Historians take red pen out for written language boast

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

The claim is false. History experts date written forms of language as far back as Mesopotamia about 5500 years ago, well before most forms of “western” civilization.

The meme has been widely shared on social media following Queen Elizabeth II’s death, such as this Facebook post, amid debate about British colonialism. It is taken from an Instagram story on influencer Dean Wells’ account. His link to the story, which became the subject of a Daily Mail Australia article, is seen more clearly in this post.

The meme reads: “To all the people whinging about ‘colonialism’ from their iPhones, powered by electricity, using a written language, from inside a building that has constant running water, plumbing, air con and all the other modern conveniences that western civilization has provided for us all to live the most comfortable, prosperous, safe, privileged lives of any humans in all of history … Please kindly 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 the inclusion of “written language” as one of the benefits of western civilization is wrong, with one calling it an “ignorant rave”.

John McWhorter, an 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, written language emerged in Mesopotamia about 5500 years ago. I’m not sure that counts as ‘Western Civilization’,” Dr McWhorter told AAP FactCheck your email

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

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

An essay on The Evolution of Writing, published in the International Encyclopedia Of Social And Behavioral Sciences, also sources writing to Mesopotamia, circa 3200BC, with other writing systems also developing independently in China and Mesoamerica – which encompassed much of modern-day Central America and southern Mexico.

Mesopotamian cuneiform
The Chronicle of Nebuchadnezzar is an example of Mesopotamian cuneiform dating to about 600BCE.

Professor Marc Zender, a linguist, epigrapher and archaeologist from Tulane University, told AAP FactCheck the claim in the Facebook post is wrong.

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

This Britannica essay explains how the invention of the alphabet is seen as a major achievement of western civilization, but also the final, and relatively recent, stage of writing’s evolution.

“But that would be a pretty narrow and question-begging definition,” Dr. Zender said.

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

“Finally, other writing systems are of course employed on iPhones even today, such as the Chinese and Japanese scripts, which are certainly separate from what anyone might term a product of ‘Western Civilization’, no matter how broadly.”

Ancient hieroglyphs from an Egyptian temple (file image)
Hieroglyphs in the chambers of Abu Simbel temple in southern Egypt, dating to 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 written language was invented independently at least three and probably four times in history: Egypt and/or Mesopotamia; China; Mesoamerica; and possibly India,” Professor Salomon told AAP FactCheck in an email.

“‘Our’ writing is derived, ultimately and indirectly, from Egyptian with Semitic (Canaanite, Phoenician) intermediaries, then via Greek, Etruscan, and Latin. I assume that by ‘western’ he means Euro-American or just ‘white’. In any case, the claim is meaningless; written language is not the invention of ‘western civilization’ in any meaningful sense.”

The Verdict

The claim written language was invented by western civilization is false. All evidence points to the origins of written language emerging in Mesopotamia about 5500 years ago, a consensus view supported by language history experts.

False – The claim is inaccurate.

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