History of the Alphabet
Writing began in the West with hieroglyphs and cuneiform pictographs. The hieroglyphic alphabet contained an alphabet for consonants. Cuneiform did not. The first known use of the hieroglyphic alphabet was in the Sinai in the turquoise mines. These were Semitic people, related to Hebrew and Arabic. Another early alphabet was found in Ugarit, a city at the eastern end of the Mediterranean north of current Beirut. This alphabet used cuneiform letters.
The alphabet moved from Egypt to the land of Phoenicia at the eastern end of the Mediterranean where Lebanon is today. In the sixteenth century B. C., a people known as Phoenicians were largely traders and merchants. They set up a system of sounds using 22 consonants. Many of the world's languages, including English, use the Phoenician system as a basis for their own. Phoenicia was made up of many different city-states which functioned independently. Because these city-states were always in conflict with each other, they were easy targets for every empire which came along. These include the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians and Greeks.
When beginning to create their alphabet, the Phoenicians used symbols already being used in the areas of Canaan and Mesopotamia. The Egyptians and the Sumerians had a written language of symbols as early as 3,000 B. C. Merchants used these symbols to record every aspect of their trading business. The merchants wanted a simpler alphabet which they could learn easily. The Sumerian and Egyptian writing systems were made up mostly of sounds to denote syllables and ideas. Phoenician merchants wanted something different.
The Phoenicians were merchants and sailors all around the Mediterranean Sea. They brought their language with them wherever they traveled. In this way, their alphabet spread. They may have even traveled to Britain and the southern coast of Africa.
The Hebrew and Aramaic alphabets came from the Phoenician language. The Hebrews later added vowels to their language, but only in the form of punctuation marks. The Phoenician language was passed on to the Greeks. The shapes of the Greek letters closely resemble those of the Phoenicians. These letters were passed down through the Latin language and then in similar shapes to the western languages, like English, French and Spanish. The Greeks did not use all the guttural sounds of the Phoenicians. They added some new letters of their own and added vowels.
The Etruscans, an early Italic people, gave the alphabet to the Romans. The Romans made some changes to fit their needs. During the Middle Ages also, a few changes were made to the alphabet. I and J become two separate letters. U, V and W were added as new letters.
The alphabet began so that writing would be made simpler. It is puzzling then as to why then the English language is so hard to spell. There are many letters we no longer pronounce although they remain in words, like 'knight'. Many foreign words have entered the English language. Some letters may be pronounced several different ways. The same sound may be made using different letters. Ch and K may have the same sound, as may J and G.
The two most important developments in the history of the alphabet are the devising of a consonantal alphabet around 2,000 B. C. and the addition of vowels to this consonantal alphabet just after 1,000
B. C. Perhaps some scribes in Palestine, Phoenicia or Syria developed the consonantal alphabet. The second development was made by the Greeks.
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