WHERE DOES OUR ALPHABET COME FROM?
We see it every day on signs, billboards, packaging, in books and magazines; in fact, you are looking at it now — the Latin or Roman alphabet, the world’s most prolific, most widespread abc. Typography is a relatively recent invention, but to unearth the origins of alphabets, we will need to travel much farther back in time, to an era contemporaneous with the emergence of (agricultural) civilisation itself.
Robert Bringhurst wrote that writing is the solid form of language, the precipitate. But writing is also much more than that, and its origins, its evolution, and the way it is now woven into the fabric of civilisations makes it a truly wonderful story. That story spans some 5,000 years. We’ll travel vast distances, meet an emperor, a clever Yorkshireman, a Phoenician princess by the name of Jezebel, and the ‘purple people’; we’ll march across deserts and fertile plains, and sail across oceans. We will begin where civilisation began, meander through the Middle Ages, race through the Renaissance, and in doing so discover where our alphabet originated, how and why it evolved, and why, for example, an A looks, well, like an A.
The Sumerians began to experiment with writing at the close of the fourth millennium BC, in Mesopotamia between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates (roughly modern-day Iraq). Like most writing systems, Cuneiform, initially scratched — later impressed by a stylus — into soft clay, started out as a series of pictograms — pictures representing words. The word for bird, for example, existed at first as a simple pictorial representation of a bird. The figure below demonstrates this process of abstraction or rationalization. In time, the pictures of things came to represent, not only things but, sounds. It is clear that a written language with signs that represent sounds requires fewer characters than a language in which a sign stands for a thing or an idea. We use 26 letters (and the Romans used only 23 to create some of the most outstanding literature the world has ever known) while the Chinese, for example, have to learn thousands of characters to express themselves. Even early cuneiform comprised some 1,500 pictograms. A language in which a picture or grapheme represents a thing or an idea has its advantages: people may speak any language while the written form stays the same. So a Chinese from the Southern provinces can speak a totally different dialect than his compatriot in Beijing, who would not understand him when he speaks, but can read what he writes. [Ler mais...]
1.1 The pictographic origin of Cuneiform.