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The Origin of our Alphabet
Wendell H. Hall
This page has been so popular with visitors to the NuSpel website that it has
been relocated to make it more readily accessible to teachers and others. The new
PDF version also makes print-outs much more presentable.
The alphabet is without
doubt one of the greatest creations of the human mind. Since prehistoric times
"writing" has taken many forms, from Egyptian pictographs and Sumerian cuneiform to the "quipus" of the
Incas, a type of visual/tactile communication based on knots. The leap from pictoric
representations to symbols standing for the sounds of speech revolutionized
The transition from an Egyptian pictograph depicting
an ox to a symbol representing a sound is illustrated below. Named "alef"
(ox) by ancient Semites, it was converted to "alpha" by the Greeks and together
with Semitic "beth," meaning "house," it formed the basis for what we now call in
English the alphabet. (Hebrew Bethlehem = house of bread; Bethel = house of
God or temple. Think of B being like a typical boxy two-story structure in the
Near East.) Note that Phoenician "aleph" preserved a semblance of horns.
The fact that the Phoenician symbol originally meant ox meant nothing to the
Greeks and it ended up upside-down, remaining topsy-turvy till our day. Few people
have a clue regarding the origin of the alphabet and would be surprised to
know that it's the "oxhouse." Inscriptions recently discovered at Wadi el-Hol in
upper Egypt may have set the invention of the alphabet at an earlier date than
previously supposed. Scholars believe they were made by Semites living in Egypt
during the Middle Kingdom period (c. 2040-1674 B.C.). The Sinai symbol represented
above (in the same proto-Canaanite or proto-Sinaitic script and dated to
approximately 1650 to 1550 B.C.) was discovered in west central Sinai.
can only speculate as to what particular sounds the Sinai letter and aleph indicated,
though both have been characterized as "a light breathing sound," whatever that
might be. In any case, languages constantly change phonetically in time and space.
Italian, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Rumanian, etc. obviously are sister languages, all descended
from Latin, and the Spanish of Buenos Aires can easily be recognized as
somewhat different from that of Madrid. This explains to a large extent, why our
alphabet and our spelling need to be reformed.
The alphabet is referred to in various languages as the ABCs, das ABC (German),
el abecedario (Spanish), etc. Recent archaeological discoveries indicate that
it could have ended up being called the the "LMNs"—the "elementary." Evidence
provided by potsherds and acrostics bridging two of the Biblical Psalms indicate that to
simplify learning of the ancient Semitic alphabet, it was divided into two halves,
one beginning with the letters Lamed (shepherd's staff) and Mem (water) and the
other with Alef (ox) and Beth (house). Mem originally had the shape of waves: /\/\/\/\....
Whether called the ABCs or whatever, it constitutes one of humanity's most marvelous
and useful inventions.
First the Futhark, then a Revised Roman Alphabet
Subsequent to the invention of the "alef-bet," additional alphabets evolved,
including among others the Arabic and Cyrillic (Russian) ones. Teutonic runes,
once widely used for writing, are now remembered primarily as a medium for
casting and neutralizing superstitious charms—for example, the still familiar one
of knocking on wood to ward off anticipated evil. The Anglo-Saxon version
below incorporates a few more letters than others, including "thorn" (pronounced
as in think). Runic alphabets were commonly referred to as the futhark
for the sounds of the first six letters. Please note that the pronunciation was
futhark, not fut-hark.
When the Latin alphabet replaced the futhark in England, // (referred to as thorn) was retained.
After the invention of the printing press, the letter Y, which closely resembled a
gradually modified , came to be used for both // and // (a Latin d with a
line through it), despite the fact that they contrast directly with each other in
words like thorn and those, think and this, Thair and there.
Today, signs like "Ye Olde Antique
Shoppe" look quite quaint to us. Mistakenly, we take the supposedly antique
sound of ye to be equally quaint. Actually, however, it was pronounced the same
as commonly today: stressed before a vowel (thee other day), otherwise stressed (Say "thuh"), unstressed (th' news), and only later came to be interpreted as yee by those not in
the know. Ultimately it was spelled and printed as "the."
Eventually, with the addition of c, q, u, and w, a total of 26 letters was
reached. Twenty-six and no more! Unsystematic and too few. How sad! Click here for a quick lesson on why English needs some 40 letters rather than 26.