A Story of the Alphabet
Making a Long Story Short
from A History of the Modern Roman Alphabet a poster produced by the Exploratorium of S.F.
In the earliest writing systems, each symbol stood for a single word, or syllable. To write or read in one of these systems, you needed to know a large number of symbols. Cuneiform, the syllabic system used in Mesopotamia, had over 600 symbols, some of which stood for whole words.
Some time between 1700 and 1500 BCE, someone on the Arabian Peninsula came up with a new way of writing using a single symbol to represent a single sound. This new system, the very first alphabet, was a revolutionary simplification.
You can see how much the alphabet simplifies writing by counting up the number of different symbols that would be needed to write a paragraph of text. You would need at least 50 different syllabic symbols to write the first paragraph on this poster. Using our alphabetic system, you only need 26 symbols.
The first alphabet was developed in ancient Phoenicia, a region that is now part of Lebanon, Syria, and Israel. In the Phoenician 22-letter alphabet, each letter is a picture of a common object, and represents the first sound in the word for that object. If you were using a similar system in English, a picture of the moon could represent the sound we represent with the letter M.
Take a look at the Phoenician letters in the first column. Beside each Phoenician letter is the modern Hebrew letter that evolved from it, and the Hebrew names for the letters. It's easy to see the head of an ox in the first letter of the Phoenician alphabet, the letter that became our A. Other symbols require a stretch of the imagination. The symbol that became our letter M, for example, may have started as a simple wiggle representing mayyuma, or water.
The Phoenician alphabet and other ancient alphabets of the Near East didn't have any vowels, only consonants. Someone reading a message had to figure out the vowels from the context -- something that is possible even in English. Rdng wrds wtht vwls s dffclt, bt nt mpssbl. (RDÑ DZ ÐT VLZ Z DFKLT BT NT MPSBL.). You can figure out the missing sounds from context: though bt could be "bite" or '"but" or "bat" or "bit" or boat", only "but" makes sense.
Scholars believe that the Greeks learned the alphabet from the Phoenicians sometime before 700 BCE. Compare the Phoenician letters with the Early Greek letters and you can see similarities. The Greek names for the letters have no meaning in the Greek language, but they are very similar to the Hebrew names.
Different languages use different sounds, and some of the Phoenician letters represented sounds that weren't used in Greek. The Greeks took those letters and made them into vowels . For example, the letter that became O represented, in Phoenician, a guttural sound that began the word for eye: 'ayin.
The Greeks also added letters to represent sounds that were common in Greek. In our alphabet, we would represent the sound of the Greek letter Phi (phi) and ph and the Greek letter Psi (psi) as ps. English words that contain these letter combinations -- elephant and psychiatrist, for example -- are of Greek derivation.
In 700 BCE, the Greeks traded frequently with the Etruscans, a civilization that preceded the Romans in the region now known as Italy. At about this time, the Etruscans began to use a version of the Greek alphabet. You can see that the Etruscan alphabet has more in common with the Early Greek alphabet than it does with the Classical Greek alphabet. The Classical Greek alphabet was not adopted in Athens until 402 BCE, long after the Etruscans had modified the Early Greek alphabet for their own needs.
In 509 BCE, the Romans conquered the Etruscans and adopted many features of Etruscan culture, including the Etruscan alphabet. Of course, the Romans had to make a few changes so that the alphabet would match their language, Latin. They created one new letter, the letter G, and dropped letters that represented sounds they didn't need. The Early Latin alphabet lacks the letter the Greeks called Zeta and uses a variant of the Greek letter Upsilon. When the Romans conquered Greece, they needed to represent Greek sounds in the Latin alphabet -- which is why the Classical Latin alphabet has two new letters derived from Zeta and Upsilon at the end of the alphabet -- the letters Y and Z.
Compare the Classical Latin alphabet and the Modern alphabet and you'll see that the two are very similar. The letters U and W were both developed from the letter V in the Middle Ages. Finally, the letter J was developed from the letter I in about CE 1400. All the western European scripts come from the Classical Latin alphabet.
Relationships between Goddesses and alphabets
Carmenta is said to have created the Latin alphabet by adopting it from the thirteen-consonant Greek alphabet. The crane, as symbolizing the alphabetical secret, is sacred to Her. The consonants B an T are especially sacred to Her because each of these calendar consonants introduced one half of Her year, as divided between the sacred king and his tanist), and the 5 vowels O, U, E, A, I;
A hypothesis of Robert Graves
the 50 letters of the Devanagari (Sanskrit writing-system), are sacred to Kundalini; they are the strings of Her instrument with which She sings Her song of worlds.
Return to the top of this document.