Social and socio-
Ontogeny and symbolism
Social and cognitive factors in the historical elaboration of writing
David Barton and Mary Hamilton
Writing originated separately in Mesopotamia and Egypt, China, pre-Columbian America, and, possibly, the Indus Valley. The earliest evidence of writing is cuneiform script from Mesopotamia at c.3500 BC. Six earlier classes of visual representation contributed to the development of writing-systems: the expressive and ritualistic markings found in cave art; tallying devices; property markings and totems; tokens; mnemonic devices; and pictographic/ideographic narrative forms. Early writing-systems were used for political and economic, religious, and historical-literary functions. There is no single order of functional development that applies to all cultures.
Writing-systems are classified into three types: logographic systems, which represent morphemes; syllabic systems, which represent syllables; and alphabetic systems, which represent units more closely related to phonemes than to syllables. Writing-systems tend to develop from the logographic to the syllabic, though this is not always the case. As syllabic systems interact with the structure of the spoken language they are trying to capture they adapt themselves through a variety of devices. This historical elaboration is not well served by considering it to be an evolutionary sequence, as has often been claimed.
Strong claims that literacy per se qualitatively affects cognitive abilities are not well supported by evidence. Literacy is better seen as a communicative technology involved in the production and reproduction of shared meaning or knowledge. It is the social practices sustaining these meanings that determine the consequent skills associated with literacy. Arguments that credit literacy as a prime causal factor underlying social change are thus oversimplistic. Rather, literacy is just one factor in a nexus which includes social and political institutions.
Printing led to a restructuring of literate activities through
the incorporation of a technical invention into the social
organization and production of knowledge. Printing assists in
the cultural diffusion of ideas, and in the standardization of
knowledge and linguistic forms. However, social factors again
play a role in determining access to literacy, and thus the
extent to which printing can act as an agent in the diffusion
of literacy [Eds].