Volume 20, Issue 2
  • ISSN 1387-6732
  • E-ISSN: 1570-6001
Buy:$35.00 + Taxes


This paper reports on a computational simulation of the evolution of early writing systems from pre-linguistic symbol systems, something for which there is poor evidence in the archaeological record. The simulation starts with a completely concept-based set of symbols, and then spreads those symbols and combinations of these to morphemes of artificially generated languages based on semantic and phonetic similarity.

While the simulation is crude, it is able to account for the observation that the development of writing systems seems to be facilitated in languages that have largely monosyllabic morphemes, or that have abundant ablauting processes. We are also able to model what appears to be two possible lines of development in early writing whereby symbols are associated to the sounds of morphemes linked to a concept (as seems to have been the case in Sumerian), versus just one morpheme linked to a concept (as seems to have been the case in Chinese). Finally, the model is able to offer an account of the apparent rapid development of writing in Mesopotamia that obviates the need to posit a conscious invention of writing, as proposed by Glassner.

The proposed model thus opens a new approach to thinking about the emergence of writing and its properties, something that, as noted above, has scant direct archaeological evidence.

The software is released open-source on GitHub.


Article metrics loading...

Loading full text...

Full text loading...


  1. Barbeau, Marius
    (1950) Totem Poles. Anthropology Series 30, National Museum of Canada Bulletin 119, vol.1–2. Ottawa: National Museum of Canada.
    [Google Scholar]
  2. Baxter, William
    (1992) A Handbook of Old Chinese Phonology. Trends in Linguistics, Studies and Monographs, no.64. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. doi: 10.1515/9783110857085
    https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110857085 [Google Scholar]
  3. Baxter, William , & Sagart, Laurent
    (2014) Old Chinese: A New Reconstruction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Appendix:Baxter-Sagart_Old_Chinese_reconstruction. doi: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199945375.001.0001
    https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199945375.001.0001 [Google Scholar]
  4. Bliss, Charles
    (1965) Semantography. Sydney: Semantography (Blissymbolics) Publications.
    [Google Scholar]
  5. Boltz, William
    (1994) The Origin and Early Development of the Chinese Writing System. American Oriental Series, no. 78. New Haven: American Oriental Society.
    [Google Scholar]
  6. (2000) Monosyllabicity and the origin of the Chinese script. Tech. rept. 143. Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte, Berlin.
    [Google Scholar]
  7. Buckley, Eugene
    (2008) Monosyllabicity and the origins of syllabaries. In: Linguistic Society of America. www.ling.upenn.edu/~gene/papers/monosyllabicity.pdf.
  8. Dalley, Stephanie
    (2005) The Invention of Cuneiform: Writing in Sumerby Jean-Jacques Glassner ; Translated by Zainab Bahrani and Marc Van De Mieroop . Technology and Culture, 46(2), 408–409.
    [Google Scholar]
  9. Daniels, Peter
    (1992) The syllabic origin of writing and the segmental origin of the alphabet. Pages83–110of: Downing, Pamela , Lima, Susan , & Noonan, Michael (eds), The Linguistics of Literacy. Typological Studies in Language, no. 21. Amsterdan and Philadelphia: John Benjamins. doi: 10.1075/tsl.21.10dan
    https://doi.org/10.1075/tsl.21.10dan [Google Scholar]
  10. Darwin, Charles
    (1859) The Origin of Species. New York: Mentor. Mentor edition (1958).
    [Google Scholar]
  11. DeFrancis, John
    (1984) The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
    [Google Scholar]
  12. (1989) Visible Speech: The Diverse Oneness of Writing Systems. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press.
    [Google Scholar]
  13. DeHaene, Stanislas
    (2009) Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention. New York: Viking.
    [Google Scholar]
  14. Englund, Robert
    (2005) The Invention of Cuneiform: Writing in Sumerby Jean-Jacques Glassner ; Translated by Zainab Bahrani and Marc Van De Mieroop . Journal of the American Oriental Society, 125(1), 113–116.
    [Google Scholar]
  15. ETCSL
    ETCSL (2006) Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature. etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/edition2/signlist.php.
  16. Farmer, Steve , Henderson, John and Witzel, Michael
    (2002) Neurobiology, Layered Texts, and Correlative Cosmologies: A Cross-Cultural Framework for Premodern History. Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities. 72. 48–90.
    [Google Scholar]
  17. Farmer, Steve , Sproat, Richard , & Witzel, Michael
    (2004) The Collapse of the Indus-Script Thesis: The Myth of a Literate Harappan Civilization. Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies, 11(2), 19–57.
    [Google Scholar]
  18. Gelb, Ignace
    (1963) A Study of Writing. Second edition, University of Chicago Press.
    [Google Scholar]
  19. Glassner, Jean-Jacques
    (2000) Écrire à Sumer: L’invention du cunéiforme. Paris: Seuil.
    [Google Scholar]
  20. (2003) The Invention of Cuneiform: Writing in Sumer. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. Translated by Zainab Bahrani and Marc van de Mieroop .
    [Google Scholar]
  21. Goody, Jack
    (1977) The Domestication of the Savage Mind. Themes in the Social Sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    [Google Scholar]
  22. Goody, Jack , & Watt, Ian
    (1968) The consequences of literacy. Pages27–68of: Goody, J. (ed), Literacy in Traditional Societies. New York: Cambridge University Press.
    [Google Scholar]
  23. Gorman, Kyle
    (2016) Pynini: A Python library for weighted finite-state grammar compilation. In: StatFsm.
    [Google Scholar]
  24. Gould, Stephen Jay
    (1974) Ever Since Darwin: Reflections on Natural History. New York: W. W. Norton. Chapter 12, pages103–110.
    [Google Scholar]
  25. Jackson, Anthony
    (1990) The Pictish Trail. Orkney Press.
    [Google Scholar]
  26. Keightley, David
    (1978) Sources of Shang History: The Oracle-Bone Inscriptions of Bronze Age China. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
    [Google Scholar]
  27. Kirby, Simon
    (1999) Function, Selection and Innateness: the Emergence of Language Universals. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    [Google Scholar]
  28. Levenshtein, Vladimir
    (1966) Binary codes capable of correcting deletions, insertions, and reversals. Soviet Physics Doklady, 10(8), 707–710.
    [Google Scholar]
  29. Li, Hsiao-Ting
    (1968) 從六書的觀點看甲骨文 (Viewing the Oracle Bone inscriptions from the point of view of the ‘Six Writings’). 南洋大學學報, 2, 84–106.
    [Google Scholar]
  30. Mallery, Garrick
    (1883) Pictographs of the North American Indians: A Preliminary Paper. Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology, no. 4. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution. Available from Google Books.
    [Google Scholar]
  31. Morris, Henry
    (1974) Scientific Creationism. San Diego: Institute for Creation Research.
    [Google Scholar]
  32. Niyogi, Partha
    (2006) The Computational Nature of Language Learning and Evolution. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
    [Google Scholar]
  33. Oppenheim, A. Leo
    (1959) On an operational device in Mesopotamian bureaucracy. Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 18(121–128). doi: 10.1086/371519
    https://doi.org/10.1086/371519 [Google Scholar]
  34. Paley, William
    (1826) Natural Theology or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity. Oxford: J. Vincent.
    [Google Scholar]
  35. Perfetti, Charles , Nelson, Jessica , Liu, Ying , Fiez, Julie , & Tan, Li-Hai
    (2010) The neural bases of reading: Universals and writing system variations. Chapter 6, pages147–172of: Cornelissen, P. , Kringelback, M. , & Hansen, P. (eds), The Neural Basis of Reading. Oxford: Oxford University Press. doi: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195300369.003.0006
    https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195300369.003.0006 [Google Scholar]
  36. Powell, Barry
    (2009) Writing: Theory and History of the Technology of Civilization. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
    [Google Scholar]
  37. Roark, Brian , Sproat, Richard , Allauzen, Cyril , Riley, Michael , & Jeffrey, Sorensen
    (2012) The OpenGrm open-source finite-state grammar software libraries. Pages61–66of: Association for Computational Linguistics.
    [Google Scholar]
  38. Robson, Eleanor
    (2005) The Invention of Cuneiform: Writing in Sumer by Jean-Jacques Glassner; Translated by Zainab Bahrani and Marc Van De Mieroop. American Journal of Archaeology, 110(1), 171–172.
    [Google Scholar]
  39. Sampson, Geoffrey
    (1985) Writing Systems. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
    [Google Scholar]
  40. Schmandt-Besserat, Denise
    (1996) How Writing Came About. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
    [Google Scholar]
  41. Seidl, Ursula
    (1989) Die babylonischen Kudurru- Reliefs. Symbole mesopotamischer Gottheiten. Universitätsverlag Freiburg.
    [Google Scholar]
  42. Sproat, Richard
    (2000) A Computational Theory of Writing Systems. ACL Studies in Natural Language Processing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    [Google Scholar]
  43. (2010) Language, Technology, and Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    [Google Scholar]
  44. (2014) A Statistical Comparison of Written Language and Nonlinguistic Symbol Systems. Language, 90(2), 457–481. doi: 10.1353/lan.2014.0031
    https://doi.org/10.1353/lan.2014.0031 [Google Scholar]
  45. Stauder, Andréas
    (2010) The earliest Egyptian writing. Pages137–147of: Woods, Christopher , Teeter, Emily , & Emberling, Geoff (eds), Visible Language: Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond. Oriental Institute Museum Publications, no. 32. Chicago: Oriental Institute.
    [Google Scholar]
  46. Steels, Luc
    (2012) Experiments in Cultural Language Evolution. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. doi: 10.1075/ais.3
    https://doi.org/10.1075/ais.3 [Google Scholar]
  47. Steinthal, Heyman
    (1852) Die Entwicklung der Schrift, nebst einem offenen Sendschreiben an Herrn Professor Pott. Berlin: Ferd. Dümmler’s Verlagsbuchhandlung.
    [Google Scholar]
  48. Wang, Haicheng
    (2014) Writing and the Ancient State: Early China in Comparative Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi: 10.1017/CBO9781139235709
    https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781139235709 [Google Scholar]
  49. Whittaker, Gordon
    (2009) The Principles of Nahuatl Writing. Göttinger Beiträge zur Sprachwissenschaft, 16, 47–81.
    [Google Scholar]
  50. Wieger, Léon
    (1965) Chinese Characters: Their Origin, Etymology, History, Classification and Signification. A Thorough Study from Chinese Documents. New York: Dover Publications. Translated by L. Davrout.
    [Google Scholar]
  51. Woods, Christopher , Teeter, Emily , & Emberling, Geoff
    (eds) (2010) Visible Language: Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond. Oriental Institute Museum Publications, no. 32. Chicago: Oriental Institute.
    [Google Scholar]

Data & Media loading...

  • Article Type: Research Article
Keyword(s): computational simulations; early writing

Most Cited

This is a required field
Please enter a valid email address
Approval was successful
Invalid data
An Error Occurred
Approval was partially successful, following selected items could not be processed due to error