Writing History by Messing Around
Our best guess is that in each case the transition from simple pictograms to a true written language – where images are used to represent sounds as well as the things pictured (see the rebus principle) – came about because people can’t help but play.
Who could resist, say, combining a picture of a pot of stew and a verruca to spell “Stuart”? It seems quite plausible to me that the pressure to decode scribal in-jokes was a key incentive for early accountants to upgrade to rebus-principle writing, and that the ability to carve cryptic insults about one’s peers was literacy’s first killer app.
And so a fundamental innovation that lead to our most transformative general-purpose technology started out as a (bad) joke.
You couldn’t script it.