Written English, along with most modern languages, is so closely related to its alphabet that we can take the pairing for granted. But long before that Beowulf and The Canterbury Stories, there were alternatives. Although the first written certificates are from a 5,000-year-old Sumerian cuneiform, it was another millennium before people came across the language ordering method most of us learn as children today.
The language you are reading here is a latecomer with a long but understandable legacy. The alphabet appears to have been invented only once by Semitic workers in Egypt almost 4,000 years ago. The script they developed, known as the Proto-Sinai Script, was an attempt to reuse hieroglyphs for their own language.
Egyptologists found the first of these inscriptions in the early decades of the 20th century and noted their significant hieroglyphic influence. They were found on the Sinai Peninsula, so scientists assumed that it was there around 1600 BC. BC Proto-Sinaitic originated the graffiti in Wadi el-Hol, or “Valley of Terror”, a site along the Nile on mainland Egypt. These were dated to around 1800 BC. Dated
The inscriptions have yet to be fully translated, but some letters have been deciphered. Some even remain clearly visible in English after all this time, no translation required. For example, “M” comes to us without much modification; the Semites seem to have borrowed the hieroglyph for “water”, a wavy, undulating line to represent the initial sound in their own word for water, “mem”. “A” began as an ox head, but quickly transformed into a recognizable form in successive languages.
The main difference between the oldest Writing systems – also called orthographies – and our modern alphabets are in the language units they represent. Cuneiform writing describes whole words or syllables with a wedge shape. Egyptians and Chinese achieved the same thing with a series of hieroglyphics and characters. However, since languages often comprise tens of thousands of words and hundreds of syllables, mastering these awkward schemes completely required a dedication that once only professional writers could afford.
A alphabet, on the other hand, further divides words and syllables into phonemes – the set of basic sounds that serve as the building blocks of a language. In English, that’s a manageable 26 letters (although the language actually contains 44 individual sounds). These phonemes can then be combined into morphemes, the smallest meaningful units of language.
For example, each word in the following sentence has its own morpheme: “The house is on fire”. In a non-alphabetic language, some or all of them would be represented by a single symbol rather than a series of phonemes.
Technically, Proto-Sinai wasn’t a true alphabet. More specifically, it was an abjad: a writing system that dealt primarily with consonants, usually leaving it up to the reader to provide vowels based on context and previous understanding of vocabulary and pronunciation. Sometimes, but not always, the vowels are indicated by diacritical marks. (Though rare these days, notable modern day Abjads include Arabic and Hebrew.)
The next iteration of the Proto-Sinai alphabet, Phoenician, also omitted its vowels, but with just 22 symbols it was so easy to use that most people could understand it without any problem. It grew in popularity and eventually spread westward along the Mediterranean Sea. The Greeks soon adopted it and at the same time provided us with the first full-fledged example of an alphabet and a term for it – “alphabet” is derived from the first two letters of the language, alpha and beta.
Greece’s biggest contribution, however, was the addition of vowels. Over time, the Etruscans learned the same thing on the Italian peninsula and then bequeathed this practice to the emerging Roman Empire. The result was the Latin alphabet, which has achieved world domination on a scale that surpasses the wildest dreams of Julius Caesar. It is the basis of English and many other languages thanks to European colonization.
But alphabets and alphabetically adjacent hybrids are almost ubiquitous around the world. The Cyrillic alphabet used in Russian and other languages in Eastern Europe and Central Asia is derived from Greek. Devanagari – the script from Hindi, Nepali, Sanskrit and a spread of South Asian dialects – probably comes from a Semitic language (perhaps Aramaic, which Jesus spoke). In some ways, the style of written communication that billions of people use today is simply an evolution of the hieroglyphs that adorn King Tut’s tomb.