 BCE. In the site of Cerro de las Mesas, Veracruz, highly erroded monuments also bear Long Count dates, but from the early Classic period at around 450 CE, as well as a large stone version of the Tuxtla Statuette devoid of any text.

Scholars have given this script many names, epi-Olmec was chosen since it is more common in scientific literature. Some have called this script the "La Mojarra script" after the location where the Stela was found. Another name, also based on a geographical name, is the "Isthmian Script", named after the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. You would find all three names used in publications, and websites. Yet another name is the "Tuxtla Script", named after the Tuxtla Statuette as well as the Tuxtla Mountains near which many of the texts have been found.

Left side image of La Mojarra Stela 1, showing a person identified as "Harvester Mountain Lord". Inscriptions in the Isthmian or Epi-Olmec script on the right side of La Mojarra Stela 1

The Epi-Olmec script turned out to be structurally similar to the Maya. It is logophonetic, meaning that one set of the signs, the phonograms, have phonetic values, while the other glyphs, called logograms, represents morpheme. A morpheme is a word or part of a word that cannot be broken further into smaller units with relevant meaning. For instance, the English word beautiful can be broken down into beauty and -ful, neither of which can be broken down further. Beauty is a morpheme because it is a word. Furthermore, -ful carries the meaning of "a lot of", and can also be used with other words, like bountiful, faithful, and others. Hence it is not a unique derivation of beauty, but a morpheme in its own right.

In a logophonetic system, both logograms and phonograms are used. Frequently logograms make up the root of a word whereas phonograms spell out the prefixes and suffixes that modify the root.

The vowel u ("u" with a line through the middle) is a strange vowel. It is a central high vowel, meaning that it's like the common vowel [i] but the position of the peak of the tongue is halfway between the throat and the teeth. You can check out Phonetics for details on how to pronounce it.

All phonograms in the Epi-Olmec script represent syllables. So we call the set of phonograms the syllabary:

The Epi-Olmec culture was a cultural area in the central region of the present-day Mexican state of Veracruz, concentrated in the Papaloapan River basin, a culture that existed during the Late Formative period, from roughly 300 BCE to roughly 250 CE. Epi-Olmec was a successor culture to the Olmec, hence the prefix "epi-" or "post-". Although Epi-Olmec did not attain the far-reaching achievements of that earlier culture, it did realize, with its sophisticated calendrics and writing system, a level of cultural complexity unknown to the Olmecs.