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monogenesis of writing

Subject Linguistics

DOI: 10.1111/b.9780631214816.1999.x


The theory, once defended by influential scholars such as Ignace Gelb and Alfred Schmitt, that writing was invented only once, and that all writing systems, therefore, can be traced back to a common source. This theory refers to writing proper, that is, phonetic writing, and those who accept it credit the Sumerians with having made the decisive step from pictography to language-based writing. Once the advantages of this practice were recognized, it is thought to have spread through stimulus diffusion based on cultural contact to speakers of other languages who were in need of a visual recording system. Gelb discusses seven writing systems which could claim independent origin: Sumerian, proto-Elamite, Egyptian, Cretan, Hittite, Indus and Chinese. All except the last two are found in geographic proximity in the fertile crescent, the eastern Mediterranean and Mesopotamia. Many contacts between these cultures are well documented. There was also contact between Mesopotamia and the Indus valley civilization, as has been proven by archaeological evidence. That China does not fit into this scheme has often been remarked, but the greatest flaw of Gelb's argument is that he ignores Maya and other Mesoamerican writings which had evolved before the arrival of the Europeans. The monogenesis theory was born out of admiration for the overwhelming importance of writing in the history of the human ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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