The news today is full of articles about immigration. The media often casts it in a bad light, but did you know that it was illiterate immigrants in ancient Egypt who invented a tool that over half of the world’s population still uses every day, one that rewired our brains?

The invention of the alphabet

The invention of the alphabet, which is a set of standardised symbols that represent the sounds of a spoken language, starts with the invention of writing itself. This happened at least four separate times in human history: cuneiform was devised by the Sumerians in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) around 3400 BCE, hieroglyphs were created in Egypt around 3200 BCE, Chinese diviners first inscribed questions about the emperor’s future on ox bones dating to 1300 BCE and in Mesoamerica (a region that ranges from southern Mexico to Costa Rica) the Mayans developed their first character system between 900 and 600 BCE. Examples of these scripts are illustrated in the image below.

All of these four writing systems started small, by drawing pictures that represented things in the world around them. Most of these writing systems had an administrative purpose. The Sumerians in Mesopotamia, for example, recorded how much barley they produced in a season by drawing a picture of a sheaf of barley and some symbol representing a number. This is a great system, until you want to write about things that are difficult to draw a picture of. The Sumerians, Egyptians, Chinese and Mayans all realised this, but luckily they all shared one thing: the creativity of the human mind.

The four oldest writing systems in the world. Clockwise: a clay tablet recording workers’ wages in cuneiform; an Egyptian stela with a hymn to the god Osiris, written in hieroglyphs; an animal shoulder bone inscribed with Shang Dynasty early-Chinese characters, recording that there will be no bad luck in the next ten-day period; a stela from Belize, recording the lineage and reign of the ruler K’ak’ U’ Ti’ Chan using Mayan characters. British Museum (CC-BY-NC-SA) /British Library (CC0 1.0).

There is one universal principle of our brain that underlies the invention of all writing systems: the rebus principle. The basic idea behind the rebus principle is that pictures can indeed represent words, but also the sounds of those words when you say them. This helped the Sumerians, for example, write words like ‘beautiful’ (see image below): they combined the symbol for ‘barley’ (‘she’, pronounced sheh) with the symbol for ‘milk’ (‘ga’, pronounced gah) to write ‘beautiful’ (‘she-ga’). This really helped writing take off, as well as the societies that used it. Suddenly it was possible to compose diplomatic letters and artful poems!

The Sumerian word for ‘beautiful’ (‘she-ga’, pronounced sheh-gah) in the cuneiform script. The symbol on the left is the symbol for ‘barley’ (‘she’, pronounced sheh) and the one on the right is the symbol for ‘milk’ (‘ga’, pronounced gah). Combined, they write the word ‘she-ga’ (sheh-gah), which means ‘beautiful’. Screenshot from the BBC FOUR documentary The Secret History of Writing: From Pictures to Words.

Scripts like Egyptian hieroglyphs and cuneiform, with all their many different characters, take a lot of effort to read, though. Indeed, Chinese characters are still considered by many to be the most difficult writing system to learn. (And did you know that when Chinese teachers teach their pupils these characters, they often refer back to original characters found on those ox bones dating from 3300 years ago?) This is when the alphabet enters our story, and the alphabet was invented only once.

In around 1850 BCE, turquoise and copper mining was big business in the Sinai desert in Egypt (known today as Serabit El-Kharim), and most of the heavy work was being done by immigrant miners from Canaan (an area in the Middle East, centred around present-day Israel and Palestine). These illiterate but expert miners didn’t speak the Egyptian language, nor could they read the complicated hieroglyphs that Egyptian scribes studied for years to fully master. But like the Egyptians they worked with, they were looking for ways to immortalise themselves and communicate with their gods. And precisely because they didn’t understand hieroglyphs, they could use them in imaginative new ways.

So, what did they do? They started with simplifying the hieroglyphs they saw all around them. They then pronounced these new pictures as they would in their own language. And finally they applied the rebus principle again so that each new symbol came to represent only a single sound in their native language.

Here is an example: they saw the Egyptian hieroglyph of a man with both arms raised (left) and likely thought of their foremen yelling ‘Hey!’ in the mines. They then simplified the hieroglyph so it essentially looked like a stick figure (right) and voilà, the letter H was born (which they called ‘heh’). With only 30-35 symbols instead of hundreds of hieroglyphs, this radical new invention really democratised writing and made it much more accessible to many more people. Indeed, the alphabet was eventually embraced all over the globe.

The evolution of several characters in the Latin and Modern Hebrew alphabet, from their origins in Egyptian hieroglyphs, to the Proto-Sinaitic (Canaanite) characters, through the Phoenician/Paleo-Hebrew, early Greek and Greek forms to their current form. Copyright: Goldwasser, O. (2016).

This started when the Canaanite miners moved back home, and the alphabet was adopted by another group of people in that area, the Phoenicians. They modified it somewhat and spread it across the Mediterranean. The ancient Greeks then picked up this handy new invention, made some further changes, and passed it on to the Romans. The Romans turned many letters either upside down or left-to-right and then passed this new incarnation of the alphabet onto many other languages, including English. You can see this transition from Proto-Sinaitic (Canaanite) to our modern-day Roman alphabet for a handful of letters in the image on the right.

The spread of the alphabet didn’t stop there, though! Also the Hebrew, Armenian, Cyrillic, Tibetan, Devanagari and Gujarati scripts are all based on the Canaanite alphabet. Even the word ‘alphabet’ itself still harks back to the names its original inventors gave to the individual letters: the letter A in the Canaanite language was called ‘aluf’ (Canaanite for ‘bull’) and the B ‘bet’ (‘house’). The Greeks called these same letters ‘alpha’ and ‘beta’, respectively, and the Romans used these Greek letter names to coin the term ‘alphabetum’.

The alphabet and our brains

As I said before, learning to read is an effortful process. It requires the reader to memorise a number of characters and the sounds they represent, and learn a set of rules on how to combine these characters to form words. How did our brain rise to this challenge?

The visual word form area. The image shows the left hemisphere of the human brain cortex divided into the four major areas: the occipital cortex (red), the temporal cortex (green), the parietal cortex (yellow), and the frontal cortex (blue). The illustration highlights the brain networks involved in recognising written words. When we read a piece of text, visual information about what we are reading arrives in our brain’s occipital cortex (marked with an eye icon). From there, the information spreads across the brain to reach those regions that are specialised for language: the visual word form area and the wider ‘language system’. The visual word form area is marked by the purple oval. The oval marks where this area would be if you could see it from the side because this area is actually visible only from the bottom. The visual word form area acts as a translator between our visual system and our language regions. It takes the input it gets from the occipital cortex, checks whether this input matches any known words, and then passes this information on to other regions of the language system marked in orange, where the language we speak, write, hear and see is further processed.

Our brain developed a region specialised for recognising written words, which is called the visual word form area. This region is located at the bottom of the brain’s left temporal lobe (see image on the left), which is just behind the ears, and close to the brain’s ‘language system’. This area is like a translator that takes the input it gets from areas of the brain that process visual information, checks whether that visual information matches a known word and, if so, passes this information onto the language system for further interpretation.

The visual word form area most likely developed through a process called neuronal recycling, when a part of the brain that used to serve a different function is co-opted to support a new cultural development, such as writing. Before we started reading and writing, we already had brain areas specialised for recognising objects and faces. In parts of these areas, the neurons were trained to recognise the simple shapes like lines, circles, and T-junctions that make up our letters. When humans started to write, this area was simply given a new job. Now, whenever a child learns to read, this part of the brain starts to learn the shapes of letters and words in that child’s language. This even happens in blind children who learn to read braille! And more than that, it appears to be the case that, across generations, scribes (possibly our immigrant Canaanites, too) selected and transformed letters to closely match the shapes that this area in the brain had already evolved to detect. So, while the invention of the alphabet rewired our brains, our brains also shaped our alphabet.

A miracle of migration

If there is one innovation in human history that deserves to be called a miracle of migration, it is the alphabet. While this invention heavily depended on our brain’s evolved ability to recognise simple shapes, it was ultimately the result of a group of illiterate immigrants who wished to be remembered forever. And they certainly succeeded at that! So, whenever you find yourself discussing the merits of migration, remember that he letters you see all around you every day can be traced back to this group of Canaanite miners in Egypt.

Further reading

This blogpost is based on the first episode From Pictures to Words of the three-part BBC FOUR documentary The Secret History of Writing. If you want to find out more about the 5000-year history of writing, be sure to watch all three episodes!

The following sources also deserve credit:

Goldwasser, O. (2016). Appendix B: The birth of the alphabet from Egyptian hieroglyphs in the Sinai Desert. From the catalogue for Pharaoh in Canaan: The untold story, an exhibition at the Israel Museum from March 4, 2016 until December 31, 2016.

Clayton, E. (2019). Where did writing begin? From the British Library website.

Dehaene, S. (2013). Inside the letterbox: How literacy transforms the human brain. From Cerebrum.

Kassuba, T., and Kastner, S. (2015). The reading brain. From Frontiers for Young Minds, a Scientific American blog.

Diringer, D., and Olson, D.R. Alphabet. From the Encyclopedia Brittanica.

Wikimedia Commons. Hieroglyph of a man with both arms raised. Copyright: CC0 1.0 (public domain).

Wikimedia Commons. Proto-Sinaitic he. Copyright: CC0 1.0 (public domain).

Figures credits

Drawing of an Egyptian painting in the tomb of Khnumhotep II in Beni Hassan (Egypt) (featured image) showing a group of West Asiatics (left) arriving in Egypt. The West Asiatics were the people who lived in present-day Syria and the Israel/Palestine region.
Copyrights: Lepsius, C. R. (1849). Detail der Nordwand des Grabes BN 3 des Chnumhotep II. in Beni Hassan, Egypt. Copyright: CC0 1.0 .”

The four oldest writing systems in the world.
Copyright for the top left and bottom right images: British Museum (CC-BY-NC-SA); copyright for the top right and bottom left images: British Library (CC0 1.0). All images obtained from Clayton, E. (2019). Where did writing begin?

The Sumerian word for ‘beautiful’
Screenshot from the BBC FOUR documentary The Secret History of Writing: From Pictures to Words.

The evolution of several characters in the Latin and Modern Hebrew alphabet.
Copyright: Goldwasser, O. (2016). Appendix B: The birth of the alphabet from Egyptian hieroglyphs in the Sinai Desert. From the catalogue for Pharaoh in Canaan: The untold story, an exhibition at the Israel Museum from March 4, 2016 until December 31, 2016.

The wordbox in our brain.
Author made it from  CC0 1.0 contents.