Among the great pivotal inventions of mankind, the alphabet stands alone. Unlike the axe, the lever, the wheel, the screw and the arch, which sprang into being relatively whole and fullblown, the alphabet is the product of thousands of years of painstaking development by thousands of men, an evolution destined to continue as long as man uses it. The alphabet stands apart in another, more important way: it was the fruit of a conscious and deliberate attempt by man to lend a touch of immortality to his transient life. To the extent that he succeeded, man alone of the animal kingdom has a history, and because of history, civilization.
How deep in the shadowy past lived the man who first scratched a crude picture in the sand is anybody's guess, but by the late Stone Age, at least 20,000 years ago, cave dwellers were incising on the walls of their shelters pictures of marvelous fidelity—bisons, antelopes, mammoths, tigers and leaping human hunters bearing down on their quarry with upraised spears.
Through the centuries that followed the function of pictures gradually widened. Static scenes gave way to stories-in-pictures, along the lines of today's comic strips. When the need arose, as it ultimately did, to record elements of a story for which there is no easy or obvious graphic equivalent, such as mater or heat, arbitrary conventional symbols, or ideograms, were devised: wavy lines for "water," a disc for "sun," and thus, by association, "heat," "light," "day," and even "sun-god." There were limitations, of course, to picture writing. There was no way to represent shades of meaning or express such abstractions as "loyalty," "fast," "through" and "anyway," or to distinguish between, say, a disc meaning "sun" and a disc meaning "day."
On the other hand, picture writing, for all its faults, could preserve information and open further avenues for development. The first notable improvement, the expansion of the transition from pictography to ideography, took place sometime during the long period between 20,000 B.C. and about 5000 B.C., and the second—the introduction of a link between spoken words and written words—at the dawn of history (which was the dawn of history, of course, precisely because of the survival of intelligible records from that time on.)
Until that point the pictograms and ideograms had no relation whatever to the language of the people who drew them; they were equally intelligible—or unintelligible—to all men. In this respect picture writing resembled the sign language of the American Indians who, speaking many languages, invented a system of hand and arm signals which all could understand. The introduction of a link with the spoken language of the writers was of inestimable value in making writing a more precise reflection of men's thoughts. Previously, the meaning of a given symbol was determined largely by guesswork. How was the reader to know which of the various meanings of the disc-like symbol was intended by the person who transcribed it? In any given text, how could the reader decide whether the scribe meant "sun-god" or "day" or "heat" or "light" or "wheel" or just plain "circle"?
The ancient Egyptians approached the problem with traditional conservatism and caution. They used straightforward pictograms: a picture of a river barge represented a river barge. They also used ideograms so that, for example, the representation of the human hand became endowed with the additional meaning of "work," and ultimately "power" as well. But to these familiar components of writing the Egyptians added phonology—the use of written symbols to represent syllables and single sounds.
We cannot but marvel at the inspiration of the unknown genius who first saw that speech can be preserved in visual form. It required an analytical mind of the first magnitude to realize that the flow of human language is a phenomenon different in essence from other sounds in nature. Even today the average man would be hard put to explain why the sounds of human speech can be easily recorded in writing, whereas the roll of thunder, the hoot of a train whistle, or the patter of a summer shower defy a similar transcription. The answer, of course, is that the contrasting sounds in a given language are limited; that every speaker of that language makes those contrasts regardless of the individual peculiarities of his voice, and that each such contrasting sound can be assigned an arbitrary symbol the speakers of the language accept.
In the formative stage of Egyptian writing, when graphic symbols were beginning to be used for speech sounds, it was customary to write homonyms—different words having the same pronunciation—with a single symbol. Egyptian was a language singularly rich in homonyms. It was also like Arabic, a language in which many derivatives could be extracted from a single consonantal root. These two features led to the use of a single phonogram for words which shared the same consonants in the same order, rather as if the English writing system used to express the "cr" sound in such words as car, care, cure, cur, acre, Cairo, euchre, ichor, ochre and core and left the reader to guess the missing vowel sounds. As the writing system was honed through use, certain phonograms, or phonetic symbols, began to predominate in writing certain combinations of sounds in any word in which they were found, as though the symbol were used in crash, cryptographer, carefully, and anchor, when occurring in the presence of other symbols. Finally, a single symbol came to represent each such sequence of consonants, so that scribes used 75 biconsonantal phonograms, of which only 50 were commonly employed, plus 30 uniconsonantal phonograms, of which six were alternative forms. Together, the syllabary covered the entire range of consonantal sounds in Egyptian speech and constituted an epochal achievement which would not be rivaled by man for another 3,000 years.
Unfortunately, the Egyptians didn't realize what they had wrought or, if they did, were careful not to advertise the fact. For rather than discard the unwieldy and inexact ideograms in favor of the streamlined syllabary, the scribes merely tacked the new system onto the old, multiplying their labors and piling on the confusion. It was as though the priest-scribes had been presented a Rolls-Royce with a full tank of gas, then used it to haul melons to market behind a span of arthritic camels. It has been said, in extenuation of the Egyptians, that the confusion would have been compounded had a syllabary been the sole means of writing, due to the many homonyms: ab, for instance, meant 20 different things, ha 40. This is possible, but not likely. In English, go has upwards of 40 meanings, run more than 100, and neither occasions any particular difficulty. A more reasonable explanation for the duplication of systems and the grim adherence to ideograms is that the knowledge of reading and writing was the main prop, and therefore most jealously guarded secret, of the priests. A simple writing system, easily learned by the man-in-the-street, would have spelled the end of the privileged priestly class, and this the priests were determined to prevent. The Greeks gave us the name for Egyptian writing, hieroglyphics (literally "sacred, carved letters"), but the priests called it m-d-w-n-t-r ("speech of the gods") and were so successful in maintaining both their monopoly of writing and the fiction of its celestial origin, that it endured fundamentally unchanged from about 2900 B.C. to the end of the 4th century of the Christian era.
Hieroglyphics, as the name implies, were used mainly for monumental works—carving on steles, tombs, obelisks and the like. But parallel to the hieroglyphics grew another form of writing better adapted to the more expendable medium of papyrus, a writing material made from Egyptian marsh reeds, and the ancestor in name and in fact of paper itself. This writing, called hieratic ("priestly"), was written with a reed quill on papyrus in slavish imitation of hieroglyphic characters. The characters were originally transcribed in vertical columns, later becoming horizontal lines written from right to left. Because of its speed as compared to chiseling letters in basalt or granite, hieratic eventually replaced hieroglyphics in all governmental, sacred and commercial writings except those designed to endure through the ages. A natural consequence of the speed at which hieratic was written was the subtle transformation of the rigid hieroglyphics, which it never ceased to represent, into a smoothly flowing, almost cursive script.
Hieroglyphics and hieratic script were already ancient when, around the 20th century B.C., the center of gravity in the development of writing shifted from the banks of the Nile to the Sinai Peninsula. The turquoise mines of that arid land were bountiful but the labor supply to work them was not, and the Egyptians had to hire shepherds to supplement the criminals and prisoners of war who were normally assigned to the back-breaking task of extracting the semiprecious stone from the earth. The shepherds' own tribal shaikhs acted as foremen for this pastoral labor force, presenting supply requisitions, making payrolls, drawing up production reports for absentee masters. But few of the shaikhs had the patience to master the skull-cracking complexities of hieratic script, and they cast about for alternatives.
The shaikhs soon realized that the Egyptian syllabary, which provided a running guide to the pronunciation of the hieroglyphic ideograms with which it was invariably associated, was in its own right a perfectly adequate script. They had neither the inflexible traditions of the Egyptian scribes which inhibited the use of the syllabary separately, nor religious scruples, nor the fear of losing an exalted station. Selecting 40 characters which seemed to fit their Semitic language best, the shaikhs—doubtless with a deep sigh of relief—abandoned the redundant ideograms and thereby vastly simplified writing for the first time since hieratic evolved from hieroglyphics several thousand years earlier. It was still far from an ideal writing system, but for the rough-and-ready record keeping of the labor-gang bosses in the Sinai mines it served admirably, especially when compared to the hieratic script it replaced.
The next step came, apparently, when the Canaanites, the great traders of the eastern Mediterranean seaboard, observed the use of the syllabary, saw its utility, and determined to adapt it to their own needs. But being foreigners, and not knowing the phonetic values which the 40 syllabic symbols represented, they gave names to each which probably seemed most appropriate.
One of the 40 symbols, for example, was the hieratic sign derived from the original hieroglyphic symbol for eagle. The hieroglyphic eagle, being drawn with careful detail, was plainly a picture of a bent-beaked bird, and the Egyptian word for it was t-y-w (the vowels in both Egyptian and Canaanite were not written and can now only be surmised). But hieratic scribes through the centuries had streamlined the symbol for eagle, and by the time the Canaanite traders arrived on the scene the sign suggested to them not an eagle, but an oxhead, slightly tilted. They forthwith dubbed this sign with the Canaanite word for oxhead—alif. Another Egyptian syllabic sign was a box-like affair which, to the Canaanites, could signify nothing but "house," and house (bayt in Canaanite) it duly became. Down the list they went, blithely assigning to each of the 40 symbols their own imaginative equivalents, usually quite far removed from the original Egyptian sounds and values.
Not that it mattered. For the Canaanites were on the threshold of an invention far more significant than the syllabary which the shaikhs of Sinai had patched together from the phonetic symbols of hieratic script. Finding their new syllabary ill-suited to the demands of their tongue, the Canaanites suppressed all but the initial sound of each character's name, so that when it came to recording speech, the "a" of alif, the "b" of bayt, and so on were the sole elements retained. They thus reduced the one-sign-representing-two-sounds system which made the syllabary so bulky, to a one-sign-represents-one-sound system, which we call the alphabet. The process by which the Canaanites arrived at the alphabet is acrophony, and the end product, the acronym, is an extremely useful linguistic mechanism without which governments, for one notable example, would move at an even more glacial pace than they do.
Acronyms have been around a long time. One every Latin student remembers is SPQR—Senatus Populusque Romanus (Senate and People of Rome), but others crowd us in from every side. Some are SMART (Supersonic Military Air Research Track), or SLIM (Submarine-Launched Inertial Missile), or simply FATUous (Fleet Air Tactical Unit), like TJPOI (Twisted Jute Packing and Oakum Institute) and USACMLCSCH (U.S. Army Chemical Corps School). A good many are so much a part of everyday speech that we fail to recognize them as the initial sounds of words strung together to form other words: hifi, anzac, jaycees, sonar, radar, NATO, loran, WAC, WAVE, TAPL1NE and snafu. Others make pronounceable jawbreaking combinations in foreign languages: Stuka (Sturzkampfflugzeug), Gestapo (Geheime Staatspolizei), and that all-time favorite, the Soviet news agency Tass (Telegrafnoe Agenstvo Soyusa Sovetskih Socialisticheskih Republik).
The principle of acrophony, applied to the syllabary of Sinai, gave the alphabet (the name itself is derived from the Greek forms—alpha and beta—of the Semitic initial letters alif and bayi) to the science of writing. But it was left to the Phoenicians, the inheritors of the Canaanites who occupied what is now roughly the coastal area of Lebanon, to give the alphabet to the world. It was a task for which they were uniquely equipped. The Phoenicians, hemmed in by the snow-capped Lebanon Mountains, turned toward the sea with a zeal to trade unmatched in history. They established the metropolises of Carthage, Utica, Cadiz, colonized Crete, Cyprus, Sicily and Sardinia, sailed beyond the Pillars of Hercules out into the dark Atlantic as far as the British Isles, and, anticipating the Portuguese by more than 2,000 years, circumnavigated the continent of Africa, perhaps the most splendid achievement in the annals of seafaring.
Wherever the Phoenicians went, they left examples of their priceless invention behind, in the form of orders, invoices, bills of lading, inventories and receipts. No trade goods carried in the holds of their deep-bellied ships were more avidly received and imitated, and best of all, it was free. Ironically, the Phoenician alphabet which fathered the alphabets that have come down to the present day promptly expired itself, leaving virtually no traces in its own homeland of Phoenicia. Concentrating on commerce rather than the hereafter, the Phoenicians did most of their writing on papyrus, which was cheap and portable, instead of on stone, like the eternity-possessed Egyptians. As a consequence, the papyrus rotted, burned, blew away, and with it all the records, history and literature of the Phoenicians. Furthermore, at the very moment the Phoenician alphabet was being eagerly received in the Mediterranean world, the language of Phoenicia was being shouldered aside in its own motherland.
The successor was Aramaic, a robust Semitic tongue which by the end of the 7th century B.C. had become the lingua franca of the entire Middle East and which for more than one thousand years dominated the Biblical lands (it was the language of Christ and many books of scripture), and was even known in Greece, Egypt, Afghanistan and India. Its writing system proved more influential in the East than even the Aramaic language itself, however, for from the Aramaic alphabet descended nearly every alphabet since used in Asia—Arabic, Hebrew, the many Indian scripts, Burmese, Thai, Malayan, Tibetan, Manchu, Korean, and scores of others.
Thus long before the Christian era, the world had cleaved into two great alphabetic divisions: the Aramaic and the Phoenician, each of which, like the families of man, went their own separate paths, subdividing in the other alphabets, some giving rise to many descendants, others to none. Adding and dropping, squeezing and stretching characters to suit the convenience and aesthetic judgment of the writers, the cultures which borrowed the alphabets changed them beyond recognition. For who today would identify Arabic and English as being cousins however distant? Yet consanguinity is there, because the genetic relationship between all alphabets can be—has been in every case—traced back to the turquoise mines of the Sinai Peninsula.
In the West, meanwhile, the victory of the Phoenician alphabet over all other writing systems had been shortlived. Its disregard of vowels was endurable, if inconvenient, for writing Semitic languages, which could still be read and understood in the context of its consonantal combinations. But for the Indo-European languages of the West, which relied more heavily on vowels, the Phoenician alphabet as it stood was decidedly awkward. It lft mch t mch t th mgntn f th rdr. The vigorous new Greek culture made up that deficiency by assigning certain of the borrowed Phoenician letters to vowel sounds, and inventing or adapting others to accommodate the sounds of the Greek language for which there was no Phoenician equivalent. As it was written in the 6th century B.C., Greek retained 19 of the original 24 Phoenician symbols.
Early Greek was something of a headache to read. Sometimes it was written from right to left, sometimes from left to right, and sometimes both ways in a single text. This latter style, called boustrophedon, the Greek word for "ox-turning," followed the pattern of furrows described by an ox, plowing first in one direction, then turning back for the next furrow. If this seemed too straightforward for his readers, the Greek scribe could also write his horizontal lines of text from the bottom to the top of the page instead of in the usual top-to-bottom manner, and in any case he made the reader's life miserable by failing to put spaces between words, so that lines were one continuous mass of letters. These Spartan practices were discarded little by little, so that by 403 B.C., when the Greek alphabet was officially adopted by Athens, the language was written with 24 characters, from left to right and from top to bottom of the page, in capital letters (lower-case letters were still a thousand years away) and without word spacings or punctuation of any kind. After Aristophanes of Byzantium in the following century introduced the grave, acute and circumflex accents to aid students in pronunciation, the Greek alphabet was frozen for the next 2,000 years in a form practically identical with that used in Periclean Athens.
Long before the Greek alphabet had been polished to its final brilliance, it had been borrowed by its sometime friends (but more often enemies) the Etruscans, occupying that part of Italy now called Tuscany. The highly-civilized Etruscans expanded their version of the early Greek alphabet to 26 letters, and used it for inscriptions in a language that has obdurately defied decipherment, even though their letters are easily recognizable. The Latin kingdom of Rome, unashamed borrowers of all that was useful, took over 21 of the 26 Etruscan letters even as they were resolutely extinguishing the last remains of the Etruscan kingdom itself. After the conquest of Greece by Rome in the 1st century B.C., the Greek symbols Y and Z were added to the Latin alphabet to facilitate transliteration of Greek words into Latin, for Greek at that moment in history had the same great prestige that Latin was to enjoy in the Middle Ages. The annexation of these two letters to the alphabet gave the West virtually the same alphabet that it has today, for the medieval additions of U, W and J were actually only variations of the existing letters V and I , respectively.
The evolution of the alphabet, however, is never quite complete and so, with the slow dissolution of the Roman Empire and the increasing isolation of the fragmented kingdoms and duchies of Europe, a number of so-called national scripts emerged from the monasteries where learning had sought refuge. There the repetitious copying of religious works led to the development of cursive scripts, flowing letters connected one to another, the precursors of what today is called "handwriting." Between the 6th and 9th centuries, Merovingian appeared in France, Visigothic in Spain, and Italian, Germanic and Anglo-Irish in their respective areas of Europe, each a new departure from the angular, beautifully-proportioned Roman. The heavy administrative loads of Charlemagne's court led to the development of the Carolingian hand, a blending of upper- and lower-case letters which could be written with speed and facility by overworked scribes. An offshoot of the Carolingian, the Gothic or Black Letter, at one time was popular throughout northern Europe, including Britain, and was the favored script of Germany until recent years. Venetian scribes designed a minuscule hand now called italics, traditionally thought to be an imitation of the handwriting of the poet Petrarch. After movable type was invented in the West (possibly but not certainly by Johann Gutenberg) in the 1440's, the Venetians perfected the type face called roman from which, with italics, have descended all the ordinary type styles used in the West today.
Actually, the development of alphabets will not be complete until man has forgotten how to speak. Every year new alphabets are being devised for primitive peoples for whom no writing systems exist, and in this class belong the peoples who speak more than half of the world's 3,500-odd languages. The introduction of a Latin alphabet for Chinese has long preoccupied, yet eluded, the masters of that country, who seek better means of accelerating education and bringing the people under a central authority. Japan, whose literary language is based on ancient Chinese, is also a candidate for Latin alphabet: the prevalence of eyeglasses among this very literate population testifies, not to a hereditary ocular weakness, but to the years of labor involved in learning thousands of intricate characters of the Chinese-derived kanji script, plus the 48 characters each of the hiragana and katakana syllabaries which accompany kanji writing.
The world's luckiest readers and writers are those who, like the Finns, Spaniards, Norwegians, Turks and Koreans, have an alphabet whose every symbol stands for a single sound, and whose every sound is represented by one symbol only—or very nearly so. Offhand, a speaker of Engfish might consider his alphabet a perfect instrument, until reminded that, for example, the sound "o" may be variously represented as o (so), ough (thorough), me (below), ew (sew), eau (bureau) oe (oboe), oa (boat), ou (pour), and oh (Oh!). It may be some consolation to reflect that all languages share this disability. Languages are constantly on the move (linguists estimate that 19 per cent of any language's basic vocabulary changes every 1,000 years), and as the written record is more permanent than oral speech, the rate of change of a given language's writing system is slower. But change there is, and the written representation of a language must keep pace—as it did in Egypt, in the Sinai Desert, in Phoenicia, Greece and Rome and as it will inevitably, wherever man is moved to record for the future his thoughts, his deeds and his achievements.
Daniel da Cruz, a regular contributor to Aramco World and Business Week, studied at the Linguistic Institute of the University of Michigan. He is the author of the novel Vulcan's Hammer, to be published in March by New American Library, Inc.