Have you ever stopped to think about the complexity and beauty of the written word? It’s astounding to me to consider the creativity that must have gone into the world’s many, many writing systems over the millennia.
Writing is also a very new idea – relatively speaking. Anatomically modern humans are estimated to have existed for somewhere around 150,000 years. That may seem like a long time but in the grand scheme of hominid evolution we’re pretty much an infant species.
We have very few ways of knowing exactly -or even roughly- when language first emerged among paleolithic humans. Some have suggested that language may have been one of the great contributing factors that led early man out of Africa, serving as a means by which smaller family bands could group together into a migratory clan capable of longer distance travel – the sort of travel needed to expand around the globe.
But writing didn’t come until much, much later. While there is still some debate as to the first writing systems, it is generally accepted among the linguistic and anthropological communities that the first legitimate writing arose in the 3rd millennium BC in Mesopotamia.
It is also believed that writing was invented independently in Central America and arguably in China at different times in the past few thousand years.
Certain pictographic systems appear to have been in place before 3000 BC, including places such as Southeast Europe in the form of the Vinča symbols as well as in Henan China in the form of the Jiahu symbols engraved on turtle shells. However, despite the claims of a small few linguists, these symbols – have never been clearly shown to encode language, more or less ruling them out as the eldest writing systems.
Here are seven of my personal favorite writing systems, some historical and others not. This is by no means a complete list of all of the world’s cool writing systems. For that we would have to write volumes.
#7 Vai Script
Created by Momolu Duwalu Bukele in the first half of the 19th century, the Vai Syllabary is a writing system used with the previously oral tradition of the Vai language.
With around 120,000 speakers in Liberia and Sierra Leon; Vai – a member of the Niger Congo family – is one of the few languages in Sub-Saharan Africa that can claim a writing system that is not based on Latin script.
Some linguists claim that there could be a link between Cherokee script and the Vai syllabary owing to the emigration of many Cherokee people from the United States to Liberia around this time period.
The potential link between Cherokee and Vai makes this script one of the coolest writing systems!
Ogham was an early medieval system of writing used primarily in Ireland between the 4th and 10th centuries AD. Ogham consists of what appear to be lines or tally marks that would have been carved into wood or stone.
Also called the “Celtic Tree Alphabet”, one of the things that makes Ogham rank among my favorite languages is that the letters are all named for various types of tree. They look a bit like trees as well!Technically speaking, ogham refers specifically to the writing system as a whole, whereas the letters themselves are called Beith-luis-nin, named after the first few letters in the writing system in much the same way that ‘Alphabet” comes from the Greek Alpha and Beta (A and B).
Balinese is without a doubt one of the most beautiful writing systems I’ve ever laid eyes on. Also called Aksara Bali and Hanacaraka natively, Balinese, a member of the Austronesian language family, is used on the islands of Java and Bali.
Javanese and Balinese writing systems are very closely related – both hailing from a Brahmi predecessor that influenced many languages in Southern and Southeast Asia over the centuries.
According to certain traditions, Balinese script – often written on palm leaves – could not be read by just anyone. These leaves are often considered to be sacred.
The free flowing nature of this script, combined with its complexity, makes it look like something straight out of a Tolkienian fantasy.
Boustrophedon isn’t so much of a writing system in and of itself as it is a form of writing various scripts, but I still think it’s one of the coolest styles and thus merits a place on this list!
This system, rather than reading from right to left, (also called dextrosinistral) or left to right (sinistrodextral), boustrophedon systems alternate each line, moving back and forth across the stone or paper, each time with letters reversed, like, you guessed it, an ox pulling a plough.
Boustrophedon was used in older ancient Greek inscriptions, but has also been found on the mysterious Rapa Nui scripts on Easter Island – which remain untranslated.
A few conlangs use boustrophedon style systems of writing including Ithkuil.
The Forum inscription, one of the oldest known Latin inscriptions. It is written boustrophedon, albeit irregularly. From a rubbing by Domenico Comparetti. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Burmese is another beautiful Southeast Asian script that, like Balinese, descends from the Brahmi script family. Also called the Mon Script, this system dates back as far as the 11th century AD.
Burmese is read from left to right and is also used for both the Pali and Sanskrit languages for religious purposes in Burma.
Burmese calligraphy was also traditionally written on palm leaves.
“Butts! Butts everywhere!”
#2 Mongolian Bichig
For the longest time, Mongolian’s beautiful top-to-bottom writing style had me captivated and reigned supreme in my eyes as the most beautiful language one could commit to paper. As far as visual appeal it may still be my favorite.
Mongolian Bichig is based on the Old Uyghur script of Central Asia. It is also sometimes used to write a few of the Inner Mongolian and Siberian languages such as Xibe and Evenki, languages that previously had no written tradition.
The now nearly-extinct Manchu language once used a script very similar to Mongolian that is consideredto have been re purposed to better suit its needs. A very similar script is used among the Xibe people, a Tungusic people indigenous to Northeastern China.
#1 Ersu Shaba Script
Without a doubt the coolest script, in my opinion, is the Ersu Shaba picture writing system. This little known writing system belongs to the Ersu people of Tibet, an endangered minority with around 20,000 speakers.Of those speakers however, only around ten people are capable of understanding the Ersu Shaba script, which was probably not used for day to day writing – which makes sense as this language is largely pictographic and the characters are incapable of fully rendering the Ersu language.
Ersu Shaba is decried by some linguists as failing to meet the criteria of a legitimate writing system, but most support its legitimacy as a writing system due to a distinct relationship between the form of the writing and meaning. But what really, really makes this script the most awesome is that it is the only known script to incorporate color into its orthography!
Ersu Shaba was, and is used primarily for religious purposes – the other speakers of the language primarily use Tibetan or Chinese scripts for day-to-day purposes.
This particular image says:
“The ninth day of the first lunar month, a dog day, will be a fire day. In the morning there will be fog under the earth. Before sunrise, clouds will appear in the sky. A tsʰintʃʰá sword and a npʰópá will appear afterwards. This means that the morning will be a good morning. After midday, two stars will die, only one of the three will still be shining and the sun will be in an abnormal condition. One can surmise that there is a deity under the earth; it is better not to move earth that day. (Sun 2009:173)”
Many more fascinating and beautiful scripts and writing systems have existed throughout history and continue to exist today. What are some of your favorites?
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