The Alphabet – Origins of Writing – Extra History


As the world ended
with fire and sword, and one by one, the lights of civilization
were snuffed out, old ideas died, and from
their ashes, new ideas came. Ideas that would
change the world. (intro) As we’ve talked about
the Bronze Age Collapse, we’ve mentioned time and again that,
across much of the ancient world, As civilizations
fell apart, writing died out. Literacy…
disappeared. In many places, the written word simply
vanished for centuries. But eventually, as humanity
clawed it’s way back, this old idea of writing
started to re-emerge. But, in a new form. In our episode on
the origins of writing, we talked
about cuneiform, and how the written scripts
evolved from scribes making pictures
to record the inventories of the vast temple
warehouses of Sumer. And, as part
of that evolution, the pictures
became simplified, and lost
their pictorial meaning. Instead, coming to mean
the sound of the picture they originally
represented. In doing so, cuneiform became
a syllabic alphabet, where each
cuneiform design represented a syllable
of spoken speech. This rendered
the character sets smaller than pure
pictographical systems. But it still left scribes with hundreds
of characters to memorize. The more characters
you had to memorize, the harder it is
to become literate. The slower the adoption
of the written word will be. And, the smaller the group
it will be limited to. But the Sumerian system had influenced the way that writing in much
of the ancient world developed. and so syllabic sytems
had become the norm. That is,
until the collapse. So where does the story
of the alphabet begin? A writing system
based, not on syllables, but on phonemes, on single sounds. Like many things, it begins
in Egypt before
the collapse. The Egyptians actually had some
single sound characters among
their hieroglyphs. They weren’t
the majority of it, they weren’t
the most important part of it, but they were there. and migratory
Semitic tribes coming to Egypt
latched on to them. borrowing
the sound characters to write in their
own language, Instead
of trying to adopt the whole sets
of Egyptian Hieroglyphs. As the world collapsed, this set
of migratory tribes found themselves
in a pretty good position. They didn’t have any major
infrastructure to topple, or intricate social order to upheave. And so, as the existing powers fell, they set up their own kingdoms in the Levant. One of these loosely tied kingdoms was Phoenicia, sitting at the heart of everything. Phoenicia became a trade hub for a world slowly climbing out of the darkness. And with their trade, came their language and their ideas. With their trade, came their writing. But there’s an interesting thing about trade, A weird quirk of necessity that leads us one step closer to what we think of as an alphabet. You see, cuneiform was based around making impressions in clay, the series of odd wedge marks that give the language its name. Clay made sense as the principal thing to write on when you were keeping track of vast stores of goods or making imperial records meant to stand the test of time. But clay is also pretty bulky. It’s hard to transport, and if your society is based on trade, you’re going to want something else to write on. The Phonecians turned to papyrus. So now they had the single phoneme writing of the Semitic cultures, a new script that could be used on easily portable papyrus, and a vast trading network. This meant that they brought their writing with them. And other cultures began to pick it up and pick it up and modify it to fit their languages. And one of the most enthusiastic adopters of this new system were the Greeks. With the utter destruction of the Mycenaean civilization, the Greeks really had lost their writing system. For the whole dark age that followed, Greek writing was just gone. But, with the re-establishment of trade, the Greek city-states began to grow again. And as they did so, they latched onto this system, that would clearly do so much to help their expansion. But up until this point, the Phoenician alphabet had mostly been used by Semitic speaking peoples, and Semitic languages had an interesting oddity. They used almost no vowels. This meant that the Phoneticians never actually developed vowels for their alphabet. When vowel sounds were part of a word, they were just implied. Everybody could tell what the word was, simply just by writing out the consonants in it. Greek though, is an Indo-European language. It is 𝐟𝐮𝐥𝐥 of vowels. So the Greeks looked at the Phonetician alphabet, and realized that there were a handful of consonants in there that they simply didn’t use. Letters that there simply wasn’t an equivalent sound in Greek for. So, being simultaneously crafty and lazy, they just took those letters, and started using them for Greek vowel sounds. And this is 𝐡𝐮𝐠𝐞, because for the first time, every sound in a language was represented in it’s alphabet. There weren’t a ton of additional things you needed to know from outside the written system to effectively use it. Or that you would need to explain to a foreigner on top of it, in order to teach them your writing. And the Greeks, being traders and seafarers in turn, spread this system westward. First to Italy, and then, if not always, directly, to the rest of the European world. The system they spread is the basis for the alphabets that much of the world uses today. In fact, we are so rooted in it, I would ask you to take a moment to consider the Greek language, with its newly minted vowels. What are the first two letters? Alpha and Beta. and when you push those two together, what do you get? The very word we use to describe our system of written phonemes. Alphabet. So while there are many other changes that this system eventually goes through, this is where we’re going to stop today. Because now, we got an alphabet. We got the next major development in the history of writing. The thing that helps spread literacy, and makes adoption of the written word for many of the European cultures that had never had a writing system before. And a light emerges from the darkness of the Bronze Age Collapse that will kindle the Western World.

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