The origins of abc

We see it every day on signs, billboards, packaging, in books and magazines; in fact, you are looking at it now — the Latin or Roman alphabet, the world’s most prolific, most widespread abc. Typography is a relatively recent invention, but to unearth the origins of alphabets, we will need to travel much farther back in time, to an era contemporaneous with the emergence of (agricultural) civilisation itself.

the DECK

Robert Bringhurst wrote that writing is the solid form of language, the precipitate.[1] But writing is also much more than that, and its origins, its evolution, and the way it is now woven into the fabric of civilisations makes it a truly wonderful story. That story spans some 5,000 years. We’ll travel vast distances, meet an emperor, a clever Yorkshireman, a Phoenician princess by the name of Jezebel, and the ‘purple people’; we’ll march across deserts and fertile plains, and sail across oceans. We will begin where civilisation began, meander through the Middle Ages, race through the Renaissance, and in doing so discover where our alphabet originated, how and why it evolved, and why, for example, an A looks, well, like an A.

SUMER

Cuneiform

The Sumerians began to experiment with writing at the close of the fourth millennium BC, in Mesopotamia between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates (roughly modern-day Iraq). Like most writing systems, Cuneiform, initially scratched — later impressed by a stylus — into soft clay, started out as a series of pictograms — pictures representing words. The word for bird, for example, existed at first as a simple pictorial representation of a bird. The figure below demonstrates this process of abstraction or rationalization. In time, the pictures of things came to represent, not only things but, sounds. It is clear that a written language with signs that represent sounds requires fewer characters than a language in which a sign stands for a thing or an idea. We use 26 letters (and the Romans used only 23 to create some of the most outstanding literature the world has ever known) while the Chinese, for example, have to learn thousands of characters to express themselves. Even early cuneiform comprised some 1,500 pictograms. A language in which a picture or grapheme represents a thing or an idea has its advantages: people may speak any language while the written form stays the same. So a Chinese from the Southern provinces can speak a totally different dialect than his compatriot in Beijing, who would not understand him when he speaks, but can read what he writes.

1.1 The pictographic origin of Cuneiform.

Figure 1.2 is an example of Proto-Cuneiform, one of the earliest examples of writing know to us. It’s a form of Cuneiform that exists between the earliest purely pictographic forms and the later more abstract forms. Moreover, as there was no fixed or standard writing direction, the signs were often rotated to conform to the direction of writing employed — a bird is still a bird through 360 degrees of rotation.

proto cuneiform

1.2 Proto-Cuneiform. Subject: beer rations.

While the Sumerian language ceased to be spoken after about 2000 BC, the influence of its written form (Cuneiform) is still felt today. The Sumerian language was mostly replaced by the language of their Akkadian conquerors who did, however, adopt the Cuneiform signs of the Sumerians. This form of writing was used until the 5th century AD. Figure 1.3, shows the Cyrus Cylinder, recounts the fall of Babylon in 539 BC (Daniel 5 in the Old Testament) to the Persians led by king Cyrus.

1.3 Cyrus Cylinder (Akkadian cuneiform), 6th century BC. On display: Room 55, British Museum.
© Trustees of the British Museum

EGYPT

The writing of the gods

The Egyptians developed a similar system of pictograms, one many of us are familiar with. Hieroglyphic inscriptions (literally sacred carving), like Cuneiform started out as pictograms, but later those same pictures were also used to represent speech sounds. Looking at the different forms of Egyptian hieroglyphs we can better understand how those pictures of things representing words became more and more abstract. While you might be familiar with the form of Egyptian hieroglyphs carved into stone (lapidary inscriptions), they do, however, come in several forms or styles — all influenced by the medium upon which they are written, the purpose for which they are written, and their intended audience.

2.1 Egyptian hieroglyphs.

The Egyptian pictographs evolved into a cursive style called hieratic that was freer, written more rapidly and contained numerous ligatures.

2.2 Hieratic script, 12th Dynasty.

A yet later form is demotic, which represents the most abstract form of Egyptian hieroglyphs. Although written mostly in ink on papyrus, the most famous example is to be found on the granite Rosetta Stone. The Rosetta Stone (196 BC), found by scholars who had travelled to Egypt with Napoleon in 1799, is important because it was the key to deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. It is written in two languages, and three scripts: two forms of Egyptian (hieroglyphic & demotic), with a Greek translation.

2.3 Demotic script, 3rd century BC.

The story of the alphabet continues in Egypt during the second millennium BC, but the Egyptians are not its authors.

THE FIRST ALPHABETS

Wadi el-Hol

Until the discovery of two inscriptions (graffiti) in Wadi el-Hol, Egypt, in 1999, it was generally held that the beginnings of alphabetic scripts could be traced to around 1600 to 1500 BC, to the Phoenicians, a people of traders who lived on the coast of today’s Lebanon and Israel. However, the 1999 discovery reveals that, rather than the early Semitic alphabet being developed in their homeland of Syria-Palestine, it was instead developed by the Semitic-speaking people then living in Egypt. This strengthens the hypothesis there must have been ties between Egyptian scripts and their influence on those early Semitic or proto-Sinaitic alphabets. Moreover, it pushes back the origin of the alphabet to between 1900 and 1800 BC.

In the photograph of Inscription 1 from Wadi el-Hol below, the sign highlighted in red (hover over to see) is of an Ox head (ʼaleph) — the origins of the Latin A, and a letter with a long history — early Sumerian cuneiform also uses the Ox as a sign.


3.1 Inscription 1 from Wadi el-Hol. Written right to left. Hover over the image to see outlines and highlights.

By about 1600 BC in the region between the two dominant writing systems of the time, Cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs, we see the emergence of other more systematised alphabets like ugaritic script (14th century BC) that developed in what is today Syria. The ugaritic script employs 30 simplified cuneiform signs. And thus begins the story of the alphabet.

3.2 Abecedary from Ugarit.

PROTO SINAITIC

At the same time as the short-lived ugaritic script was being developed (an alphabet adapted from Cuneiform), another alphabetic system emerged that was influenced by Egyptian hieroglyphs. This proto-Sinaitic alphabet of consonants was pictographic, yet each pictograph represents a sound rather than a thing or idea. It is this proto-Sinaitic alphabet that really marks the starting point, the root of numerous modern-day alphabets, from Arabic and Hebrew to Greek and Latin.

4.1 Proto Sinaitic script, c. 1500 BC.

Note the difference between the signs of Inscription 1 from Wadi el-Hol (figure 3.1), and those of the proto-Sinaitic script (figure 4.1). The latter are just a little more abstract. Note especially A (aleph), which has a simplified ductus (fewer strokes). Note too the simplified stick figure, representing a person at prayer. Cut off the torso and the head, rotate what’s left, and you will see in it the origins of the Latin E:

4.2 The evolution of E (see also figure 4.1 above).

But how and why did this alphabet of pictographs evolve into a series of abstract symbols? Mark-Alain Ouaknin, in Mysteries of the Alphabet suggests that the answer is to be found in the transition from polytheism to monotheism:

The second of the Ten Commandments states: ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before Me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in the heavens above or that is in the earth beneath…’ This prohibition on the image forced the Semites, who still wrote their language in a pictographic writing, to rid themselves of images.

I’m not convinced. Both Sumerian Cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs evolved from pictographs into more abstract signs. Both civilisations remained polytheistic throughout those transitions. Therefore, Monotheism and the prohibition on graven images cannot, I think, be responsible for the evolution of the proto-Sinaitic pictographic alphabet into proto-Hebraic and proto-Phoenician (or proto-Canaanite). Perhaps, in fact, the reverse is true: that the use of abstract letters may have induced the idea of an abstract God who forbade graven images — but permitted their representation as abstract signs.

THE PHOENICIANS

The Purple People

Jezebel, of Old Testament infamy (1 Kings) was a Phoenician princess.

While the invention of writing itself could never have progressed without a highly structured and even authoritarian state to back it up, the coming of the modern alphabet is a completely different story. Written in Cuneiform we have the wonderful adventures of Gilgamesh and his companion Enkidu, but most of the clay-tablets from the agricultural city-states are more mundane: lists, taxation, and commercial transactions.

6.1 Phoenician inscription, late 11th century BC.

The Phoenician alphabet was probably developed for quick and easy to read notes that a merchant would make on his trips along the ports of the Mediterranean. The Phoenicians are now best-known for their terrible god Baal, to whom children were sacrificed in an enormous cast iron stove. But this story is a 19th century invention, as is the sensual image of the Phoenicians in Flaubert’s Salammbô. The Phoenicians were traders who created a loose empire of city-states along the coasts they visited: Africa, Spain and Sicily. Carthage is probably the best known of these Phoenician colonies. They owed their initial rise to a simple snail that can still be found on the coast of Lebanon and that, left rotting in the sun, could be used to make purple dye — thus the Greek-coined Phoenician or purple people, from phoiniki, meaning purple or crimson.

To this day, not all alphabets have letters to represent vowels. Hebrew and Arabic are the best known examples.

This simple and ingenious modern alphabet of consonants from which the last vestiges of pictograms had been erased, is indeed a merchant’s instrument: easy to learn, to write and to adapt. And adapted it was by cultures that we are generally much more familiar with: the Greek and Roman societies that form the base of modern Western civilisation and the lesser-known Tuscans.

6.2 Phoenician alphabet

First, Moloch, horrid King besmeared with blood
Of human sacrifice, and parents’ tears;
Though for the noise of drums and timbrels loud
Their children’s cries unheard that passed through fire
To his grim idol. — from Milton’s Paradise Lost.

GREEK

Enter the vowel

Although the earliest extant Greek inscriptions date back to the 8th century BC — the first Olympic games were held in 776 BC — many scholars think that the Greeks adopted the West Semitic Script (the Phoenician consonant alphabet) three centuries earlier. (note: Naveh, Millard, McCarter, and Cross concur. See Naveh, pp. 185-6). For a long time (at least until the widespread adoption of Ionian script in the fourth century BC), the Greek scripts followed no fixed direction, being written left to right, right to left, and in horizontal boustrophedon. (Braille is set boustrophedonically.)

Boustrophedon from Greek βουστροφηδόν “ox-turning”—that is, turning like oxen in ploughing, is a type of bi-directional text. Rather than going from left to right as in modernEnglish, or right to left as in Hebrew and Arabic, alternate lines must be read in opposite directions.CSS by @simurai. See code.

7.1 Greek Papyrus of Artemisia, 3rd century BC. See Thompson, p. 119.

In Greek scripts we witness the jettisoning of pictographic forms in favour of abstract, linear forms. Based on comparisons of late Phoenician alphabets and archaic Greek scripts (and Greek tradition; e.g. Herodotus) it appears that the Greeks simply adopted most of the Phoenician signs but added the vowels that the Phoenicians had left out.

Greek inscription from Thera, 8th century BC.

7.2 Greek inscription from Thera, 8th century BC.

ETRUSCAN

The Etruscans came to Italy from western Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). From about 750 BC, the Greeks, as far north as Naples, were settling in Italy. Finley writes about their passionate addiction to everything Greek — except for the Greek’s gloomy take on the afterlife and its dreadful underworld. They were among the first imitators of Greek vases which they often decorated with phoney Greek inscriptions.

One of the last known speakers of the Etruscan language was the learned emperor Claudius who wrote a dictionary now lost. To this day no-one has deciphered the Etruscan language, yet in classical times it was known for its great literature, unfortunately none of which has survived.

Not only did the Etruscans adopt much of the art and religious rites of the Greeks, but, most importantly for our story, they adopted the Greek alphabet. Rome may not have been an Etruscan town but the Roman kings were Etruscans. After the disastrous attack on the oldest Greek colony Cumae (beautifully situated on a high hill on the coast, ten miles north of Naples) in 524 BC, and Rome’s subsequent expulsion of the Etruscan king, Tarquinius Superbus their civilisation slowly waned. Within a few centuries the Roman Republic became the master of Italy and absorbed the Etruscans completely.

8.1 Abecedary from Marsiliana, Etruria, ca. 700 BC.

However, their alphabet survived and prospered as it spread over the world with the expansion of the world’s mistress, the mighty Roman Empire.

LATIN

Musical chairs & the tale of Z

The Latin alphabet that we still use today was created by the Etruscans and the Romans, and derived from the Greek. It had only 23 letters: the J, U and W were missing. The J was represented by the I, the U was written as V and there was no need for a W. The story of the Z is particularly interesting.

In the third century BC, the letter G (a variant of C) was added; Z was borrowed from the Greek, then dropped as Latin had no need for it — perhaps at the behest of the Roman censor Appius Claudius; G took its place in the line-up, until the first century BC, when the Romans decided they needed the Z for borrowed Greek words (when Greek literature became the vogue), they re-introduced it, and placed it at the end of the alphabet, where it remains to this day.

9.1 Detail from Trajan inscription, ca. 114 AD.

RUSTIC CAPITALS

From the square Roman capitals (preserved on the plinth of Trajan’s Column (114 AD), developed the freer-form and slightly more condensed Rustic capitals.

10.1 Rustic Capitals, ca. 4th century.

Uncial & Half Uncial

The ‘lowercase’ makes its entrance

Most writing was of course done on papyrus and on walls, informal and quick. The cursive was the letter that Martialis read aloud to his friends when he recited his poems at night. This was a letterform that could be jotted down quickly with a reed pen dipped in ink. The ‘old’ cursive is difficult to read but the ‘new’, that evolved from the 4th century onwards resembles our own writing. It spawned the much later Carolingian minuscule letter — the Adam & Eve of printing types used today. The second great invention, the codex, came at the same time. While the Romans used scrolls made of papyrus, in the fourth century somebody had the idea to cut parchment into oblong pieces and sew them together — thus creating the first random-accessible book. Together with the eminently readable script this must be considered one of the greatest inventions of all time.

11.1 Uncial, France, 7th century.

11.2 Left: Insular, England, 8th century. Right: Visigothic, Spain, France, 9th century.

In France, Merovingian; Visigothic in the Iberian peninsula (figure 11.2); the Beneventan (figure 11.3) in Southern Italy (which shows features of the Half-Uncial, and late Roman Cursive; and in England and Ireland, the Insular forms (figure 11.2).

Beneventan script circa 1100

11.3 Beneventan script, ca. 1100.

Carolingian to Gothic

An Emperor and a Yorkshireman

The anonymous author of Carmen de carolo Magno refers to Charlemagne as ‘the venerable head of Europe’ and ‘the father of Europe.’ Though that’s something of an exaggeration, Charlemagne’s influence was substantial and long-lasting, and he succeeded in uniting most of Western Europe for the first time since the Roman Empire. A man obsessed with bringing order to his expanding kingdom, he sought reform in just about every sphere. For our story his most important contribution concerns his efforts to reform writing. Though efforts were already under way, he gave the job to a Yorkshireman, Alcuin of York. Alcuin strove for clarity and uniformity. These efforts, with the backing of Charlemagne and the Church, brought about the Carolingian minuscule (or Carolingian script). Some sources (e.g. Lettering: A Reference Manual of Techniques, p. 14) claim that Alcuin developed the Carolingian minuscule. That is not the case; rather, Alcuin selected it as a model script for the empire.

A beautiful, legible book hand; long ascenders and descenders, letting in light between the lines, open and round letters with few ligatures and variant letterforms. The early Carolingian scripts share some features with the Roman Half-Uncial (the club shape ‘head serifs’ on the ascenders of b, d, h, and l, by the 11th century these were replaced by triangular serifs, similar to those we see in numerous roman typefaces of the incunabula (latter half of the 15th century). The early, rounder a was dropped in favour of one similar to that found in early Roman Uncials. In manuscripts penned in this hand, it is not uncommon to see the r with a descender.

With Charlemagne and the Church behind it, the Carolingian script quickly spread across Europe, deposing a multitude of regional scripts on its way. By the second half of the tenth century, Carolingian script had reached England, replacing late forms of the Insular script; in Spain it replaced Visigothic.

That the open forms of the Carolingian script were replaced, from the 12th century, by the darker, more condensed, angular, ligature-ridden, closed forms of the Gothic scripts is, as Delorez writes, one of the mysteries of history.

The causes of the transformation of Carolingian script into Pregothic, or the ‘Gothicizing’ of Carolingian script, have been debated for a long time and the discussion has virtually come to an end without any one explanation gaining general acceptance. — Derolez, p.68

Perhaps a partial explanation is to be found in the new Gothic aesthetic that was sweeping Europe.

12.1 Left: Late Carolingian script, between 1033 & 1053. Centre: Pregothic script, mid-twelfth century. Right: Gothic script (Textualis Formata), between 1304 & 1321.

Of course it was the Gothic script in the form of the formal book hand, Textualis (more precisely, Textualis Formata) that would later become the model for the typeface used to set Gutenberg’s 42-line Bible (ca. 1455).

12.2 Left: Tironian et in this detail from a 14th century manuscript, written in Textualis Formata. The first example in the first line: Arbres et fleurs et ce que orne. Right: Detail from Gutenberg’s 42-line Bible, ca. 1455. Note the tironian et on the last line.

From the beginning of the 12th century the tironian ‘et’ (still used in Irish to this day) began to replace the et ligature, or ampersand. It wouldn’t make a come back until the later Humanist scripts, models for the first roman typefaces.

Roman

Enter typography

The typographical medium could hardly hold more of the Italian Renaissance, the intense admiration for the classical precedent in the capitals, the humanists’ love of clarity and grace in the small letters. — Harry Carter, p.71 (on Jenson’s roman type).

Printing and 15th century humanism are closely related, and since the humanist philosophers and philologists (literally ‘lovers of words’, meaning they loved classical Latin) reintroduced classical Latin as the lingua franca of their class, it is no wonder that the first roman alphabets of the earliest printers only used the 23 letters of the classical era. The J was added later. The first J in print was probably made in Italy, early in the 16th century; the written form was first used in the Middle Ages, in France and the Netherlands. The W is a letter not known to the Latins but used often in the vernacular languages of the west. Well into the 17th century it was set in type as VV, but you will also find two Vs that have been cut down and joined to form a W.

13.1 Left: Early roman of Sweynheim & Pannartz, Rome, 1469. Right: Jenson, Venice, 1472.

We stand in the seventeenth century, some 5,000 years after the Sumerians set stylus to clay. We now have a dual alphabet of 26 letters, uppercase and lowercase forms. There is hardly a straight line to be seen in the history of the alphabet. No Darwinian progress there, no survival of the fittest. Many of the aforementioned scripts developed side-by-side, some disappeared and reappeared, some can be shown to be the product of the mind of one man like Alcuin of York. And we do not know what would have happened if Hannibal had marched straight to Rome after winning the battle of Cannae instead of loitering.

Putting the pieces together

Writing and alphabets evolve for a number of reasons. We can explain the transition from pictograms to the linear, more abstract forms in terms of rationalization. Moreover, regional and national variations develop, their success, in part at least, owed to political and geo-political factors: A victorious invader brings its culture, including its language, both spoken and written. Context is also an important factor: text cut in stone contemplating the deeds of emperors is something different than an advertisement for a brothel scratched on a wall in Pompeii. The substrate, or writing material (whether clay, stone, wax tablets, wood, metal, papyrus, parchment, or vellum; and the writing implement, a reed, chisel, quill, broad nib pen — they all affect the form the alphabet takes. The speed of the hand is another factor. As an interesting exercise, write the capital alphabet,

ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ

slowly and deliberately — in your best hand. Now write it again at twice the speed. Finally, write it as quickly as you possibly can. The rapid hand introduces a reduced ductus (fewer strokes), and fewer pen-lifts, with those neat capital letters of the first round turning into something freer, more cursive. You can then further evolve your letterforms by using the most rapidly written alphabet, and begin to rationalise it, adjusting the proportions, altering the shading (contrast), and the result is an entirely a new hand.

14.1. A brief history of A.

I have focused on writing systems that contributed to the later development of the Latin alphabet, but of course the story of the written word is broader and more profound. I have not mentioned writing systems that developed independently (e.g. Chinese and Japanese), and other scripts that do owe a debt to the proto-Sinaitic and Phoenician alphabets, like Hebrew and Arabic. The evolution of writing cannot be fully appreciated (comprehended, even) in isolation. Its stories are woven deep into the fabric of histories and civilisations, its paths steered by politics, religion, economics, and by innumerable other factors. So, the next time you set pen to paper, or tap keys on your keyboard, take a moment to reflect on the origins of these simple signs, signs that furnish us with incredible power — the power to describe all things.

Credits
Collage illustration by Able Parris.
Desktop wallpaper versions of Able’s Ox illustration.
Acknowledgements
Thanks to Dr. Paul Dijstelberge for his innumerable corrections, suggestions, enthusiasm, good humour, and learning.
Recommended reading
If you don’t have time to read everything in the bibliography, then a fine & entertaining introduction to this topic is Marc-Alain Ouaknin’s Mysteries of the Alphabet, 1999. But remember this was published a few months before the discoveries in Wadi el-Hol.

Footnotes
The Solid Form of Language — Robert Bringhurst, p. 9 [return]

Select bibliography
Early History of the Alphabet. An introduction to West Semitic Epigraphy and Palaeography — Joseph Naveh
Handbook of Greek and Latin Paleography — Edward Maunde Thompson
The Solid Form of Language — Robert Bringhurst
The Book through 5000 yearsH.D.L. Vervliet
A View of Early Typography up to About 1600 — Harry Carter
The History & Power of Writing — Henri-Jean Martin
The Palaeography of Gothic Manuscript Books — Albert Derolez
The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe — Elizabeth L. Eisenstein
A Short History of the Printed Word — Chappell & Bringhurst
Mysteries of the Alphabet: The Origins of Writing — Marc-Alain Ouaknin
The Illuminated Manuscript — Janet Backhouse
Medieval Calligraphy: Its History and Technique — Marc Drogin
From Gutenberg to OpenType — Robin Dodd
Aspects of AntiquityM.I. Finley
The RomansR.H. Barrow
The Birth of Europe — Jacques Le Goff
Shapes for Sounds — Timothy Donaldson



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  1. Daniel

    Wow, absolutely great article, and I haven’t even read it through, just the initial paragraphs and scanned it to write this. Thank you, very much!

  2. Thank you ! And this book may be helpfull (FR) L’Homme et ses Signes.

  3. Thank you very much, this is an absolutely amazing synthesis!

  4. Great post! Really interesting to see where our alphabet comes from. I especially like “A brief history of A” are there any more examples like this for other letters?

  5. I just spent the better part of an hour reading through this article, analyzing the figures and being thoroughly immersed in learning about the alphabet! Thank you for a VERY well-done article!

  6. For people who like radio, I recommend you listen to In Our Time’s episode on the alphabet.

  7. Great article… oddly it reminds me of typestaches.

  8. I cannot even begin to thank you for writing this. It was a lovely guided tour through the history of the written word.

  9. Great post! I’ve always found these types of things to be extraordinarily interesting.

    Interesting that certain letters, such as ‘J’, weren’t common until as late as the 16th century. It’s worth noting that ‘K’, ‘W’ and ‘Y’ weren’t officially part of the Portuguese language until 2008…

  10. Thank you from all of us lovers of words!

  11. Thanks !
    I’ve taken a lot of pleasure to read this article. You should have spent a HUGE time to put all the pieces together and write it with such clarity.
    It’s interesting to read how this little “z” came from and why it took place at the very end of the list !
    It makes me ask myself about the place of each letters. Why this order ? Why the “h” after the “i” etc… You gave us some answers here but it could be interesting to have a specific focus on the order of the letters.

    Thanks a lot for sharing your knowledges with us.

  12. Wow,

    A brilliant resource to put before my Multimedia Systems students who think I am crazy to be so enthusiastic about typography and history.

    Your blog is an absolute delight at all times, but this is a standout posting.

    Thank you very much!

  13. Ah, we went over this in one of my intro to typography classes! I love etymology, so this is a logical next step - the source of letters themselves. On a side note, I’ve been studying Japanese for about 3 years now, and I love learning the Chinese origin of the Japanese kanji/kana and the ideograms that are the root of Chinese and Japanese characters. Thank you for reminding me of the rich history of the Roman alphabet.

  14. Indra Kupferschmid

    Splendid illustrations. Where do they come from?

  15. This blog is a great resource and inspiring too. I’ve got a copy of “A is for Ox: A Short History of the Alphabet” by Lyn Davies which I’d recommend - it’s short (and sweet.)

  16. Beautiful and intense article! Thanks for sharing all this inspiring stuff.

  17. David

    Auré: The order is basically the same as the Phoenician order. See the chart at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phoenician_alphabet#Letter_names for the origin of each letter.

  18. @David, thanks for your answer it’s cool.
    I will take a closer look to this wiki page ;)

  19. Learned more about letterforms reading this blog post than at actual lectures. You could say that my school wasn’t exactly excellent at teaching fine arts classes… which is unfortunate, as that is my major.

    Still, excellent post! :)

  20. wow! super article as always…about time you came out with a collection of your articles in a book. (Or does it already exist?) keep it up :)

  21. This is very valuable to me as a teacher (and I really like the rollover for the ox character!) but I would like to have at least a passing mention of how the tools being used influences the shape of the alphabet; cuneiform being formed by little wedges in clay giving a different alphabet than heiratic and demotic, which is written in ink on parchment, then metal fonts cut with a file and current optical fonts cut on a computer.

    Also had an interesting discussion with someone about how modern Greek is simpler/easier than ancient Greek, and the same is true of Latin vs. modern Italian. On some level, there always seems to be a movement towards simpler/easier. (So when will English get rid of the letter “c”?)

  22. Absolutely fascinating stuff. It’s a good thing we have so much information to trace our own alphabet; the meaning of other scripts and languages have been lost due to the lack of a ‘rosetta stone’, so to speak.

  23. Brian Spence

    Great stuff. I’ve always enjoyed hearing about the history of writing and you definitely unearthed some new developments in its past. Thanks!

  24. Roger Easson

    Great article. I have a question though. You give a convincing explanation for the origin of A and E is there an equally interesting discussion of where the other letters came from?

    Thanks so much

    Roger Easson

  25. So… the alphabet isn’t in chronological order. Good to know.

    I loved this!

  26. Most interesting. The images illustrate your text very well.

    Another book to recommend is John Man’s Alpha Beta. It’s very good.

  27. Appreciative Reader

    This is an excellent overview, and I hope you won’t mind if I quibble about one statement in it: “A language in which a picture or grapheme represents a thing or an idea has its advantages: people may speak any language while the written form stays the same.” But the written form *doesn’t* remain the same.
    For one thing, Chinese characters have changed considerably over the centuries, and more recently China, Taiwan and Japan have simplified the traditional characters in different and incompatible ways. In fact, some scholars have argued that they’ve changed more than the alphabet has, so, for instance, it’s harder for a Chinese person to read medieval Chinese than it is for an American to read medieval English, even if it’s handwritten by a medieval scribe.
    Also, whatever happens to the written form of any one character, the written form of sentences and larger units varies considerably, because of differences in grammar and word order. For instance, as a Japanese speaker who knows no Chinese, I can often guess at the meaning of a sentence written in Chinese, but only after mentally rearranging the characters from Chinese word order (SVO) to Japanese word order (SOV).
    I guess what I’m trying to say is that yes, the independence of the writing system from the spoken language does have some advantages, but they’re really not that great, and they don’t outweigh the disadvantages - mainly, the enormous amount of time and effort it takes to master the written language, compared to the ease and swiftness of learning 26 (or fewer) letters. In an article about the alphabet, it would have been interesting to see that point made (or, I guess, refuted).

  28. johno

    Appreciative Reader

    We share the same view, though my choice of words could have been better. The idea I was trying to express is,

    Though they may speak different languages, they share the same written language.

    I will re-write that sentence. Thanks for feedback.

  29. Jongseong Park

    A couple of nitpicks on what is an entertaining and informative article on a fascinating subject:

    Most writing systems started out as imitations of other writing systems. What you mean is that most ab initio writing systems—invented from scratch by those with no prior exposure to writing, like Sumerian cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Chinese oracle bone script, the first Mesoamerican scripts (probably Olmec)—started out as a series of pictograms.

    So a Chinese from the border with Korea can speak a totally different dialect than his compatriot in Beijing, who would not understand him when he speaks, but can read what he writes.

    The Korean border was inhabited by Manchus and was off limits to the Han Chinese at the start of the Qing Dynasty. Han Chinese settlers only started arriving in the second half of the nineteenth century, mostly from nearby Mandarin-speaking parts of China (Mandarin is spoken in an enormous stretch of Northern China). So the dialect of the Han Chinese in the Korean border provinces is not too different from the Standard Mandarin based on Beijing speech. Cantonese, Hokkien, Hakka, Teochew, Shanghainese, and other varieties of Chinese that are totally unintelligible to Standard Mandarin are found mainly in the South, especially the coastal region.

    The idea that people can speak different languages or dialects but the written form stays the same has some important caveats. Today’s written Chinese is based on Standard Mandarin. A dialect speaker who doesn’t speak Mandarin effectively has to learn a literary language with a grammar and vocabulary similar but not identical to his or her speech. In fact, before written Chinese was reformed to reflect the contemporary vernacular Mandarin, everyone had to learn Classical Chinese, which hadn’t actually been spoken for a couple of thousand years. So yes, a pictographic system can serve different languages or dialects, but only so far as everyone commits to learning the system, which may not be equally easy for speakers of different languages or dialects.

  30. Jenise

    I just spent a marvelous hour reading this.
    Thank you.

  31. This is a lovely article, well laid out — the rollover effect on the inscription was a particularly elegant touch.

  32. Great work, thanks!
    I’m guessing that those who enjoyed this post might also enjoy ABC Et Cetera: The Life & Times of the Roman Alphabet by Alexander and Nicholas Humez.

  33. Bert Vanderveen

    Loved this article, but have an issue with the display of the graphics: the ‘lifted corner shadow’effect is very distracting and completely unnecessary.

  34. Joshua Langman

    This comment applies to the entirety of the ILT site: I usually view the site in Safari on a Mac, where the type is rendered beautifully, but I realized that in IE on a PC, the Scala italic (and bold, I think) are faked. I’m not sure if there is anything you can do about this, but substituting the proper faces would improve the typography for those on IE.

  35. johno

    Clarification: I have now changed,

    So a Chinese from the border with Korea…

    to

    So a Chinese from the Southern provinces…

    Thanks to everyone for your comments. To those asking about the evolution of other letters (like the E and A in figures 4.2 & 14.1 respectively), I’m working on a chart for the entire alphabet. Might make a good poster.

  36. johno

    Joshua Langman

    Do you have a screen shot?

  37. Jongseong Park

    Thanks for the clarification!

    I’m afraid ‘msn show’, ‘canlı show’, ‘kamerada show’, and ‘show sitesi’ are spammers with comments automated generated by copying bits of previous comments. John, you want to direct your query to Joshua Langman.

  38. johno

    Jongseong Park

    Thanks. Quite a job stripping out those spam comments.
    Good to hear from you again. I trust you’re well.

  39. Johno — Unfortunately I don’t have a screenshot, as I don’t own IE or a PC, but was viewing the site on a friend’s computer. The italic and bold appear to be skewed and stroked, like the examples in typography books of why you shouldn’t let your software fake your styles. In Safari, the true italic and bold appear. (I don’t remember whether this is true for Scala Sans in the captions or only for the text.) I hope you can solve this issue, as the Scala family really is a lovely choice for this site, a nice improvement over the older format (Georgia, I think?).

    Oh, and by way of introduction, I have been an “invisible” fan of your site for quite some time, but I tend only to comment on sites when I feel I have something constructive to say. Overall, I think the site is a wonderful resource and I routinely check up on new posts.

  40. This is a really interesting article to see how typography has developed through time. I learnt some of this at university and found it fascinating to see where it all started. I think this sort of thing should be taught in schools in more depth. I vaguely remember the Ox head being mentioned but as it something we use every day, people should know how it came to be.

  41. Exceptional work…. This deserves to be a research paper… one of the best written articles I’ve seen for a long time…

    You certainly live up to your website’s name :)

    Good job.

  42. Splendid article. Thank you so much for making my day! :)

  43. A.Adrian

    wow..great article. I love typogtraphy!!!

  44. Wonderful article and very insightful - often read about the history of the printed word, though nice to take it back further.

    Many thanks

  45. Jon D.

    I really enjoyed this article.
    One minor correction: the Boustrophedon sidenote shouldn’t have the individual letters mirrored. So the second line should look like:

    ni nexo ekil gninrut,si taht—”gninrut-xo“

    This is the form of a Boustrophedon that Braille and the older forms of Greek use.

  46. johno

    Jon D.

    Thanks. Yes, I’m aware of that. If you can get it to work with CSS, then I’ll replace it.

  47. I loved your post. Remembering our pretty boring type-history classes, this makes it come a lot more alive. Thx :)

  48. David

    Great post, very interesting,

  49. Josh Hurtado

    Fascinating and informative article. Thank you for putting this together.

  50. Hugo Osorio

    great article!
    thank you

  51. Thanks for posting, really interesting stuff.

  52. Great overview and splendid illustrations!

  53. You know I don’t think I have ever seen such an interesting, thought-provoking and downright detailed post as this! Fabulous entry that makes for deep reading on a terrific subject. I never knew there was so much history to typography and that Cyrus Cylinder is a wonder of the ancients. Great photos of the slabs and letters too.

    Seems like you could write a book on this stuff – I know I’d buy it anyway :)

  54. From my own research, keeping in mind I am by no means a historian, I came across this:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jiahu_symbols

    = 6600 BCE (Before Common Era)

  55. A rather pleasing and in-depth look, but still so shallow when compared with the depths of our history. Your final note on other written languages inspires such huge thoughts. I am left wanting more.

    Thank you for a wonderful article.

    For those of you who may be interested in alternative written languages, a friend of mine runs http://www.linguamongolia.com/ built with Mongolists in mind, but entertaining none the less.

  56. This is a great article. This is more than I ever knew about the origins of our 26 letters. Thanks for the wonderful post.

  57. Als eine ausgezeichnete Lektüre zu diesem Thema verweise ich auf das Buch : Unser aller Alphabet von Professor Matthias Gatzemeier erschieen im Shaker Verlag ISBN Nr. 978-3-8322-7960-8.
    Es enthällt auch eine sensationelle Entdeckung: Raphael-Code

  58. A fantastic article with some great info on where the modern alphabet has come from. The comparison to Asian ideograms is a pertinent one, especially as I am a student of Japanese.

    Though arbitrary alphabets demand less learning and understanding in order to sound out a word; they can never be as symbolic or as ‘connected’ to their content as a language based on pictures.

  59. Peter Hickman

    Just a minor point “a bird is still a bird through 360 degrees of rotation”. Well of course it is, a 360 degree rotation will bring it back to its original position.

    Perhaps you could go with “a bird is still a bird through any rotation”

  60. very nice article. it’s inspired me a lot. thank you very much

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