When people are asked about the greatest design achievements of all time, they might mention anything from the Periodic Table to the Tube Map. They’re certainly great designs, but no-one ever seems to bring up perhaps the greatest design in human history: the alphabet. Yet the alphabet is behind everything our civilisation has achieved in writing, from the works of Shakespeare to the last text you sent. It’s also the basis of my business, so I take a particular interest in it.
There was writing long before the alphabet. The earliest writing systems were probably ideographic, as Chinese characters still are. This means that the symbols indicate a concept, rather than a spoken word. For example, 2 means exactly the same in every language, regardless of how it’s pronounced (two, deux, zwei etc.).
Chinese proves that ideographic writing can produce everything from great literature to great record-keeping, but it has its drawbacks. The Chinese didn’t take to movable type, for instance, even though they had printing long before Europe, for the simple reason that it would have required thousands of different characters to be available.
Many early writing systems, on the other hand, used syllabic scripts, where, for instance, ba, be, bi, bo, bu and by would each be a separate symbol. This was more straightforward, but it still required a hundred or more symbols to be learnt before you could read or write it.
No-one knows exactly who came up with the alphabet, nor exactly when, but it seems to have been late in the Bronze Age in Canaan – roughly what’s now Israel, Palestine and Lebanon. The decision to reduce the symbols to those for each consonant had the advantage that there were now only a couple of dozen to learn, making reading and writing easier for non-specialists to master.
It came at a price, though. The Canaanite alphabet, whose closest direct descendent is the Hebrew system, didn’t indicate which vowels to include in the words. If English were written this way, there would be no way of telling whether bd meant bad, bed or bud – or, for that matter, bide or abode. All reading would be like the final round of Only Connect.
Still, the plusses must have outweighed the minuses, because the alphabet not only thrived but spread, most importantly in two directions. For one thing, it eventually forming the basis of the Arabic script, which is now probably the second most widespread writing system in the world.
More relevantly to the English-speaking world, it spread west, too. The seafaring Canaanites from ports like Tyre and Sidon were known as Phoenicians – from the Greek word for purple, because their speciality was the insanely expensive purple dye – and they settled and traded all over the Mediterranean and beyond.
Somewhere around 800 BC, the Greeks encountered the Phoenician alphabet. The original Greek syllabic script had been lost in a dark age, and they took up this new idea with enthusiasm. However, aware of its shortcomings, they came up with the idea of turning some of the letters they didn’t need into vowels.
The original Greek alphabet wasn’t quite the one used today. Over the next couple of centuries, they dropped a few letters and added others; but, before that started, the great Italian civilisation of the Etruscans adopted it, and through them it came to a small city-state called Rome.
The Roman alphabet preserved letters lost in Greek, such as F and Q, but it had its own issues. The Etruscans hadn’t needed a G (originally the third letter) and took to pronouncing it the same as K, creating the modern C/K duplication. The Romans, however, did need a G and so made it the seventh letter, properly the Z.
The Roman alphabet expanded as they added letters needed to write foreign words. The Z was reinstated, but put at the end, and the Emperor Claudius (of “I” fame) invented the letter Y – which, by the way, is a vowel occasionally pronounced as a consonant, not the other way round, whatever your teachers might have told you.
As the Roman Empire spread, so did both the Greek and Roman versions of the alphabet. When it was necessary to translate the Bible for the newly converted Slavs, St Cyril came up with a new alphabet, which combined Greek letters with symbols from other writing systems for Slavic sounds the Greek alphabet didn’t cover. The Cyrillic alphabet is now used throughout much of eastern Europe and a good deal of Asia. Most of the languages from the former Soviet Union are written in Cyrillic.
Meanwhile, the Roman alphabet spread throughout western and central Europe, though it was adapted to the needs of different languages. Old and Middle English, for instance, had four letters that we don’t use now, including the þ, representing th. This was later often written lazily as y – hence all those “Ye Olde Tea Shoppes”.
There were modern letters missing, too. Until the 17th century, I/J and U/V were each considered just different ways of writing the same letter*. The Romans had pronounced the consonant form of U/V like our W, but this gradually changed to the modern pronunciation, so the W was invented to replace it.
By the 18th century, the 26-letter alphabet we know now was in place, although some languages (in Scandinavia, for instance) still use extra letters, and different descendants of the original alphabet are used all over the world. It may change again, of course, if it needs to. Just like all those other design classics – including the Periodic Table and the Tube Map – it has adaptability built in to accommodate change. One thing is certain, though – there’s some long-dead Canaanite who deserves to be picking up a hell of a lot of awards.
* Which makes a nonsense of the “Name of God” scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. I and J were the same letter in Latin, as they would have been when the trap in the film was first set.