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The oldest invention

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 greatest 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.

Pictures – or ‘hieroglyphs’

The idea of pictures for words – hieroglyphs – occurred at least three times, in China, in Egypt, and in Mexico, seemingly independently in each case. But  I and not and would cannot be illustrated by the meaning with those spellings.  By a work around in ancient Egypt, equivalents of the Englishe homonyms,  eye and knot and wood, were used, letting the reader work out the meaning from the context. But in as many cases there is no homonym.

Essentially, the now-abandoned ‘Look and say’ approach to the teaching of reading treats written words as though they were bad hieroglyphs.

Wedge marks – ‘cuneiform’

By the next step, again in the Middle East, all representation of real world entities was abandonned and replaced by ‘cuneiform’ characters, made in wet mud by a pointed stick. This required a huge number of characters.

Letters for consonants

Still in the Middle East a little 3,000 years ago the idea developed of using characters for sounds. 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 representing sounds only seems to have occurred once in human history. The characters for the sounds in M and N are recognisable as early forms of the modern capital letters. The new letters were conceived as having an order, probably for the sake of teaching and learning.

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

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.

Consonants and vowels

The new writing soon came to be used by traders to record their trades all over the Mediterranean. But this did not work for non-Semitic languages. 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 would seem to have had the original insight that speech sounds can be broken down into more fundamental elements, now known as ‘features’, for the capital letters, M, N, B and D. Then the up and coming Romans, who would eventually crush the whole 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 for his school.

The look of text

In the time of the Roman empire, people writing informally in Latin started forming some letters in ways going outside the ‘x-box’, 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 tradition with him. But he developed it to br (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 znd q having descenders.

600 years before the invention of printing, Alcuin laid down the look of modern text.

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.

Improvements 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 in respect of 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, spelling reforms tend to be resisted. Some would say that spelling reform is nowl unnecessary 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 has to recapitulate to some degree the long process of inventing it.