Susanne Marin November 21, 2019 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.
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 first fully phonemic script, the Proto-Canaanite script, later known as the Phoenician alphabet, is considered to be the first alphabet, and is the ancestor of most modern alphabets, including Arabic, Greek, Latin, Cyrillic, Hebrew, and possibly Brahmic. Peter T. Daniels, however, distinguishes an abugida or polysyllable, a set of geographers that represent consonant base letters which diacritics modify to represent vowels (as in Devanagari and other South Asian scripts), an abjured, in which letters predominantly or exclusively represent consonants (as in the original Phoenician, Hebrew or Arabic), and an ”alphabet”, a set of geographers that represent both vowels and consonants. In this narrow sense of the word the first ”true” alphabet was the Greek alphabet, which was developed on the basis of the earlier Phoenician alphabet.
The term Early Hebrew is used to distinguish this branch from the later so-called Square Hebrew. The Early Hebrew alphabet had already begun to acquire its distinctive character by the 11th century bce. It was used officially until the 6th century bce and lingered on for several centuries more. In a stylized form it was used on Jewish coins from 135 bce to 132–135 ce.
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 Early Canaanite theory is based on several undecipherable inscriptions also discovered since 1929 at various Palestinian sites; the writings belong in part to c. 1700 bce and are thus the earliest preserved documents in an alphabetic writing.
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