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The first four millennia
The alphabet
     Phonetics and the alphabet
     The Arabic script
     The first American script
     Ulfilas and his alphabet
     Cyril and Methodius

Scripts used by printers
19th century
To be completed

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Phonetics and the alphabet: from the 15th century BC

The most significant development in the history of writing, since the first development of a script in about 3200 BC, is the move from a pictographic or syllabic system (characteristic of Sumerian, ancient Egyptian and Chinese) to a phonetic one, based on recording the spoken sound of a word. This change has one enormous potential. It can liberate writing from the status of an arcane skill, requiring years of study to learn large numbers of characters. It makes possible the ideal of a literate community.

The first tentative steps in this direction are taken in the second millennium BC in the trading communities of Phoenicia.


Phoenician is a Semitic language and the new approach to writing is adopted by the various Semitic groups in Phoenicia and Palestine. Versions of it are used, for example, for Aramaic and Hebrew. Only the consonants are written, leaving the vowels to be understood by the reader (as is still the case today with a widespread Semitic language, Arabic).

The contribution of the Greeks, adapting the Phoenician system of writing in the 8th century BC, is to add vowels. For some they use the names of existing Phoenician letters (alpha for example). For others entirely new signs are added. The result is a Greek alphabet of twenty-four letters.


The alphabet takes its name from the first two letters in the Phoenician system, alpha and beta, borrowed and adapted by the Greeks.

The Romans in their turn deveolop the Greek alphabet to form letters suitable for the writing of Latin. It is in the Roman form - and through the Roman empire - that the alphabet spreads through Europe, and eventually through much of the world, as a standard system of writing. With a system as simple as this, and with portable writing materials such as papyrus, wooden tablets or leaves written correspondence becomes a familiar part of everyday life.


The Arabic script: from the 5th century BC

A stele, or inscribed column, is set up at Tema in northwest Arabia. Dating from the 5th century BC, its inscription is the earliest known example of the writing which evolves a millennium later into the Arabic script.

The script is developed from the 1st century BC by the Nabataeans, a people speaking a Semitic language whose stronghold at Petra, on a main caravan route, brings them prosperity and the need for records. Writing is not much needed by the nomads of Arabia, but when it becomes urgently required for the Qur'an (to record accurately the words of God in the 7th century AD), the Nabataean example is to hand. Through Islam and the spread of Arabic, it becomes one of the world's standard scripts.


The first American script: 2nd c. BC - 3rd c. AD

Of the various early civilizations of central America, the Maya make the greatest use of writing. In their ceremonial centres they set up numerous columns, or stelae, engraved with hieroglyphs. But they are not the inventors of writing in America.

Credit for this should possibly go back as far as the Olmecs. Certainly there is some evidence that they are the first in the region to devise a calendar, in which writing of some sort is almost essential. The Zapotecs, preceding the Maya, have left the earliest surviving inscriptions, dating from about the 2nd century BC. The first Mayan stele to be securely dated is erected at Tikal in the equivalent of the year AD 292.


The Mayan script is hieroglyphic with some phonetic elements. Its interpretation has been a long struggle, going back to the 16th century, and even today only about 80% of the hieroglyphs are understood. They reveal that the script is used almost exclusively for two purposes: the recording of calculations connected with the calendar and astronomy; and the listing of rulers, their dynasties and their conquests.

Thus the priests and the palace officials of early America succeed in preserving writing for their own privileged purposes. In doing so they deny their societies the liberating magic of literacy.


Ulfilas and his alphabet: AD c.360

Ulfilas is the first man known to have undertaken an extraordinarily difficult intellectual task - writing down, from scratch, a language which is as yet purely oral. He even devises a new alphabet to capture accurately the sounds of spoken Gothic, using a total of twenty-seven letters adapted from examples in the Greek and Roman alphabets.

God's work is Ulfilas' purpose. He needs the alphabet for his translation of the Bible from Greek into the language of the Goths. It is not known how much he completes, but large sections of the Gospels and the Epistles survive in his version - dating from several years before Jerome begins work on his Latin text.


The achievement of Ulfilas is repeated in the 9th century by two missionaries, Cyril and Methodius, who adapt their own Greek alphabet for the purposes of writing down a previously oral Slavonic language.

An even more extraordinary feat of the same kind is achieved by Cherokee Indians in the 19th century. Their analysis of their own previously unwritten language leads them to the conclusion that it consists of eighty-six different syllables. They turn it into a written languge by adopting a symbol for each syllable.


Cyril and Methodius: 9th century AD

Cyril and his elder brother Methodius already have a distinguished reputation as theologians and linguists when the Byzantine emperor sends them as missionaries, in 863, to the Slavs of Moravia. The brothers are Greek but they know the Slavonic language spoken in their native region of Salonika. In Moravia they conduct church services in Slavonic. Naturally they wish to write down this liturgy, together with their own Slavonic translation of parts of the Bible. But there is no Slavonic script.

Like Ulfilas before them with Gothic, the brothers need to devise a new alphabet for their purpose.


Cyril and Methodius base their new letters loosely on Greek examples. The Slavonic alphabet is known today as cyrillic after the more forceful of the brothers - though in its surviving form it is probably devised by Cyril's followers in Bulgaria rather than the saint himself (whose original invention is more likely to be the now extinct glagolitic alphabet).

Nevertheless the remarkable fact is that cyrillic remains the script of all the Slav regions which adopt the Greek Orthodox faith - including Serbia, Bulgaria and above all Russia.


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