Genevieve Schmitt November 29, 2019 Alphabet
The word alphabet, from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet—alpha and beta—was first used, in its Latin form, alphabet, by Tertullian (2nd–3rd century ce), a Latin ecclesiastical writer and Church Father, and by St. Jerome. The Classical Greeks customarily used the plural of to grammar (“the letter”); the later form alphabet was probably adopted under Latin influence.
It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the Phoenician alphabet in the history of writing. The earliest definitely readable inscription in the North Semitic alphabet is the so-called Ahiram inscription found at Byblos in Phoenicia (now Lebanon), which probably dates from the 11th century bce. There is, however, no doubt that the Phoenician use of the North Semitic alphabet went farther back. By being adopted and then adapted by the Greeks, the North Semitic, or Phoenician, alphabet became the direct ancestor of all Western alphabets.
In the usual case, each alphabetic character represents either a consonant or a vowel rather than a syllable or a group of consonants and vowels. As a result, the number of characters required can be held to a relative few. A language that has 30 consonant sounds and five vowels, for example, needs at most only 35 separate letters. In a syllabify, on the other hand, the same language would require 30 × 5 symbols to represent each possible consonant-vowel syllable (e.g., separate forms for ba, be, bi, bo, bu; da, de, di; and so on) and an additional five symbols for the vowels, thereby making a total of 155 individual characters. Both syllables and alphabets are phonographic symbolization; that is, they represent the sounds of words rather than units of meaning.
Zhuyin (sometimes called Bopomofo) is a semi-syllabify used to phonetically transcribe Mandarin Chinese in the Republic of China. After the later establishment of the People’s Republic of China and its adoption of Hanyu Pinyin, the use of Zhuyin today is limited, but it is still widely used in Taiwan where the Republic of China still governs. Zhuyin developed out of a form of Chinese shorthand based on Chinese characters in the early 1900s and has elements of both an alphabet and a syllabify. Like an alphabet the phonemes of syllable initials are represented by individual symbols, but like a syllabify the phonemes of the syllable finals are not; rather, each possible final (excluding the medial glide) is represented by its own symbol. For example, luan is represented as (l-u-an), where the last symbol represents the entire final -an. While Zhuyin is not used as a mainstream writing system, it is still often used in ways similar to a roman system—that is, for aiding in pronunciation and as an input method for Chinese characters on computers and cellphones.
It is unknown whether the earliest alphabets had a defined sequence. Some alphabets today, such as the Hanuno’o script, are learned one letter at a time, in no particular order, and are not used for collation where a definite order is required. However, a dozen Ugaritic tablets from the fourteenth century BC preserve the alphabet in two sequences. One, the ABCDE order later used in Phoenician, has continued with minor changes in Hebrew, Greek, Armenian, Gothic, Cyrillic, and Latin; the other, was used in southern Arabia and is preserved today in Ethiopic. Both orders have therefore been stable for at least 3000 years.
National languages sometimes elect to address the problem of dialects by simply associating the alphabet with the national standard. Some national languages like Finnish, Armenian, Turkish, Russian, Serbo-Croatian (Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian) and Bulgarian have a very regular spelling system with a nearly one-to-one correspondence between letters and phonemes. Strictly speaking, these national languages lack a word corresponding to the verb ”to spell” (meaning to split a word into its letters), the closest match being a verb meaning to split a word into its syllables. Similarly, the Italian verb corresponding to ’spell (out)’, compare, is unknown to many Italians because spelling is usually trivial, as Italian spelling is highly phonemic. In standard Spanish, one can tell the pronunciation of a word from its spelling, but not vice versa, as certain phonemes can be represented in more than one way, but a given letter is consistently pronounced. French, with its silent letters and its heavy use of nasal vowels and elision, may seem to lack much correspondence between spelling and pronunciation, but its rules on pronunciation, though complex, are actually consistent and predictable with a fair degree of accuracy.
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