Hanrietta Marques December 3, 2019 Alphabet
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 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.
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.
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 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.
At the end of the 2nd millennium bce, with the political decay of the great nations of the Bronze Age—the Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Hittites, and Cretans—a new historical world began. In Syria and Palestine, the geographical center of the Fertile Crescent, three nations—Israel, Phoenicia, and Aram—played an increasingly important political role. To the south of the Fertile Crescent, the Sabaeans, a South Arabian people (also Semites, though South Semites), attained a position of wealth and importance as commercial intermediaries between the East and the Mediterranean.
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