The Origin of the Alphabet
Where does the Alphabet come from? Who invented it? From where does the word itself derive? The alphabet is fundamental to our exploration of many languages today and its history is fascinating.
In the 21st century world, we take the idea of the ‘Alphabet’ for granted. Yet it’s origins go back deep into human history and it has evolved massively over the passing of millennia.
The Need to Communicate
Human beings have always needed to communicate. Originally that communication would have been exclusively verbal and body-language based but early humans needed another mechanism too.
That’s because in their rituals, they needed to communicate both with their gods and also other people who would follow them. These two things are very possibly the origin of cave paintings, the oldest of which goes back some 35,000 years.
Whether they were art, some form of ritualistic device or messages to other humans, it is clear that their creators wished to communicate something to somebody.
This introduced another key revelation to early societies – the concept of communication over distance. Yes, it was possible to stand on a hill and wave one’s arms to signify “danger – stay away” but what if others out of earshot thought the signal meant “good news – come quickly?”
Clearly early societies needed to develop ways of communicating unambiguous and standardised meaning over distances that were beyond visual and audible contact. This was self-preservation and a survival imperative – and it helped spur on the development of writing.
Early Writing Systems
It should be remembered that much of the origin of writing and alphabets is still the subject of fierce academic debate.
However, there is a degree of consensus that the first ‘proto-writing’ systems may have evolved as early as 6,000-7,000 BCE independently in several places around the globe. These were largely pictorial systems that did not convey language within them – as far as is known.
True writing seems to have first commenced in the Mesopotamian region of today’s Middle-East (roughly modern Iraq) around 3500BCE though some scholars dispute this and attribute its origin to Egypt.At this stage, it was still a largely pictorial representation.
For example, early cuneiform script from around 3,000BCE still used a symbol (e.g. a bird’s head) and a number of strokes alongside to indicate a number. Typically, this was used in things such as inventory taking and receipts. These early writing systems usually consisted of what is typically (though not entirely accurately) called today ‘hieroglyphics’ and they’re best-known through those of ancient Egypt.
Slowly, the use of phonetic sounds began to arrive in writing. A major milestone, agreed by most though not all scholars, was what appears to be the origin of the use of markers for sounds (consonants only) in the ancient Egyptian texts of around 1800BCE. This appears to have been influenced by the language of the Semitic peoples who were then workers in Egypt proper.This is important because once sounds start to be represented in writing and they’re standardised, then one has an alphabet.
Linguists know the early alphabets of this period as “Abjad”. This is because they still do not represent vowel-sounds through unique characters.
Next Steps – Europe
Via mechanisms that are unknown, these early alphabets spread into the area once known as ‘Canaan’ in the region of modern Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Syria. They were picked up and used by the peoples that became known as the ‘Phoenicians’ of the area and that provided one important evolutionary path.They were also used in Aramaic, used by peoples in the east of the area and in languages such as Hebrew. This became the second evolutionary path.
The Phoenicians were amongst the greatest sailors and traders of the ancient world and during their voyages around the Mediterranean, they came into contact with the Ancient Greeks who learned of their alphabet and quickly adopted it. However, the Greek language meant that the existing Abjad Phoenician alphabet was cumbersome. So, with their usual inventiveness, the Greeks started to bring vowel-sounds into their own version of the alphabet.
This process formed the basis of the alphabet that would become the norm in Europe via the Romans and later much of the world. Today we call that ‘Latin Script’.Interestingly, the origin of the word ‘alphabet’ comes into English from Latin, where it came from ancient Greek and before that it goes back to its Phoenician origins and the first two letters of that alphabet,ʾālepand bēt’ meaning “house” and “ox”respectively.This is an extraordinary lineage in the history of language.
Next Steps – Asia
Through ancient Aramaic, the Abjad alphabet spread eastwards from the Middle East. Adopted by the Persians, it rapidly became the basis of most if not all west, central and possibly southern Asian language alphabets.
Over time, the Abjads reflected vowel-sounds through ‘long consonants’ or in some cases, evolved (or were revised) to reflect new vowel characters.
For many years, the model of the spread of alphabets out of the Middle East and then around the world, was favoured. However, more recently that has been challenged in several areas, examples of which include:
- There is evidence to suggest that Chinese evolved independently around 1200BCE.
- Many south-Asian scholars suggest that Brahmi (the ancestral script of many south-Asian languages) evolved from the still un-deciphered Indus Valley script. This is disputed by western scholars given the similarities between Brahmi and Aramaic and the known contact between the two cultures at the time.
- Some pre-Columbian languages in South America, plus one or two in Africa, may have developed their own independent alphabets
As always, the history of the relationships between languages is complex and sometimes also sensitive. Much work remains to be done in this area.