Fayette Allard November 30, 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.
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.
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.
At the other extreme are languages such as English, where the pronunciations of many words simply have to be memorized as they do not correspond to the spelling in a consistent way. For English, this is partly because the Great Vowel Shift occurred after the orthography was established, and because English has acquired a large number of loanwords at different times, retaining their original spelling at varying levels. Even English has general, albeit complex, rules that predict pronunciation from spelling, and these rules are successful most of the time; rules to predict spelling from the pronunciation have a higher failure rate.
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.
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.
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