What is writing and why is it important?

Writing is a way of communicating, like speech. When we speak, we use sounds to communicate; when we write, we use visual symbols. The invention of writing was a great advancement for human societies. Written communication can last for thousands of years, and can be transported across the world.


For thousands of years, people have tried to preserve their ideas (to make them last into the future). Before the invention of writing, they would engrave symbols into stone. Symbols from 70,000 years ago have been found in the Blombos Cave in South Africa.

The earliest writing systems were Ancient Sumerian (in Mesopotamia, now Iraq, and Syria) and Egyptian hieroglyphs, more than 5000 years ago. These were stable systems of symbols, which allowed societies to record important information, such as debts and plans. Writing changed the way that societies could develop.

The Phoenician Alphabet developed from hieroglyphs about 3000 years ago. It is the ancestor of many writing systems today, including the Latin and Arabic scripts.


Writing systems can be as diverse as the languages they represent.They can be summarised into four types:

  • Logographic: each character represents a word or part of a word. Often, the character is derived from a picture of the thing: for example, the sun. Egyptian hieroglyphs and the modern Chinese characters are variants of this kind of system.
  • Syllabary: each character represents a syllable (a unit of sound. For example, there are two syllables in the word ‘wa-ter’). Bhecq Syllabary is used to write some Southern Bantu languages.
  • Alphabet: each character represents a phoneme, or a single sound. Many different types of alphabets exist in Africa. The Arabic and Latin alphabets are used. Others are also used, as well as others such as the Mwangwego alphabet for Malawian languages.
  • Abjad: only the consonants are written, though vowels may be marked. These systems often come from Egyptian hieroglyphs. In an abugida system vowels are represented by changing the shape of the consonant.


Africa is home to huge diversity of languages, and of writing systems. Ge’ez, a syllabary used in Eritrea and Ethiopia, is one of the most ancient African systems still used: it is around 2000 years old. 

Today, Latin and Arabic scripts are now also used widely across Sub-Saharan Africa. Writing scripts can be an important part of culture, and of preserving history.


Literacy (the ability to read and write) can help us to learn, to share ideas, and can be the key to independence. It is still possible to learn to read and write as an adult. Between 1984 and 2017, literacy in Sub-Saharan Africa increased from 49% to 65%. This means that more people are able to become part of the written tradition, which goes back thousands of years. 



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