Writers Are Accountants At Heart

Today I heard a fascinating lecture by Professor Schmandt, author of "How Writing Came About" amongst numerous other titles. Everybody knows that writing started with the Sumerians around 5,000 years ago (no feedback about space aliens, please), but the question remains, how did writing develop? Schmandt has an answer, and that answer is accountants. I'll give a brief and no doubt incorrect recap of her lecture.

Archaeologists have gathered large numbers of little clay counters, called tokens, going back to around 7500 B.C., which happens to coincide with the first domestication of animals and plants. In other words, as soon as people started accumulating stuff, they wanted to count it. These tokens were used in one-to-one correspondence with the things they were being used to count. If you saved up 6 jars of oil, you could use six tiny little clay jar tokens to number them. Assumedly, there was no way of expressing the number "six" in speech, and it probably didn't even exist as a concept. There was just that one-to-one correspondence, tiny little stand-ins for real objects. By the way, we aren't talking about statuettes or anything so complex, just simple little shapes you could roll out of clay in a few seconds.

At some later point, people began using tokens for transactions, and tokens were used in contracts. In other words, lawyers also proceeded writers/ Of the big three players in the publishing troika, writers, accountants and lawyers, writers came in last by several thousand years. Contracts for transactions were created by putting the tokens representing the goods into a envelope, really a hollow ball of clay, which could then be sealed with the rolling type of clay seal that everybody who was anybody had to have in the ancient world. One problem with the system was if you needed to consult the record of the transaction, you had to break open the clay envelope, and unless it was done in the presence of all parties who could seal a new envelope, it would have put the whole contract into doubt.

So, some smart accountant or lawyer had the idea of using the tokens to make impressions on the outside of the envelope before sealing them inside, so you could know what was in the envelope without opening it. The next logical step which might have happened overnight or might have taken a millennia, was dispensing with putting the tokens inside the envelope and just imprinting them on a clay tablet. The reason this might have taken a while to happen is that those tokens represented real goods in the people's minds, and going to the abstract "picture" of the token may have been a major cognitive hurdle. The final step was some accountant figuring out you didn't need to tokens to make impressions on a tablet, you could scratch in an outline with a stylus.

Writing, as we understand it, finally happened when the one-to-one correspondence of shapes to goods was split. In other words, when the accountants figured out how express

"jar or oil", "jar of oil", "jar of oil", "jar of oil"


"four" "jar of oil"

a truly abstract system of expression had been invented.

While I don't have any proof, I suspect that fiction writing was invented at the same time as writing, because some genius must have instantly spotted that it doesn't cost anything to scratch out a few extra sheep.

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