How the Alphabet Came to Be

Nancy J. Delong

Composed English, along with most modern-day tongues, is so deeply tied to its alphabet that we might take the pairing for granted. But extended prior to Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales, there were options. In reality, although the to start with proof of crafting comes from 5,000-yr-previous Sumerian cuneiform, it took a different millennium for humans to hit on the language-ordering approach most of us now find out as kids.

The language you are examining listed here is a latecomer, with a extended but traceable heritage. The alphabet would seem to have been invented just after, by Semitic personnel in Egypt just about 4,000 decades in the past. The script they devised, regarded as Proto-Sinaitic script, was an endeavor to repurpose hieroglyphics for their personal language.

Egyptologists recovered the to start with of these inscriptions in the early decades of the 20th century, noting their obvious hieroglyphic influence. They were located on the Sinai Peninsula, so students assumed that Proto-Sinaitic originated there, close to 1600 B.C. Only in the 1990s did Yale Egyptologist John Darnell and his spouse, Deborah Darnell, find an more mature predecessor in the graffiti at Wadi el-Hol, or “Valley of Terror,” a website along the Nile River on mainland Egypt. These were dated to roughly 1800 B.C.

The inscriptions have still to be completely translated, but some letters have been deciphered. Some even remain plainly seen in English, no translation vital, following all this time. “M,” for occasion, comes to us without substantially modification the Semites seem to have borrowed the hieroglyph for “water,” a wavy, undulating line, to symbolize the initial sound in their personal word for water, “mem.” “A” started as an ox-head, but in successive languages speedily morphed into a recognizable form.

Historical ABCs

The most important difference among the oldest crafting devices — also called orthographies — and our modern-day-working day alphabets is in the models of speech they symbolize. Cuneiform denoted full words and phrases or syllables with wedge designs. Egyptian and Chinese accomplished the very same with an array of hieroglyphs and figures. But simply because languages often contain tens of hundreds of words and phrases and hundreds of syllables, comprehensive mastery of these unwieldy strategies demanded a perseverance only experienced scribes could after pay for.

An alphabet, on the other hand, divides words and phrases and syllables further into phonemes — the established of fundamental appears that serve as the setting up blocks of a language. In English, this quantities to a workable 26 letters (although the language basically consists of 44 discrete appears). These phonemes can then be merged to type morphemes, the smallest significant models of language.

For example, just about every word in the next sentence is a distinctive morpheme: “The property is on hearth.” In a non-alphabetic language, some or all of them would be depicted by a single image, somewhat than a string of phonemes.

Technically talking, Proto-Sinaitic was not basically a genuine alphabet. More properly, it was an abjad: a crafting method concerned to start with and foremost with consonants, generally leaving the reader to offer vowels based on context and prior comprehending of vocabulary and pronunciation. Sometimes, but not normally, the vowels are indicated by diacritical marks. (While they are uncommon these days, noteworthy modern-day abjads contain Arabic and Hebrew.)

Alphabet Takeover

The subsequent iteration of the alphabet following Proto-Sinaitic, Phoenician, also omitted its vowels, but with only 22 symbols it was so person-welcoming that most individuals could grasp it with very little trouble. It grew in level of popularity, finally spreading west along the Mediterranean Sea. Soon the Greeks adopted it, concurrently supplying us the to start with comprehensive-fledged example of an alphabet and a time period for it — “alphabet” is derived from the language’s to start with two letters, alpha and beta.

Greece’s finest contribution, nevertheless, was the addition of vowels. In time, the Etruscans on the Italian Peninsula uncovered to do the very same, then bequeathed the exercise to the nascent Roman Empire. The end result was the Latin alphabet, which has accomplished world-wide domination on a scale exceeding Julius Caesar’s wildest dreams. It’s the foundation of English, and lots of other languages, many thanks to European colonization.

But alphabets and alphabet-adjacent hybrids are just about ubiquitous close to the world. The Cyrillic alphabet — used in Russian and other languages across jap Europe and central Asia — is descended from Greek. Devanagari — the script of Hindi, Nepali, Sanskrit and a proliferation of South Asian dialects — probably arrived from a Semitic language (possibly Aramaic, which Jesus spoke). In a sense, the type of written communication that billions of individuals hire right now is only an evolution of the hieroglyphs that decorate King Tut’s tomb.

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