About communication

Students
Letter Link: Let's write a letter

Communication has not always been about wall posts, status updates, texts, tweets or emails. In fact, people have communicated in many different ways throughout history.

The alphabet

The alphabet, but not as you know it

The modern English alphabet (the one you use) is a young alphabet when compared to others. It was finalised in the 16th century when "u" and "j" were added and "w" became an independent letter. Even though the 16th century seems like a long time ago, there are many other forms of writing that are a lot older:

  • You have probably heard of hieroglyphics. The Egyptians are responsible for this language which dates back to before 3000 BC, making it one of the oldest forms of writing. Hieroglyphs are a formal writing system which uses pictures to represent whole words, individual letters or combinations of letters.

  • The Phoenicians (an ancient civilisation) developed an alphabet in around 1050 BC. It was not based on pictures, as are hieroglyphics, but instead each symbol represented a letter (a bit more like our alphabet). Many modern alphabets can trace their origins back to the Phoenician alphabet.

  • The Chinese also have a very old style of writing. In fact, it is one of the oldest writing styles that is still in use today. Interestingly, early forms of Chinese writing were called the "Oracle bone script" as the writing was often on turtle shells and animal bones which were used as a type of oracle. A question would be written or carved into the bone, such as "Will there be rain this month?" or "What is the cause of my illness?". Heat would then be applied to the bone until cracks formed. These cracks would provide the answer to the question. The cracks would be "read", in the same way that a palm reader might read the lines on your hand to see what your future holds.

 
Before paper

Before paper

Writing has not always been done on paper. Writing was done on bones, cave walls, stone tablets, pillars, pottery, bark, papyrus and many other unusual items.

  • Paper was invented by the Chinese around 105 AD and was initially made from rags and plant materials such as reeds and bark.

  • An older form of "paper" was papyrus. The papyrus plant grew along the banks of the River Nile and the ancient Egyptians used it to make sheets which could be written on.

  • Many civilisations have also communicated with one another, or recorded events or stories, by painting on rocks or the walls of caves. Rock paintings thought to be 3000 years old have been found in Africa and, of course, there are many significant Aboriginal cave and rock paintings around Australia.

 
Can't find a pen?

Can't find a pen?

Have you ever looked at a pen or pencil and wondered what people used to write with before they were invented? Well, believe it or not, for thousands of years people were able to write using sharp bones, thin reeds, styluses (long thin pieces of metal with a point at one end which were used to engrave into wax), or quills dipped in ink. The ballpoint pens we have now were not invented until the early to mid-1900s.

 
A significant invention

A significant invention

Communication was changed forever in the 1440s when a German, Johannes Gutenberg, invented the printing press. It may not sound like an amazing invention, but it meant that, for the first time, many copies of a piece of written communication could be printed and distributed. Think about how often you read or receive a book, brochure, catalogue, magazine, leaflet, newsletter or newspaper. None of this would be possible without the printing press. Thanks, Johannes!

 
An information revolution

An information revolution

Much like the printing press, the internet has also created an information revolution and changed the face of communication. It has never been easier to communicate quickly with someone on the other side of the world, or to locate information with just a few clicks of a mouse. The internet may seem like a recent invention, but did you know that the idea for it was first being tested in the early 1960s?

 
Non-written communication

Non-written communication

It is not just written pieces of text that allow us to communicate. Inventions including radio, telephone, movies, television and mobile phones have all increased the opportunity for ideas, information or news to be communicated to large numbers of people in a short amount of time. How do you receive most of your communication? How do you communicate with others if you have an important message for lots of people?

 
Message delivery throughout history

Message delivery throughout history

Today, we are used to receiving communication instantly. Think about how long it takes you to send a text or open an email. However, communication delivery has not always been as instant. Throughout history, messages have been delivered in some interesting ways.

  • In many ancient civilisations, such as China and Egypt, messages were delivered on foot or horseback. As some messages had to travel long distances, rest stations were created for the messengers to rest or swap to a new horse. If verbal messages were being delivered, how reliable do you think this system would have been?

  • It is not just horses that have been used to deliver messages. Pigeons have been used as message carriers for thousands of years and, amazingly, were widely used during many military conflicts as they are fast. A single pigeon could carry up to 30 000 messages. These messages were shrunk down until they were tiny using microphotography. Of course, the recipient of the messages would have to magnify them in order to read them! Dogs, camels and even reindeer have also been used to deliver messages.

  • Smoke signals and whistling are two other interesting ways of delivering messages, but they were not very effective if the message was long or complex.

 
Communicating through touch

Communicating through touch

Reading and writing go hand in hand. However, many people who are blind or visually impaired may find it difficult or impossible to read regular printed material. Instead of reading words, as you are now, the visually impaired use a type of communication called Braille.

Braille is named after its inventor, a Frenchman called Louis Braille, who was unfortunately blinded in an accident as a child. Louis did not invent the concept of Braille though; it was based on a system originally invented for Napoleon's army. Napoleon (a French military and political leader) used a Braille-type system to allow soldiers to communicate silently and without light during the night. Because of this, it was called "night writing". The system of night writing was difficult and complicated and so was rejected by the military.

Luckily, when Louis Braille heard about this he knew the idea had potential. Louis' system is made up of a series of dots, or bumps, which can be felt by touch. To those who don't understand Braille, it might look something like the dots on the side of a dice, but those little dots revolutionised the lives of many people all over the world.

 
Communication through speech

Communication through speech

Think about the ways you can communicate other than writing. Nursery rhymes, jokes and lullabies are all communicated orally (that is, are spoken). We are able to communicate many things through speech.

  • Many ancient societies relied on the spoken word for both education and entertainment. Just as you might sit around a campfire and tell stories, ancient cultures told stories called myths which were passed on from generation to generation. For example, the myths of the Ancient Greeks were about their gods, heroes and even monsters. Not only did they provide entertainment, but they often carried a message which would teach the listener an important lesson.

  • Like the Ancient Greek myths, Aboriginal Dreamtime stories can be told orally. The Dreamtime stories are often about creation and why things are the way they are. They even teach lessons about how various animals act, customs, geography and the skills needed for hunting. Importantly, they also teach moral lessons about what is right and wrong.

  • Passing stories orally from person to person can lead to many different versions of the same story. This is due to the different ways in which people have remembered and retold it. In this way, oral storytelling can be a bit unreliable as you never know how the story will turn out!

    Can you imagine if we still did this today? Think of the last book you read, and imagine if the author had just told the story to someone, instead of writing it down. Do you think it would still be the same?

 
Modern communication

Modern communication

Humans have a long history of communication. However, some of the most popular modes of communication have only been developed in the last few decades.

  • The first text message, saying "Happy Christmas", was sent by Neil Papworth on 3 December 1992. Surprisingly, the popularity of text messaging was not instant. Three years later, in 1995, people were sending less than one message a month! How many text messages do you send or receive each month?

  • Today, text messages are one of the most popular forms of mobile communication. It is thought that around 15 million texts are sent per minute – wow! On top of that, in the Philippines "texters" send an average of 27 texts a day!

  • Apart from now being able to send picture messages, as well as words, in the United Kingdom you can contact the emergency services via text. In Australia, we can get emergency alerts sent straight to our mobile phones. These messages alert you to emergencies such as a fire, tsunami or flood. That's right, texts can now save lives!