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The alphabet

The greatest invention in human history

With the exception of four letters, not conventionally taught first, the alphabet is essentially a set of abstract and arbitrary representations. It is not obvious whether the alphabet would work better if the underlying features were directly represented, as implicitly suggested by the unknown ancient designer of M, N, B, and D, and as explicitly proposed by Alexander Melville Bell. Any such experiment would have to run the gauntlet of the proponents of various competitive theories of how the sounds of speech are defined. But the alphabet is the way it is, an invention of ultimate genius, invented once by a succession of scholars over a period of some five thousand years.

It is often said that writing was invented at least three times, in China, in Egypt, and in Mexico, seemingly independently in each case. But that is true only of the first step – representing words by symbols, known as ‘hieroglyphs’ for familiar everyday items, particularly those of trade, obligation, and taxation, such as house, field, and the names of crops. Essentially, the now-abandoned ‘Look and say’ approach to the teaching of reading treats written words as though they were just bad hieroglyphs – a decision of despair – not a good basis for a theory of education.

Letters for consonants

The key step in the invention of the alphabet was taken somewhere in the Middle East a little 3,000 years ago. This was to use single characters for consonants.

Then as now, the languages spoken around the South East corner of the Mediterranean, and in Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, known as ‘Semitic’, have the vowels ‘inserted’ on the fly by rules according to the position and role of the word in the structure of the sentence. The modern languages with this property include Arabic, Hebrew, Tigrinya, Amharic, and Maltese,

Somehow this unusual property of the Semitic languages may have facilitated the invention of letters for sounds. By the original system, only the root consonants were represented because then, as now, for native speakers of a Semitic language, that was all, or nearly all, that readers needed.

We have something a bit like this in English with sink, sank and sunk, as in “This ship is about to sink” or “The ship sank” or “The ship was sunk .” But whereas in English, the root is clearly sink, and the vowel changes, in the Semitic languages, most or all of the roots consist only of consonants, and the vowel or vowels are added, rather than changed.

It is possible that the forms of these first letters represented words beginning with a particular sound, making the characters easier to learn, teach and remember. So if BETH meant house, what had been a picture sign for house became the letter B. As an index of the cleverness here, the idea of using a single character to represent speech sounds seems to have occurred only once in human history. The new letters were conceived as having an order, probably for the sake of teaching and learning.

Consonants and vowels

The new writing soon came to be used by traders to record their business all over the Mediterranean. But this did not work for non-Semitic languages in which words are built from syllables with both consonants and vowels. So between 2,700 and 2,800 years ago, a system for showing vowels was worked out for the Greek of the time with vowels, then as now, intrinsically part of the word structure. Letters for sounds which did not occur in Greek were used for Greek vowels, including what was now easily recognisable as modern A. This was now the first modern alphabet. Soon the highly cultured Etruscans adapted the new alphabet as a way of writing their language. It may have been an Etruscan who had the original insight that speech sounds can be broken down into more fundamental elements, now known as ‘distinctive features’, for the capital letters, M, N, B and D. Then the up and coming Romans, who would eventually obliterate Etruscan civilisation, adapted the alphabet for Latin with just 21 letters, later adding Y and Z for Greek words containing those sounds, which did not occur in Latin. And  a Roman teacher called Spurius Carvilius Ruga invented the letter G, correctly detecting that it is like the C in cat, differing only by what we now call ‘voicing’ and showing this with a hook underneath.

The look of text

At the time of the Roman empire, people writing informally in Latin started forming some letters in  in a style known as ‘minuscule’ or what we now know as ‘lowercase’, as opposed to ‘majuscule’.

As the Roman empire collapsed and Christianity grew with a devotion to ‘holy writ’, monasteries in Northern Europe started producing beautifully executed and decorated bibles. The Kells Bible is one spectacular example. But these bibles were meant to celebrate the wealth, power and dignity of their owners. In 781 Charles the Great or Charlemagne, then the most powerful ruler in Europe head-hunted Alcuin, a famous poet and scholar from York, to join his court, run his bureaucracy, and teach him and his sons to read and write. Alcuin brought a miniscule tradition with him. But he developed it to be (relatively!) easy to read and write by short lines, spaces between words, the equivalents of full stops, commas, and question marks, sentences beginning with capitals, and some letters like b and d having ascenders, and p and q having descenders. Alcuin laid down the basic look of modern text 600 years before this was made possible by the invention of printing,

Letters for other languages

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 some 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.

Updates and reforms

For some languages, scholars have devised systems of single characters for the equivalents of London English key, cow, and car, pea, par, and paw, tea, tar and tore. One such language is Bengali. But this would be hard or impossible to implement for a language with as many possible syllables as English.

There are three 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’.

All of these improvements are possible, but only at the risk of making existing archives either unreadable or inaccessible. As Trissimo found, pro0posals for spelling reforms tend to be very stongly resisted. Some would say that spelling reform is now unnecessary with Chat GPT.

But for as long as we use any sort of system to represent speech, learning to use it has to recapitulate to some degree the long process of inventing it.

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