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History of Alphabet

Ever since the dawn of language and thought man must have felt the need to record his ideas and emotions in some permanent form…

Ever since the dawn of language and thought man must have felt the need to record his ideas and emotions in some permanent form, and he has continued to look for ways of doing this right up to the present day with its gramophone records and magnetic tape. An old Latin saying proves the point : ‘The spoken word is forgotten but the written word remains.’The first alphabets were developed among the populations devoted to agriculture and stock – raising in China, India, Mesopotamia, Egypt and Central America. In Chinese, writing does not approach the name of a thing by breaking its sounds down into letters and syllables but set out to express the thing itself. Written words are direct representations of things or ideas (ideographs) or of particular spoken words (logographs). A different ideograph evolved for each objects. So the Chinese language is based on an enormous number of different caharcters rather than on the letters of an alphabet.

Did you know . . .

. . . that the famous Rosetta stone, discovered by Napoleon’s soldiers and deciphered by the scholar Champollion, provided the clue to the secret of Egyptian hieroglyphic writing?

. . . that the modern Western alphabet is based, with some modifications, on that of the Phoenicians, a seafaring and mercantile people?

Sumerian writing dates back to 4000 BC and is the most ancient writing known today. It is characterized by its wedge shaped appearance and is called ‘cuneiform’ from the Latin word cuneus, meaning ‘a wedge’. This alphabet enabled men to collect the first libraries. On the left is some Assyrian writing from the eighth century BC. As the illustration shows, the Assyro-Babylonians adopted cuneiform characters from the conquered Sumerians, and its use spread among other contemporary peoples.

Fig [B] is the example of Egyptian hieroglyphic writing. It was used only by the priests and the royal court. Fig [C] is the simpler demotic writing used by the people.


The above illustration on left below shows a bas-relief of a warrior with his spear. This inscription is in Greek. The Greek alphabet can be seen as the link between the ancient alphabets of the Mediterranean world and the alphabet of today. It is worth noting that the Greek alphabet already had 24 signs.

Above on the right is a Bivort shorthand machine (French, 1902). It enabled writing to keep up with the speed of speach. The fountain pen was invented by Bion in 1854, and the typewriter was invented by the Austrian Mitterhofer in 1882.

The shown table compares three alphabets. Notice the similarity between many of the Greek and Latin letters (in capitals).

Related Words:
permanent form, logographs, ideographs, illustration shows, modern Western, cuneiform characters

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