Where does our alphabet come from? We see it every day on signs, billboards, packaging, and in printed and digital books and magazines; in fact, you’re 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’ll need to travel much further back in time, to an era contemporaneous with the emergence of agricultural civilization.
Robert Bringhurst wrote that writing is the solid form of language, the precipitate. But writing is also much more than that, and its origins, its evolution, and the way it is now woven into the fabric of civilizations makes it a truly wonderful story. That story spans some 5,000 years. We’ll travel vast distances, meet an emperor, a clever Yorkshire-man, 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 civilization 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.
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.
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.
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.
Egypt: 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.
The Egyptian pictographs evolved into a cursive style called hieratic that was freer, written more rapidly and contained numerous ligatures.
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 traveled 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.
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.
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 systematized 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.
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.
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:
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.
Not particularly convincing. Both Sumerian Cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs evolved from pictographs into more abstract signs. Both civilizations 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 Purple People
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.
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.
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 civilization and the lesser-known Tuscans.
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.)
In Greek scripts we witness the jettisoning of pictographic forms in favor 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.
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 phony Greek inscriptions.
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 civilization slowly waned. Within a few centuries the Roman Republic became the master of Italy and absorbed the Etruscans completely.
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.
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.
Uncial: ‘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.
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).
Carolingian to Gothic: An Emperor & 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 Yorkshire-man, 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 favor 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.
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 (c. 1455).
From the beginning of the twelfth century the tironian ‘et’ (still used in Irish to this day) began to replace the e+t ligature, or ampersand. It wouldn’t make a come back until the later Humanist scripts, models for the first roman typefaces.
Roman: Enter typography
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.
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,
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 equates to fewer individual strokes or pen-lifts (reduced ductus), and those neat, constructed capital letters of the first round have evolved into something freer, more cursive.
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 civilizations, 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.
Collage illustration by Able Parris.
Thanks to Dr. Paul Dijstelberge for his suggestions.
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.
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 years — H.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 Antiquity — M.I. Finley
The Romans — R.H. Barrow
The Birth of Europe — Jacques Le Goff
Shapes for Sounds — Timothy Donaldson
The Golden Thread: A History of Writing — Ewan Clayton