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A 5,000 year old invention – the alphabet

The invention of the alphabet involved at least eight major scholars, each learning from all of those who came before, over about 5,000 years, the last 500 years ago. This invention only happened once in the whole of human history. Chomsky (2019)  approvingly quotes Gallileo on the point that the alphabet is the greates invention in human history. It seems to me unsurprising that some children struggle with it, especially when it is used in as clunky a way, as it is in English.

The way letters look on a page, the look of a modern book, was worked out by Alcuin of York in the court of Charlemagne in around 782, aboout 650 years before the invention of printing. Over two thousand years earlier the idea of characters for speech sounds was first worked out in the Middle East.

Then, as now, the languages of the Middle East could be represented mainly or entirely by consonants. This was building on 2,000 years of experience with symbols for words in ancient Egypt. A few hundred years after the invention of characters for consonants, one or more Greek scholars added characters for vowels.

About the same time an unknown scholar, I believe, had the original insight that speech sounds can be broken down into more fundamental elements, now known as ‘features’. This may have been an Etruscan.

Then a Roman teacher called Spurius Carvilius Ruga invented the letter G for his school.

Not long after Alcuin, two brothers Cyril and Methodius, were commissioned to adapt classical Latin and Greek scripts to the special needs of a Slavic language, which then, as now, had asome vowels beginning with something like the I in it. So the first sound in the Russian name, Yury which Russians hear as a single vowel, is still written with a letter beginning with a recognisable I. Modern Russian uses an adapted form of what the brothers devised, with two major updates, one in 1648, another in 1918.

In 1524, another scholar-inventor, Gian Giorgio Trissino, came up with a string of ideas for updating Italian writing. But most of his suggestions were rejected. What was accepted was the letter J, though in Trissino’s system for a sound like English Y in yes. The International Phonetic Alphabet incorporates most of Trissiono’s proposals directly.

There are four basic ways of improving the system now in use in the English speaking world:

  • Inventing new characters for any sounds which are not represented in a language and throwing away any unnecessary characters, as happened in England when the first efforts were made to write Old English with its sounds like modern TH which were not part of Latin.
  • Adapting the alphabet to ensure that speech can be wertten down at the rate of everyday delivery. The Romans used a system with over 14,000 characters. In 1837 Sir Isaac Pitman had the idea of using thick strokes for consonants like B and D and thin strokes for consonants like P and T. In 1888, John Gregg improved on the Pitman system. In the 1960s various proposals were developed to write English without most of the vowels.
  • Taking Pitman’s idea to its logical conclusion. as by Alexander Melville Bell’s ‘visible speech’. As noted above, this thinking may have originated with an Etruscan.
  • Representing entire syllables by single characters – in a way that would not work for a language like English with some 5,000 or so possible syllables.

All of these improvements are possible, but only at the expense of making existing archives either unreadable or inaccessible, depending on how far they are taken. Some would say that they are all unnecessary now with emerging technology for recording and automatic speech recognition. But for as long as we use any sort of system to represent speech, learning to use it recapitulates to some degree the long process of inventing it.