Story of Civilization (06:23)
Writing captures human thought and history. At the Saqqara funerary complex near Cairo, hieroglyphs contain spells to help Pharaoh Teti in the afterlife. (Credits)
Writing Binds Humanity (06:03)
Pens and brushes help humans express thoughts, record information, study science, and compose art. Writing begins with pictures and develops into an alphabetic system. In Australia, Yidumduma Bill Harney sings about the Wardaman creation story; Aborigines have an oral tradition.
Stylized Representations (05:28)
Symbols representing the geography of the Nile Valley adorn a clay vase located in the city of Abydos. Irving Finkel describes how Sumerians kept records to tally food production. A pictographic tablet contains a grid of boxes with symbols that represent numbers and commodities.
Conceptual Leap (04:33)
The Rebus Principle allows pictures to spell out words. The Narmer Palette, carved in 3000 BC, proves that the Egyptians made the same advances in writing as the Sumerians.
The first true writing system is in pictures. Symbols frequently have at least two meanings. The Rebus Principle is the most consequential intellectual innovation of all time; Egyptologists and Assyriologists argue about its inventor.
Chinese Characters (06:33)
"Oracle bone script" helps children understand the origins of the characters they are learning to read. Yongsheng Chen draws similarities between Chinese and Egyptian pictograms. The spoken language contains many homophones; a determinative classifies words into categories.
Characters to Alphabets (07:07)
At the "Brush with Silence" event, calligraphers use different alphabets to create art. Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie and his wife Hilda discover a stone with an inscription at the Serabit El-Khadim plateau. An image depicts Khebded, a Canaanite, riding a donkey.
Parallel Languages (04:10)
Alan Gardiner suspects the Canaanite inscription on a model sphinx is dedicated to Ba'alat. The rectangle is based on the Egyptian hieroglyph for house. Scientists apply the Rebus Principle in a new way; characters stand for the sound at the beginning of the word.
Democratization of Writing (05:41)
Inscriptions at the Serabit El-Khadim plateau reveal that hieroglyphs became letters in about 1850 BC. The Phoenicians spread the alphabet across the Middle East and the Mediterranean Sea. Brody Neuenschwander shows how different alphabets evolved from pictograms.
Early Arabic Writing (02:38)
A seventh century Quran connects the Phoenician alphabet to the modern Arabic and Latin alphabets. In the mines of Serabit El-Khadim, Khebded and his followers create a form of communication that changes the world.
Credits: A to Z: The First Alphabet (01:03)
Credits: A to Z: The First Alphabet
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