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There is one, the most formal, for religious documents; one for literature and official documents; and one for private letters.

In about 700 BC the pressure of business causes the Egyptian scribes to develop a more abbreviated version of the hieratic script.

The Egyptian characters are much more directly pictorial in kind than the Sumerian, but the system of suggesting objects and concepts is similar.

The Egyptian characters are called hieroglyphs by the Greeks in about 500 BC, because by that time this form of writing is reserved for holy texts; hieros and glypho mean 'sacred' and 'engrave' in Greek.

So any claim to priority by either side is at present too speculative to carry conviction. An example of both developments could begin with a simple symbol representing a roof - a shallow inverted V. If one places under this roof a similar symbol for a woman, the resulting character could well stand for some such idea as 'home' or 'family'.

Meanwhile the dating of the earliest cuneiform tablets from Sumeria has been pushed further back, also to around 3200 BC. There are several ways in which early writing evolves beyond the pictorial stage. Another is by a form of pun, in which a pictorial version of one object is modified to suggest another quite different object which sounds the same when spoken.

When allowed to bake hard in the sun, the clay tablet becomes a permanent document. Significantly the chief official of many Sumerian temples is known by a word, sangu, which seems to mean 'accountant'.

But however non-literary the purpose, these practical jottings in Sumer are the first steps in writing.

The first known writing derives from the lower reaches of the two greatest rivers in this extended region, the Nile and the Tigris.

So the two civilizations separately responsible for this totally transforming human development are the Egyptian and the Sumerian (in what is now Iraq).

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