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Journalist and Author
"Letter Perfect: The Marvelous History of Our Alphabet from A to Z"
September 30, 2004

Let’s begin with an anecdote from my book about the letter T. That’s T as in Thomas. According to legend, at a London dinner party in the 1930s, the American movie star Jean Harlow was seated across from Margot Asquith, who was the Countess of Oxford. The name Margot, as you may know, is spelled M-A-R-G-O-T. Lady Asquith, in her sixties, was something of a dragon. She was well known as a society wit with a razor tongue. She was the widow of Herbert Asquith who had been Britain’s prime minister and who had become the Earl of Oxford. And she was the mother of the movie director Anthony Asquith, which may explain what she was doing at a dinner party opposite Jean Harlow. Harlow of course was a screen siren. A platinum blonde Hollywood sex symbol. She also had the reputation for being something of a bad girl off screen in real life. In that sense she perhaps bears some resemblance to our pop singer Madonna, at least the Madonna we remember from the 1980s and 90s. The main difference between the two is that Harlow could act. So at the party, Harlow recognizes Margot Asquith, but mispronounces her name. She says, “Say, aren’t you Mar-got Asquith?” To which her ladyship replies, “Oh no dear, the T is silent as in Harlow.” Thank you.

My book is a history and explanation of the alphabet for general readers. The term alphabet in this case means primarily our 26 modern Roman letters. We call our alphabet Roman because it was bequeathed to us from ancient Rome and the writing of Latin. But the real story of the alphabet begins earlier. The Roman alphabet was itself the product of prior stages of development through history. And these stages too are detailed in my book. Starting with the world’s first alphabet invented in the near East in about 2000 B.C. That first alphabet was the direct ancestor of our own. It was our great-great-grandmother so to speak. It was also the ancestor of almost every other alphabet on earth since then. This first alphabet contained, we believe, about 27 letters. The letters were pictures. These picture-letters were rough sketches of familiar objects. A hand, a fence, a snake, a throwing stick. Copied visually from Egyptian hieroglyphics but used in a system that was not hieroglyphic. Miraculously, some of our capital letter shapes today retain aspects of their original pictorial shapes of four thousand years ago. For example, our letter O began as the image of a human eyeball. It was oval shape with an iris shown inside. Our letter A began as the realistic sketch of the head of an ox. And if you draw a capital A today and turn it upside down, you can see a vestige of the ox’s head with a pointed chin and two horns sticking up in the air. This is actually a distorted reflection of the original letter shape of 4000 years ago.

My book, since being published, has undergone a change of title, which is relevant to my talk today. The hardcover edition is titled "Language Visible". The paperback, out just now, is titled "Letter Perfect". They’re the same book. The change of title was a marketing decision made by the editor and me because the original title seemed not adequate to clue in potential readers as to what the book is about. So we were right to change the title, but I regret the loss of the phrase “language visible” because that does capture the essence of alphabetic writing. My book’s basic message is that the alphabet is best understood as an invention; an invention to show the sounds of words. That first alphabet of 2000 B.C wasn’t the earliest writing on earth or even the earliest phonetic system. Egypt, Mesopotamia, and China already had their own systems, but the first alphabet was in many ways an improvement at least for showing sound. Alphabetic writing made language visible, more efficiently and accessibly than other forms. When I say “language visible”, it almost doesn’t matter what language we’re talking about. English, Arabic, Zulu, Navajo, down through history, many, many languages have shown themselves to be susceptible to alphabetic display. There are exceptions. Certain South African click languages have defied alphabetization. And Mandarin and other Chinese tongues are not perfectly suited to the alphabet. But most languages can be written alphabetically and that’s why alphabets have been able to leap from one language to another throughout history. In other words, people have been able to take an alphabet and copy or adapt it to a new language, thus making the new language literate.

In my book, I compare the alphabet to another invention - the wheel. Like the wheel, the alphabet came out of the Bronze Age Near East. Like the wheel, it transformed the ancient world and is still with us and has never been superseded. Today about 4.8 billion people, three quarters of the world’s population, live in countries whose writing system is alphabetic including the Arabic and Cyrillic alphabets and the alphabetic scripts in India. Of those 4.8 billion, the largest contingent, about 1.9 billion, use some form of the Roman alphabet. Our Roman alphabet is thus the most popular script on Earth. Employed by about one hundred major modern languages, in about 120 countries. If you travel to Vietnam or Turkey or Indonesia or Zimbabwe or Greenland, you will see there our familiar Roman letters in adapted forms used for indigenous languages. Similarly, the Arabic and Cyrillic alphabets serve multiple languages across parts of the globe.

What gives the alphabet this power? The answer lies in the miraculous adaptability of the letters. Letters in a group are wonderfully flexible and versatile. They can be arranged in infinite combinations to fit intimately the sounds of words. Even across language barriers where two tongues are mutually unintelligible, the letters can usually be fitted from one language to the other with only minor adjustment. For example, two letters discarded, three new letters invented, one letter reassigned in value, and your alphabet is ready to symbolize a whole new language. Once this principle had been recognized in ancient times, namely that the alphabet is transferable, it meant that alphabetic writing was destined to spread around the globe. Starting with the Phoenicians of Lebanon around 1000 B.C., the alphabet began to spread east and west like some monstrous vine moving from one language to another and bringing literacy to new people. On the western branch, the Phoenician alphabet was copied and adapted by the Greeks in about 800 B.C. The Greek alphabet was in turn copied by the Etruscans of Italy in about 700 B.C. and the Etruscan alphabet was copied by the Romans in about 600. Phoenicians, Greeks, Etruscans, and Romans each spoke a different language, yet the alphabet adapted to each in turn. With each transition, the letters changed somewhat in their shapes and their totality of sounds, yet in one continuous tradition.

A moment ago, I mentioned that three-quarters of the earth’s population uses alphabetic writing. The remaining one-quarter, about 1.4 billion, use non-alphabetic writing. That means China, Taiwan, and Japan. Although Japanese does employ alphabetic elements, the main system is a logogram system, as is Chinese. Japan’s system derives originally from China. The word logogram means “word writing.” Obviously, each symbol denotes a whole word. The word “dog” is written in China as a single symbol. By contrast, we write the word “dog” as three symbols, not one, which together re-create the sound of the word in English. Each of the letters D, O, G denotes a tiny sound of speech. What linguists call a phoneme. The phonemes are the consonant and vowel sounds; the smallest bits of speech. An alphabet by definition uses letters, which represent phonemes. Surprisingly, and this is crucial, most languages don’t use too many phonemes; only around 20-40 typically for a given language. No matter how many thousands of words in a language, those words, once analyzed will yield only a few dozen basic sounds. Of course these are not the same sounds from language to language, although there is an overlap. English has a slightly high number of phonemes, around 44-48, depending on regional accent. These 44 we capture reasonably well through the multi-tasking of our 26 letters. In other words, many of our English letters symbolize more than one sound. All of our vowel letters carry multiple sounds and we capture extra sounds through letter combinations. For example, in the word “choice,” the pairing “c-h” and the pairing “o-i” each symbolizes a sound not otherwise shown in our alphabet. We have no letter for the sound “ch”, no letter for the sound “oi”, but we are able to show these sounds through letter pairings that amount to a kind of code. There is nothing in “c” or “h” that logically by the rules should denote “ch”, but we agree to it as a code.

And with techniques like these, we stretch our twenty-six letters to 44 or more phonemes. In fact, I’ve always felt we could drop at least one of our letters and use 25 letters. We could drop “Q” and use a “K” and “W” where necessary for the affected spellings. So 26 letters for us. 33 letters for Russia’s Cyrillic alphabet. 21 letters for Finland’s Roman alphabet. 13 letters for the Roman alphabet of Tahiti. And 22 letters for the ancient Phoenician alphabet. Here is the advantage of the alphabet over other systems: it needs fewer symbols; usually fewer than 30. By contrast, ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics employed 700 symbols. Babylonian cuneiform, 600. And modern Chinese script requires 2000 symbols for daily literacy out of a possible inventory of about 60,000 symbols. With fewer symbols, an alphabet is easy to learn and use. You can master it as a child before you reach the age of earning a living. This crucial fact has made the alphabet traditionally the vehicle of mass literacy. In alphabetic societies, the merchant, the farmer, the laborer can learn to read. Literacy need not be confined to a social elite. But in non-alphabetic China, for example, mass literacy had to wait for the Communist state of 1949. Now Chinese writing does serve that nation’s needs. With an ancient distinctive culture, eight different major regional languages, and a language system that relies partly on tonal modulation, China would probably be disadvantaged with an alphabet. China’s writing serves to embrace and insulate its billion people, but down through history, China’s writing has spread only modestly: to Japan, where it survives, and to Vietnam and Korea, where it no longer exists. The alphabet, by contrast, has spread globally, from its Near Eastern birthplace.

So let’s talk briefly about this birth of the alphabet. Thanks to a spectacular archeological discovery in Central Egypt announced five years ago, scholars now theorize that the first alphabet was invented there in Egypt around 2000 B.C. The archaeological find was of two inscriptions in the desert about 30 miles northwest of Luxor. The writing had been carved into limestone cliffs beside a stretch of ancient military road. The two inscriptions were noticed amid a mass of other inscriptions, which are conventional Egyptian hieroglyphic rock climbing, presumably cut by soldiers and other travelers along the road and datable to about 1800 B.C. The 1800 B.C. date would make the two alphabetic inscriptions the earliest known alphabetic writing. And for reasons that I prefer to skip right now, some scholars find in these two inscriptions, evidence that the alphabet itself was invented some 200 years earlier in Egypt.

There’s one of the inscriptions. And there’s the other. To us, the inscriptions look like cartoon figures. Some of them have clearly been clearly copied from identifiable Egyptian hieroglyphic pictures. You can see in the middle here, there is an eating man, there is a man who is eating. He’s sitting, the angle is deceptive, but he is imagined as sitting. You see only one leg, and in the upward projection is him eating with his hand. And this is an eyeball. This is a spear or mace. These wavy lines are water and this is the head of an ox among other images that are discernible here. And each of these images we believe was inspired by ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, yet they are being used in a way that is not hieroglyphic, but is something new. Almost certainly, these symbols are letters and some of them are our letters as they originally looked. When sounded out correctly, these letters will yield words of an ancient North Semitic language that was an ancestor of Hebrew and Phoenician. Here’s the other one (referring to another drawing); similarly looking overall. And these two were carved about 20 feet apart from each other on the rock. As for deciphering these inscriptions, we are at a loss. Partly because we don’t know where the word breaks are or if the writing goes from left to right or right to left. But if the direction is right to left, as would become standard in Semitic tradition, then this word here (pointing to two figures on picture) is “reb”. This is an “R” (one figure). This is a “B” (another figure). And if that is intended as a single word, that word is “reb” with the vowel sound not shown. That word in ancient Semitic means “chief” or “captain” and it connects forward to the modern Hebrew English word “rabbi”. So possibly, this inscription says something like, “ Chief so-and-so wrote this.” That’s surmised assuming that the language of the inscriptions is North Semitic. This language was not indigenous to Egypt although is it is linguistically related to Egyptian. It belongs farther north in Canaan; that is, modern Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria. The one or two people who wrote these two inscriptions were Canaanites or similar, living in Egypt. Perhaps they were mercenary soldiers or impressed prisoners or war or some other kind of foreign worker, probably connected to the Egyptian army. These Canaanites in Egypt spoke their own language and had their own writing, which was however based visually on hieroglyphics. This peculiar combination of facts seems to point backward to the very invention of the alphabet: a few centuries earlier presumably, but in the same cultural militia, that is, North Semites in the Egyptian military or underclass. Presumably some person or group among these Semites took a hard look at Egyptian hieroglyphics and saw that hieroglyphics could be radically adapted to write Semitic speech.

Hieroglyphics was a rich complex system that communicated by accumulation. As mentioned, there were some 700 pictures, most if which could be read in at least two different ways, although not simultaneously. The picture of a sailboat could mean sailing or traveling. Or it could be read as a phonetic prompt or pun where the sound of the Egyptian word for sailboat would some how contribute to a different word. It was a bit like an English rebus where you would show two sailboats with huge sails and then you’d show a man, and then you’d show an image of an ocean liner and the rebus would be saying the word “salesmanship”. The images in that case contribute phonetically to an entirely different word. That’s how hieroglyphics could work. And within this vast system, there were 25 pictures that as one alternative that could be read as individual consonant sounds. The picture of a snake, for example, could be read as the sound “D” as in dog because the word for snake in Egyptian featured the sound of “D”. So in fact, here were 25 Egyptian letters embedded within the vast hieroglyphic system. Evidently, some genius in the Semitic underclass recognized this alphabetic element in hieroglyphics and saw how to adapt it for the writing of Semitic. Changes were made. It wasn’t just the same 25 Egyptian letters that were used. But the pictures came from Egyptian hieroglyphics, without the values of hieroglyphics.

The use of pictures to be letters was natural because that’s how Egyptians wrote and because only a picture would possess an existing name which would help prompt the reader as to the letter’s sound. Imagine if our own alphabet were 26 pictures. The first picture would be an apple. The second picture, a bell. The third picture, a cat. Fourth, a dog. And the last picture letter of the alphabet would be a zebra. You can see the principle; the opening sound of the name is the letter. The picture is easy to remember, easy to identify, and it prompts you in a manner that our abstract letter shapes don’t do.

One detail to mention is that this Semitic alphabet was all consonant letters. Although Semitic speech used vowel sounds, it was not deemed necessary to show these in writing. And so words were written in an abbreviated form – consonants only. We saw that just now in the spelling of the Semitic word “reb”, if that’s a correct interpretation there. In writing it only shows up as two letters – “R” and “B” – with the “E” letter nonexistent and not shown. This consonantal alphabet was the technology of the Semites in the second millennium B.C. and it would become the technology of the ancient Phoenicians, Israelites, and Romans in the first century B.C.

But the secret power of the early alphabet, unknown to its inventors surely, was that it did not need Semitic speech in order to work. It could be used to show other languages as well. Before long the alphabet was passed over to the non-Semitic languages of Europe including Greek, Etruscan, and Latin. The Romans of the empire wrote with 23 letters, which we inherit. The three ones missing – these would be of the ancient Roman alphabet - are “J”, “V”, and “W”. When the empire collapsed, the Roman alphabet did not collapse with it. The letters lived on in the writing of medieval church Latin and of Romance languages like Spanish and French, born from Latin. Soon the Roman letters had been fitted to new tongues of Northern Europe such as Old English, Old German, and Norse. Today, as mentioned, the Roman alphabet serves one hundred major languages; languages that Cicero never heard of. Of course this spreadability of an alphabet hasn’t always been a good thing. Like other technologies, the alphabet has at times been the tool of imperialism. Modern Vietnam’s Roman alphabet was imposed by French colonialism in the year 1910. The letters displaced a traditional Chinese-derived script. In Mexico and Guatemala, descendants of the Maya now write their ancestral language in Roman letters, where their ancestors used the magnificent glyph writing. And more fundamentally, throughout the Americas the Roman alphabet was part of a program to impose English, Spanish, and Portuguese and to erase aboriginal cultures.

Still I think the alphabet is pretty cool. Down 4000 years, the alphabet has comprised almost a mechanical tool like the wheel, the pulley, or the stirrup that can work for whoever possesses it. That is my book’s main message and my departure point for further explorations.

Maintained by Brittany Brown
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