Civilisation and Writing

Not every human society is a civilisation. By scholarly definition, civilisation must meet particular criteria.  

V. Gordon Childe describes ten:

  1. trade
  2. urbanisation
  3. political organisation
  4. social hierarchy
  5. art
  6. specialised occupations
  7. science and engineering
  8. public works
  9. concentration of wealth
  10. writing

When civilisations grow in isolation, they are easy to distinguish. In our modern world, they are not. Of all the criteria, writing is the clearest way to separate one civilisation from another. Except for Japan, literate societies use only one writing system.

Writing has only been ‘invented’ five times. All other writing systems developed from five base systems invented in the Cradles of Civilisation:

  • Egyptian hieroglyphs (North Africa)
  • Sumerian cuneiform (Middle East)
  • Chinese characters (East Asia)
  • Indus script (South Asia)
  • Olmec script (Central America)

Europe and Southeast Asia only saw writing – and hence civilisation – develop because of their proximity to the five Cradles. The Roman script I write in grew out of Greek, which came from Phoenician, which, in turn, grew out of hieroglyphs. 

If we in the modern world trace our most-used scripts – Roman, Chinese, Arabic, Sanskrit, Cyrillic, and Japanese – to their origin, we trace all civilisation to its five crucibles. The original scripts have grown, mutated, cross-pollinated and diversified in the four thousand years since, but the fact remains: writing – and hence civilisation – was only born five times.

Modern scripts descend from only three of the ‘original writing systems’. The Semitic alphabets grew out of hieroglyphs, evolved into Arabic, Hebrew and Greek and supplanted cuneiform. Spanish colonisation drove Mesoamerican scripts extinct. Precluding cuneiform and the Olmec derived scripts, we can group the literate societies of today into three ‘civilisations’:

  • Egyptian derived – Africa, the Western and Islamic worlds, the Philippines, Latin America, the South Pacific.
  • Chinese derived – China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan
  • Indian derived – India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos

There are distinct and varied divisions within each group, and the depth of these divisions generally correspond with how early their scripts branched off. Egyptian derived systems are the most salient case. Cyrillic (the Russian alphabet), Arabic and Latin were already distinct alphabets when literate Koreans wrote in Chinese. There is also a strong correlation between writing systems and religion. Most societies that use the Latin scripts today were historically Christian, while the spread of Arabic went hand in hand with Islam. Arabic and Latin script share a distant common origin; so do Islam and Christianity.

Over millennia, the base civilisations spread their influence through trade and conquest. They formed their varieties through fusion with indigenous societies like Aztec, Bantu, Celtic and Tai-Kadai. 

Some civilisations do not fit. Vietnam, for example, uses the Roman writing system but has much more in common with its Chinese and Indic influenced neighbours. In cases like this, one can determine the civilisation through religious heritage. Modern Vietnam is largely atheist, but its heritage is Buddhist – a religion that grew from the Indian tradition.

The ancestor of the modern Indic scripts – Brahmi – may have itself derived from the Semitic alphabets, not the original Indus script. If true, this would put the Indic societies in the Egyptian-derived camp.

The laws, stories and histories which make civilisations have survived through writing. Writing, more than anything, shapes how the immaterial qualities of civilisation continue across time. All civilisation traces to the five Cradles, and the clearest way to trace that line of descent is through written script.

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