The Alphabet

      Let's return to Southwest Asia to see how Sumerian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs gave rise to phonetically more regular writing systems.

      By 2500BC, several syllabaries were in use from Northeastern Africa to Northern India.  The civilizations of Elam (in present day Iran) and the Indus valley (in present day Pakistan) had writing systems that appear to have been irregular syllabaries much like the early cuneiform of Sumeria; so far neither of these scripts have been deciphered.  Egypt was still using hieroglyphics, and a type of hieroglyphic writing also passed south to the black African kingdom of Nubia in present day Sudan.

      All of these earliest syllabaries, like the Chinese characters of modern times, showed a very random connection between graph and sound.  They required the user to learn hundreds or even thousands of graphs.  The earliest forms of writing represented sound very irregularly and were very cumbersome to learn;  in the societies that used them, literacy was enjoyed only by a small cultural elite.

      Meanwhile, by 2000BC the Sumerians in Mesopotamia had been conquered and absorbed by a Semitic people, the Akkadians, who proceeded to adapt cuneiform to their own language. When Sumerian cuneiform was borrowed to write entirely unrelated language such as Akkadian, a more regular correspondence between graph and sound was developed. 

      The first truly successful attempt to replace the complex and cumbersome cuneiform and hieroglyphic systems with a set of regular phonetic symbols seems to have occurred some time after 1800BC among the Canaanite and other West Semitic peoples who lived in what is today Lebanon and Israel.  This is how the invention was made.

      Semitic languages employ symbolic fusion to create grammatical distinctions;  grammatical differences between words depend upon how the vowels in each word are pronounced.  The pronunciation of the vowels is predictable usually from syntactic or grammatical context; the consonants are not predictable.  Sometime after 1800BC someone among these peoples--we don't know the individual's name-- noticed that every Semitic syllable began with a consonant sound.  This person then took one hieroglyph for every consonant sound and used it to denote that consonant sound in any word regardless of meaning.  This was the first alphabetic writing.  It is often called the Phoenician alphabet, although the Phoenicians only came to use in 500 years later.  Thus it would be better to call the very first version of the alphabet the West Semitic alphabet.

      It was Sir Alan Gardiner, an expert on Egyptian, who in 1915 discovered that the first alphabet derived from the acrophonic use of certain Egyptian hieroglyphs.  Thus, the hieroglyph used to write the word 'alf, ox, came to be used to denote a glottal stop (not a), and so forth.   The hieroglyph used to write the word-syllable bet house, came to stand for the sound 'b' in any word whatsoever.  The letter M came from the hieroglyph used to represent the word mun, water.  Although the shapes of the letters of our alphabet differ from the shapes of the original, West Semitic alphabet, the hieroglyphic origin of the letter m is still apparent in modern English, since M still bears a resemblance to ripples on water. 

      Thus was created a system of writing in which the consonant sounds were written each by a specific graph;  the vowel component of the syllable was ignored since it's pronunciation was usually predictable based on grammatical context.  In one stroke, the many hundreds of hieroglyphic graphs were replaced by only 28 symbols.  Each letter denoted a consonant sound followed optionally by a vowel sound.  Thus, the symbol M denoted ma, me, mo, mi, mu or syllable final m.  Unlike true syllabaries, there was no separate symbol for ma, or me or mu.  But unlike the modern English alphabet, symbols for vowels were lacking.  The first alphabet, then, could be thought of either as a consonantal alphabet or as vowel neutral syllabary.  No one knows why the letters of the first alphabet were ordered in precisely the way they were, but that order of letters was passed down to other cultures when the alphabet was transmitted.  

      This first alphabet spread quickly to neighboring peoples and was modified to fit the phonology of each language in turn.  By 1250 BC the original 28 symbols had been simplified to 24 to write the Phoenician language spoken in what is now Lebanon.


       Now our story moves to Greece. The Mycenaen Greeks (the inhabitants of legendary Troy) used a version of the West Semitic alphabet until around 1300BC.  Afterward, there was a cultural dark age in Greece, when the new conquerors, the Dorian Greeks did not write at all.  In 776 BC, according to Herodotus, the Greek Prince Cadmus brought the Phoenician alphabet over to his people.  But Greek was typologically very different from Semitic languages.  Many words began with vowels, not consonants.  Also, it was usually not possible to guess the vowels in a Greek word based on the word's position in the sentence: ex. sumbouleuousi, they advise

      Thus, the Greeks adapted some of the original Semitic consonantal letters to stand for vowel sounds in Greek.  The glottal stop symbol, 'alf, began to be used for the vowel a, since Greek had no glottal stop.  Semitic letters for pharyngeals, were also changed into vowel symbols.  Since Greek had long and short vowels that were phonemically contrastive, separate letters for some of these vowels were devised: o-micron, o-mega. 

      When separate graphs for vowels were added, the alphabet lost all functional connection to a syllabary.  The first Greek alphabet is therefore sometimes considered to be the earliest fully alphabetic writing.  Greek names for letters are simply the Semitic names borrowed into Greek: alf = alfa; bet = beta, etc., hence, alphabet.

      In the gradual development of the Greek alphabet, the shapes of many letters were altered significantly.  Some letters were turned backwards because the direction of writing changed:

      1) Semitic  "right to left" (As in modern Hebrew and Arabic)

      2) then ox-turning style, boustrophedon: letters in one line were mirror images of letters in the opposite line, so that the shapes of letters reversed. 

      3) finally from left to right.  This is the style of writing passed on to Europe. (Look at handout for changes from Phoenician to Greek.)

      The Greeks were not the only people to borrow and build upon the first West Semitic alphabet. Other direct descendants of this alphabet include the modern Hebrew and Arabic alphabets.  These too did not have symbols for the vowels until fairly recently, when diacritical marks representing vowels were added to the script.  These vowel marks are still optional in some styles of writing.  Modern Arabic uses the word as the frame for writing;  letters are run together as in English cursive writing.  For aesthetic purposes, Arabic also writes each letter in a different way depending upon whether the letter is word initial, medial or final.  These versions could be called allographs, predictable positional variants of one and the same written symbol (compare Greek sigma.)

      Another modern alphabet that developed out of the ancient Phoenician consonant writing is the Ethiopic alphabet still used today to write Amharic, one of the principle languages of Ethiopia.  In the Ethiopic alphabet, the diacritic marks denoting vowels were added onto the consonant symbols to make syllabic letters.  Ethiopian syllabic symbols differ from true syllabaries in that the marks that convey vowels are regular.  Each Ethiopian syllable symbol can regularly be broken down into a consonant letter and a vowel diacritic.  Ethiopian writing is an alphabet which uses the syllable as the frame.

      The same is true of most of the alphabetic scripts of modern India and Southeast Asia.  These derive from the Devanagari used to write Sanskrit.  The Devanagari is thought to be derived ultimately from the Phoenician writing also, rather than from the Indus valley script, which apparently died out without leaving any direct descendants.  The alphabets of India and Buddhist Southeast Asia, like Ethiopian, add regular vowel marks to consonant letters.

      Two more Southwest Asian descendants of the first alphabet that are still in use today are Armenian and Georgian.  Both these countries became Christianized through Greek-speaking missionaries from the Eastern half of the Roman Empire in the 3rd century AD.  Before that time the Georgians and the Armenians seem to have had a consonantal writing system descended directly from some version of the Phoenician alphabet.  After the Christianization, in about 320AD a scholar named Meshrop Mashtots added vowel symbols to the native Georgian and Armenian consonantal symbols.  He also ordered the letters after the Greek and Phoenician pattern.

      Meanwhile back in Europe, the Greek alphabet gave rise to other alphabets. Etruscan is one.  A Celtic alphabet, called ogham, seems to have been a native form of writing inspired by the idea of phonetic writing acquired from Mediterranean peoples. 

      The Germanic tribes also seem to have borrowed the idea of the alphabet from either the Greeks or Romans in the 1st. century AD.  Their letters are called runes and are ordered in a unique way, not patterned on Greek: Futhark.  The reason for this ordering is unknown.  Runes are angular in form, since they were used to cut messages into wood.  Runes gradually spread north.  The use of runes was maintained longest in Scandinavia.  Reports of runic carvings in Minnesota and other sited in N America all so far have proven to be false.

      Today, runes and ogham script are no longer used, and the Greek alphabet is used only to write Greek. But two European descendants of the Greek alphabet are of very major importance in the world today. 

      The first is the Latin alphabet which seems to have been adopted more under the influence of Etruscan rather than directly from Greek.  Rome was founded in 753BC;  the Roman alphabet developed by 650BC.  During the transition through Etruscan, many changes occurred in the ordering and function of the letters.  "q" became kw.  x= ks  j and u were i and v.  The ancient Semitic names aleph, bet, etc. were dropped and the Latin letters were renamed according to their own sound: a, bee, cee, dee, etc.  The original Latin (or Roman) alphabet contained 21 letters (j, k, u, y, z added later).  Like Greek, Latin developed a difference between capital and small letters.  Modern Georgian, Hebrew and Arabic still have no differentiation between capital and small letter. 

      Today, English, Spanish, German, French and many hundreds of other languages are written with versions of the Roman alphabet. The English alphabet is a variety of the Roman.  The IPA can even be thought of as essentially a Latin-based script; as is modern Navajo and languages completely unrelated to the languages of Europe. (Roman numerals were less successful, and were replaced by Arabic numerals for most purposes.)

      It might be useful to note here that when a culture acquires writing a word must be invented to denote the act of writing.  The words in Latin and English that mean to write, as in most other languages, are based on words meaning to scratch, etch, poke: wrat in OE meant to scrape  (cf. modern German reissen, to tear.  The Latin verb scribere, originally to scrape or cut, has given modern German its: schreiben and modern English the words scribble, script and inscription.  The ancient IE cognate in English is scrape.

      The other descendent of the Greek alphabet which has had a major impact on the modern world is the Cyrillic alphabet, the precursor of the modern Russian alphabet. Cyrillic was devised to write the language of the East-European Slavs in the 10th century by Byzantine Greek missionaries. The name Cyrillic honors the Byzantine Greek St. Cyril.

      Contrary to popular belief, however, Cyril did not actually invent Cyrillic, and Cyrillic was the second, not the first Slavic alphabet. Here is what really happened:

      Byzantine monks Cyril and Methodius convert the Slavs to Christianity in the 900's. They devise an alphabet called Glagolitic with unique letter shapes.

      After Cyril's death, opposition to Glagolitic from the Roman branch of the church leads to the invention of another Slavic alphabet deliberately patterned closely on Greek.

      Spread of Cyrillic to Russia.

      Spread of Cyrillic to peoples of the Soviet Union.  Snuffing out of the old Mongolian alphabet (vertical script based on Sogdian, a Persian version of the alphabet.) and of the Arabic script used to write many Turkic languages in Central Asia.

      Remember that there is no necessary genetic relation between two languages that use the same writing system. There is no necessary connection between script and language origin, cf. Russian and Mongol.  On the other hand, two languages that are closely related may be written in very different scripts: Serbian/Croatian.  Hindi/Urdu.

      In conclusion to this discussion of alphabetic writing, it must be said that with the invention of the alphabet around 1800BC, it became possible for the first time in history to learn to read and write in a couple of weeks rather than through a lifetime of difficult study and practice.  The first West Semitic alphabet accelerated the pace of cultural change in Southwest Asia and eventually throughout the world and is probably the most important human invention except for the acquisition of spoken language, if that event indeed was an invention. 

      This one West Semitic writing system has given rise to nearly every other writing system in use in the world today.  Even the shapes of many letters of the IPA derive--through Latin--back to ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs, devised nearly 5000 years ago. Tomorrow we will discuss the few modern writing systems that are not directly descended from the first West Semitic alphabet, namely: Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Cherokee.