Elaine Raymond November 23, 2019 Alphabet
The basic ordering of the Latin alphabet (A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z), which is derived from the Northwest Semitic ”Abgad” order, is well established, although languages using this alphabet have different conventions for their treatment of modified letters (such as the French e, a, and o) and of certain combinations of letters (multi graphs). In French, these are not considered to be additional letters for the purposes of collation. However, in Icelandic, the accented letters such as a, i, and o are considered distinct letters representing different vowel sounds from the sounds represented by their unaccented counterparts. In Spanish, n is considered a separate letter, but accented vowels are not. The ll and ch were also considered single letters, but in 1994 the Real Academia Spain changed the collating order so that ll is between lk and lm in the dictionary and ch is between cg and ci, and in 2010 the tenth congress of the Association of Spanish Language Academies changed it so they were no longer letters at all.
It can, however, be ascertained that the period from 1730 to 1580 bce in Syria, Palestine, and Egypt, during which there was an uprooting of established cultural and ethnic patterns in the Fertile Crescent, provided conditions favorable to the conception of an alphabetic script, a kind of writing that would be more accessible to larger groups of people, in contrast to the scripts of the old states of Mesopotamia and Egypt, which were confined largely to the priestly class.
If the signs’ external form (which, it must be emphasized, had no particular significance) is ignored and only their phonetic value, number, and order are considered, the modern Hebrew alphabet may be regarded as a continuation of the original alphabet created more than 3,500 years ago. The Hebrew order of the letters seems to be the oldest. The earliest evidence that the Hebrew alphabet was learned systematically was left in the form of a schoolboy’s scribbling on the vertical face of the upper step of a staircase leading up to the palace at Tel Lakhish, in southern Israel.
The Proto-Sinaitic script eventually developed into the Phoenician alphabet, which is conventionally called ”Proto-Canaanite” before ca. 1050 BC. The oldest text in Phoenician script is an inscription on the sarcophagus of King Ahiram. This script is the parent script of all western alphabets. By the tenth century, two other forms can be distinguished, namely Canaanite and Aramaic. The Aramaic gave rise to the Hebrew script. The South Arabian alphabet, a sister script to the Phoenician alphabet, is the script from which the Ge’ez alphabet (an abugida) is descended. Vowel less alphabets are called abrades, currently exemplified in scripts including Arabic, Hebrew, and Syriac. The omission of vowels was not always a satisfactory solution and some ”weak” consonants are sometimes used to indicate the vowel quality of a syllable (matres lectionis). These letters have a dual function since they are also used as pure consonants.
When an alphabet is adopted or developed to represent a given language, an orthography generally comes into being, providing rules for the spelling of words in that language. In accordance with the principle on which alphabets are based, these rules will generally map letters of the alphabet to the phonemes (significant sounds) of the spoken language. In a perfectly phonemic orthography there would be a consistent one-to-one correspondence between the letters and the phonemes, so that a writer could predict the spelling of a word given its pronunciation, and a speaker would always know the pronunciation of a word given its spelling, and vice versa. However this ideal is not usually achieved in practice; some languages (such as Spanish and Finnish) come close to it, while others (such as English) deviate from it to a much larger degree.
In default of other direct evidence, it is reasonable to suppose that the actual prototype of the alphabet was not very different from the writing of the earliest North Semitic inscriptions now extant, which belong to the last two or three centuries of the 2nd millennium bce. The North Semitic alphabet was so constant for many centuries that it is impossible to think that there had been any material changes in the preceding two to three centuries. Moreover, the North Semitic languages, based as they are on a consonant root (i.e., a system in which the vowels serve mainly to indicate grammatical or similar changes), were clearly suitable for the creation of a consonant alphabet.
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