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Alphabets – A Journey Through Written Communication

Alphabets – A Journey Through Written Communication

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The modern-day Latin alphabet sits among the other 293 writing systems currently used in our world today. Each one is a foundation block that conveys our thoughts, ideas and knowledge to anyone who takes the time and effort to inscribe them for the next generation. In this article, we will take you on a journey through the evolutions we have undergone in how we communicate in the written format, from leaving scrawled symbols on old cave walls, to receiving work emails that we sometimes wish would end up in our spam folders.

Origins of the alphabet

Humans have been using writing systems as far back as 3300 BC, and spoken language is believed to have evolved tens of thousands of years earlier. The earliest indicators of a semi-modern alphabet sprouted out of the Egyptian and Mesopotamian eras, and separately around the same time in China and Southern Mexico. When you course their changes across time you can see that many of the systems followed a similar path through the ages, especially between the Egyptian hieroglyphs and Chinese characters.
Meanwhile, in the Sinai Peninsula, non-native Egyptian speakers took elements of the Egyptian Hieroglyphs, and created simplified characters that denoted the sounds of what they saw, thus was birthed one of the first phonetic alphabets. This crude beginning soon birthed the Phoenician alphabet which quickly spread throughout the Mediterranean trade routes and was quickly adopted by most of the neighbours. Eventually it evolved into the Aramaic script, then the Greek alphabet, and finally, led to the creation of the Latin alphabet that over 70% of today’s population uses to communicate.

The five stages of the alphabet

Our modern Latin alphabet’s roots can be traced as far back as 8000 BC. It has evolved throughout history and taken many forms, the most significant of which is the Mesopotamian cuneiform script. It was invented in Sumer in present-day Iraq, and is the earliest known writing system. Its history can be charted out in very distinct stages, each indicating a period of substantial civilization advancement.

Tokens – The alphabet’s clay baked beginnings

It all started in ancient Mesopotamia between 8000-3000 BC, where clay tokens were used as counters to keep track of traded goods. They came in various shapes and denoted a particular, popular merchandise at the time, (generally for grain and jars of oil). As they could easily be mass produced, it made it feasible to manipulate and store information on multiple categories of goods.
This system had little in common with spoken language, however, as it was used in larger areas of trade, where many dialects would have been spoken. This shows that the counters were not based on phonetics, and therefore would carry their meanings across multiple languages. The simplification of trade, eventually led to the creation and exploration of Mathematics, so you could say (in a way) that both our number and alphabet systems came from the express desire to tax people for their trade.

Pictography – Ancient account management

Almost four whole millennia later, the rudimentary token system led the way to writing. This change occurred when tokens, which at the time represented debt, were stored in clay envelopes until payment. As these were very inefficient ways of storing these three-dimensional items, they used them to form indents, so that the shape indicated the number of counters that were held inside. This then evolved into making markings in clay tablets to indicate goods, starting from ideograms that conveyed the idea of a monetary value, and then eventually pictograms were created to show a graphic indicator of vases, grains and other notable items.
This allowed for more variety in conveying meaning on those clay tablets, and expanded the understanding and communications of the people who adopted them. However, they were still explaining abstract ideas, rather than representing spoken language, so there was still a disconnect between both forms of language.

Logography – The shift from logograms to phonograms

The next phase in the evolution of writing marks the age where the archaic token systems were replaced with the creation of phonetic signs – signs representing the sounds of speech. As a result, it shifted from a conceptual framework, to that of the spoken world. This coincided with the establishment of states in the ever-expanding new world, which led to the requirement of names for individuals who generated and received goods to be transcribed onto stone tablets.
Phonetic signs allowed writing to break away from accounting for the first time in history, and allowed for the creation of a script that could express any topic of human endeavour. Some of the earliest syllabic texts were royal inscriptions and literary texts. This was an important part in the evolution of this Mesopotamian script as it further allowed it to spread out of Sumer and into its neighbouring regions, most notably Egypt and its influence on their Hieroglyphs.
The first Egyptian inscriptions belonged to royal tombs. They consisted of ivory labels and ceremonial artifacts such as maces and pillars bearing personal names, written phonetically, visibly imitating Sumer. Their work consisted of hieroglyphs representing items familiar in the Egyptian culture that evoked sounds in their own tongue, which allowed for more people to understand and read them in the region.

The alphabet – Simplification of sounds

The invention of the alphabet about 1500 BC ushered in the final phase in the evolution of writing. The first, so-called Proto-Sinaitic alphabet, which originated in the region of present-day Lebanon, took advantage of the fact that the sounds of any language are few. With two dozen letters, each standing for a single sound of voice, the alphabet perfected the interpretation of speech.
The Phoenician merchants established on the coast of present-day Syria and Lebanon, played an important role in introducing the alphabet to the rest of the Mediterranean World. In particular, they brought their consonantal alphabetic system to Greece, as early as 800 BC. The Greeks perfected the Semitic alphabet by adding letters for vowels – speech sounds in the articulation of which the breath channel is not blocked, like “a, e, i, o, u”. As a result, the 27-letter Greek alphabet greatly improved the transcription of the spoken word.

Modern-day alphabet – Language across borders

Because the alphabet was invented only once, all the many alphabets of the world, including Latin, Arabic, Hebrew, Amharic, Brahmani and Cyrillic, derive from Proto-Sinaitic. The Latin alphabet – used in this very article – is the direct descendant of the Etruscan alphabet. The Etruscans, who occupied the present province of Tuscany in Italy, adopted the Greek alphabet, slightly modifying the shape of letters. In turn, the Etruscan alphabet became that of the Romans once Rome decided to stroll on over and conquer Etruria in the early first century BC.
The Romans therefore were instrumental in spreading the alphabet – like the Phoenicians before them. Instead of using trade however, they used forceful warfare and diplomacy. All the nations that fell under the rule of the Roman Empire became literate soon after. This was especially the case for the Gauls, Angles, Saxons, Franks and Germans, who inhabited present-day France, England and Germany.
The final important addition to the alphabet was made by the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne in 800 AD, which involved his profound influence on the Latin script by establishing standards, and ensuring that there was a clear legible cursive script, from which our modern-day lower case derives.

Technological improvements in the modern alphabet

That’s not to say that the alphabet stopped evolving in our modern world however. The Printing press- developed in 1450 – allowed for standardized formats, regularity in lettering and layout, and the ease of spreading and replicating ideas. The typewriter gave way to speed and culturally different language layouts (such as Qwerty versus Qwertz, and the ever-fascinating Japanese keyboard system). Even the worldwide adoption of computers and the internet, we now have standardized Unicode and translation software that allows us all to communicate over vast distances almost instantly. And of course, we can’t forget our little evolutionary communication backstep where we now use emojis – our modern day hieroglyphs – to further express our emotions and concepts within our day-to-day communications.). Even the worldwide adoption of computers and the internet, we now have standardised Unicode and translation software that allows us all to communicate over vast distances almost instantly. And of course, we can’t forget our little evolutionary communication backstep where we now use emojis – our modern-day hieroglyphs – to further express our emotions and concepts within our day-to-day communications.

With all these modern changes and need for communication through various scripts and languages, services like Pangea Global, are absolutely necessary for translating and localizing the ideas of people so that the global community can benefit. If you have the desire to translate your content to another language – hopefully not Proto-Sinaitic – feel free to get in touch here.

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