SEL2211: Contexts

Lecture 12: The Development of Language Technology

The preceding lecture dealt with the nature of literacy and its effect on human culture. The present one extends that discussion by looking at the historical development of the technology of literacy and its cultural effects, where 'technology' includes writing systems and media, education, methods of document production and distribution, and the use of language technology as a means of political and ideological control. The period from the first invention of literacy in ancient Mesopotamia c.2000 BC to the later twentieth century AD is covered; recent developments in digital electronic language technology are dealt with in subsequent lectures.


1. Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Aegean, and Rome (c.3000 BC - c.500 AD)

We consider the correlation between language representation technology and cultural complexity among the earliest societies of the historical period in Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean Basin between about 3000BC and 500 AD. These regions of the eastern Mediterranean and Near East are both the first known cultures to emerge from prehistory, and also where the first alphabetic writing system was developed and propagated. Mesopotamia was the earliest area of development (from c.7000 BC, as we saw last week), followed by Egypt (from c.3500 BC), and then by Greece and Rome (from c.1000 BC). In terms of cultural complexity they were broadly similar, so they are here considered together.

1.1 Cultural complexity

i. Socio-political organization

Settlements in villages, towns, and cities;  occupational and social class diversification; development of city states ruled by kings and aristocracies; appearance  of organized religions administered by professional priests

ii. The economy

Increased complexity in Mesopotamia, and subsequently in other parts of our area, was based on agricultural development from c.7000 BC, and in particular on the domestication of plants and animals, and consequent settlement patterns in villages, towns, and cities. Trade of agricultural produce and craft commodities among cities and further afield appeared, together with money and associated counting systems.

iii. Science and technology

Understanding of the world and mankind's place in it was predominantly determined by religion throughout this period, the the first developments in philosophy, mathematics, medicine, and astronomy begin to appear. Domestication of plants and animals, with associated technologies like irrigation systems, ploughs, and so on; metalworking (bronze and, at the end of the period, iron); building technology (permanent dwellings including complex and often very large stone-built dwellings, public buildings, and fortifications). Examples:







1.2 Language technology

A pictographic script, that is, a script which conveys meaning by representing states of the world directly as pictures, were known in antiquity. Two examples are shown below.

The first known alphabetic writing system developed from pictographic script in Mesopotamia c.2000 BC. It was written on wet clay tablets by making impressions on the clay with a triangular stick, leaving wedge-shaped symbols after which the script is called 'cuneiform', that is, 'wedge-shaped'.


This alphabetic script spread westwards first to the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, then to Egypt and the northern Mediterranean shore to Greece and, ultimately, to Rome. Over the course of many centuries the cuneiform letter shapes were modified and eventually took on the shape we know and use today. The example below is a Latin text written about 100 AD in Egypt; examination will reveal familiar letter shapes.


For most of this period literacy was severely restricted. In Mesopotamia and Egypt the only literate people were priesthoods, and their monopoly allowed them to control the production of text. By the sixth century BC in Greece, the aristocracy and the higher middle class has access to literacy, and under the Roman Empire (c.50 BC - c.450 AD) literacy had spread even further down the social hierarchy by means of an institutionalized system of education.

1.3 The correlation between cultural complexity and language technology

  • In Mesopotamia and Egypt, which represent the earliest phase in the development of literacy in the period c.2500 -1000 BC, the rise of complex social, political, economic, and technological structures correlates with that of an alphabetic language representation technology. Access to the technology was severely restricted; this correlates with a situation in which the benefits of social complexity were available only to very few in the population.
  • By the height of ancient Greek culture from c.600 BC there was relatively free access to literacy, and this correlates not only with further development of the sociopolitical and technological innovations associated with Mesopotamia and Egypt but also with a flowering of abstract learning such philosophy, geometry, and mathematics associated with figures like Plato, Aristotle, and Euclid.
  • By the height of Roman culture from c.100 BC to c.500 AD literacy was comparatively widespread, and this correlates with Rome's maintenance, over many centuries, of a large empire with a complex sociopolitical structure and money-based trading economy.

2. The Western European Middle Ages (c.500 - c.1500 AD)

By c.500 AD the Roman Empire was in terminal decline for a variety of reasons, and was powerless to prevent invasion and settlement by peoples from north-eastern Europe who had never been incorporated into the empire and who spoke a range of Germanic languages. This period of settlement between about 400 and 600 AD resulted in several centuries of relative barbarism in northern Europe in which Roman sociopolitical institutions, trade-based money economy, and widespread literacy largely disappeared. The European Middle Ages, which lasted from about 600 to about 1500 AD, are a time when Europe slowly re-established a complex culture comparable to that of Rome.

2.1 Historical overview

To the north and east of the Roman Empire lived peoples whom the Romans considered to be barbarians, that is, peoples who lacked the defining characteristics of their civilization.


The barbarian peoples of north-eastern Europe lacked these defining characteristics: well-established political and social institutions, a money-based economy, urban-centred life, literacy, and the technology to support these things.

For centuries the Romans had to defend the imperial boundary against low-level incursions by barbarian groups. By c.250 AD these incursions had become large-scale. Federations of barbarian peoples such as the Goths attacked and eventually overran the Empire, and by 600 AD the western Empire has ceased to exist. The barbarian invaders settled and gave their names to the territories they occupied: the Roman province of Gallia (Gaul), for example, was settled by the Franks and became Francia (modern France), northern Italy was settled by the Lombards and became modern Lombardy, and the Roman province of Britannia was settled by Angles and Saxons and eventually became England ('the land of the Angles'). By c.600 western Europe looked like this:


The barbarian settlers brought their way of life with them, of which more below; the remainder of the period c.600 - c.1500 AD was essentially a slow re-establishment of a Roman level of cultural complexity in western Europe.

2.2 Cultural complexity

'Barbarian' is a relative term, but on any comparator the peoples that settled in the Empire were at a level of cultural development lower than that of Rome.

i. Socio-political organization

Originally the primary organizational unit of these peoples was the extended family or kin-group, and such kin-groups coalesced into tribes united by a common ethnic consciousness. The endemic warfare of the period of settlement in the Roman Empire generated warrior aristocracies dominated by kings, and this became the defining political organization of western Europe throughout the Middle Ages.

ii. The economy

The barbarian peoples were originally nomadic, but by the time they invaded the Empire their economy was based on subsistence farming; money as a symbol of wealth in an organized economy was unknown.

  • In the post-settlement period and throughout the Middle Ages the economy remained primarily agrarian. It was based on large estates controlled by the aristocracy, which lived off the surplus wealth generated by tenant farmers; remnants of this system survive to the present day.
  • By c.800 AD trade and money had reappeared, and by the end of the Middle Ages had given rise to a new social component between aristocracy and peasantry: a middle class of merchants, lawyers, and civil servants. The development of trade and money-based wealth generated large urban centres like London and Paris.

iii. Science and technology

Science in the modern sense was nonexistent; knowledge of the world and humanity's place in it was determined by the Christian religion, for which see further below. The weapons technology of the barbarians was only slightly inferior to that of Rome, but in other spheres their technology was rudimentary. The built environment of the Romans was highly developed, as we have seen; the barbarians built very modest structures in wood. In the course of the centuries between c.600 and c.1500, however, building technology in western Europe came to equal and even to supersede that of Rome; Lincoln Cathedral is an example:


2.3 Language technology

The barbarians were non-literate. When they settled in western Europe they all but obliterated the institutions which supported the extensive level of general literacy within the Roman Empire, and literacy would have disappeared altogether had it not been for the Christian Church.

The Christian Church began as part of the resistance of Israel to Roman domination in the first century AD. After the death of Jesus Christ in 33 AD it became a subversive offshoot of Judaism, first in Israel and and soon in other parts of the Middle East. By c.300 AD it had spread throughout the Roman Empire, and, in recognition of its by-then political importance, the Emperor Constantine proclaimed it the official religion of the Empire. It thereby became part of the Roman civil service and continued as such until the end of the Empire. The barbarians brought their own non-Christian religions with them into the Empire, but after c.600 AD the remnants of the Christian Church that survived began to convert them to Christianity. The process took several centuries, but by c.1000 AD it was complete throughout western Europe, and thereafter the Church was a dominant political, social, and ideological institution until the end of the Middle Ages and indeed until the end of the 19th century.

An important characteristic of the Christian Church from the outset has been that it is a religion based on a single book, the Bible. Because of this, the people whose constituted the institutional Church, that is, the Pope, bishops, priests, and monks, had to be literate in order to interpret the Bible, and as such literacy went wherever the Church did. In other words, the spread of the Church as a belief system and as a socio-political institution simultaneously re-established literacy throughout western Europe. As first literacy was confined to the Church itself and maintained mainly in monastic and cathedral schools


Later, as medieval society became more complex, more literate people were required to administer business, the civil service, and the law, so universities were like Bologna, Paris, Oxford, and Cambridge were established to provide them:


By the end of the Middle Ages the aristocracies and the middle classes of Europe were increasingly literate; the advent of one of the major English writers, Geoffrey Chaucer, is symptomatic of this.

Throughout the Middle Ages in the West, language technology was based on books made of parchment, that is, animal skin, in which the text was written by hand using the alphabet inherited from Rome, as in the above illustrations. An example of a page from such a book is given below.


2.4 The correlation between cultural complexity and language technology

  • In the initial stages of the Germanic settlement of the western Roman Empire, the sudden and drastic decline in literacy throughout this area correlated with a collapse of cultural complexity.

  • The gradual reintroduction of literacy by the Church in the Dark Ages correlates with a gradual increase in cultural complexity.

  • The development of cultural complexity very like that of Rome in the period c.900 - c.1500 correlates with the extension of language technology to secular society: the provision of secular education and its application in political administration and economic life.

3. The West c.1500 - c.1975

By c.1500 AD Europe was undergoing an intellectual transformation called the Renaissance which was to revolutionize Western culture and indeed world culture. The main effect of the Renaissance was to transform the intellectual focus from the religious world-view represented by the Christian Church to a secular scientific one.

3.1 Historical overview

By the end of the Middle Ages the Christian Church had long been part of the medieval ruling Establishment, and had become both overly wealthy and corrupt. In response, reforming protestant movements arose throughout Europe, and though the Church managed to hold on to much of its influence its authority was diminished. Among intellectuals this diminution led to a willingness to question previously unquestioned religious truths based on the Bible and the Church's interpretation of it. This questioning grew from the fundamental insight that understanding of the world and humanity's place in it should be based on observation of how the world actually is rather than on unquestioning acceptance of  religious dogma. This new science developed rapidly in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, and by the 19th century it had progressed sufficiently to support the increasingly wide range of technological innovations now known as the Industrial Revolution. Our own highly scientific and technological world culture is based directly on this.

3.2 Cultural complexity

i. Socio-political organization

Kingship and aristocracy was the dominant political institution throughout the Middle Ages and remained so for most of the period from c.1500. The urbanization consequent on the Industrial Revolution generated political movements for workers' rights which led eventually to parliamentary democracy and the demise of the old order; in a few European countries, including Britain, the old aristocratic order survives to some degree, but it has lost most or all of its political role.

A major development from c.1500 onwards has been the European discovery of previously little known (or in the case of the Americas, unknown) parts of the world, and their subsequent colonization. This led to the growth of colonial empires, chief among them the British Empire.

The Christian Church remained influential throughout most of the period since c.1500, but has since the end of the 19th century been in decline not only as a political institution but also as a belief system governing people's world-view and behaviour.

ii. The economy

The European economy continued to be predominantly agrarian throughout most of the period since c.1500, through the importance of manufacturing and the financial sector have grown and are now dominant.

  • Capitalism, that is, the concentration of money in banks and its lending at rates of interest, was invented in late medieval Italy and has since become the basis of the world economic order, even in nominally non-capitalist countries.
  • The exploitation of natural resources, labour, and markets in colonial empires brought huge inflows of wealth to Europe and, subsequently, to the United States.
  • Financed by the institutions of capitalism and colonial resources, the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century made manufacturing and marketing dominant in the European economy, and laid the foundations of the world economy as presently constituted.

iii. Science and technology

Major advances in  astronomy, mathematics, physics, and biology were made between about 1500 and 1900; since 1900 there has been an explosion of scientific knowledge. There has been a rapid and, since the mid-20th century, an explosive development of technology based on this science, particularly since the invention of the computer in the mid-twentieth century.

3.3 Language technology

The mid-15th century saw a fundamental innovation in language representation technology: printing. The first print shop was founded by Johannes Gutenberg in Germany round about 1440, but by 1500 there were numerous printers throughout Europe, and hand-production of books was rapidly superseded.

Printing mechanized the production of text. Individual letters are cast in metal:


These are assembled into a matrix which represents a page of text:


The matrix is laid onto the bed of a press, it is inked, and a sheet of paper placed on it is pressed, leaving an impression of the page:


Simple presses like the one shown above were developed into highly complex automated ones, but the basic principle has remained the same for centuries:


The consequences of this invention are far-reaching, and make it one of the most important inventions in human history. Consequences for book production:

  • Many times faster than handwriting, and so
  • Cheaper, and so
  • Radical decrease in cost of books, and radical increase in their supply
  • Development of a book trade: publishers and booksellers
  • Development of mass media: newspapers and magazines

Consequences for education and literacy:

  • Rapid spread of literacy in the Renaissance
  • Acceleration of literacy since the 19th century, and near-universal literacy in the present day
  • Availability of secular schooling since the Renaissance, and moves toward universal education realized after the Second World War
  • The modern concept of a university

Consequences for government and commerce

  • Exponential growth of record-keeping in government, commerce, law

Consequences for science and engineering

  • The ability to disseminate knowledge widely
  • The ability to accumulate knowledge

Consequences for culture

  • The idea of literature

The printed book as a threat to established order

  • Science and Christian theology: the Church's attempts at censorship
  • State censorship of media from the Renaissance to the present day. Established authority has consistently attempted to censor publication because it sees dissemination of knowledge as a threat to its existence. This continues today.

2.4 The correlation between cultural complexity and language technology

In the period 1450 - 1975, there is a close correlation between language technology and cultural complexity. In particular, the invention and development of printing technology and the consequent availability of printed materials has coincided with:

  • The development of complex political structures and mechanisms of state control
  • The development of a highly complex capitalist world economy
  • Huge advances in science and technology
  • Liberation of the individual: access to wealth, education, and political freedom


Text and writing systems

General history sites

General ancient world sites






The Middle Ages

 The Christian Church

Christian monasticism

Medieval scriptoria

Medieval education

Early Modern European history


Books and printing