Vienna, 23 July 2021
I coincidentally started this blog when the London Olympics were opening – my first post was about the opening ceremony – so with the start today of the Games of the XXXII Olympiad in Tokyo, it seems appropriate to celebrate the II Olympiad of my scribbling with a piece on the act of writing itself. Or more specifically, on the symbols which I use to commit my scribbles to (electronic) paper, the letters of the Latin alphabet. Their creation is a fascinating example of the untiring efforts of people the world over to give permanence to the sounds emanating from their mouths: verba volant, scripta manent, the old Latin proverb intones, “spoken words fly away, written words remain”.
The creation of the Latin alphabet, my alphabet if I may call it that, is also a fascinating story of trade as we shall see. Assiduous readers of my posts will know that I have often written about the material things as well as ideas that have been transmitted by trade.
The overall arc of development of my alphabet can be summarized by the letter
Turn that letter upside down, and you have:
I think readers will agree that this could be considered a very schematic drawing of a cow’s or ox’s head. And that is exactly where my A originally comes from, the Egyptian hieroglyph for ox’s head.
By what twists and turns did that hieroglyph morph over the millennia into my letter A?
The story starts somewhere in the Sinai peninsula in about 2000-1800 BC. A Semitic people there were in contact with the Egyptian civilization and were familiar with their hieroglyphic method of writing. They adopted those hieroglyphs to write down their own language. The earliest example we have is from a place now called Serabit el-Khadim in the Sinai, which in antiquity was the location of a very rich turquoise mine.
This is part of some of the inscriptions there, scratched out on a rock, probably by the turquoise miners, at the beginning of the 16th Century BC.
Initially, this Semitic people followed the basic Egyptian principle of hieroglyphs being pictograms: a picture of an ox stood for the word ox. In this, they were no different from the peoples of East Asia, for instance, who adopted the Chinese writing system – also at its base a pictogramic system – to write down their, very different, languages.
But then, relatively quickly, this Semitic people made one very crucial change: they made the picture of an ox stand for the first sound in their word for “ox”. In other words, their signs began to stand for sounds rather than whole words. This was revolutionary, because it meant that with a relatively small number of signs – some 20 in all – this people could cover all the sounds they used, and then they could string those signs together to write the thousands of words they used. This approach made it much, much easier to learn how to write because it was much easier to memorize such a small number of signs. Compare that to an Egyptian scribe, who had to memorize 1,000 or so hieroglyphs. It democratized writing: only a tiny proportion of Ancient Egyptians could ever hope to be able to write, while – in theory, at least – every one of our Semitic people could become a writer (theory only really became practice in our age, and tragically even today in many parts of the world people have not been able to learn to write).
The Phoenicians, who lived along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean in present-day Lebanon and northern Israel, and who were descendants of those Semitic people in the Sinai, perfected this method of writing. They came up with a group – an alphabet as we would come to know it – of 22 signs, with which they could write any word in their language. Here, for instance, is their “ox” sign; they actually flipped the sign onto its side, like so, probably because it was easier to write with a stylus.
The Phoenician word for “ox” was ‘alep. So this sign represented the “a”-like guttural which was the first sound in the word (Phoenician, like the modern Semitic languages, used a lot of gutturals). With time, ‘alep also became the name of this sign.
For their “b” sound, the Phoenicians used this sign, which stood for beth, or “house” in Phoenician. And again, beth too eventually became the name of the sign.
This sign was ultimately derived from the Egyptian hieroglyph for “house”, although the sign seems to have got bent out of shape over the centuries.
For their hard “g”-sound (like in “go”), the Phoenicians used this sign, which stood for giml, or “throwing stick” in Phoenician. And giml became the sign’s name.
Again, the Egyptian hieroglyph for “throwing stick” was at the origin of this sign.
I could go on, but I think readers will have got the point by now. I do think, though, that the Phoenicians deserve to have their whole alphabet shown here.
In a wave of enthusiasm about the fantastic work they did, I have also decided to show an example of an actual text in Phoenician.
This tablet comes from a temple that was built in about 500 BC on the Tyrrhenian coast of what is now central Italy. It is there because the Phoenicians were present in the whole of the Mediterranean basin. Which brings us to trade.
The Phoenicians were inveterate traders, trading with their neighbours to the east as well as across the whole of the Mediterranean basin; they also established a string of colonies along the shores of the Mediterranean, the most famous of which was Carthage. Not surprisingly, they took their writing system with them wherever they went, and their trading counterparts got to know about it. Many of them quickly twigged to its power and adopted it for their language. The ones who interest me are the Greeks. Around the 8th Century BC, they adopted the Phoenician alphabet wholesale, even transliterating the Phoenician names of the letters into something more Greek sounding. So ‘aleph became alpha, beth became beta, giml became gamma, and so on (and we thus got our name for a group of such signs, or letters as we can now call them: the alphabet, a merging of the names of the first two letters alpha and beta).
The Greeks did have to bring in some modifications to the Phoenician alphabet, because the sounds they used were not quite the same as the sounds the Phoenicians used. The biggest difference was in the vowels. Greek had more obvious vowel sounds than did Phoenician, which relied on gutturals. There was also the hard-“th”, the “ks” and the “ps” sounds. In most cases, the Greeks repurposed Phoenician letters for sounds which did not exist in Greek, in a few others they created new letters.
Actually, because of different dialects spoken among the Greeks, which meant that there were some variations in the sounds used, there were three somewhat different alphabets created by the Greek polities, as shown on this map.
It’s the western Greek alphabet (used in the parts of Greece coloured orange in the map) which interests us most, for reasons which will become clear in a minute. I show this alphabet here, along with the original Phoenician “template”.
One can see the outlines of the classical Greek alphabet peeping out – the one I used as an unhappy student of ancient Greek at school. With time, the Greeks dropped some of these letters and added others, like omega. In some cases, where I show two letters in the Western Greek column, there were variants. And in those variants, one can see the outlines of letters which were to be found in the Latin alphabet and not in the classical Greek alphabet: the C, the D with the rounded “tummy”, the beginnings of the P (the loop still needed to be fully closed), the beginning of the R (the downward slanting stroke was miniscule), the S. The importance of these variants will become apparent in a minute.
The Euboean Greeks, who used this western Greek alphabet, were also, like the Phoenicians, traders and colonists. In particular, they had set up what are probably the oldest Greek colonies in Italy, around the bay of Naples: one on the island of Ischia (Pithekoussai) and one on the mainland (Cumae).
They set them up in the 8th Century BC, pretty much when the Greeks adopted the Phoenician alphabet. No doubt the Western Greek alphabet arrived very quickly in these two colonies. There, the Euboeans came into contact with the Etruscans, who were at the time the major power in the Italian peninsula and, as this map shows, were poised to expand their power and influence even further up and down the peninsula.
The contacts which the Euboeans had with the Etruscans were primarily through trade but, given that the Etruscans eventually enveloped both colonies, these could also have led to political alliances.
When the Etruscans got to know the Euboean alphabet they, like the Euboeans before them, must have realized the power of this writing system and adopted it, although they too had to bring in a good number of modifications to deal with the different sounds which they had in their language. I won’t list their alphabet, for the very cruel reason that their language was extinguished – so thoroughly that its vocabulary and grammar are still only partly known, in spite of more than a century of intense research.
Which brings us to the Romans, who did the extinguishing. Early on in their history, this upstart, but aggressive, tribe from the middle of the Italian peninsula were ruled over by the Etruscans, but they took them on and eventually beat them comprehensively. Along the way, though, in a pattern which must be familiar to readers by now, the Romans also recognized the power of alphabets and adopted the Etruscan one – with the usual modifications to account for different sounds in their language, including the readoption of some of the letters in the Greek alphabet which the Etruscans has dropped as not useful to them.
And so, coming back to the letter A with which I started, let me use it to show the arc of development that took place, from the Egyptian hieroglyph to the Latin letter.
Of course, the story doesn’t end with the Romans. The Latin alphabet could have disappeared at the fall of the Western Roman Empire, along with so much else that did disappear. That it didn’t is a testimony to writing’s utility to the Western Christian Church, the only organization left standing from the Roman era. Apart from the ability to more easily transmit religious ideas, the alphabet allowed the Church to – once again – give written form to languages without writing, in this case all the languages which the Germanic and Slavic tribes brought with them, often mixed in with the remains of Latin and its offshoots. As usual, there was the usual problem of dealing with sounds which didn’t exist in Latin, but interestingly enough no new letters were created. There was just fiddling around with the existing ones. So, for instance, we have Å, Ê, Ï, Ø, Ù to deal with various long vowels, and Č, Š, Ñ, to deal with the “ch”, “sh”, and “ny” consonants, in various European languages (there are lots of other fiddles, but for the sake of brevity I will leave them out). The process of using the Latin alphabet to create writing systems for various languages has gone on in modern times as the European powers colonized other parts of the world which didn’t have writing – the North American tribes, for instance, or the tribes in Sub-Saharan Africa – or even which did, for instance in Vietnam.
All of this has given me the puerile desire to create my own alphabet. I’ll use the same process of development: assign to each letter in my alphabet an object which starts with that letter, create pictograms for each of those objects, and then simplify those pictograms into letters. To identify the necessary objects, I’ll use one of those songs with which parents teach their children the alphabet, songs which go something like this:
A is for apple, a a apple
B is for ball, b b ball
C is for cat, c c cat
As an added plus, I can use the exercise to ruthlessly cull my alphabet of unnecessary letters: C, because S can be used for soft-C, K can be used for hard-C; X, because you can simply write X as KS. And I’ll come up with standardized ways of dealing with diphthongs. In the process, I’ll make English writing sound the way it’s spoken: as any non-English native will tell you, English has one of the craziest spellings in the world, there is no way in hell that you can tell what a word sounds like by the way it’s spelled.
Mind you, I’m not sure what I’ll do with my new alphabet once I have it. I’m not 10 years old anymore, with a BFF with whom I could pass notes back and forth during classes in our own secret code. And I’m past the age of being a spy, sending my minders coded messages about where the weapons of mass destruction have been stashed away.
No worries, I’ll think of something! Watch this space …
Oh, and enjoy the Tokyo Olympics!