From ABC NEWS
Celebrating Five Millennia of the Word
Tuesday March 20 09:39 AM EST
When human beings first began to write thousands of years ago, it wasn't to create great works of literature, or woo a lover, or even to praise the gods. No, it was much simpler.
The first words of the Bible are "In the beginning," but the first words ever recorded were probably more prosaic.
They were probably something along the lines of "Bob. Three sheep."
Scholars who trace the invention of writing say the oldest writing was far from poetry, but was rather an accounting record. They say it developed because ancient man needed a way of keeping records for business and government.
As civilization developed, and people began gathering in towns and cities, it became impossible to remember who had made their donation to the temple or who owned which piece of land.
"It was an economic need based on the evolution of society," says Billie Jean Collins, a lecturer on Near Eastern studies at Emory University in Atlanta.
So ancient man developed a series of pictures to help - and that became writing.
A Unique Anniversary
Five thousand years later, we have automobiles and derivatives trades to keep track of, Shakespeare to read, and an anniversary to celebrate.
This week, Iraq is marking the 5,000th anniversary of the invention of the written word with an international conference. Historians and archaeologists from the United States, Britain, France and Japan, as well as from several Arab countries, are expected to participate.
Scholars trace the origins of writing to the Sumerian civilization, which was based in and around what is now modern Iraq in the third millennium B.C.
The oldest known writing comes from tablets found in the to the ancient city of Uruk, 155 miles southwest of Baghdad.
The tablets - ranging in size from small ones that could be held in the palm of the hand to large ones that could only be held with both hands - were originally made of damp clay and inscribed with a stylus.
Objects were represented by pictures, numbers were represented by repeated strokes or circles, and names were indicated by combinations of pictures.
Specialists were charged with the duty, which makes the job of historians easier today.
"Back then it was really a technical profession," says David Testen, a visiting scholar at the University of Chicago. "You didn't just pick up a piece of clay and piece of reed."
And that's important because "these texts really tell us where our roots are. It allows us to see patterns of human behavior and why we do what we do," says Collins.
"This is probably our best way of seeing those interactions on the ground," says Testen.
The Evolution of Language
The writing we know today, with an alphabet representing sounds, and words representing objects and ideas, evolved from the ancient "word pictures," scholars say.
The "word picture" system eventually included more than 700 signs - too cumbersome, both to write and remember.
The next step then, was a script now called cuneiform. Cuneiform was a series of wedge-shaped signs, developed from the pictures, but used sounds to represent objects and ideas.
Although it also contained hundreds of characters, it was also more versatile. Cuneiform spread quickly from the Sumerians, to the Assyrians, Babylonians, Elamites, Hittites, Hurrians and the Urartu.
It was used for thousands of years, until as recently the first century B.C., when it was replaced by the m