Historians pull out the red pen to brag about the written language

A Facebook meme extolling the modern benefits of colonization has made the curious claim that written language is the product of Western civilization.

The allegation is false. History experts date written forms of the language as far back as Mesopotamia around 5,500 years ago, long before most forms of “Western” civilization.

The meme was widely shared on social media following Queen Elizabeth II’s death, such as this Facebook post, amid a debate over British colonialism. It is taken from an Instagram story on the account of influencer Dean Wells. Her connection to the story, which was the subject of a Daily Mail Australia article, comes out more clearly in this article.

The meme reads: “To all the people complaining about ‘colonialism’ from their iPhones, powered by electricity, using written language, from inside a building that constantly has l running water, plumbing, air conditioning and all the other modern conveniences that western civilization has enabled us all to live the most comfortable, prosperous, secure and privileged life of all humans in the whole story… Please STFU or go back to living in the bush.

The meme on Facebook makes many claims about the positive modern results of colonialism.

However, experts say including ‘written language’ as one of the benefits of Western civilization is a mistake, with one calling it an ‘ignorant rave’.

John McWhorter, associate professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, wrote the 2003 book The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language.

“As far as we know, the written language appeared in Mesopotamia around 5,500 years ago. I’m not sure that counts as a ‘Western civilization,'” Dr McWhorter said. AAP Fact Check by email

In the first chapter of his book, Dr. McWhorter writes: “Our first concrete records of the language come with the first written records: Sumerian cuneiform inventories, Egyptian hieroglyphic accounts, Maya inscriptions.

A British Library essay indicates that complete writing systems appear to have been invented independently at least four times in human history, first in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) where cuneiform was used between 3400 BC and 3300 BC. Cuneiform is a writing system used in the ancient Middle East.

An essay on the evolution of writing, published in the International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioral Sciences, also refers to writing in Mesopotamia, circa 3200 BC. southern Mexico.

Mesopotamian cuneiform
The Chronicle of Nebuchadnezzar is an example of Mesopotamian cuneiform dating from around 600 BCE.

Professor Marc Zender, a linguist, epigrapher and archaeologist at Tulane University, said AAP Fact Check the claim in the Facebook post is false.

“If we were inclined to be charitable…then we strength to say that the specific type of writing referenced by the OP – i.e. a Roman alphabet typed into an iPhone – was certainly disseminated by what we might call Western civilization (i.e. the Roman Republic and Empire, and later the Roman Catholic religion),” Dr Zender said in an email.

This Britannica essay explains how the invention of the alphabet is considered a major achievement of Western civilization, but also the final and relatively recent step in the evolution of writing.

“But that would be a pretty narrow definition and asking questions,” Dr. Zender said.

“And even then, the alphabet has a much longer history, dating back to the Proto-Sinaitic script of Semitic-language speakers in Egypt and Sinai around 1850 BCE, so any claim to ‘invention “by Western civilization is to be dismissed. Nor is the alphabet the first/oldest system of writing, of course, since writing was invented on at least five independent occasions according to our best information at present day, the oldest being either the Sumerian cuneiform or the Egyptian hieroglyph, both appearing around 3200 BCE.

“Finally, other writing systems are of course used on iPhones even today, such as Chinese and Japanese scripts, which are certainly distinct from what one might call a product of ‘Western Civilization’. , regardless of its magnitude.

Ancient hieroglyphs from an Egyptian temple (archive image)
Hieroglyphs in the chambers of the Abu Simbel temple in southern Egypt, dating from the 13th century BCE.

Richard Salomon, professor emeritus of Sanskrit at the University of Washington, is less charitable, calling the meme an “ignorant rave.”

“It is now firmly established that the written language was independently invented at least three and probably four times in history: Egypt and/or Mesopotamia; China; Mesoamerica; and possibly India,” Prof Salomon said. AAP Fact Check in an email.

“’Our’ writing is ultimately and indirectly derived from Egyptian with Semitic relays (Canaanites, Phoenicians), then via Greek, Etruscan and Latin. I guess by “Western” he means Euro-American or just “white”. In any case, the complaint makes no sense; written language is not the invention of “Western civilization” in any significant sense. »

The verdict

The claim that written language was invented by Western civilization is false. All evidence points to the origins of the written language emerging in Mesopotamia around 5,500 years ago, a consensus view supported by language history experts.

Fake – The request is incorrect.

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