Spoken language is so old that we have to guess how it began. The first people to speak to each other probably lived at least one million years ago. They were nomads. This means they hunted animals for food and travelled around in search of them. They lived in small groups. and shared the work they had to do to stay alive. They made knives and spearheads out of sharp stones. While some of the group went hunting or gathering fruit and berries. others had to stay behind to tend the fire. Like other animals who live in groups. our ancestors would have used calls and other sounds to communicate. They also learned to make each different noise stand for a single object or idea. They would have given names to the desert. the forest. the sky. day and night. the weather. food. water, plants and animals. They would also have made words for what they did. hunting. running. sleeping or eating.
All they knew had to be remembered. To help them. and to teach the children. they probably made up songs. dances and rituals that they performed whenever anything important happened. like someone dying or being born. or rain falling after dry weather. The group’s language and its traditions (its culture) helped to keep its members together. If you could not read, you would be able to tell what this post is about by looking at the pictures on each page. Pictures are a kind of language. Some of the oldest pictures were painted about many years ago on the walls of caves. They are usually of animals. and many are very beautiful. No one knows why they were painted. They may have been a record of what was hunted. or perhaps the hunters thought that if they painted a deer or a buffalo it would work as a kind of magic to help them find the real animals. While artists were at work on these cave paintings. another sort of ‘drawing’ was also used. Dots and dashes were scratched on sticks and bones as a way of counting and keeping records, and language. Some of them may have been used as calendars, for counting days and showing the phases of the moon. Both the paintings and the stick-records show that by this time people had worked out how to make symbols of the world around them. Pictures show objects and actions. and writing really began with them. The little ‘matchstick’ drawings the first writers used are called pictographs. But try drawing this message: ‘Please lend me a pen until tomorrow. I’ve left mine at home’. You can draw yourself. your friend. the pen. your home. However. can you draw ‘lend’, ‘tomorrow’ and ‘left’? Can you also draw ‘please’?
You could do it if you could use pictures that stood for the sounds of the words. Such signs are phonetic. They can represent sounds in the exact order in which they are spoken. Using pictures. you can write down what you can see. If you use sound signs you can write down your ideas and feelings, and you can write all the ‘connecting’ words that make sentences.
The first people to write in pictographs, a special sort of language, about 5000 years ago. were the Sumerians. They lived in Mesopotamia in the Middle East. By now, cities were being built and the people were becoming farmers. craftsmen, merchants. priests. They had kings and they had to pay taxes, and all needed to keep records of what they were doing. Sometimes they wanted to communicate with people in other cities. so they had to send letters. They wrote these on clay tablets. Many of the phonetic signs they used were based on objects whose names sounded like the words they wanted to write. Some languages are still written in pictographs today. The Chinese and Japanese use symbols which are usually called characters. Each character stands for a whole word. New characters have had to be devised to express new ideas. and today there are several thousand Chinese characters in use.