Darcell Roger November 20, 2019 Alphabet
It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the Phoenician alphabet in the history of writing. The earliest definitely readable inscription in the North Semitic alphabet is the so-called Ahiram inscription found at Byblos in Phoenicia (now Lebanon), which probably dates from the 11th century bce. There is, however, no doubt that the Phoenician use of the North Semitic alphabet went farther back. By being adopted and then adapted by the Greeks, the North Semitic, or Phoenician, alphabet became the direct ancestor of all Western alphabets.
National languages sometimes elect to address the problem of dialects by simply associating the alphabet with the national standard. Some national languages like Finnish, Armenian, Turkish, Russian, Serbo-Croatian (Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian) and Bulgarian have a very regular spelling system with a nearly one-to-one correspondence between letters and phonemes. Strictly speaking, these national languages lack a word corresponding to the verb ”to spell” (meaning to split a word into its letters), the closest match being a verb meaning to split a word into its syllables. Similarly, the Italian verb corresponding to ’spell (out)’, compare, is unknown to many Italians because spelling is usually trivial, as Italian spelling is highly phonemic. In standard Spanish, one can tell the pronunciation of a word from its spelling, but not vice versa, as certain phonemes can be represented in more than one way, but a given letter is consistently pronounced. French, with its silent letters and its heavy use of nasal vowels and elision, may seem to lack much correspondence between spelling and pronunciation, but its rules on pronunciation, though complex, are actually consistent and predictable with a fair degree of accuracy.
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.
Zhuyin (sometimes called Bopomofo) is a semi-syllabify used to phonetically transcribe Mandarin Chinese in the Republic of China. After the later establishment of the People’s Republic of China and its adoption of Hanyu Pinyin, the use of Zhuyin today is limited, but it is still widely used in Taiwan where the Republic of China still governs. Zhuyin developed out of a form of Chinese shorthand based on Chinese characters in the early 1900s and has elements of both an alphabet and a syllabify. Like an alphabet the phonemes of syllable initials are represented by individual symbols, but like a syllabify the phonemes of the syllable finals are not; rather, each possible final (excluding the medial glide) is represented by its own symbol. For example, luan is represented as (l-u-an), where the last symbol represents the entire final -an. While Zhuyin is not used as a mainstream writing system, it is still often used in ways similar to a roman system—that is, for aiding in pronunciation and as an input method for Chinese characters on computers and cellphones.
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 most ancient example of Early Hebrew writing is that of the Gezer Calendar of the period of Saul or David (i.e., c. 1000 bce). The oldest extant example of the Early Hebrew ABCs is the 8th–7th-century-bce schoolboy graffito mentioned above. A cursive style reached its climax in the inscriptions at Tel Lakhish, dating from the beginning of the 6th century bce. The Leviticus and other small Early Hebrew fragments found in the Dead Sea caves, which are probably from the 3rd century bce, are the only remains of what is considered to be the Early Hebrew book, or literary, hand.
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