Signs of the Scribes: The Story of Writing (55+)

Can you imagine life without writing? Some assume that writing, like speech, has always been around, but in fact writing was invented relatively recently. Unlike speech, writing has left a physical record, which helps us trace its history.

We will follow the story of how writing was invented in ancient Sumer and look at writing systems around the world. We will also examine the history of the English ABC’s (originally ABG’s), beginning with their ancient Semitic origins, and will learn that five English letters all derive from the same Phoenician sign. We’ll talk about scribes and their scripts, look at examples of calligraphy and, half a century into the digital age, consider the future of writing.

Note: Back by popular demand, from spring 2017.

Please note that enrollment in this course is reserved for adults 55+.

Currently not available for registration.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the course, you should be able to do the following:

  • Describe various different writing systems
  • Give examples of key developments and concepts in the history of writing systems
  • Describe the origins of the English alphabet
  • Discuss the aesthetics of writing
  • Discuss possible future directions for writing in the digital age

Learning methods

You will learn through lecture with time for questions and answers (may vary from class to class). For Liberal Arts Certificate for 55+ students: you will write a reflective essay.


Week 1: Early writing

We will define writing, and compare writing with speech, as well as pre-writing with “full” writing. Then we will talk about types of writing systems in the world and examine the very earliest written symbols, which began as pictures or pictograms.

Week 2: Cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs

We journey back more than 5000 years to ancient Mesopotamia and look at the origins and development of cuneiform writing. Then we cross the Sinai into Egypt and examine the world’s most beautiful writing system, Egyptian hieroglyphs, to which our own alphabet owes its provenience.

Week 3: Alphabets and other writing systems

We will examine the invention of the alphabetic principle, which eventually led to the development of the Phoenician alphabet, a direct ancestor of our own. We will also look at other alphabets around the world as well as other types of writing systems.

Week 4: The history of the ABGs

In this class we look at the evolution and spread of alphabetic scripts and discuss the changes made by the Greeks and the Romans which have given us our own ABCs. We will also look at the history of some of our individual letters.

Week 5: Scribes and scripts

This week we will discuss the world of scribes in the ancient world, as well as in medieval times. We will take a brief look at their materials and also learn about a few interesting female scribes in the history of writing.

Week 6: Writing and aesthetics, and the future of writing

We look at writing as art, and the three main scripts in which calligraphy has traditionally been composed. We also examine the evolution of western scripts. Finally, we will attempt to look briefly at what the future of writing might be in the digital age.

Books, materials and resources

Reading material (if applicable) will be available in class. Some course materials may be available online.

Academic integrity and student conduct

You are expected to comply with Simon Fraser University’s Academic Integrity and Student Conduct Policies. Please click here for more details. Simon Fraser University is committed to creating a scholarly community characterized by honesty, civility, diversity, free inquiry, mutual respect, individual safety, and freedom from harassment and discrimination.

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