“The mischief of the Tower of Babel is still with us: Go to, let us go down, and there confounded their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech”, wrote A J Arberry over half century back. The Tower of Babel concept lost its meaning as the concept of language has undergone a sea change with the new developments in communication processes. Translation of renowned works, coupled with people’s interest in learning foreign literature, opened up a new vista towards common knowledge.
It is true that languages did a lot for human civilization. Written language did and continues to do a lot more. The light of knowledge began spreading its rays ever since human learnt to leave behind him his experience, ideas and thoughts inscribed on leaves, leather, stones, papyrus reeds and later on paper. The horizon of knowledge expanded with further developments in writing. Human thoughts and ideas acquired eternity with the invention of writing.
Perhaps, the earliest people to form cities were Sumerians, in the region of the Euphrates and Tigris, between 4 and 2 millennia. They developed cuneiform writing - a kind of writing, which they scratched upon clay. The writings were consisting of wedge-like marks impressed on clay tablets and used by Babylonians and Assyrians.
Egyptians had also developed a system of writing, different from Sumerians. It is presumed that the clay of Nile was not so fine and plastic as the Sumerian clay and this must be the reason why Egyptians used strips of papyrus reeds fastened together for writing.
Works on leather or papyrus, it is said, could not survive in the damp climate of Palestine. The archaeological discovery has shown that papyrus was commonly used as writing material in ancient Israel.
Only recently Russian archeologists have unearthed at Nobgorod what is probably the oldest love letter in existence, which is written in bark around the year 1100, by a lovelorn maiden or woman spurned by her lover.
Assyrians wrote with style or stamp, while Egyptians did it with brush. In 1887, a mass of letter inscribed tablets of 14 century BC were unearthed at Tell-el-Amarna north of Asyut in Egypt. These were said to be the royal correspondence between Babylonian and Hittite and other monarchs of Nineveh, the capital of ancient Assyrian empire.
The Mayan writings developed during the Yucatan civilization were on stone-carved and painted, and also on animal skins with bright natural paints.
The beginning of writing in ancient Peru is very interesting. Their way of keeping records was complicated. They kept their record by way of knots tied upon strings or cords. This unique way of recording, known as ‘quipu’ was a mnemonic contrivance of knotted cords, which were decoded on the basis of the order, colour and the kind of knots tied. A similar system was prevalent in China before the invention of writing. Japanese writing, though derived from Chinese and consists of more rapidly written system of forms, has similarity to cuneiform writing of Sumerians. Before real writing, there was only picture writing, like that of Amerindians and Bushmen. Most of the ancient writings were based on pictorial representations of things and acts by way of heraldic indications of proper names and by strokes and dots to represent convenient and easily understandable in many ways and, therefore, used even today. The sign boards at the level crossings, hairpin bends on the roads, etc. are best living examples of pictographic representations.
The ancient written documents were accounts, letters, recipes, name-lists, itineraries etc. Among some earliest Egyptian writings are medical recipes and magic formulae. Alphabetical writing was developed by Semitic people. Arithmetic and algebraic are essentially Semitic sciences.
The Harappa and Mohanjodaro excavations revealed that before 2000 BC, during the Indus Valley Civilization, there was a system of writing. The script was pictographic and said to be similar to ancient Sumerian and Egyptian writings. There is difference of opinion on this. One of the Chaldean inscriptions of Mesopotamia indicates that ships from the city often sailed long distances and brought gold from India for decorative purposes.
However, there is no concrete evidence as to whether the art of writing was known to the people during the Vedic period in India. Knowledge was said to be transmitted orally from one generation to another during the period. The system of ‘gurukul’ education (a type of ancient Hindu school in India that is residential in nature with the students and the teacher living in proximity, many a time within the same house) was prevalent during Vedic period. Sanskrit is said to be one of the Indo-European (Aryan) language group. The latest controversy over the Aryan invasion theory narrows down any possibility of coming to a conclusion about evolution of writing in India. Apart from that, there is the problem of chronology. Even the age of the oldest and most important literary documents, the Vedas, is controversial. There! There, the importance of properly dated, written record surfaces.
Published in FREE PRESS JOURNAL, Indore, India - 1993