Pierretta Meyer November 20, 2019 Alphabet
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.
Thus the primary classification of alphabets reflects how they treat vowels. For tonal languages, further classification can be based on their treatment of tone, though names do not yet exist to distinguish the various types. Some alphabets disregard tone entirely, especially when it does not carry a heavy functional load, as in Somali and many other languages of Africa and the Americas. Such scripts are to tone what abrades are to vowels. Most commonly, tones are indicated with diacritics, the way vowels are treated in abundances. This is the case for Vietnamese (a true alphabet) and Thai (an abugida). In Thai, tone is determined primarily by the choice of consonant, with diacritics for disambiguation. In the Pollard script, an abugida, vowels are indicated by diacritics, but the placement of the diacritic relative to the consonant is modified to indicate the tone. More rarely, a script may have separate letters for tones, as is the case for Hmong and Zhuang. For most of these scripts, regardless of whether letters or diacritics are used, the most common tone is not marked, just as the most common vowel is not marked in Indic abugidas; in Zhuyin not only is one of the tones unmarked, but there is a diacritic to indicate lack of tone, like the virama of Indic.
The term ”alphabet” is used by linguists and paleographers in both a wide and a narrow sense. In the wider sense, an alphabet is a script that is segment at the phoneme level—that is, it has separate glyphs for individual sounds and not for larger units such as syllables or words. In the narrower sense, some scholars distinguish ”true” alphabets from two other types of segment script, abrades and abugidas. These three differ from each other in the way they treat vowels: abjads have letters for consonants and leave most vowels unexpressed; abugidas are also consonant-based, but indicate vowels with diacritics to or a systematic graphic modification of the consonants. In alphabets in the narrow sense, on the other hand, consonants and vowels are written as independent letters. The earliest known alphabet in the wider sense is the Wadi el-Hol script, believed to be an abjured, which through its successor Phoenician is the ancestor of modern alphabets, including Arabic, Greek, Latin (via the Old Italic alphabet), Cyrillic (via the Greek alphabet) and Hebrew
The first fully phonemic script, the Proto-Canaanite script, later known as the Phoenician alphabet, is considered to be the first alphabet, and is the ancestor of most modern alphabets, including Arabic, Greek, Latin, Cyrillic, Hebrew, and possibly Brahmic. Peter T. Daniels, however, distinguishes an abugida or polysyllable, a set of geographers that represent consonant base letters which diacritics modify to represent vowels (as in Devanagari and other South Asian scripts), an abjured, in which letters predominantly or exclusively represent consonants (as in the original Phoenician, Hebrew or Arabic), and an ”alphabet”, a set of geographers that represent both vowels and consonants. In this narrow sense of the word the first ”true” alphabet was the Greek alphabet, which was developed on the basis of the earlier Phoenician alphabet.
Despite the conflict in theories, scholars are generally agreed that, for about 200 years before the middle of the 2nd millennium bce, alphabet making was in the air in the Gyro-Palestinian region. It is idle to speculate on the meaning of the various discoveries referred to. That they manifest closely related efforts is certain; what the exact relationship among these efforts was, and what their relationship with the North Semitic alphabet was, cannot be said with certainty.
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.
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