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an ancient symbol for a measure of grain

Measure of Grain

The earliest clay objects hardened by fire include an abundance of cones and other mundane objects. The purpose and use of these clay objects was a mystery for many years. Denise Schmandt-Besserat has demonstrated that these clay tokens are an archaic counting device from which is derived the oldest known system of writing. Her discovery, which she published in Before Writing: From Counting to Cuneiform and How Writing Came About, was widely reported in professional journals and the popular press. In 1999, American Scientist chose How Writing Came About as one of the "100 or so Books that shaped a Century of Science."

The earliest tokens, from about 10,000 years ago, have been found in Iran. They facilitated trade between people, who spoke different languages. With the development of the first cities about 6,000 years ago, more complex tokens were created to record economic activity. These tokens were enclosed in clay envelopes, on which marks were made to record the contents. The cone representing a measure of grain was recorded by a mark in the shape of a triangle. More than 200 other marks (consisting of lines, curves and dots) have been identified at widely dispersed sites.

Cuneiform script

About 5,000 years ago, a system of simple strokes and wedges emerged for writing quickly on wet clay. A mark in the shape of a triangle now came to repesent the word for bread. From deciphered texts, it is known that workers on the large temple projects were paid with a daily ration of food. The conventions of writing; its linear organization, its semantic use of the form, size, order, and placement of signs, enabled writing to develep from its original accounting function to record complex narratives. It became possible to compile, organize, and synthesize unlimited amounts of information; and to preserve and disseminate information across time and space.

Gradually, writing evolved from a symbolic system of recording information to a represention of speech. By about 3,500 years ago, systems of about 20 characters or letters had developed, each representing particular sounds. Using these letters, a skilled scribe could create a written record of the actual words spoken in many different languages. This written record would then enable another skilled scribe in a different place or time to speak those same words. Semitic languages were particularly suited to this new approach to writing, because many words consisted of three consonant sounds with different vowel sounds according to context. By about 2,500 years ago, a distinctive Hebrew script had evolved to replace the earlier Cuneiform and Phoenician letters. Various ways of recording vowel sounds were progressively introduced over many centuries as writing evolved to replicate speech.

Greek texts

When the Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek, the Hebrew letters YHWH were inserted into the Greek text because the divine name was not spoken, when the text was read aloud. Another word such as "Adonai" meaning Lord was spoken. Later some Greek manuscripts replaced the Hebrew letter YHWH with the Greek vowels iota/alpha/omega.

Early Christian writings adopted a different approach by using theta/sigma as an abbreviation for the Greek word "Theos" meaning God. Although rather than writing the Greek letter theta in the usual way as an oval with a horizontal stroke in the middle, it was written as a triangle with a horizontal bar. This use of a triangle as part of the divine name may have been intended as a trinitarian symbol. St Augustine condemned the use of the triangle as a symbol of the deity, which prevented the use of the triangle in Chrsitian art until the Middle Ages.

English Bible

King Henry VIII ordered that every church in the realm should have a Bible translated into English and requested Myles Coverdale and Sir Thomas Cromwell to supervise its creation. Much of the text has its origins in the earlier translation of the Bible by William Tyndale (ca. 1494-1536). Tyndale was the first English translator to draw directly from Hebrew and Greek texts, and the first to take advantage of the new medium of print. Tyndale introduced new words into the English language:

  • Jehovah (from a transliterated Hebrew construction in the Old Testament; composed from the Tetragrammaton YHWH and the vowels of adonai: YaHoWaH)
  • Passover (as the name for the Jewish holiday, Pesach or Pesah),
  • Atonement (= at + onement), which goes beyond mere "reconciliation" to mean "to unite" or "to cover", which springs from the Hebrew kippur, the Old Testament version of kippur being the covering of doorposts with blood, or "Day of Atonement".
  • scapegoat (the goat that bears the sins and iniquities of the people in Leviticus, Chapter 16)

Tyndale also coined such familiar phrases as: let there be light, the powers that be, my brother's keeper, the salt of the earth, a law unto themselves, it came to pass , gave up the ghost, the signs of the times, the spirit is willing, live and move and have our being, fight the good fight.

This was the first officially approved English Bible. At the foot of the title page of the second edition in 1540 appeared the words, "This is the Bible appointed to the use of the churches." A preface by Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556), first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury, included the following:

"I would marvel much that any man should be so mad, as to refuse in darkness, light; in hunger, food; in cold, fire. For the word of God is light: Lucerna pedibus meis, verbum tuum. (See Psalm 119) Thy word is a lantern unto my feet. It is food: Non in solo pane viuit homo, sed in omni verbo dei. (See Matthew 4) Man shall not live by bread only, but by every word of God. It is fire: Ignem veni mittere in tertam, & quid volo nisi vt ardeat? (See Luke 12) I am come to send fire on the earth, and what is my desire but that it be kindled?"

"Dost thou not mark and consider how the smith, mason, or carpenter, or any other handy craftsman, what need soever he be in, what other shift so ever he make, he will not sell nor lay to pledge the tools of his occupation. For then how should he work his feat, or get his living thereby? Of like mind and affection ought we to be towards holy scripture. For as mallets, hammers, saws, chisels, axes, and hatchets, be the tools of their occupation; so be the books of the prophets, and Apostles, and all holy writers inspired by the holy ghost, the instruments of our salvation. Wherefore let us not stick to buy and provide us the Bible, that is to say, the books of holy scripture; and let us think that to be a better jewel in our house than either gold or silver."

The Psalms that appear in the Book of Common Prayer originate from this Bible, rather than the King James Bible of 1611.


Decipherment of the Earliest Tablets by Denise Schmandt-Besserat The first signs of writing were crudely impressed on clay tablets. These signs are found to represent and stand for clay tokens used for recording prior to writing. The recent decoding of a series of tokens makes it possible to identify the signs as units of grain metrology, land measure, animal numeration, and other economic units.

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