Brain Pickings

Who Invented Writing? An Animated Historical Detective Story


From Sumerian cuneiform to hieroglyphics to Chinese script, a tale of simultaneous invention.

Theories of why humans write abound — for George Orwell, the impulse was driven by sheer egoism and aesthetic enthusiasm; for Joan Didion, writing provides vital access to one’s own mind; David Foster Wallace sought in it the nature of fun; for Joy Williams, it offers an escape from darkness into light; for Isabel Allende, it’s an irrepressible outpouring of inner life. But how did we get to write in the first place?

In this lovely short animation from TED Ed, Matthew Winkler, author of The Bloomberg Way: A Guide for Reporters and Editors, takes us on a historical detective story to figure out who invented writing and explains how symbols set writing and drawing apart as vehicles of meaning:

If you just draw what you mean, that’s art — not writing. In order for this to be writing, the symbol has to stand for the word.

Complement with this fascinating visual history of how sounds became shapes.

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