History of Written Communication

Lesson Content

Inquire: Writing - Communication and Artform


Look at the words you are reading right now. Do they look like art? You may say no, as they do not resemble art we might see in a museum. However, they are the direct result of art created thousands of years ago by our ancestors!

The oldest surviving cave paintings have been dated to some 40,000 years ago. Many believe such images were created in an attempt to preserve what the oral history could not. Director/screenwriter Werner Herzog created a documentary entitled The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which shows the oldest known cave drawings in existence, located in Chauvet Cave in southern France. Such cave drawings, along with symbolic languages used by ancient civilizations and the first alphabet created by the Phoenicians, are responsible for the text you are reading right now (though they may not closely resemble our written language today). Modern written communication impacts our daily lives and educations, which means the history of written communication is still relevant even now.

Rhino drawings from the Chauvet Cave

Big Question

How would our history and the current society be different if the written word had evolved on a different path?

Read: Communication After the First Alphabet

Handwritten Books: Only for the Privileged

We tend to take written information and books for granted, in part because they have been around for so long. The first writing appeared between the 18th and 13th centuries BCE and was a syllabic script used by the Mycenaean Greeks to log administrative records. By the 8th century BCE, the Greeks had borrowed and modified the Phoenician alphabet to create their own phonetic alphabet system. In the 7th century BCE, the Latins, an Italic tribe, adopted the Western variant of the Greek alphabet. The resulting Latin alphabet and its many evolutions became the dominant alphabet throughout Europe.

Writing has been around seemingly forever, and today it is readily available for consumption. Go online and read all manner of content in blogs, websites, ebooks, or social media posts. Or walk into your local library or bookstore and thumb through thousands of titles, sorted by area of interest. The written word is everywhere.

“The Fire of Alexandria” by Hermann G?ll

This was not always the case. Prior to the creation of the printing press, books were produced by hand which limited their availability. Scribes (writers of books) recorded events and stories on the surfaces of clay, papyrus, wax, and parchment. Books of every kind – philosophy, science, literature, religious teachings, codes of law, and cookbooks – were all painstakingly created and copied. Eventually, many of these books were lost through circumstances like neglect and war.

The full extent of knowledge lost to warring societies and the passage of time is unknown. The destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria (commissioned by Alexander the Great) is probably the most well-known example of lost written communication. Prior to its destruction, the Library of Alexandria had become one of the largest and most significant libraries in the ancient world. Within its walls, the greatest thinkers of the age – scientists, mathematicians, and poets from all civilizations – came to study and exchange ideas. Experts estimate that anywhere from 40,000-700,000 documents and books filled the library’s shelves (throughout time different estimates were recorded).

Theories of the library’s destruction abound. The library was housed in two buildings, which confounds the historical record of its destruction. Many scholars believe the library was destroyed in an accidental fire during a siege led by Julius Caesar in 48 BCE. Some scholars believe the “Daughter” Library was destroyed in the 4th century CE due to warring factions within Alexandria. After Christianity became the empire’s sole religion, conflict increased between those who still followed the older polytheistic (many gods) religions and the new monotheistic (one god) religion. Could this religious conflict have resulted in the destruction of all collected pieces of art and scrolls by those of the new religion who feared the older Pagan or polytheistic religions? Perhaps. What we know for certain is that a monumental archive of written communication was lost forever.

Book of Kells

Even after such setbacks, transmission of the written word continued to progress. During the Medieval period, scribes and artists created some of the most beautiful books ever published: illuminated manuscripts. Often associated with religion and religious themes, these illuminated manuscripts were handwritten – at times in a highly visual technique known as calligraphy (a visual alphabet using scrolling letters, similar to cursive writing) – and accented with illustrative images and radiant colors including silver and gold (made from the actual metals). One of the most well-known illuminated manuscripts, which became famous for its beautiful details, is the Books of Kells on display at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. Believed to be completed in 800 CE and named for a monastery in Kells, County Meath, Ireland, the Book of Kells consists mainly of the four gospels of the New Testament. Each page is decorated, often with intricate Celtic designs.

Creation of the Printing Press

China may have been the first to introduce the early precursors of mass printing. Chinese society began printing the written word using a symbolic language (similar to the Sumerian and Egyptian civilizations) and utilizing basic materials (like their Sumerian and Roman counterparts). “Scholars believe that woodblock printing first appeared in China around 600 CE, probably inspired by the much older use of bronze or stone seals to make impressions on clay and silk, and the practice of taking inked rubbings of inscribed texts from bronze and stone reliefs,”1 enabling documents to be printed.

However, it was not until German inventor Johannes Gutenberg created the printing press (also known as the Gutenberg printing press) around 1450 CE that the printed word became available to the masses. What is considered Gutenberg’s masterpiece – and the first book ever printed in Europe from movable type – is the “Forty-Two-Line” Bible [also known as the Gutenberg Bible], completed no later than 1455.”2

Gutenberg’s invention allowed for mass consumption of the printed word and easier access to education. Thanks to the printing press, schools and libraries – like America’s first subscription library, The Library Company of Philadelphia, founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1731 – were stocked with books.3 Such inventions allowed average people to access the same information as their wealthy counterparts which, before the printing press, was not possible.

The creation of the earliest alphabet by the Phoenicians, the formation of documents on scrolls, the designing of illuminated texts, and the eventual invention of the printing press provided us with the information we have today. Modern writing luxuries, like the many fonts we can choose between on computer programs, are possible today due to the different symbolic and textual languages created throughout history. The creation of language centuries ago continues to lay the groundwork for developing written communication, in all forms.

Reflect: To Read or Not To Read


When you read, what type of medium (method of communication) is your favorite?

Expand: Give Credit Where Credit is Due

What is Plagiarism?

Decorative“The AHA’s [American Historical Association] Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct defines plagiarism as the appropriation of ‘the exact wording of another author without attribution,’ and the borrowing of ‘distinctive and significant research findings or interpretations’ without proper citation. Most cases of plagiarism represent a failure to properly paraphrase, quote, and cite sources.”

While plagiarism can be intentional, it generally occurs accidentally. Plagiarism sometimes happens when finishing a challenging paper or while writing an essay with confusing instructions. It can even occur when attempting to write a paper in your own words by unintentionally misusing the factual information supporting your hard work. If you use the exact language of a writer, but do not use quotation marks, or incorrectly quote the author’s exact words and punctuation (even one missing punctuation mark) this can qualify as plagiarism. A mistake like this means you are using a writer’s ideas without their consent and attempting to pass them off as your own, even if you are doing so unintentionally.

But, It was Just that Once

While plagiarism is occasionally undetectable (unless the person reviewing your work researches the quotes or intimately knows the text you are referring to) and it does not carry the legal ramifications of copyright infringement (such as when someone downloads media content), it is nonetheless unethical and irresponsible. Plagiarism can injure your credibility as a writer and cause stress and emotional upset for the writer whose work you plagiarized.

The Words, a 2012 film, depicts a young writer, Rory, struggling to become a successful writer, until one day he is unexpectedly “gifted” with a manuscript that he claims as his own. When it comes to light that Rory has stolen the book from another writer, all parties involved are forever changed. Rory, his wife, and the original author are all hurt in the process. While The Words is a fictionalized account, it shows some of the actual negative effects plagiarism can have.

DecorativeFor example, plagiarism can hurt students turning in plagiarized assignments. Many universities use sites like turnitin.com to search papers for evidence of plagiarism, even before professors read them. In addition to crushing the educational aspirations of students caught plagiarizing, plagiarism has damaged careers. The Polished Paper website offers a detailed account of many lives that were forever altered due to the use of another’s work. From a documented account in which, in “1938 Henry Ford’s grandson paid a fellow student to write a paper for him. Yale expelled him. He never earned a degree… [To an incident in 2014 where] Montana Democratic Senator John Walsh withdrew from a Senate race after the media discovered that he had plagiarized parts of a graduate school paper,” plagiarism has serious consequences.

How Can I Avoid Plagiarism?

Checking and re-checking your sources cannot be stressed enough. Polished Paper offers this invaluable advice:

“You need to read and understand the ideas expressed. Break the quotation down into smaller ideas. Then try to extract the main idea. Put THAT in your own words using a completely different sentence structure. If the original author uses details or examples to illustrate, do not use them. Try to come up with your own. Even if your wording is less elegant and your examples less apt, readers will prefer them. They want your perspective of a topic and the details or examples you come up with. Give the information a new spin.”

Lesson Resources

Lesson Toolbox

Additional Resources and Readings

The Burning of the Library of Alexandria

Information on the destruction of the Library of Alexandria, and who may have destroyed it

Book of Kells, digital format

The entire Book of Kells in Trinity College Dublin’s Digital Collections library

Avoiding Plagiarism

A Purdue Owl article explaining how to avoid plagiarism

The Words

The imdb page of the 2012 movie, The Words, including a trailer for the film

Lesson Glossary


AJAX progress indicator
  • miscommunication
    what happens any time an intended message is either lost or misinterpreted by the receiver
  • symbols
    arbitrary representations of thoughts, ideas, emotions, objects, or actions used to encode and decode meaning; symbols stand for, or represent, something else
  • verbal communication
    an agreed upon and rule-governed system of symbols used to share meaning

License and Citations

Content License

Lesson Content:

Authored and curated by Caroline Cuneo for The TEL Library.  CC BY NC SA 4.0

Media Sources

DecorativeMan in home office with computer and paperwork frustratedUnknown Storyblocks Public Domain
DecorativeLaptop Computer Browser ResearchStockSnap Pixabay CC 0
DecorativeBook of Kells, Folio 292r, Incipit to John. In principio erat verbum.Unknown Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
DecorativeThe fire of AlexandriaHermann GöllWikimedia Commons Public Domain
DecorativeRhinos Chauvet CaveUnknown Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

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