When you think of written language, you probably think of the 26 letters of the English alphabet that we know today. But did you know that there were originally 29 letters in old English, or that the symbol “&” came after the letter “Z” but was dropped in the 1835?

And what about written language in Africa? Did Africans not write until colonialism came to our shores?

The purpose of writing has always been to communicate ideas. People have been doing this for at least 100 000 years. Before written language existed in Africa there were what are called ‘proto-languages’. These were patterns of symbols that people engraved on things or painted on cave walls. They were used to communicate with each other. In South Africa 60 000-year-old ostrich eggshells with symbols on them were found in Diepkloof. These were believed to communicate the names of local communities.

Probably the most famous use of symbols were the Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs that were engraved on pharaohs’ tombs and the pyramids. But, although these are the most well-known, they are not the oldest known written language. This is Sumerian and dates back to 3500 BC. It was spoken in Mesopotamia (what is known as Iraq today) but died out a long time ago.

Language changes all the time. It’s no wonder that some languages die out and some evolve with the migration of people to different parts of the world. It’s like when a person leaves their village to go and live and work in the city. They find that new languages, or dialects, are spoken there and in order for them to thrive they need to learn them and adapt.

Some people say that language will be unified in the future by using emojis. Whatever language you speak emojis have become universal. It is important, however, to keep languages alive, especially the smaller ones as they form part of our cultural identity and heritage. If we want to preserve our languages, we need to write in them to make sure that they are forever documented in history.


Tell us: Do you think we should all speak the same language? Why/Why not?