Fawnia Lucas December 4, 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.
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 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.
The names were abandoned in Latin, which instead referred to the letters by adding a vowel (usually e) before or after the consonant; the two exceptions were Y and Z, which were borrowed from the Greek alphabet rather than Etruscan, and were known as Y Graeca ”Greek Y” (pronounced I Graeca ”Greek I”) and zeta (from Greek)—this discrepancy was inherited by many European languages, as in the term zed for Z in all forms of English other than American English. Over time names sometimes shifted or were added, as in double U for W (”double V” in French), the English name for Y, and American zee for Z. Comparing names in English and French gives a clear reflection of the Great Vowel Shift: A, B, C and D are pronounced, but in contemporary French they are /a, be, se, de/. The French names (from which the English names are derived) preserve the qualities of the English vowels from before the Great Vowel Shift. By contrast, the names of F, L, M, N and S remain the same in both languages, because ”short” vowels were largely unaffected by the Shift.
In default of other direct evidence, it is reasonable to suppose that the actual prototype of the alphabet was not very different from the writing of the earliest North Semitic inscriptions now extant, which belong to the last two or three centuries of the 2nd millennium bce. The North Semitic alphabet was so constant for many centuries that it is impossible to think that there had been any material changes in the preceding two to three centuries. Moreover, the North Semitic languages, based as they are on a consonant root (i.e., a system in which the vowels serve mainly to indicate grammatical or similar changes), were clearly suitable for the creation of a consonant alphabet.
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.
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