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Emotional history of writing from 4th millennium BC to the present day shows how it 'made us human'

Since before 3000 BCE, writing culture has traversed a long path and Walter Stephens explained how it anchored its importance.

Emotional history of writing from 4th millennium BC to the present day shows how it 'made us human'
Cover Image Source: Cuneiform tablet relating part of the Epic of Gilgamesh, Neo-Assyrian, 7th century BC. From the British Museum. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

As per the study done by Massimo Maiocchi, some of the earliest forms of writing known to man were from the middle of the fourth millennium BCE. Cuneiform scripts from southwestern Asia and Egyptian hieroglyphics in northern Africa laid the foundational stones for today's diverse writing systems. It was during the start of 3000 BCE that an urban society was formed in Uruq - modern Warka, in southern Iraq, which was home to a substantial population. Study says that language was made visible for the first time ever in this metropolis. Since then, a plethora of social evolution made writing a norm, which was spoken about in the book "How Writing Made Us Human, 3000 BCE to Now" by Walter Stephens.

Image Source: Cuneiform tablet recording barley rations, 1st Dynasty of Lagash, about 2350-2200 BC, from Tello (ancient Girsu), southern Iraq. From the British Museum's collection, 23rd century BC. (Photo by CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)
Image Source: Cuneiform tablet recording barley rations, 1st Dynasty of Lagash, about 2350-2200 BC, from Tello (ancient Girsu), southern Iraq. From the British Museum's collection, 23rd century BC. (Photo by CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Beyond the technological leap from hieroglyphics and cuneiforms to digital texts, the history of writing encompasses a deeper, more emotional journey. The society gradually developed an emotional engagement with the writing culture. The humanities have come so far that writing is now something that society deems a need, unlike historical times when it wasn't a significant skill for many. In an article by The Conversation that highlights Stephens's book, the "emotional history" of writing that Stephens chose to focus on was emphasized. Also, amid the detailed discussion about various evidence of writing from the Renaissance and Early Modern periods, the invention of the writing form that we know now was widely debated. 

Image Source: Folio 12r from Venetus A, the most important extant Greek manuscript of Homer's Iliad, ink on vellum, probably written in Constantinople, Biblioteca Marciana, Venice, Italy. (Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)
Image Source: Folio 12r from Venetus A, the most important extant Greek manuscript of Homer's Iliad, ink on vellum, probably written in Constantinople, Biblioteca Marciana, Venice, Italy. (Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)

As per Stephens, experts attribute the Hebrew Bible and Graeco-Roman writers to the modern-day writing culture. Particularly, the 1st-century Jewish-Roman historian Flavius Josephus's exposition that the invention of writing was even before the great Biblical flood still received mixed responses from experts. After centuries of metamorphosis from hieroglyphics and cuneiforms to writing on papyrus/paper, the writing culture played a crucial role in the liberation of slaves in 19th-century North America. When the literary skills improved, humanism seemed to gradually improve too. Slaves and activists who fought against slavery used their pens as their weapons to send a powerful message out to a wider audience. 

Image Source: Mammy Prater, a former slave, sits writing at a small table in front of a house at age 115. (Photo by Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)
Image Source: Mammy Prater, a former slave, sits writing at a small table in front of a house at age 115. (Photo by Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

The phrase "made us humans" in the title mainly points to the change in society's outlooks once the slaves, who were often illiterate people who didn't know how to read or write, learned the skills and climbed up the social hierarchy. Stephens considered the emotional side of the history of writing and how it transformed society into a much more humane one than it was before. However, one has to note that centuries ago, it was common for people not to know how to read or write and it was not considered illiterate.

What was once the art of writing is now a deciding factor in literacy and Stephens focused on its impact on the attitude of a society as a whole. With a comprehensive history of the written word, the author renders how it has shaped human life since the Bronze Age. Over the centuries, writing not only had a transformative impact but also helped preserve cultural practices, traditions and knowledge throughout human history. Though writing practices have much more far-reaching applications now than before, these historical pieces of evidence of writing were the ones to light the path for present-day penmanship.

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