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167

By comparisons with known languages. Let's take the example of Egyptian hieroglyphs. It is well known that the ancient Egyptian script was decoded thanks to the Rosetta Stone, which recorded an identical passage in Ancient Greek, Demotic, and hieroglyphs. The ancient Egyptian language, and hieroglyphs, were thus deciphered through comparison with the ...


117

No, there is no known record of that kind of native linguistic script analysis in pre-modern China, although its quite possible it came up and was rejected, for reasons I'll outline below. The main issue here is that the mostly-logographic system China uses has historically been covering up for the fact that quite a few Chinese "dialects" are not mutually-...


111

Louis-François Pinagot He was an illiterate shoemaker in western France in the 19th century. French historian Alain Corbin picked Pinagot at random on a town registry, and wrote his biography as a way to describe the social environment of 19th century France, collecting as much data as possible about Pinagot, his family, his village, etc. The result was ...


85

I feel like I need to point out why many mundane records will have been lost. Imagine you're a scribe making copies of old documents. Which do you decide to copy? Harvest records from 50 years ago, or your religion's sacred text? An invoice from 10 years ago, or the biography of your king? My point is that there is a selection bias going on here. The ...


70

The short answer is that we don't. The pronunciations we use today are our best guess at how the ancients pronounced their words. For your two examples. We know that Sumerian had an immense influence on the Semitic language Akkadian. Because Akkadian was a Semitic language, and we have a wealth of data about how related Semitic languages were pronounced, ...


56

Yes, but neither by the Chinese nor only for Chinese. Kublai Khan ordered the Tibetan Sakya trizin Phagpa to create a universal alphabet to be used by the languages of his empire. It's usually known after him as 'Phags-pa Script'. Because he wasn't interested in marking tones, Phagpa differentiated Chinese syllables by recourse to outdated pronunciations ...


49

SHORT ANSWER There is no easy, short answer here, but here are some key points: Even in ancient times, humans did keep extensive records in some regions/cultures; in fact, there is evidence to suggest that record keeping pre-dates the development of writing. The extent to which records have been kept has depended on a host of factors, among them the ...


46

The metal dip pens existed since the times when Britain was a Roman province. Also, they are known to be used in the Middle ages and Renaissance times. That is, they were used alongside the quill pens. However, those old metal pens were hand-made. It is only after the Industrial Revolution that their mass production became available. John Mitchell pioneered ...


44

Victor Henry Mair is an American Sinologist and professor of Chinese at the University of Pennsylvania, and this is what he wrote (emphasis mine): An English language report in The Quarterly Bulletin of Chinese Bibliography states that, on October 4, 1935, the government “authorized” the use of simplified characters in official and private documents. In ...


39

It's a pounce pot, being used to dry the wet ink without having to blot it. As noted here, the pounce itself could be made from any of powdered gum sandarac; crushed pumice (origin of pounce I believe), cuttlefish bone, or eggshell; or allum mixed with resin. This was used both to size the writing surface as well as to dry the ink after writing, and the ...


37

Two reasons: to increase literacy by simplifying the language, and to cut ties with the past (ie. the Ottomans) and forge a new secular Turkish identity. The Ottoman Turkish alphabet, a variant of Arabic, was not well suited to Turkish words and phonemes making it very hard to learn and use. In particular, Turkish has eight vowels, but vowels in Arabic are ...


30

I think you may look into biographies of war heroes. War is an opportunity for a person to do something notable to attract biographers’ attention and still stay just one of the many. For example, The story of a real man, a novel by Boris Polevoy, is a biography of Alexey Maresyev (Meresyev in the book), a Soviet pilot who was shot down behind the frontline, ...


28

TLDR: Phonetic scripts won't work because of how the Chinese languages are structured. So it never really came up before Europeans arrived. Language Issues: There are several ways to answer this question; before I get into the history, it is important to ask: Is it possible to represent Chinese in a phonetic script? According to my first Chinese language ...


28

The Merchant of Prato by Iris Origo (1957) is a biography of Francesco Datini a 14th-century merchant banker. The only distinguishing factor of Datini is that by chance a huge stash of his written accounts and letters had been preserved and discovered in 1870.


27

Your question assumes that there were no such records in ancient times. I can think of several examples: Have you ever looked at the trial records of Cicero? Those were preserved because Cicero was considered a great orator, even in his time, but they include simple property cases. The Egyptians recorded the deeds of their kings. Okay, that was somewhere ...


26

The short answer is no. Although the origins of hieroglyphic writing are disputed to some extent, modern scholarship leans towards the idea that it developed independently in Egypt, but "no definitive determination has been made as to the origin of hieroglyphics in ancient Egypt". In Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of ...


24

The oldest hieroglphs The earliest known Egyptian hieroglyphic writing so far discovered was found in tomb U-j at Abydos, dating to about 3250 BCE. The tomb was excavated in 1988 by Günter Dreyer and his team, and the results published in Umm el-Qaab I: das prädynastische Königsgrab U-j und seine frühen Schriftzeugnisse. They concluded that tomb U-j was ...


23

Not a book, but there is a long-running documentary film series in the UK following the lives of ordinary people with a film every seven years from the first when they were seven years old. The latest, '63 Up', has just shown. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Up_(film_series)


18

A runic alphabet works like other alphabets: one rune corresponds to one or more specific sounds. Runes only really have one significant difference: they are designed to be carved in wood, which means that they usually have vertical or slanted straight lines, but no or very few horisontal and curved lines. However, as the Younger Futhark was specifically ...


17

Thucydides has been widely read and cited since ancient times, though not always to the same extent in different periods. Martin Hammond, in his translation of The Peloponnesian War, observes: Thucydides was not as widely read in the fourth century and the Hellenistic period as the more obviously attractive Herodotus and Xenophon, but he was far from ...


15

Xenophon gave specific reasons for some of his works but for others he did not. Xenophon (about 431 BC to 354 BC) produced a very wide range of work during his lifetime: historical, biographical, philosophical, instructional. He never stated a primary purpose for all his works and we can deduce that some of what he wrote was aimed at specific audiences. ...


14

The Inca might have been the largest non-literate society in history. Allow me to explain by way of two definitional digressions. Any society has peripheral or marginal members that are less in tune. We won't know quite where to draw the line, and of course the population data we have is worse than incomplete. More so, the concept of society that we all ...


12

One of my favorite historical accounts is The Cheese and the Worms by Carlo Ginzburg (an Italian historian). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Cheese_and_the_Worms It's an account of the life and trial of a sixteenth century miller brought before the inquisition twice, tried, and eventually executed. Quite excellent. "The study examines the unique ...


12

Yes, that's almost certainly true. (By the strict definition of "Alphabet" at least.) There's a very good reason for it though. The invention of the alphabet happened after a highly unlikely confluence of events. First off, let's start by going over what is so special about an alphabet. You can actually categorize writing systems by how many unique ...


11

This question is a bit tricky. Mundane every day facts like descriptions of writing tools tend to be poorly documented because most people find them uninteresting. However, first to disabuse you of the idea that lead can't write. Have you ever handled lead yourself? It is remarkably soft and malleable, and easily makes marks on hard surfaces, although not ...


11

You're looking at a scribal abbreviation for "-rum". That is, the word is actually philosophorum, but with the last three letters replaced with ꝶ. Here is a screenshot of the enlarged character from the graphemica page: The colon is probably a punctus elevatus which is sometimes written without its tail, i.e. like a colon. It's basically like our modern ...


11

The furthest back I've gotten so far isn't very far back at all. From a court transcript in 1877 or 1878: Q: Place upon the blackboard the signs that you used in applications for insurance. A: For what? Q: Certain stenographic signs? A: Yes, sir; there was the ordinary tick mark. Q: Go and make them please; show what meant yes and show what ...


10

The novelist Vikram Seth wrote Two Lives: A Memoir, which is a biography of his uncle and aunt. His uncle was a dentist, originally from India, who studied dentistry in Germany. His wife was Jewish, from Berlin. They left Germany and settled in England shortly before World War II. The part of the book that I remember best describes the effect of World War ...


9

Some writing surfaces existed, more like an easel than a table though. Example: and Even as far back as ancient Egypt.


9

Several reasons added up to prefering the recto side: As long as the roll was the preferred form for books (yes, you can fold papyrus and yes, it was done quite a lot when using it for codices, 2./3. century AD): You had to choose one side because the form of the medium(*) made it highly impractible to use both sides for one text. The scripture was done on ...


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