It is agreed among most historians and linguists that the oldest written language is Sumerian, which was developed around the 4th millennium BC, during a time that is referred to as the Uruk period. Sumerian was written in a style called cuneiform, which is the method of pressing triangular shaped reeds into moist clay tablets. The impressions left by the reed were wedged-shaped, from which arose the name cuneiform (from the Latin cuneus, which means “wedge”). The language began as a system of pictographs, but later the symbols developed their own syllables. The people that invented this language were an ancient non-semitic group that lived in the southern Mesopotamian region, which is modern day Iraq, in a city called Sumer.
The spoken form of Sumerian eventually fell out of use, and was replaced by Akkadian. However, Akkadian based their cuneiform writing system on ancient Sumerian. Even though spoken Sumerian was pushed out of public use, it still remained a language that was used for religious, scientific and literary purposes until around the first century AD, during which time it finally “died.” It remained dead until the 19th century, when it was rediscovered, deciphered and translated. The Epic of Gilgamesh, a story that some consider to be the oldest on earth, came from the Sumerian culture. After the Sumerian language was deciphered, we were able to learn about their culture, their religious beliefs, and love of music, how they conducted business, their domestic laws and foreign affairs, and how they rationed beer on a daily basis. In short, the Sumerians wrote about the various aspects of their way of life. (Here is an interesting site about the history of writing. Learn more about Sumer here.)
By giving you a very brief introduction to Sumerian, my point is this: there were probably other tribes and cultures that lived in the same area during the same time as the Sumerians. Other smaller civilizations may have had some of the same ideas and beliefs as the people that lived in Sumer, or maybe their lifestyles were different and unique from the Sumerians. Either way, we may never know. The main distinction between the Sumerians and other possible cultures in that region is that the Sumerians decided to write about their life and beliefs and the others did not. The inhabitants of Sumer not only wrote but invented a writing system. (Sumerian is referred to as a “language isolate” because it does not belong to any known language family.) When the other tribes or groups of people died, their languages, beliefs and cultures died with them because they did not leave a written legacy. Their memories, any grand undertakings and traditions were buried under the sands of time to be forgotten forever just like countless societies that left no written record. While other cultures faded away into obscurity, the Sumerians wrote and their ideas continue to live on into the twenty-first century.
To me, it is interesting that God chose the written word to convey his main message to mankind. According to the holy writ, when God wanted to create the world that we see and know, He simply spoke things into existence. The Scripture says that “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” In the first chapter of Genesis, God spoke several times in order to create what we see around us. However, when He wanted to communicate His laws, commandments and the hope of redemption to humanity, He moved upon holy men and divinely inspired them to write and they wrote (See II Peter 1:21). No less than three times the Bible says, “And Moses wrote,” and what he composed changed the future of a nomadic nation, which in turn changed the course of the world. The singular thought that the world was changed because one man was divinely inspired by God to write is almost too much to comprehend. Pause and think about it for a moment. One man’s writings impacted religious beliefs, governments, laws, the division of land, and even touched music and the arts. In fact, Moses’ writings still influence the world today more than 3,000 years later.
The English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton, in his 1839 play Richelieu, wrote the now famous statement “The pen is mightier than the sword.” It sounds poetic, novel and sharp (pardon the pun). Then again, the notion that a written expression contains more power than a forged steel weapon is anything but new. From the teachings of a man named Ahiqar, who was an Assyrian sage, we learn that as early as 500 BC, he taught that “The word is mightier than the sword.” Imagine a written word, recorded over 2,500 years earlier in the Middle East, survived and possibly influenced the imagination of a British playwright in the 1800’s. You see, written ideas, either scribbled on a napkin, recorded on papyrus, pressed into soft clay or etched into stone, seem to carry a timeless power that affects succeeding generations, inspiring them to do noble deeds or motivating them to resume evil endeavors.
Allow me to depart from history for a moment and say that as a personal rule, I don’t make very many New Year’s resolutions. (Mainly, because my resolve typically runs out before the year does.) Nevertheless, this year I made an exception. I have resolved to write more this year than I have in the past. I want to write about my life, the previous one before Christ and the current one in Christ. I hope to record my testimony and some of the endless thoughts that flit between dreams, possibilities and reality. I want to pound on a keyboard until the electronic ink covers the white canvas of a Word document. I want my words to be worth a thousand pictures. I want my sentences to hum a marvelous symphony that you can hear as you read them. I want my written expressions to chisel a flawless marble statue in your mind. Thus, I write.
Besides writing something for a blog that hardly anyone reads, I have determined to keep better journals this year. By journals, I mean a hand-written chronicle of my life in 2012 on starchy paper bound together with glue, protected by a hardback cover. I want to be inspired to write with the hope, not to the change the world, but to leave a written legacy for my two kids and my future grandchildren and anyone else who would be interested in my unimportant ideas and views of the world and the Word of God. So I turn on the laptop or I grab a pen and notebook and jot down a mixture of perspectives and feelings about this or that. To be honest, I used to be quite self-conscience of my writings, hardly allowing anyone to read them. I actually made my wife promise me that she would never read any of my journals unless I offered them to her. I told her, “When I die, then you can read all that I have written.” She has kept her promise for thirteen years. This year I resolve to do things differently. Criticize me, praise me or ignore me, but I will keep writing and keep sharing.
At the beginning of this new year, I bought my wife a journal. She asked me, “What is this for?” I told her, “So you can write something every day.” She looked puzzled and said, “Why? I don’t have anything to write.” My response was, “You need to write about this year because it will be different than any other year. You need to write about what you see, where you go, who you meet and how you feel. At the end of every day, write something in that journal.” Later that evening, she walked to the desk where I was seated writing this blog and she said smiling, “Look. I wrote in it.” I did and saw that she had filled 2 ½ pages. I may sound old-fashioned, but I still see hand-written notes, letters and journal entries captivating and beautiful. There is just something about dried ink on fibrous paper that I find magnetic, charming and, dare I say, personal, which seems to have been lost in the character-handicapped Twitter feeds and the self-centered bragging and lamentations of short-sighted people on Facebook. (By the way, I am on Facebook, too.)
You may have never kept a journal, but this year, why not try something out of character? Write. Do me a favor and inscribe your hopes, your disappointments, and your joys and loses in a book. Write about life, love, answered prayers, emptiness, loneliness, comforts, unhealed wounds, achievements, missed opportunities, and second chances. Write until, like a squid fleeing a predator, you become lost in ink in the ocean of imagination and life. For you who at one time wrote or kept a journal, I personally challenge you to write again. Feel the freedom of the pen between your fingers once more as inspiration flows unhindered through your hand forever staining the pages that you hold. Write about the mundane and the magnificent. Chronicle your outstanding accomplishments and the ordinary acts that your life produces. Register the remarkable and the routine every day. After all, the timeless proverb continues to echo “Paper and ink are the best memory.” Trust me, sometimes it is a remarkable, and at times, an emotional experience to go back and read a paragraph that you wrote years or decades earlier. Through a journal, you can hold a lost sliver of time again and catch a unique, fleeting frame of mind that you had one lazy afternoon.
A couple of years ago, one of my friends told me, “I have a journal entry for everyday of my life since 2003. Sometimes it is one line and sometimes it is several pages, but every day I write in a notebook about what I did that day.” I hope he is still writing. Will his writings ever transform a society or provoke social change? Maybe or maybe not, I don’t have that answer. One thing I do know is that he is leaving behind a piece of his life that those who come after him can read, hold and cherish. And so I write, not with the intention to lead a revolution, start a new religion, or renovate a nation. Nor is it my goal to overpower the shimmering, deadly sword. Instead, I write, hoping in the smallest of ways, that I can inspire you to do better, to be better and to leave something for the next generation. The Sumerians wrote. Moses wrote. Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote as did an untold number of others throughout history. So I also will write and I hope that you will join me and write something, too.
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Written by James C. Marse. Copyright © 2012.