An alphabet (since -2000) is a set of letters used to write the words of a language. Letters stand for different sounds, not words or syllables. It was invented independently only twice: in Egypt in -2000 and in Korea about 1450.
The four main ways to write in a language:
- pictographs – picture writing (Egyptian hieroglyphics);
- logograms – symbols stand for words (Chinese characters);
- syllabary – symbols stand for syllables (Babylonian cuneiform);
- alphabet – symbols stand for sounds (Roman alphabet).
In practice, a language might use a mix of these. Japanese, for example, uses both logograms and syllabaries. Even Chinese and Egyptian sometimes give you an idea of what a word sounds like.
Of these, alphabets are by far the easiest to learn: instead of hundreds or thousands of symbols, there are only two dozen or so.
Even though the alphabet is the “simplest” form of writing, it was the last to be invented.
Just as Greek science was a knock-off form of Egyptian religion, so the first alphabet was a knock-off form of Egyptian writing.
In -2000, Egypt had tons of foreign workers. Many were Canaanites from the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, the people who would later become Jews and Phoenicians (now called Lebanese). Few had enough education to read or write in hieroglyphics. But in about -2000, they used hieroglyphics to create a sort of shorthand.
They took about two dozen hieroglyphs and used them not as words but as sounds. For example, they used the hieroglyph for water. But they did not use it to mean water but to mean the m sound, because in their language the word for water started with an m sound.
Even today in English 4,000 years later, you can still see the waves of water in the letter “M”. Likewise, you can still see an eye in “O”, a monkey in “Q”, a head in “R” and an (upside-down head of an) ox in “A”. “K” was a hand, “N” was a snake, and so on.
This made their alphabet easier to learn than ours in English because letters looked like the thing they sounded like.
This was not a completely new idea: among the hundreds of hieroglyphs, 25 stood for a single consonant sound. They did not become the alphabet, but they did provide the idea for one.
The alphabet was spread mainly by trade, religion and empire, like by Phoenician merchants and Christian missionaries. Along the way, in different places at different times, letters were dropped or added or written in a slightly different way. In time it became nearly all the current forms of writing found outside of East Asia: English, Russian, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Hindi, Bengali, Khmer (Cambodian), Amharic (Ethiopia), etc.
The Roman alphabet, the one I am using right now to write English, is by far the most common one worldwide. The Romans got it from the Etruscans in -600, who got it from the Greeks in -700, who got it from the Phoenicians in -800, who got it from Egypt by -1000.
– Abagond, 2015.
Source: Mainly “Language Visible” (2003) by David Sacks.
- Roman alphabet
- English alphabet
- Ancient Egypt
- Languages mentioned