"The world's oldest in-use writing system"?

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[This is a guest post by Gene Buckley.]

I was catching up on my stack of New York Times magazines, and I came across a mini-article in their "One-Page Magazine" feature from January 15. I couldn't find it on their website, but here's the entire content:

How do you write that in Mandarin?
by Mireille Silcoff
Chinese characters comprise the world's oldest in-use writing system, but Chinese kids are forgetting how to get it on paper. The new term tibiwangzi ("take pen, forget characters") encapsulates the issue: nobody takes pen anymore. They type or text, often using Romanization. The China Youth Daily Social Survey Center says 4 percent of respondents are "already living without handwriting."

A fuller treatment of this subject may be found in an article entitled "In information era, handwriting growing obsolete in China" that appeared in the April 16, 2010 People's Daily.

The main point is certainly consistent with the character amnesia that Victor Mair has written about before; but I was struck by the claim in the first clause. It's not necessarily false, but it's not obviously true either. In fact, I would say a strong competitor for that title is the (Semitic) alphabet. (In what follows, I use alphabet somewhat broadly for a system in which symbols stand for single sounds, which are just consonants in the typical Semitic variety; some prefer the more specific term abjad.) How might one evaluate the claim?

1. Chinese writing is attested from around 1250 in the oracle bone inscriptions (all dates here are BCE, and approximate). But the near-certain origin of the alphabet, in Proto-Sinaitic and Proto-Canaanite writing, is no later than 1700. (We won't count the much older Egyptian system that inspired this alphabet.)

2. Chinese writing has always represented the same language, or at least the ancestor of the same language, although (pre-) Old Chinese is very different indeed from modern Mandarin. But the early alphabetic scripts represent a Northwest Semitic language, which would be the ancestor of languages like Hebrew and Aramaic, or very closely related to their common ancestor. (We can't really say that the oracle bone inscriptions encode a dialect that is precisely the ancestor of Middle Chinese, anyway.) But this criterion will exclude Arabic, since it's not part of the Northwest branch of the family; its ancestor was not written until much later than Chinese.

3. Though the claim simply says "in use", one might narrow this to a language with a large continuous community of native speakers. That would disqualify Hebrew, but the alphabet did remain in vigorous continuous use for Hebrew despite a lack of native speakers. Since Aramaic has continued to be spoken in pockets of the Middle East, however, this language would still qualify for continuous native speakers.

5. If we want to emphasize the visual sameness of the system, note that Chinese writing was standardized around 220, but the various local Semitic alphabets are established by around 900, and the Aramaic letters used to write Hebrew take their essential current form by 500 or so.

4. Chinese characters, from their beginnings, are structurally the same as the modern characters, most importantly in the existence of composite characters with a semantic and phonetic element (such as 洗 "wash", xiǎn "a surname" with the phonetic 先 xiān plus the water semantic or radical). But the actual characters with this structure are often quite different, in both appearance and composition (choice of components). For the alphabet, the basic structure – one symbol represents one sound – is in place in 1700, even if the appearance changes and some specific characters are dropped or added in later versions.

The main argument one could make against the structure of the later Hebrew or Aramaic alphabet being the "same" as Proto-Canaanite, comparable to the structural sameness of the oracle bone inscriptions and modern Chinese writing, is the representation of vowels. In the second millennium, as far as we know, the symbols only represent consonants, and all vowels are unrepresented. From the early first millennium, most of the implementations of the alphabet, including Hebrew, begin to indicate more and more vowels by means of secondary uses for consonantal letters, e.g. y for /i/. Since these letters retained their consonantal values, however, it's not clear that these secondary uses constitute a basic change in the system to match that of the Greek alphabet, with dedicated vowel letters.

Floating around the claim about Chinese, I think, is a view of the language, nicely phrased by Bob Ramsey, "as if it were one unchanging, monolithic entity across space and time". This applies to the written form as well. If one converts an Old Chinese inscription into modern equivalent characters (not always easy to do), then a modern speaker can "read" it with modern pronunciations. This gives the false impression that it's exactly the same writing system. A similarly cursory comparison of modern Hebrew with Proto-Canaanite could also efface some of the differences, but the fact that the alphabet represents sounds alone will make it harder to ignore the changes that have occurred over the centuries.

The advantage of Chinese for this purpose is that the syllabic components to the complex characters can be "read" in modern Mandarin instead of Old Chinese, without attending to the massive changes in pronunciation that occurred between the two. For example, the words represented by those characters 洗 and 先 have been reconstructed by Baxter and Sagart as *sˤərʔ and *sˤər for Old Chinese (a language that didn't even have tones yet). If we overlook these differences in the linguistic content of the symbols for Chinese, then we probably should do the same for the alphabet, and in that case the apparent greater antiquity of the Chinese writing system has less to do with its actual history than the way people look at the language and the script.


  1. Nathan said,

    May 13, 2012 @ 1:59 am

    " But the near-certain origin of the alphabet, in Proto-Sinaitic and Proto-Canaanite writing, is no later than 1700. (We won't count the much older Egyptian system that inspired this alphabet.) "

    How significant an influence was Sumerian Cuneiform on the antecedents of the Phoenician alphabet?

  2. Gene Buckley said,

    May 13, 2012 @ 10:25 am

    A common, traditional view is that Sumerian writing inspired the creation of Egyptian writing (which is structurally very different from Sumerian, and so not a direct borrowing). This scenario presupposes that Sumerian was invented first, but recent discoveries in Egypt have made that ordering less certain. The matter remains controversial since the dating of early finds is not always clear, and the evidence of whether early inscriptions are "writing" of language rather than general ideas is subject to varied interpretations. So at best, Sumerian had a distant role in the history of the proto-alphabet that led to Phoenician by around 1000.
    On the other hand, the best early alphabetic texts are in Ugaritic, a Semitic language of coastal Syria, from roughly 1400 to 1200. This alphabet is based on the same consonantal proto-Canaanite, but it is cuneiform in style, due to the influence of Akkadian (which in turn is an adaptation of Sumerian). The Ugaritic alphabet does not, however, seem to have had any particular influence on the nearby development of Phoenician; rather, they both derive from the same earlier model.

  3. Matt Anderson said,

    May 13, 2012 @ 1:08 pm

    It also occurs to me that, even if one were to limit "oldest in-use writing system" to something like "oldest writing system used continuously in basically its modern form," then even the Romance languages might have a claim to having an older continuously-used writing system than the Sinitic languages. I guess the Latin alphabet first attained more or less its modern form with the invention of G around 230 BCE, but Chinese didn't attain something like its modern form (which could reasonably be said to start with, say, the invention of kǎishū 楷書 'regular script') until the common era at least – I'd say the third century CE, but certainly several other interpretations would be reasonable (ranging from around the year 0 all the way through the 20th century, depending on how you want to define things).

    Then again, it wasn't until around the medieval period & the Renaissance (around the middle of the second millennium CE) that the Latin alphabet really became what it is today (with W, the I/J distinction, the U/V distinction, lower case, etc.), so, as suggested by the above post, it really depends on how you define things.

    (& thanks to Gene Buckley for help with some of the Roman-alphabet related dates.)

  4. Ellen K. said,

    May 13, 2012 @ 3:15 pm

    There's such a difference between, say, Roman monumental capitals, which haven't change significantly (that is, they match forms of these letters that are part of our modern inventory of forms), and the same letters in handwriting, which I understand have varied a lot over time. How does that compare to other writing systems, especially the two discussed here?

  5. Gene Buckley said,

    May 13, 2012 @ 9:23 pm

    @Ellen K.

    It's common for various scripts to have a range of realizations, including cursive; this is quite dramatically developed in Chinese. Probably the best way to think about it is whether a certain historical style remains in use alongside the more cursive version(s). In Chinese, kǎishū serves this purpose. In Hebrew, the basic printed style is similar to what was found in 500 BCE (for Aramaic). This is different from Arabic, where the script is inherently cursive, and it's not acceptable to print letters individually. So although there are many styles of Arabic calligraphy, the appropriate letters always have to be connected, and so there's been a more significant change from the historical precursor to that script.

  6. François de Blois said,

    May 14, 2012 @ 7:09 am

    In principle I would agree that the difference between the Old Chinese oracle bone script and the modern simplified characters is about as great as that between the oldest forms of the North-West Semitic 22-letter alphabet and modern Latin script. The problem with this interesting article is that the proto-Sinaitic texts have still not actually been read satisfactorily, so the relationship between proto-Sinaitic and North-West Semitic scripts is not really established. The earliest readable texts in the 22-letter alphabet are not, I think, older than the beginning of the first millennium. And so, for the moment, I think Chinese is still winning the race.

  7. BZ said,

    May 14, 2012 @ 12:12 pm

    I'm a religious Jew, who believes, at least in theory, in the Hebrew script existing before the creation of the world, and when I saw the title of this post, I said to myself, "oh, Chinese, what else could it be?". I guess this concept has been hammered into us so much that it's a knee-jerk reaction.

  8. François de Blois said,

    May 14, 2012 @ 1:16 pm

    An interesting perspective. According to Jewish tradition God created Adam at 08:00 h on Friday 26 September 3760 BCE. The Chinese sages maintain that writing was invented by order of the Yellow Emperor, who is traditionally supposed to have reigned from 3707 BCE. So the race is really very close.

  9. Gene Buckley said,

    May 14, 2012 @ 2:50 pm

    @ François de Blois

    I agree that interpretation of the Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions as the ancestor of Phoenician et al. is not a slam-dunk; I personally think it is supported by the preponderance of the evidence, but not beyond a reasonable doubt.

    Ugaritic is relevant here. That alphabet is clearly related to Hebrew and the other consonantal alphabets, and predates (attested) Chinese by a good century. The usual view is that Ugaritic was an adaptation of a linear alphabet to the cuneiform style, which of course means that the linear alphabet had to exist already, even if we don't have the clear inscriptions in linear Northwest Semitic from that time that we would like. And this is true whether or not Proto-Sinaitic has any role to play.

    Finally, I should make it clear that my main goal was to argue against a too-easy assumption of Chinese as the oldest in-use writing system, since the reality is more complicated and less certain than this makes it sound. Of course, Language Log readers will not be surprised to hear that one can't always trust casual statements in the media about matters of scientific inquiry.

  10. ohwilleke said,

    May 14, 2012 @ 3:20 pm

    The way that the point is usually made is that the average literate Mandarin reader is able to read without assistance, texts that are much older than literate people in other living languages.

    I could read aloud an Old English epic poem but would be hard pressed to tell you what it means. A Mandarin reader trying to comprehend ideograms written in the same era would presumably have an easier go of it. Without knowing how much the Aramaic language has changed in the last few thousand years it is hard to know how applicable the Old English analogy would be to Old Aramaic.

  11. François de Blois said,

    May 14, 2012 @ 6:45 pm

    What Ohwillike is saying has not to do with languages, but with education. School children in China are taught to read classical Chinese. School children in the Arab countries are taught to read the language of the Quran. School children in England where until quite recently taught to read Latin. None of this says anything about the archaism or conservatism of the respective vernaculars.

  12. joanne salton said,

    May 15, 2012 @ 4:20 am

    I don't think the question is very different from "What is the oldest spoken language in continuous use?". It is a question that ignores the fact that language necessarily changes through time, and shouldn't be answered at all.

  13. Gene Buckley said,

    May 15, 2012 @ 4:43 pm

    @ joanne salton

    It's true that it rarely makes much sense to talk about one language being "older" than another, unless defined in some careful way. One might, for example, find it useful in the right context to define "English" as arising after the migration of Germanic speakers to Britain, but it still descends from Proto-Germanic. If all languages descend from a common ancestor, then they are all equally old. (In the case of creoles, however, we might reasonably speak of relative age.)

    By contrast, writing systems have particular origins in time, before which they simply did not exist. (One could quibble about whether adapted or inspired systems are "new", but more than once a system was created independently.) Structurally they can remain quite stable over centuries or millennia, unlike spoken language, although that issue is not particularly germane to the basic point.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    May 15, 2012 @ 5:38 pm


    "The way that the point is usually made is that the average literate Mandarin reader is able to read without assistance, texts that are much older than literate people in other living languages."

    Yes, that is the way the point is usually made, but it is false. That is why I have high school and college graduates from Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, and Singapore taking my First-Year Classical Chinese course. My class is usually made up of about half of students who are fluent in Mandarin and half who are not. The half who are fluent in Mandarin have little or no advantage over those who are not fluent in Mandarin, and students with a background in Japanese or Korean often do as well or better than students who have a background in Mandarin or Cantonese or Taiwanese or Shanhainese. I once had a graduate student in Sanskrit who knew no Mandarin but was the best student in the class. Another year it was a student with a background in Classical Greek who was the best student in the class. Three or four years ago, the top student was an American graduate student who knew no Mandarin but was very good in Japanese.

    The difference between Classical Chinese and Mandarin is as great or greater as the difference between Sanskrit and Hindi, between Classical Greek and Modern Greek, between Classical Latin and Italian.

    That is why I do not have any prerequisites for First Year Classical Chinese, and I think it is absurd that most schools require three or four years of Mandarin before allowing students to take Classical Chinese. That would be like telling someone who wants to take Sanskrit that he or she must first take three or four years of Hindi, or telling someone who wants to take Classical Greek / Latin that they must take three or four years of Modern Greek / Italian. Ridiculous!

    I used to keep standard Classical Chinese texts like "Rhapsody on the Red Cliff" by Su Dongpo, "Record of the Peach Blossom Spring" by Tao Yuanming / Qian, and the Heart Sutra under the glass on my dining room table, and it was always fun to test my Chinese guests to see how many of them could read these basic texts. Of course, they could usually rattle off most (but not all!) the characters, but then my wife (who was very learned in Classical Chinese) and I would start to quiz them on their understanding of the language, and it quickly became obvious that "the average literate Mandarin reader" really couldn't understand the details of these texts — unless they had studied them before, but even then their understanding was usually very sloppy and limited.

    My wife, who was a superb, dedicated teacher of Mandarin, but who had the honesty to admit how hard Classical Chinese is for speakers of Mandarin, never tired of pointing that out, which did not ingratiate her with those who pretended that Mandarin and Classical are closely related.

    Mind you, these were relatively easy Classical Chinese texts that we quizzed our guests on. If I asked a Chinese guest to read a whimsical part of the Zhuang Zi or an abstruse poem by Li Shangyin, they would be totally lost.

    I would say that the average literate reader of English can do as well (or even better) with Chaucer as the average literate reader of Mandarin can do with the basic texts my wife and I quizzed our guests on. The difference between Mandarin and the earlier, harder Classical texts is similar to that between modern English and Beowulf or, in some cases, Old Gothic.

    There are countless myths about "Chinese", such as that there is only one Chinese language or that Chinese is spoken by more people than any other language on earth. Gene Buckley's welcome post concerning the dogma that Chinese is the oldest in-use writing system questions another, and now I have questioned yet another, viz., that it is easy for the average literate Mandarin reader to understand Classical Chinese texts. That is simply not true.

  15. John said,

    May 15, 2012 @ 8:43 pm

    No mention of Greek, which existed in more or less its current capitals from around 700 BC, if not a bit earlier? Sure there were some extra letters here and there, but not too many.

    Contra Matt, G is likely to attributed to Ap. Claudius Caecus or at least his period, around 300 BC, but X, Y and Z don't get adopted (or re-adopted, if you like) until the 1st. c. BC, so I think we have to knock Latin-based writing systems out of the running.

  16. Gene Buckley said,

    May 16, 2012 @ 12:27 pm

    @ John

    I didn't mention Greek myself since it's much later than the earliest Chinese, and I was most interested in the fundamental structural properties of the system. But when we focus on issues like stable appearance, then the official Athenian alphabet from 403/402 BCE, or the Ionic basis of it from the 6th century (with omega but without qoppa or digamma), is certainly earlier than the standardized Imperial Chinese script.

    I've seen a date as early as 312 BCE for Latin G, but some cautious scholars just say that it's in place by the time of significant literary attestation of Latin by 250-240. At any rate, X was there from the beginning; only Y and Z were added later to write Greek borrowings.

  17. minus273 said,

    May 19, 2012 @ 12:09 pm

    And don't overestimate the reach of intelligibility of the ancestral writing: even for an educated Chinese, pre-classical Chinese is impossible to read (looks like some extraterrestial language), so it practically fixes the "continuous legibility" criterium at something 500-700BC (mind you, 551BC Confucius is a much harder read than 372BC Mencius). Viewing in this way, it pretty much drags down Chinese to Greek level.

  18. Michael Rank said,

    May 23, 2012 @ 4:53 pm

    If Chinese is, arguably, the oldest script still in use, Korean hangeul is the newest, dating to the 15th century.

  19. Matt_M said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 4:12 am

    @Michael Rank:

    Well, there's the Cherokee syllabary (invented c. 1820), the Cree and Vai syllabaries (c. 1830), and the Hmong Pahawh syllabary (1959).

    All of them are in regular use, although the Hmong Pahawh syllabary is somewhat marginal (the latin alphabet being much more commonly used to write Hmong).

    I wouldn't be surprised if there were other examples of recently-invented scripts in regular use (i.e. excluding conlangs)

  20. Michael Rank said,

    June 1, 2012 @ 7:08 am

    Maybe I should have said widely used, would be interested in evidence that the others are in regular/widespread use (are they learned in schools, are there books/newspapers/mags published in any of these scripts?)

  21. Matt_M said,

    June 2, 2012 @ 6:48 am

    @ Michael:

    Well, I'm just getting my info from Wikipedia, but:

    Cherokee has about 10,000 speakers today, and the syllabary is used in all coursework in at least two Cherokee schools. There are still books, newspapers, and street signs that use the script.

    The Cree syllabary was subsequently adapted to a range of other languages in Canada and Alaska, and is today used most commonly for writing Inuit languages (although it's still used for Cree). In the federal territory of Nunavut, (to quote WiPe), "laws, legislative debates and many other government documents must be published in Inuktitut in both syllabics and the Latin script" – so the Cree syllabary seems to be quite secure there.

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