Yvonna Lefort November 20, 2019 Alphabet
In the Middle Bronze Age, an apparently ”alphabetic” system known as the Proto-Sinaitic script appears in Egyptian turquoise mines in the Sinai peninsula dated to circa the 15th century BC, apparently left by Canaanite workers. In 1999, John and Deborah Darnell discovered an even earlier version of this first alphabet at Wadi el-Hol dated to circa 1800 BC and showing evidence of having been adapted from specific forms of Egyptian hieroglyphs that could be dated to circa 2000 BC, strongly suggesting that the first alphabet had been developed about that time. Based on letter appearances and names, it is believed to be based on Egyptian hieroglyphs. This script had no characters representing vowels, although originally it probably was a syllabify, but unneeded symbols were discarded. An alphabetic cuneiform script with 30 signs including three that indicate the following vowel was invented in Ugarit before the 15th century BC. This script was not used after the destruction of Ugarit.
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.
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.
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 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.
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