Damiana Gaillard November 15, 2019 Alphabet
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.
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 evolution of the alphabet involved two important achievements. The first was the step taken by a group of Semitic-speaking people, perhaps the Phoenicians, on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean between 1700 and 1500 bce. This was the invention of a consonant writing system known as North Semitic. The second was the invention, by the Greeks, of characters for representing vowels. This step occurred between 800 and 700 bce. While some scholars consider the Semitic writing system an vocalized syllabify and the Greek system the true alphabet, both are treated here as forms of the alphabet.
The inventor or inventors of the alphabet were, no doubt, influenced by Egyptian writing—perhaps also by other scripts. Indeed, it is probable that those who invented the alphabet were acquainted with most of the scripts current in the eastern Mediterranean lands at the time. It is now generally agreed that the originators belonged to the Northwest Semitic linguistic group, which includes the ancient Canaanites, Phoenicians, and Hebrews.
The two Canaanite branches may be subdivided into several secondary branches. First, Early Hebrew had three secondary branches—Moabite, Edomite, and Ammonite—and two offshoots—the script of Jewish coins and the Samaritan script, still in use today for liturgical purposes only. Second, Phoenician can be divided into Phoenician proper and “colonial” Phoenician. Out of the latter developed the Punic and neo-Punic scripts and probably also the Libyan and Iberian scripts.
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.
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