The oldest known writing systems first emerged in Mesopotamia, between 3400 and 3100 BC, and Egypt, around 3250 BC. The Latin alphabet, which I’m using to write this post and you’re using to read it, gradually took the shape we know between the seventh century BC and the Middle Ages. Over the eras since, it has spread outward from Europe to become the most widely used script in the world. These are important developments in the history of writing, but hardly the only ones. It is with all known writing systems that historical map animator Ollie Bye deals in the video above: not just those used today, but over the whole of the past five millennia.
The conquests of Alexander the Great; the Gallic Wars; the colonization of Latin America; the “scramble for Africa”: these and other major historical events are vividly reflected in the spread of certain writing systems.
Up until 1492 — after the expiration of eight and a half of the video’s eleven minutes — the map concerns itself only with Europe, Asia, and the northern three-quarters of Africa (as well as an inlaid section depicting the civilizations of what is now Central America). Thereafter it zooms out to include the New World, and indeed the whole world, though centuries pass before most of its blank spaces fill up with the colors that indicate the adoption of a dominant script.
Arabic and Persian appear in lime green, simplified Chinese in red, and Cyrillic in light blue. Before Bye’s animation reaches the middle twentieth century, most of the world has turned medium blue, which represents the now-mighty Latin alphabet. The use of these very letters for all written communication by such a wide variety of cultures merits a volumes-long history by itself. But perhaps most intriguing here is the persistence of relatively minor scripts: Cree, used among the natives of northern Canada; hiragana, katakana, and kanji in Japan; and also hangul in Korea — which I read and write myself every day of my life in Seoul, and to whose continued dominance here I can confidently attest.
The Atlas of Endangered Alphabets: A Free Online Atlas That Helps Preserve Writing Systems That May Soon Disappear
The Evolution of the Alphabet: A Colorful Flowchart, Covering 3,800 Years, Takes You From Ancient Egypt to Today
Dictionary of the Oldest Written Language–It Took 90 Years to Complete, and It’s Now Free Online
How to Write in Cuneiform, the Oldest Writing System in the World: A Short, Charming Introduction
The Improbable Invention of Chinese Typewriters & Computer Keyboards: Three Videos Tell the Techno-Cultural Story
You Could Soon Be Able to Text with 2,000 Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.