The alpha beta of origin of letters
Writing began in ancient Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) and ancient Egypt. Both writing systems were developed independently, and still, account for a huge difference between them.
Cuneiform is the system of writing developed by the ancient Sumerians, between 3500 and 3100 BC. Sumeria was one of the first civilizations to develop and prosper in the world. It resided in the area of what is known today as Iraq, between the two great rivers Tigris and Euphrates. Their system of writing consisted of wedge-shaped marks made with the edge of a stylus pressed into the clay. The clay would then be heated in an oven so the marks could become permanent. “Cuneiform” comes from a Greek word meaning “wedge-shaped.”
Another developed and one of the first civilizations, Hieroglyphs or the ancient Egyptians developed a very different system of writing than the Sumerians. It was developed in the same as that of Cuneiform but involved tiny pictures or glyphs (signs) rather than wedge-shaped marks, which were used to represent words.
Neither of these writing systems absorbed true alphabets. The majority of symbols were used to identify whole words or multiple syllables, unlike our own and today’s compact alphabets. Because of this, they included a far greater range of symbols in order to write than cultures using alphabets.
The Phoenicians and the First alphabets
The developers of the first major alphabets were the Phoenicians. The traces of Phoenicians can be found from the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, today where Lebanon is situated. They were mostly interested in maritime trade and seafaring culture. They had trading relations with both the Egyptians and the Sumerians.
The Sumerians had originally developed their writing system in order to make trading easier and more profitable, and same was the case with the Phoenicians. However, the system of writing developed by the Phoenicians would be very different than that created by either the Egyptians or the Sumerians.
The Phoenicians had closer contact with the Egyptians than with the Sumerians. For much of their history, there were times they were under Egyptian control. Their writing symbols developed somewhat from Egyptian hieroglyphs (“hiero” meaning sacred and “glyph” meaning signs or carvings). The Phoenician symbols did not represent entire words but rather single letters.
The Phoenician alphabets took several centuries to develop, but it was fairly well completed by about 1000 BC, over 2000 years after the development of the first writing system in Sumeria.
The original Phoenician alphabets consisted of 22 letters, none of them were vowels. Other alphabets such as the Hebrew alphabets would not contain vowels. While many of their symbols have great similarity to our own letters, they often represented very different sounds. For example, there is a letter which looks like an ‘x’, but rather represents the “taw” sound.
The Phoenicians dominated the Mediterranean Sea in terms of trading, and they took their alphabets with them as they traded with Sumerians and Egyptians. Many different cultures began to pick up their alphabets, and modify it to their own wish and need. The most important of these cultures in the ultimate development of our own alphabets were the legendary Greeks who were more advanced than any other nation or civilization at that time. However, there are still residues of its Phoenician origin in our own language, as we still call the study of letters as “phonetics.”
The Greek alphabets
The Greeks have been given the credit to invent the word “alphabet”. It comes from the first two letters of their alphabets, Alpha and Beta. These names actually came from the Phoenicians; however, whose first two letters were ‘Aleph’ and ‘Beth’.
Scholars and historians are still not quite sure when the Greeks first came into contact with the Phoenician alphabets; however it seems to have been about 1000 BC while they had good trading relations. They changed both the look of the alphabets and added some of their own. For example their alphabets had an “F” character, unlike the Phoenicians, although it originally stood from the “w” sound.” Because different languages used different sounds.
The Greeks were the first to introduce vowels into the alphabets. While the Phoenicians did have the letter “aleph” which became “alpha” it originally represented a harsh tone, rather than what we consider the letter “a”. Within Greece there were many different alphabets, most of them had about 25 letters and were mostly similar, with some slight differences.
The Latin alphabets
The Etruscan peoples of Italy picked up the alphabets from the Greeks, in about the 7th Century BC, and from the Etruscans it eventually came to the Romans. During its nearly thousand year history, the Roman Republic and later the Roman Empire grew to be the most influential and major power in the world, and one of the most authoritative empires of history. At its height, the Roman Empire spread from England to northern Africa, from Spain to Mesopotamia.
The Roman Empire faced its collapse in the 5th Century AD, but its alphabets would remain. The illiterate and brutal barbarians who conquered the remains of the Roman Empire ultimately absorbed its alphabets as they developed their own writing skills.
Many of the new countries formed in aftermath of the Roman Empire would actually adopt Latin as their language. Spanish, Portuguese, French, Romanian, and Italian all descended from the Latin language. The countries such as Germany and England that did not adopt the Latin language still adopted the Latin alphabets into their writing language.
Changes to the Latin alphabets
There have been some changes in the Latin alphabets since it was finalized under the Romans. Originally the letter ‘C’ stood for both ‘G’ and ‘K’. The letter ‘I’ stood for both ‘I’ and ‘J’. ‘V’ stood for both ‘U’ and ‘V’.
The original alphabets did not have lower case letters. Lowercase letters came during the Middle Ages, with the development of cursive writing and calligraphy. After the invention of paper and printer in China, prior to the Middle Ages, all writing was done in print. It was the time when the English sorted and picked it out and brought the Latin alphabets to us.
The alphabets have undergone numerous changes in its thousand years of history, but they have become the most used alphabets in the world today. They are used all across Europe and around the world for thousands of different languages, including, of course, our own.
Shah Mahdi is Class 8th student at Oasis Educational Institute, Srinagar.