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where does our alphabet come from?

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Etruscan ink-holder, with alphabet, from the early 7th century BCE

Etruscan ink-holder, with alphabet, from the early 7th century BCE

I’m currently reading Lost languages: the enigma of the world’s undeciphered scripts, by Andrew Robinson, a pretty demanding work in parts, though designed for the general reader. It’s looking at the difficulty of scripts of which we have too few examples, and too few connected languages – either descended from or ancestral to these extant fragments – to be able to get a handle on them. However it also looks at famous decipherings of the past – of the Egyptian and the Mayan hieroglyphs, and of Linear B (Mycenean, the earliest form of Greek), as well as at written languages in general, which inevitably makes a fellow think of his own taken-for-granted language, its origins and its ‘type’, among all the types of writing we have.

Robinson informs us of a consensus among scholars, arrived at though much struggle – that all written languages contain phonemic and semantic, or logographic, elements. A dummy’s way of presenting this is that they contain both sounds and signs. Our alphabet is, of course, largely phonemic, but in writing we also use signs, such as full stops, question marks, apostrophes, quotation marks, etc. We also use capitals. For example B represents the same sound as b, but it also signifies the beginning of a sentence or (the beginning of) a name of something. It follows that b also has a sign value, in contrast to the sign value of B. Apparently Finnish is the most purely phonemic language we have these days, while Chinese and Japanese are very heavily sign based.

So what about the English language, or more strictly, the alphabet we share with many other European languages. It’s generally known as the Latin alphabet, and it was introduced to England by Christian missionaries in about the 7th century, replacing Anglo-Saxon runes that date back at least another couple of hundred years. These runes may also be traced back to the Latin alphabet – we don’t have enough extant examples to be sure.

The alphabet has evolved over the years. Wikipedia tells us that back in the year 1011 a polymath named Byrhtferth set down the alphabet as it was understood at the time. It comprised 23 of our modern letters (J, U and W had not yet emerged), the ampersand & and five other letter/symbols no longer recognised, or at least formally recognised, as alphabetical. One was the ligature æ, called ash. In the fourteenth century the letters uu, often used together, were merged to make w, still called ‘double u’ today. The alphabet became fixed in the sixteenth century, when j and u emerged as distinct from i and v.

So it would seem that the Latin alphabet evolved, much like humans evolved from earlier forms, with little mutations along the way, so that if you go back far enough it’ll be barely recognisable. What is called the classical Latin or Roman alphabet derived from a western variant of the Greek alphabet, used in southern Italian colonies such as Cumae in modern-day Campania. This was in turn modified by the Etruscans (800-100BCE) before being taken up and modified further by the Romans.

It’s an enormously complicated story of interaction and modification. The English alphabet isn’t exactly the Latin alphabet, which itself changed as the Romans developed and advanced their civilization, incorporating more territories and their cultural influences. It’s not something you can trace in an obvious linear way. The Romans were influenced linguistically by both the southern colonies and the northern Etruscans. After the Roman conquest of Greece in the first century BCE, the Greek letters Y and Z were added to their alphabet, giving them 23 letters during the ‘classical’ period (the period of the late republic and the empire). Our number system – obviously a part of our written language, but I won’t get too much into mathematical symbology here – is often described as Arabic, but the Arabs and Persians adopted it from the Hindus, who apparently developed the place-value notation in the fifth century, adding zero a century later.

If we want to go back to the origin of writing systems and writing itself, it seems not to have had a single origin. I’ve mentioned the  ancestor of Latin, the Greek alphabet, which has been around since the eighth century BCE and is still in use. It consists of 24 letters from alpha to omega, and of course many of its symbols, including pi, are used in mathematical notation. The Greek alphabet in turn derives from the Phoenician. There is some dispute or at least conjecture as to how far back the Phoenician alphabet can be dated – a bit like putting a date on the first humans, who after all had parents who were much the same as they were. Scholars generally put the date back to 1050 BCE, and inscriptions with Phoenician elements before that date are attributed to ‘parent scripts’. To quote the Wikipedia article:

The oldest known inscription that goes by the name of Phoenician is the Ahiram epitaph, engraved on the sarcophagus of King Ahiram from c. 1200 BCE.[5]

However, the immediate predecessor to Phoenician is conventionally referred to as Proto-Canaanite. Ancestral to this was the Proto-Sinaite script, used by Canaanites in the Sinai region from about 1850 BCE. We don’t have too many examples of it, but it’s claimed by some to be the first ever alphabetic writing system. Most of the inscriptions using this language, generally accepted as Semitic, were found among Egyptian hieratic and hieroglyphic inscriptions, and there are graphic similarities to the hieratic script, which is less elaborate than hieroglyphics, but little headway has been made in deriving the Semitic script from Egyptian hieratic.

Egyptian hieroglyphics can be dated back to 2700 BCE. They’re complex beasties that can be used as phonograms, logograms or determinatives; in other words as sounds or sound sequences, as pictorial representations, or as clues to meaning neither clearly pictorial nor phonological (in earlier times hieroglyphics were doggedly construed as almost entirely logographic, and this hindered a full decoding). It’s quite possible, apparently, that the Proto-Sinaite script was influenced by the phonological (hence alphabetical) elements of hieroglyphics.

The Meroitic script, again probably derived from hieroglyphics, is an alphabetic script used in the Nubian Kingdom of Meroe in what is now northern Sudan. It first appeared in the second century BCE and flourished at the height of Nubian power (750 to 300 BCE). It appears to have developed independently of the Greek alphabet, though some scholars claim a connection.

One of the earliest known writing systems, Cuneiform, emerged in Sumer in the late 4th millennium BCE . The term ‘cuneiform’ means wedge-shaped, and was so named by its wedge-shaped markings left on clay tablets. The earliest Cuneiform was pictorial, but over time it became more stylized, simplified and abstract. The Cuneiform of the early bronze age contained about 1000 characters, but this was down to 400 by the late bronze age, some 1500 years later. Sumerian is not really recognised as a fully fledged language by scholars until about the 31st century BCE.

So is there an earlier form of writing than Cuneiform? I suspect that there were innumerable forms of proto-writing, symbols used with a shared, tribal meaning indecipherable to outsiders, and that this could have gone on for millennia. It just happened that with early Sumerian civilization we had a larger clot of people together than ever before, and with that, language took a further step towards codification and regularisation.

So I’ve gone a bit further back than our alphabet, but I’ve barely scratched the surface of language development. Tracing all the connections is an endless and ongoing task, and we’re continuing to make headway, but the key to all this is human ingenuity in finding such a variety of more or less efficient systems to communicate and preserve increasingly complex ideas, which whole regions of our developing brains are devoted to. There’s so much more to say on this subject.


Written by stewart henderson

September 24, 2013 at 11:06 pm

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