An Essay on the History of Written Language: Ivory Towers and Mythical Landscapes

This is an essay on the history of written language, it starts with a look at the mysterious figure of Socrates and his discussion of the god Thoth, reputed in myth to have created language.  This has been chosen as a starting point as this essay is already out of its depth in suggesting that such a subject can be tackled adequately.  We find ourselves confronted with the study of history and the art of historiography – what stories are told and how truely they hold any facts.  The most useful tool here will be a helping of doubt upon which a healthy scepticism to question things.


Westport books

When I started this small, amateur study, I had no idea how much of a complicated subject it was.  It seemed on the surface simple.  As I went on trying to find the bottom of this endless story, the narrative(s) kept on revealing to me a million more roots and avenues to pursue.  Neither did I understand that it was so much of a political question to pursue either, and that, in my pursuit for the antique origins of written language I discovered the sage guidance of Wendy and Warwick Ball – friends of history, who were kind enough to guide me towards understandings that I have chosen to try and fit an ocean in a cup…


Here, in a series of articles which follow on from each other are some of the most rudimentary findings on the history of written language scavenged and aped from people who have spent whole lifetimes on the subject.  In setting out to answer the question of ‘what are the origins of written language’ I am reminded of a time when in Bert’s Westport Bookshop in Edinburgh – a nice gent who used to give me cups of tea and let me rummage through his catacombs of old and intriguing books. I asked him if he had an original copy of Homer’s Odyssey.


He smiled in an amused way, and pointed to a man who was standing engrossed in a leatherbound book in the corner of the shop.  He said “You are best to ask that gentleman there the same question you have asked me, and when he has stopped shouting at you, then you are in for a treat….”. Indeed I went across and asked the question to be met with an irate response “HOMER’S ODYSSEY IS AN ORAL TRADITION; WHO’S HOMER’S ODYSSEY ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT…..”, the gent was a visiting professor from Iran who dealt in various studies of the ancient world including the fabled Homer’s Odyssey.


It was not a stupid question, as this is how we discover new ways of seeing the world, tt was naive. I believe we should cherish our naivety as it is part of our sense of wonder, the thing which carries us to new and greater understandings.  The gent wound up giving me an informal lecture on the immense history behind the historic tradition that is Homer’s Odyssey and then recommending several ways in which I could approach getting to know about the oral tradition and stories associated with it.


He was irate at first because he cared about the subject and obviously did not like the idea of it being reduced to something less than it is.  He wound up being a nice guy who taught me all manner of things I did not know about.  So this is the end of my introduction to the following work on the history of written language, a warning for you has been set to always ask ‘who’s history is this that I am hearing?’ and I open the work with a thought exercise in written language on the myth of Socrates and western philosophy….’

mirrors reflecting each other


“You, who are the father of letters have been led by your affection to ascribe to them a power the opposite of that which they really possess…. You have invented an elixor not of memory, but of reminding, and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant.” – Socrates


Socrates lived in Athens from 469 to 399 BCE. In Socrates and his followers we meet the formulators of great philosophies that have constituted the major traditions of Western Civilization. The lesser Socratics, the Platonic Academy, the Aristotelian Lyceum, and the Hellenistic movements can all be traced to this origin. All later thought is forced to reckon with these, and it is argued by some that a great part of later thinking can be considered to be an elaboration, a commentary upon, or a criticism of, these movements. The questioning method of Socrates was the intial stimulus.



There followed the elaboration and interpretation of his suggestions by less important followers; then the writings of Plato and the Academy; and finally, the study of factual details by Aristotle and his school. Meanwhile, some tendencies from the Pre-Socratics continued without being absorbed entirely by the Platonists and Aristotelians. Socrates met the relativism of the Sophists by taking counterpoints to their arguments whilst acknowledging that he knew nothing and was simply active in an enquiry, thus formulating inductive definitions of the meanings of terms as he went along. He saw the effort to lead an intelligent existence the only virtue acceptable to a rational mind.


The influence of Socrates was active when the Sophists were at their height, and it was even suggested that he was the greatest Sophist of them all. He agreed with them in so far as they insisted that man’s primary interest is man. The attempt to fathom the nature of the universe before man understood himself seemed a hopeless task, and one that was hardly worth while. According to the Greek writer Pausanias, the ancient Greek aphorism “Know yourself” was inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, where Socrates was an initiate. Perhaps there is some significant connection between Socrates’ outlook and the influence of this sacred institution of the ancient world.


In the late fifth century B.C.E., it was more or less assumed that any self-respecting Athenian male would choose fame, wealth, honors, and political power over a life of physical work. Although many citizens made a living by their labor in a wide variety of occupations, they were expected to spend a good portion of their free time concerning themselves with the affairs of the city.


Men regularly participated in the governing Assembly and in the city’s many courts; and those who could afford it prepared themselves for success in public life by studying with rhetoricians and sophists (traveling teachers) from abroad. many of whom became wealthy and famous by teaching the youths of Athens to use words to their advantage. Various forms of higher education were practiced in Athens including mathematics, astronomy, geometry, music, ancient history, and linguistics. What was interesting about Socrates is that he neither labored to earn a living, nor participated voluntarily in affairs of state. Socrates actively avoided aligning himself politically with oligarchs and democrats.  This resulted in him having friends and enemies among both, as he enigmatically supported and opposed actions of both.


Stupid horse

The term “gadfly” was used by Plato in the Apology to describe Socrates’ relationship of uncomfortable goad to the Athenian political scene, which he compared to a slow and dimwitted horse. Thus, he upset the status quo of the Athenians by posing upsetting or novel questions, or just being an irritant. It irritated them to find that their traditional beliefs were neither well founded nor easily defensible.


He embraced poverty and, although youths of the city kept company with him and imitated him, Socrates adamantly insisted he was not a teacher and refused all his life to take money for what he did. Teachers were viewed as pitchers pouring their contents into the empty cups that were the students.


Socrates did not consider himself as a ‘transmitter of information’ which others were passively to receive (as one may understand in some Sophist’s tradition), thus he resisted being compared to the Sophists (teachers of his time). Rather, he spent his time often talking with others to help them recognize independently what is real, true, and good (Plato, Meno, Theaetetus)—a new approach to education.


Socrates seemed to have a higher opinion of women than many of his fellow citizens had, speaking of “men and women,” “priests and priestesses,” and naming foreign women as his teachers. Socrates claimed to have learned rhetoric from Aspasia of Miletus, the lover of Pericles (Plato, Menexenus); and to have learned erotics from the priestess Diotima of Mantinea (Plato, Symposium).


The the socialization and education of males often involved a relationship from which the word ‘pederasty’ has arisen in which a youth approaching manhood, fifteen to seventeen, became the beloved of a male lover a few years older, under whose tutelage and through whose influence and gifts, the younger man would be guided and improved. It was assumed among Athenians that mature men would find youths sexually attractive, and such relationships were conventionally viewed as beneficial to both parties by family and friends alike.


What was unusual about Socrates is that, although he was no exception to the rule of finding youths attractive (Plato, Charmides 155d, Protagoras 309a-b; Xenophon, Symposium 4.27-28), he refused the physical advances of his students (Plato, Symposium 219b-d) and focused himself in other ways on the improvement of their souls (Plato, Apology 30a-b).  This was mission he said he had been assigned by the oracle of Apollo at Delphi if he was interpreting his friend Chaerephon’s report correctly (Plato, Apology 20e- 23b).  This was a preposterous claim in the eyes of his fellow citizens.


Socrates spoke of having a daemon (daimonion) or internal voice that stopped him from doing certain things, some trivial and some important, but none related to matters of right and wrong. This carried with it the implication that he was guided by something he regarded as divine was suspect to other Athenians. The words daemon, dæmon, are Latinized spellings of the Greek δαίµων (daimôn), used purposely today to distinguish the daemons of Ancient Greek religion, good or malevolent “supernatural beings between mortals and gods, such as inferior divinities and ghosts of dead heroes” (as in Plato’s Symposium), from the Judeo-Christian usage demon, a malignant spirit that can seduce, afflict, or possess humans.


Socrates in the marketplace

Socrates was usually to be found in the marketplace and other public areas, conversing with a variety of different people – young and old, male and female, slave and free, rich and poor – with virtually anyone he could persuade to join with him in his question-and-answer mode of probing serious matters. Socrates’ lifework consisted in the examination of people’s lives, his own and others’, because “the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being,” as he says at his trial (Plato, Apology 38a).


Socrates was committed to questioning people about the things he thought have most meaning, (for example, courage, love, reverence, moderation) and the state of their souls generally. He did this regardless of whether people wanted to be questioned or not, he acted as though it was an imperative to be answered.  Over time the Athenian youths copied his method of questioning which occured to of some of the parents as a problem. He gained a reputation for irony saying that he knew nothing of importance and wanted to listen to others, yet he kept an active counterpoint in every conversation allowing him to question everything. He felt that the obligation of humans is to ask questions about things, and ensure that nothing is free from being questioned.


He gained a reputation for confusing people in dialogue and stunning his conversation partners into the surprise of realizing their own ignorance; from this point, people were freer to engage in a genuine intellectual curiosity having realised they know nothing. Socrates’ view that all knowledge comes ultimately from within may be reference to a preparedness to question and explore our own ignorance.


In the Socratic view, the function of questioning is not destructive but constructive. It is destructive only in so far as rebuilding beliefs clears away the unworkable. Inquiry should be for the purpose of clarifying concepts. Without clear meaning for the terms we use no one knows what we are talking about. Such clarification is akin to the tenet of operationalism in the philosophy of science where ‘Operationalism is based on the intuition that we do not know the meaning of a concept unless we have a method of measurement for it’. It is an attempt to find the universal priniciple which pervades the varied instances and cases to which terms are applied. The common core of meaning is the real meaning of a concept, its basic intention being to enable communication of experience from one person to another, and act as a type of store.


The function of language is to act as a vehicle of communication from one individual mind to another individual. Instability of meaning results in ambiguity. Understanding rests on distinction to counter the destabilising effects of ambiguity. Socrates was an early advocate of taking time to ensure clarity of ideas through inductive procedure (the attempt to supply strong evidence for the truth of a statement). He agreed with Protagoras that man is the measure of all things, and saw humans as thinkers who brought ideas to explicit awareness through a process of questioning. This process he likened to the art of midwifery (maieutic) practiced by his mother.


Socrates studied with the Sophist Prodicus but could afford only a short course, however, he did send other pupils to him. Prodicus lived around 430 BCE at Ceos, in Athens and was a Sophist who’s special interest was that of correct terminology. He taught ethics and civic affairs and served frequently as ambassador to Athens. Prodicus claimed that the Sophist combined the virtues of the stateman and the philosopher. He gave instruction in rhetoric and oratory to many wealthy young men, whom he charged large sums. In teaching rhetoric, Produs advocated moderate length for speeches.


A version of rhetorical exercise called the Choice of Heracles (between pleasure and noble work) was preserved by Xenophon. Another Sophist, Gorgias, agreed with Protagoras that man has no absolute knowledge and took the view that the best one can do is make one’s views as persuasive as possible. In this way, if he can win men to his opinions he can have his way in life. Regarding knowledge of the external world, Gorgias is said to have maintained that there is no evidence producible to show that anything exists.


Bridge between man and meaning

There is a gap between objects and the mind, and another gap betwen the mind’s knowledge and the language which would express it. He believed these gaps as unbridgable, therefore each individual is shut up within the walls of their own life.


Gorgias argued that human experience plays upon the surface of things, hence the use of the term “sophistry” has come to mean the superficial treeatment of any matter and the making of verbal distinctions that are of no real importance.


The attacks of the Sophists against Socrates (in fictional prosecution speeches) prompted a vigorous condemnation from his followers, including Plato and Xenophon, as there was a popular view of Socrates as a sophist. Their attitude, coupled with the wealth gained by many of the sophists, eventually led to popular resentment against sophist practitioners and the ideas and writings associated with sophism.


Taking advantage of unfavourable public opinion, a group of young politicians accused Socrates of corrupting the youth and teaching unlawful ideas about the gods. He was convicted, by a narrow margin, and, since his action was considered a capital offence, was required to drink the poison hemlock. Socrates died a martyr to the right of freedom of thought by choosing to stay and face his sentence rather than escape and flee the situation, as was offered him. Socrates despite having written nothing, is considered one of the handful of philosophers who forever changed how philosophy itself was to be conceived.


All our information about him is second-hand and most of it vigorously disputed. His trial and death at the hands of the Athenian democracy represents the founding myth of the academic discipline of philosophy. His life is widely considered paradigmatic for the philosophic life and, more generally, for how anyone ought to live. Socrates took the position, since the distinctive feature of the human animal is to think and the primary moral obligation is for man to make themselves the best they can possibly be, it must follow that intelligence is the key to and the essence of virtue. To such extent that men are evil, they lack good judgement. No one would deliberately choose what would harm him. The trouble is that men do not understand what is their real good.


Socrates was considered profoundly ugly, resembling a satyr more than a man—and resembling not at all the statues that turned up later. He had wide-set, bulging eyes that darted sideways and enabled him, like a crab, to see not only what was straight ahead, but what was beside him as well; a flat, upturned nose with flaring nostrils; and large fleshy lips like an ass. He was impervious to the effects of alcohol and cold, but this made him an object of suspicion to his fellow soldiers on campaign. Socrates let his hair grow long, Spartan-style, even while Athens and Sparta were at war, and went about barefoot and unwashed, carrying a stick and looking arrogant.


He didn’t change his clothes but efficiently wore in the daytime what he covered himself with at night. Something was peculiar about his gait as well, sometimes described as a swagger so intimidating that enemy soldiers kept their distance. The Socratic problem refers to the fact that various people wrote about Socrates whose accounts differ in crucial respects, leaving us to wonder which, if any, are accurate representations of the historical Socrates. There inevitably is, and always will be, a ‘Socratic problem’ when looking back and imagining realitites or making comparisons.


Among the difficulties are that all those who knew and wrote about Socrates lived before any standardization of modern categories of, or sensibilities about, what constitutes historical accuracy or poetic license. All authors present their own interpretations of the personalities and lives of their characters, whether they mean to or not, whether they write fiction or biography or philosophy, so other criteria must be invoked for deciding among the contending views of who Socrates really was.


Even among those who knew Socrates in life, there was profound disagreement about what his actual views and methods were. Apart from three primary sources, there were those called ‘minor Socratics’, not for the quality of their work but because so little or none of it is extant, about whose view of Socrates we shall probably never know much. The difficulty of distinguishing the historical Socrates from those versions of the authors of the texts in which he appears and from the Socrateses of scores of later interpreters, that the whole contested issue is generally referred to as the Socratic problem. Each age, each intellectual turn, produces a Socrates of its own.



Socrates demonstrated the ambivalence of writings effects in his story of the Egyptian god Thoth, the mythical inventor of writing who went to see the king seeking royal blessing on his enlightening invention:


Socrates: I have heard a tradition of the ancients, whether true or not they only know; although if we had found the truth ourselves, do you think that we should care much about the opinions of men?
Phaedrus: Your question needs no answer; but I wish that you would tell me what you say that you have heard.
Socrates: At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth; the bird which is called the Ibis is sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters. Now in those days the god Thamus was the king of the whole country of Egypt; and he dwelt in that great city of Upper Egypt which the Hellenes call Egyptian Thebes, and the god himself is called by them Ammon. To him came Theuth and showed his inventions, desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of them; he enumerated them, and Thamus enquired about their several uses, and praised some of them and censured others, as he approved or disapproved of them. It would take a long time to repeat all that Thamus said to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts. But when they came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.
Phaedrus: Yes, Socrates, you can easily invent tales of Egypt, or of any other country.
Socrates: There was a tradition in the temple of Dodona that oaks first gave prophetic utterances. The men of old, unlike in their simplicity to young philosophy, deemed that if they heard the truth even from ‘oak or rock,’ it was enough for them; whereas you seem to consider not whether a thing is or is not true, but who the speaker is and from what country the tale comes.
Phaedrus: I acknowledge the justice of your rebuke; and I think that the Theban is right in his view about letters.
Socrates: He would be a very simple person, and quite a stranger to the oracles of Thamus or Ammon, who should leave in writing or receive in writing any art under the idea that the written word would be intelligible or certain; or who deemed that writing was at all better than knowledge and recollection of the same matters?
Phaedrus: That is most true.
Socrates: I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence. And the same may be said of speeches. You would imagine that they had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer. And when they have been once written down they are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and know not to whom they should reply, to whom not: and, if they are maltreated or abused, they have no parent to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves.
Phaedrus: That again is most true.
Socrates: Is there not another kind of word or speech far better than this, and having far greater power–a son of the same family, but lawfully begotten?
Phaedrus: Whom do you mean, and what is his origin?
Socrates: I mean an intelligent word graven in the soul of the learner, which can defend itself, and knows when to speak and when to be silent.
Phaedrus: You mean the living word of knowledge which has a soul, and of which the written word is properly no more than an image?
Socrates: Yes, of course that is what I mean….


Mirror corridor

Another Socrates, another rendering through translation and interpretation….Who’s translation is it ? What are the sources ? Who was the scribe who wrote it down ? Who was the person who was first witness ?  What language was it written in ? Was this a living language ? Was the work checked ? How many edits have taken place ? How many seizmic shifts in the way we comprehend the world around us have taken place ? What intentions have shaped the product ? Which alphabet was it written in ? Does it predate written language ? Is there a single version of the story ?…..


This myth, and this thought exercise has been most helpful in my orienteering towards some broad understanding about the origins of written language, the properties of written language, and the many things which are carried in written language.  Written language has great meaning to me as a vehicle, and establishing different ways to see inside that vehicle are valuable instruments of understanding.


These instruments are important if we are to attempt to reach towards and analyse the manifold questions which arise when we start on the journey of finding the history of written language.  A helpful series of categories were developed by Robert Graves in his acclaimed book Greek Myths, where in the introduction he attempts to clarify what he was particularly interested in focusing in on with his studies:


True myth must be distinguished from:

  1. Philosophical allegory, as in Hesiod’s cosmogony.
  2. ‘Aetiological’ explanation of myths no longer understood, as in Admetus’s yoking of a lion and a boar to his chariot.
  3. Satire or parody, as in Silenus’s account of Atlantis.
  4. Sentimental fable, as in the story of Narcissus and Echo.
  5. Embroidered history, as in Arion’s adventure with the dolphin.
  6. Minstrel romance, as in the story of Cephalus and Procris.
  7. Political propaganda, as in Theseus’s Federalization of Attica.
  8. Moral legend, as in the story of Eriphyle’s necklace.
  9. Humorous anecdote, as in the bedroom farce of Heracles, Omphale, and Pan.
  10. Theatrical melodrama, as in the story of Thestor and his daughters.
  11. Heroic saga, as in the main argument of the Iliad.
  12. Realistic fiction, as in Odysseus’s visit to the Phaeacians.


This list is only helpful insofar as it brings to mind some of the many different types of purpose which we find stored in language as we search language for the origins of itself.  Those laying claim to origins often do so in an attempt to shore up some imagined authority by allusion to its past or some mistaken claim of ownership.  The more I studied the origins, the more I realised that what I was looking for was lost in the translation of one time to another, one tongue to another, one person to another, one intention to another….


Other articles in the series:

  • The Study of the History of Languages
  • The Function of Visible Speach
  • The Structure of Language
  • A Story of Vowels
  • Evolution of Alphabets


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