Evolution of language writing systems

Humankind has constantly been communicating verbally. Currently, we have thousands of languages around the whole world. They sound different, have miscellaneous grammatical rules, and how these sounds are presented in written form.

Regardless of the mother language, to communicate beyond sounds, we need to master the language writing system called the alphabet. Now, it is the most convenient and flexible form of writing. Let's take a look at how it has evolved over the centuries.

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What is the language? In general, it is a way that we communicate. Sounds that arise when we want to say something are a bunch of vibrations getting out from our throat to the mouth or just directly from the mouth, but that is not the end.

This interpersonal communication tool includes sounds, gestures, and a graphical form called the alphabet. It's a bit complicated. Let's focus on the last component, i.e., the visual representation of the language. When was it founded, and how has it changed?

The progenitor of the alphabet has little in common with the modern alphabet. It includes hundreds of pictures scratched onto the clay tablets, where each picture was typically assigned to one word. Sounds funny? But this way, the communication system for writing ancient folks like Sumerians. We can not even call it an alphabet, while the alphabet is a system where each sign is related to sound, not the word. Besides that, it was not very practical, so people started looking for better solutions.

So, the history of the actual alphabet started in ancient Egypt and surprisingly not as a Mesopotamian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs, only as workers' and slaves' language (called Semitic language named after Semitic workers). It was used as an alternative to hieroglyphs that they could not understand.

The essential difference between them was that the Semitic alphabet used signs for objects in Egyptian hieroglyphs to describe the sound. The Phoenicians' writing consisted of 22 characters, without vowels, written from right to left. A good example is the hieroglyph per (in Egyptian meant house) was used to write the sound b, while the Semitic word for home ( bayt) started with b. You have to admit that is quite ingenious.

Even the Protossinian script, a transitional form between the hieroglyphs and the Semitic alphabet, was discovered. It is considered to be the oldest script with alphabetical features. Interestingly, the names of the letters of the Phoenician alphabet correspond to cartoon proto-Sinai characters having the same phonetic value.

At first, the Semitic alphabet was used formally (as slave writing). Then, it became the official language of the Fenci city-states. It consisted in noting consonants. Hence this writing system has spread in all directions. And gives the basics to the Aramaic, Hebrew, Palmyrene, Nabataean, Arabic, Syriac, and even Greek writing systems. The last one added vowels to the consonants.

Then the Etruscans built the Etruscan alphabet on its basis. Inspired by these two works, the Romans developed the Roman alphabet, also called the Latin alphabet (that we use today). Initially, the Roman (Latin) alphabet consisted of 21 characters: a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, j, k, l, m, n, o, q, r, s, t, v, x. In the 16th century, the Latin alphabet was finally formed into the (now basic) notation a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, j, k, l, m, n, o, p, r, s, t, u, v, w, x, y.

Greek was also adapted in the early Middle Ages to give us the Cyrillic alphabet. Of course, the shape of the letters has evolved over the years to the one we use today. The modern Cyrillic alphabet (so-called grażdanki) is partially reformed and modernized from the original version. The translation of this name means literally a civil, secular letter. Orthodox clergy remained with the original record. Initially, texts were written from right to left, then left to right. There were also texts written both ways at once. It was the so-called "boustrophedon" or plow letter.

We also had related alphabets, for example, runic alphabets. It was used for writing in the German language before the Latin alphabet was adopted.

To write and read individual letters and words, however, we must be endowed with a sense of pattern. However, it is not for everyone. Attempts were made to develop an alphabet system that could be read using the sense of touch. Other probes were carried out with both enlarged raised letters and systems consisting of dots and dashes. But, it was only the idea of Louis Braille that spread widely.

The Braille alphabet made it possible for blind people to read and learn and, over time, write. It is based on a military system that allows orders to be read without the use of light. It is based on a six-point term called the forming sign. The system consists of characters with six convex dots arranged in two columns of three dots each. The left column contains the conventionally marked dots: 1; 2; 3, while the right column includes the dots: 4; 5; 6. The mutual combination and distribution of the points make it possible to record sixty-three characters. Amazingly, we can write with id music, mathematical equations, or even chemical formulas.

Did you know that our brain reads written letters as pictures as the same rule as face recognition? The only difference is that word recognition is done using the left cerebral hemisphere, and the right hemisphere is involved in face recognition.

Summary

Alphabet is a system of recording sounds of speech (writing) in which theoretically only one phoneme corresponds to each character (letter) appearing in it – and vice versa, each phoneme corresponds to only one letter. Although the name of the alphabet comes from the first two letters of the Greek script, alpha and beta, the word itself is of Latin origin. Today, the alphabet that we use to write this article has far fewer letters than the ancient alphabet, while some languages are much more complicated than others.

This article is a joint work of Aleksandra Główka (Faculty of Chemistry, University of Warsaw), Agnieszka Pregowska (Institute of Fundamental Technological Research, Polish Academy of Sciences) and Magdalena Osial (Faculty of Chemistry, University of Warsaw).

References

[1] Diringer, D. (1943). The Origins of the Alphabet. Antiquity, 17(66), 77-90.

[2] Coulmas, F. (1999). The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Writing Systems. Blackwell: Oxford.

[3] Robinson, A. (2007). The Story of Writing. London: Thames & Hudson.

[4] Schniedewind, W. M. (2019). The history of Classical Hebrew: From the invention of the alphabet to the Mishnah. Religion Compass. 13, e12299.

[5] Lamb, G. (1996). Beginning Braille: A Whole Language-Based Strategy. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness 90(3),184-189.

[6] Van Strien, J. W., Hagenbeek, R. E., Stam, C. J., Rombouts, S. A., Barkhof F. (2005). Changes in brain electrical activity during extended continuous word recognition. Neuroimage. 26(3),952-9.
 
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