Maddy Navarro December 4, 2019 Alphabet
The number of letters in an alphabet can be quite small. The Book Pahlavi script, an abjured, had only twelve letters at one point, and may have had even fewer later on. Today the Rotokas alphabet has only twelve letters. (The Hawaiian alphabet is sometimes claimed to be as small, but it actually consists of 18 letters, including the ʻokina and five long vowels. However, Hawaiian Braille has only 13 letters.) While Rotokas has a small alphabet because it has few phonemes to represent (just eleven), Book Pahlavi was small because many letters had been conflated—that is, the graphic distinctions had been lost over time, and diacritics were not developed to compensate for this as they were in Arabic, another script that lost many of its distinct letter shapes. For example, a comma-shaped letter represented g, d, y, k, or j. However, such apparent simplifications can perversely make a script more complicated. In later Pahlavi papyri, up to half of the remaining graphic distinctions of these twelve letters were lost, and the script could no longer be read as a sequence of letters at all, but instead each word had to be learned as a whole—that is, they had become logo grams as in Egyptian Demotic.
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.
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.
Over the centuries, various theories have been advanced to explain the origin of alphabetic writing, and, since Classical times, the problem has been a matter of serious study. The Greeks and Romans considered five different peoples as the possible inventors of the alphabet—the Phoenicians, Egyptians, Assyrians, Cretans, and Hebrews. Among modern theories are some that are not very different from those of ancient days. Every country situated in or more or less near the eastern Mediterranean has been singled out for the honor. Egyptian writing, cuneiform, Cretan, hieroglyphic Hittite, the Cypriot syllabify, and other scripts have all been called prototypes of the alphabet. The Egyptian theory actually subdivides into three separate theories, according to whether the Egyptian hieroglyphic, the hierarchic, or the demotic script is regarded as the true parent of alphabetic writing. Similarly, the idea that cuneiform was the precursor of the alphabet may also be subdivided into those singling out Sumerian, Babylonian, or Assyrian cuneiform.
The largest segment script is probably an abugida, Devanagari. When written in Devanagari, Vedic Sanskrit has an alphabet of 53 letters, including the visarga mark for final aspiration and special letters for ks and jn, though one of the letters is theoretical and not actually used. The Hindi alphabet must represent both Sanskrit and modern vocabulary, and so has been expanded to 58 with the khutma letters (letters with a dot added) to represent sounds from Persian and English. Thai has a total of 59 symbols, consisting of 44 consonants, 13 vowels and 2 syllabic, not including 4 diacritics for tone marks and one for vowel length.
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.
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