viernes, 4 de febrero de 2011

The origins of abc - Where does our alphabet come from?

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.

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.


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


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.


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.


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 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.


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.


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.

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 reform 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).

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.


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 17th 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 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.


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