Sumerian Writing

22.03.2015 |

Episode #1 of the course “Inventions that changed the world and their stories”

Did you know that writing came about by accident? Sumerians developed a novel manner to record trade information more than six thousand years ago. With clay tokens made into different shapes, the Sumerians tracked deals by putting coins into clay envelopes. Because they could not see what was in the envelopes once sealed, they used a sharp stick to inscribe the clay and show what was inside.

The Sumerians realized that marking the envelopes meant they didn’t need the coins. Hence, by 3100 BC, they started using clay squares to record trading with symbols. This move signified the beginning of writing.

Next, the Sumerians stopped using pictures and starting using reeds to mark the clay squares. The markings began to resemble what we now know as writing. Cuneiform, as it was termed by archeologists, was in use for 3,000 years. However, it was a problematic form of writing because every new word needed a new mark, pronouns like “it” were hard to put into a picture, and names needed a symbol too. To try to fix these issues, the Sumerians created language homonyms to represent similar sounding words that had no picture. For example, “in” and “water” sounded similar to Sumerians, so they shared one mark.

Systems like this still exist. In China, a similar system was independently developed with different symbols approximately 3,500 years ago. This system works because in various Chinese regions, words have varied pronunciation. Therefore, alphabetic writing is ineffective because of the record of the pronunciation.

Sumerians were the first to write without using the alphabet. To record history, writing is required, and ancient Sumerian tradesmen solidified their place there with this invention.


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