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THE STORY OF ALPHABETS

 

Now let's come to the discussion of alphabets. The history of alphabets is much younger than the history of languages, but no less interesting. Different civilizations, even isolated communities, slowly felt the necessity of writing down accounts of their daily doings, or accounts of their barter-trade, etc. The first probable writing system thus should have been pictographic -- a system in which the accounts are written in forms of pictures; not that each picture represented a sound, but actually it completely visually represented the writers' ideas. The North Americans, even a century back, used to draw pictures of teepees, hunting and three suns, which probably told the readers : "I have gone hunting, will be home in three days", etc. But this was indeed a messy system of writing, because it was really tough to represent words like a day, a year, or love, anger, or wind, hot, etc. Moreover, different readers would interpret the pictures differently. So, a standardized system was required. That was achieved by the major civilizations.


Sumerian tablet from 26th cent. BC listing gifts to the high priestess of
Adab on the occasion of her election, written in in Archaic Sumerian Cuneiform ideograms

The first writing was the Cuneiform of the Sumerians. They used to press edgy nail-shaped styluses against mud-bricks, producing wedge-shaped characters, and dried them for preservation. Different combinations of symbols meant different objects. Sometimes, the pictographic antecedent of the object was converted to cuneiform letters. They had probably around 200 or 300 symbols in the Cuneiform alphabet. And it cannot even be called an alphabet. Each symbol represented a syllable at best, but not like our alphabet, where one symbol is always reserved for a sound or a few number of sounds - this phonetic alphabet was a later invention.


Ancient Egyptian Cursive Hieroglyphs from the Papyrus of Ani, from 19th Dynasty (1300-1200BC)

The Ancient Egyptians also developed their own system of writing, probably they borrowed the idea from the Sumerians. They gave pictures of animals, things and body parts each a sound, and thus formed the hieroglyphic alphabet. Some pictographic representations also retained their positions in the language. The words were formed thus: suppose, to say "bee" in their language they use the symbol of a bee flying, and to say "leaf" they use the picture of a leaf. So, if they wanted to represent the word "belief", they would write the two symbols side by side (roughly speaking!). Pretty interesting, huh? So, the Ancient Egyptian was not truly a phonetic alphabet.


Pyrgi Tablets, found in Pyrgi, italy, are three golden leaves recording a dedication made to the Phoenician goddess Astarte by the Etruscan king of Caere in 500 BC.
The left leafe is in Phoenician script, the right in Etruscan.

The evolution of the phonetic alphabet was the achievement of the Phoenicians -- a Semitic people who settled on the Eastern Mediterranean shores. Their alphabet, however, can be vaguely traced back to Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic influences. The Phoenicians were famous for their crafts of carpentry, sculpture-making, and they traded with almost every nation on the Mediterranean. They were also good navigators. So, these merchants started using an alphabet to keep account of their trades. The parent of that alphabet is called Proto-Canaanite. The Phoenicians developed their own alphabet to contain only 22 primary sounds that most modern languages have. They wrote them side by side to construct words, just like we do in English, or Bangla, or Arabic. From these Phoenicians, the Greeks borrowed it and modified it over time. Then again, from Greek originated the Etruscan and then the Latin alphabets. And right now, almost all the European languages, except Greek and Russian, are written in Latin letters.

The alphabets evolved differently in other parts of the world. The Chinese languages still employ pictographic systems akin to hieroglyphics; the Mayans of Yucatan peninsula of Mexico also developed a complex and very artistic hieroglyphic system.


Inscriptions on Clay Seals from Indus Valley civilization has not yet been completely deciphered

Example of Brāhmī script from a tablet unearthed in Tamilnadu

The script of the Indus Valley Civilization has not yet been deciphered -- but they seem to have some Mesopotamian influence. But the Phoenician alphabet penetrated India later on. The Southern Semitic Branch is thought to be the origin of the Brāhmī and Kharōsthī scripts of Ancient India.  Brāhmī was widely written in the age of Asōka, the western states and provinces mostly used the Kharōsthī script - but the language for which they were used was more or less the same. From Brāhmī script later on evolved the Nāgarī script, with which Sanskrit is written. Hindi is now written in the Devanāgarī script. The Nāgarī was one of three branches evolved in India from Brāhmī. The Eastern Kutīl Script - characterised by curvilinear letters, unlike the western alphabets and Devanagārī, where straight lines are dominant - gave rise to new alphabets like Bangla, Oriya, Assamese, etc. around 10th century AD; these scripts were all at first used to write the Sanskrit and Pali languages, but later on, had languages of their own, according to their corresponding areas.

One thing I must remind you here is that languages that use the same types of script do not necessarily belong to the same language family. Language is one of the original characteristics of a particular human community. Alphabets and scripts are something imposed upon them. A community of people can accept an already popular script to write their language; again history gives examples of religious and cultural domination that imposed one script on a language of another family. This is why Farsi or Persian is an Indo-European language, but is written in the Arabic script, a Semitic-originated, alphabet. Same goes for Indian alphabets. For example, when you are chatting on the internet in Bangla, you are probably using Latin letters, and you don't find much difficulty at all! That's how it is.

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