Daily Archives: April 15, 2013

Hooray for the Taxman

NotExactlyWritingYet

Not really writing yet – but somebody was counting sheep and cows

Today is April 15 – and here in the U.S., that means we all have to get our income tax filed by midnight. Yes, it’s tax day – a day all us bloggers and writers should celebrate.

I can hear you now, all of you. Has she lost her mind?

No, or not any more than usual. If there’s one thing everyone who enjoys writing or reading (at least, everyone who speaks any of the various European languages or Hebrew or Arabic) depends on, it’s the alphabet. But where did the alphabet come from?

It seems that several thousand years ago, people in what’s now Iraq started building cities along the rivers. (Well, to them they were cities – clusters of buildings where so many people lived that you were likely to see strangers almost every day.) They needed to work together to irrigate their crops, and somehow they had to feed the people who organized the irrigation system – so they invented taxes.

They hadn’t invented money yet, though, so you had to pay taxes in farm produce. You might owe five sheep every year, and your neighbor might be taxed twenty bushels of barley. Of course, right away people started arguing over whether the taxes had really been paid or not, so some clever collector came up with little clay tokens shaped like sheep (or whatever). When you brought your five sheep in, the tax collector set aside five sheep tokens to show that you had paid.

Only, how could you tell which tokens applied to which person? Pretty soon somebody figured out that you could wrap your five tokens in a clay “envelope” to keep them separate from everybody else’s. And soon after that, collectors started making marks on the outside of the “envelope” to show how many tokens were inside, and what kind. Then they realized they didn’t need the separate tokens – it would be easier to just make marks on a piece of clay that stood for the tokens. By now we’re halfway to inventing writing.

It only took another century or so of people inventing ways to add more information to these lists of tax payments – for example, maybe an explanation of why somebody had only paid part of what they owed – before they started using this wonderful new technique to write down important information like what towns the local king had just conquered. And after that, well, the rest was history.

At first the symbols on the clay were pictures, quick ways to represent whatever they stood for. But as time went on and people got busier and busier, they made the pictures simpler and simpler – and after centuries, they just stood for sounds. They had become letters, like the ones this post is written with. And it all started because of people who didn’t especially want to pay their taxes if they could avoid it, and tax collectors who needed a way to keep track of who really had paid.

Thank you, all you ancient taxmen. 😉