Susanne Marin November 26, 2019 Alphabet
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.
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.
The script was spread by the Phoenicians across the Mediterranean. In Greece, the script was modified to add vowels, giving rise to the ancestor of all alphabets in the West. It was the first alphabet in which vowels have independent letter forms separate from those of consonants. The Greeks chose letters representing sounds that did not exist in Greek to represent vowels. Vowels are significant in the Greek language, and the syllabicate Linear B script that was used by the Mycenaean Greeks from the 16th century BC had 87 symbols, including 5 vowels. In its early years, there were many variants of the Greek alphabet, a situation that caused many different alphabets to evolve from it.
The Glagolitic alphabet was the initial script of the liturgical language Old Church Slavonic and became, together with the Greek uncial script, the basis of the Cyrillic script. Cyrillic is one of the most widely used modern alphabetic scripts, and is notable for its use in Slavic languages and also for other languages within the former Soviet Union. Cyrillic alphabets include the Serbian, Macedonian, Bulgarian, Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian. The Glagolitic alphabet is believed to have been created by Saints Cyril and Methodist, while the Cyrillic alphabet was invented by Clement of Ohrid, who was their disciple. They feature many letters that appear to have been borrowed from or influenced by the Greek alphabet and the Hebrew alphabet.
The boundaries between the three types of segment scripts are not always clear-cut. For example, Sorani Kurdish is written in the Arabic script, which is normally an abjured. However, in Kurdish, writing the vowels is mandatory, and full letters are used, so the script is a true alphabet. Other languages may use a Semitic abjured with mandatory vowel diacritics, effectively making them abugidas. On the other hand, the Phagspa script of the Mongol Empire was based closely on the Tibetan abugida, but all vowel marks were written after the preceding consonant rather than as diacritic marks. Although short a was not written, as in the Indic abugidas, one could argue that the linear arrangement made this a true alphabet. Conversely, the vowel marks of the Tigrinya abugida and the Amharic abugida (ironically, the original source of the term ”abugida”) have been so completely assimilated into their consonants that the modifications are no longer systematic and have to be learned as a syllabify rather than as a segment script. Even more extreme, the Pahlavi abjured eventually became logographic.
Among the various other theories concerning the alphabet are the hypotheses that the alphabet was taken by the Philistines from Crete to Palestine, that the various ancient scripts of the Mediterranean countries developed from prehistoric geometric symbols employed throughout the Mediterranean area from the earliest times, and that the proton-Sinaitic inscriptions (discovered since 1905 in the Sinai Peninsula) represent a stage of writing intermediate between the Egyptian hieroglyphics and the North Semitic alphabet. Another hypothesis, the Arthritic theory, evolved after an epoch-making discovery in 1929 (and the years following) at the site of the ancient Ugarit, on the Syrian coast opposite the most easterly cape of Cyprus. Thousands of clay tablets were found there, documents of inestimable value in many fields of research (including epigraphy, philology, and the history of religion). Dating from the 15th and 14th centuries bce, they were written in a cuneiform alphabet of 30 letters.
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