The Origin Of Advice

The Origin Of Advice

Q: What is the origin of advice?

A: The origin of advice can be traced to between 1400-1000BCE in Mesopotamia and enigmatically derived from the Cuneiform script. Historians and philologists have found evidence to suggest that advice was transcribed through the use of pictographs, symbols that represent ideas or objects.

While it may not be evident why advice would need a written language – one could venture an educated guess that it enables thought without requiring speech (and thus easily transferable) – it is important to remember that history is nearly always documented by those in power; either monarchs or religious leaders. Thus, while we know what action occurred, we may never truly understand why.

There are several cuneiform tablets that have been found that were concerned with advice, so it’s likely this tradition had become common knowledge at the time of their creation. One example is The Counselling God. It was found in temple ruins at Uruk, which is located in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) and dates back to 2350-2000 BCE.

Another example is Advice on Caring for the Family, which was created by a scribe named Nanni, who lived sometime after 3000 BCE. Historians are uncertain of its purpose, but they hypothesize that since it included overseers – one of whom worked on behalf of Ur-Nanshe – it may have been written for men who were involved in the trade.

One of the most important examples from this time period is The Counsellor, which was divided into three parts: teaching, judgment, and knowledge. It’s like a book divided into chapters: teaching about how to be a good counselor, then writing down rules and regulations for counseling, and lastly, its own subject matter. These topics include giving advice on incest (and how it should be dealt with), divorce, and prostitution, as well as caring for children who may become ill or unable to care for themselves.

It seems that these earliest written documents all share one common thread: advising those who cannot make decisions on their own due to either age or inexperience, notably those traveling away from home without trusted advisors.

It is not known how long advice was passed down by word of mouth before it was first put into written text, but considering the vastness of time between this earliest documentation and the present day, it could be inferred that advice has been consistently passed through generations for at least 3400 years.

However, there are some who argue that the tradition existed much earlier than historically documented. One example of non-cuneiform writing comes from Ancient Egypt in around 2350 BCE: The Maxims of Ptahhotep. Some philologists have argued that its purpose was to teach ethics and comportment in society, particularly in its use of metaphor and analogy. Thus, while there’s no way to verify whether this document influenced The Counsellor, it could be inferred that advice did not originate with either The Egyptian or Mesopotamian cultures.

neon signage
Photo by Ivan Bertolazzi on

In fact, the earliest known writing was cuneiform – but the oldest writing ever discovered was around 3300-3200 BCE and is known as proto-Elamite. It has been found in Iran, next to a sign for “advice,” which historians have been unable to translate. This means that while evidence of advice existed prior to 3100 BCE, there is no way of knowing if this word referred to advice – or something else entirely. For example, a command from a ruler, a warning about a nearby threat, anything really: thus, it cannot truly be argued that one civilization invented advice.

The next oldest documented evidence of advice comes from between 1500-1200 BCE in the Ancient Near East, where it was known as muŝābat – meaning “exhortation” or “admonition.” It’s actually considered one of the earliest forms of literature, but because many lacked literacy, these texts were meant for public recitation rather than private reading.

Then in around 1100 BCE, it became known by the Akkadian word naṣiru. It was created by scribes and had a different meaning than what we know today: mostly related to legalities such as contracts and prescriptions. By 700 BCE, this word evolved into both navigate and nasīhat, then finally into nasi’ah by the 900’s. These words were used in context with an audience, which is why they are so similar to today’s definition of advice.

The oldest documented usage of the word is actually quite recent – after 1000 CE in Islamic Spain, where it was written nasihat. It didn’t pertain to legalities at all but rather something else entirely: literature about good conduct for rulers and commoners alike. This tradition is still carried on today through publications such as Reader’s Digest and its series known as “Napoleon Hill Readers.” It could be said that while advice has existed since 3400 BCE or earlier, this literary type only arose within the past millennium; if we’re talking word-for-word similarities anyway.

While the word’s origin is not clear, its usage and role in society are. Advice has long been used as a method of passing knowledge from generation to generation, even if these words were written by another and meant for someone else entirely. This writing has changed greatly over time: morphing from ancient texts into medieval books and pamphlets up until present-day websites and magazines; however, every iteration has focused on guiding those unable or unwilling to make decisions independently through difficult times. The earliest known form was personal, while the original written forms were about legalities. However, modern advice generally focuses on life decisions such as career paths or marital status. It’s only recently become available electronically. Regardless of the word’s origin, the purpose behind advice has never changed.

In Closing

It’s yours, should you choose to accept it…

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