a {text-decoration: none; } En la punta de la lengua: Who shaped letters like this?

23 sept. 2012

Who shaped letters like this?

Méndez, L. (2012). Who shaped letter likes this?. Unpublished manuscript, Languages    Department, Universidad de las Américas Puebla, Cholula, México. Retrieved from:


Starting from the moment we open our eyes every morning, we are bombarded with a great range of information regularly written, and therefore decoded thanks to one of the most important invention ever created by humankind. Although, it may seem easy and ordinary to follow the directions to make pancakes for breakfast or even to read the shampoo label when we forgot to bring something more interesting to analyze while going to the bathroom; most of us are not truly conscious of the immense historical, cultural and social phenomena that made possible to our “modern world” to decipher each other’s thoughts without using uttered sounds, but instead a silly set of approximately twenty-six arbitrary and sound-representative symbols called alphabet that make a exclusive sound appear in our minds. We have been obligated to memorize and understand this set of symbols since early stages of our childhood, and even though it is difficult to picture right now if it had been otherwise you would not be able to obtain meaning out of what is written in this paper or of any minuscule piece of information available on walls, doors, menus or labels. We all came into this world ignoring the fact that sooner or later many of us (I wish I could say all) were going to be more or less forced to become literate, in opposition to spoken language which left us no other choice than to acquire it by the mere deed of being constantly exposed to an environment where a certain linguistic code was spoken; thus is exactly in that point where we can discriminate between spoken language being natural or spontaneous and written language artificial or invented, since independently of how much time an individual is exposed to written language, he will not become literate unless someone teaches him at least the most basic conventions of it, as for instance the alphabet.

It is true that many other terrific men-made inventions catch our attention easier because of its innovative nature and technological “benefits” to our today’s environment; nonetheless, writing is perhaps the single creation that has been around for the longest time evolving gradually in order to adapt to the speech community that is using it. Writing per se is considered to be a polygenic invention that emerged all around the world as a protohistoric set of symbols used as a mnemonic system, such as quipus[1] in today’s Peru (Cardona, 1994). Despite the fact that there have been some researches focused on the ancient Sumerian culture as being the pioneer of all the subsequent cuneiform[2] scripts of the Near East (Sampsom, 1990), most authors agree that the actual history of writing begins with the Egyptian hieroglyphs about 4,000 years ago. This civilization was hypothetically the first to develop their pictographs into alphabetic writing and apply them in writing. Although it did not have the same structured agreements that we share nowadays to make written intelligibility possible, it was based on a pictographs in combination with elements that operated as phonemes and syllables. However, when it was first discovered, philosophers of those days classified these icons as unfathomable signs with natural mysticism that later on was discovered to be a decodable set of signs syllables and letters (Man, 2000). The ancient Egyptian is believed to be the basis for most alphabets still used nowadays in the Western World; nonetheless, as this script continued its development also did its users, resources and transmission materials. According to Thompsom (1942) the Egyptian writing can be divided into threes phases or periods.

·      Hieroglyphic-Old Empire (3400-2475 B.C.)
The secret priestly writing continued to be used until the first century B.C. It appears on ancient tombs and monuments.
·      Hieratic-Middle Empire (2160-1788 B.C.)
Hieroglyphs continued to be written in stone, but manuscripts in ink on papyrus show this simplified form. Exclusively royalty and the priesthood used both.
·      Demotic-New Empire (after 1500 B.C.)
Language and writing undergoes further modification in non-religious texts until the sixth century B.C. those final simplified style emerges in common commercial use.

All this knowledge became part of the European “source of wisdom” thanks to the discovery of an ancient stone that is known today as the Rosetta’s stone. Contrastively to the common belief of most people nowadays, this name conveys more than the trademark label for a popular language course, in fact if it was not because of this finding it would have been impossible to unearth the origin of a truly cultural concept such as the Roman alphabet. Legend has it that at the very end of the 18th century when Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt, a milestone was achieved thanks to a certain Lieutenant Boussard who was wandering about the village of Rossetta near the Nile’s river mouth, there he found a huge black basalt stone about four feet long sticking out of the sand. He noticed that the rock was covered with strange symbols he could not understand, so he reported it to his superior. When Napoleon found out about the discovery, he ordered its relocation to Cairo where specialists studied it. Everyone was amazed when they revealed that there were three different codes[3] coexisting on the Rosetta stone. Despite the fact that they thought it would be easy to translate the hieroglyphs, forty years went by until Jean François Champollion finally found the key that enabled today’s Egyptologists to continue decoding the truth behind ancient Egypt.

Something amazing that it has been found as this quest for the truth progressed is that the hieroglyphic system did not go through a protracted gestation process; Therefore, the assumption that the proto-predecessor of the Roman alphabet could have been invented by only one man, might be valid. To summarize centuries of cultural development, it has been said that last phase for the hieroglyphic script arrived when Christianity was introduced to Egypt with an alphabet derived mainly from Greek, which adopted some features of hieroglyphic writing and was used to write the last part of the Egyptian language commonly known as Copts (Fischer, 1992).

As writing is a polygenic creation, Egypt was not the only place where writing had begun. Although, in different epochs and places all over Earth, there is proof of different writing systems that adopted their own characteristics to visually represent what a certain culture perceived of their environment, and life itself.

·      In the Far East with the Chinese script created approximately on 1200-1054 B.C; which relied almost exclusively on logograms[4] and diverged entirely of its contemporaries from the Middle East. (DeFrances, 1989).

·      In Scandinavia the runic script[5] was the written system that commanded on those lands for more than four centuries before Christianity attained on imposing the Roman alphabet (Spurkland, 2006).  

·      In the Americas the hypothetical most ancient script was found in southern Veracruz, Mexico a couple of years ago. Apparently the creators of this script were the Olmecs about three thousand years ago (Briggs, 2006).

·      The Arabic scripts dates from 4th century A.D. This script was also used to write languages such as: Swahili, Turkish and Spanish and nowadays is the second must used after the Roman alphabet.   (“Arabic”, 2012).

Although, the aforementioned writing systems were not related to the Roman alphabet, there were two important cultures that are believed to be the most influential cultures upon western civilization than all the others that preceded them. The Phoenicians and the Israelites were two small Semitic[6] cultures that rose about 2500 B.C. and claimed the Persian Gulf as their ancestral home. However, theses allied civilization migrated to the land of Canaan[7] sometime about 2200 B.C., where their writing system became influenced by the Egyptian form of writing that was later on simplified to a linear system to which we owe our alphabet.
The Phoenician Empire achieved its greatest splendor around 1600 B.C. when the Egyptians mentioned the first Phoenician city on its recordings. Due to its commercial supremacy, the Phoenician culture spread all over the neighbor societies surrounding the Mediterranean basin, and so did the use of their alphabet, which became popular in all countries with which they came in contact. The most important connection is considered to be with the Greek civilization, where early traders introduced the Moabite[8] version shortly after the Trojan War, that would significantly influence the development of the Greek alphabet with respect to consonants, since the Phoenician alphabet did not have yet graphic representation for vowels (Thompsom, 1942).

Petrie (1900) states the following:
What is really dude to the Phoenicians seems to have beenthe selection of a short series (only half the amount of the surviving alphabets) for numerical purposes, as A-I, E-5,P-100, 0-500, etc. This usage would soon render these signs as invariable in order as our numbers, and force theuse of them on all countries with which the Phoenicianstraded. This exactly explains the phenomena of the Greek alphabets; many in variety, and so diverse that each has to be learned separately, and yet entirely uniform in order.

As years went by, the Phoenicians started to establish colonies in Melos, Rhodes and other Aegean island. There has been a lot of discrepancy in whether or not the Phoenicians were the creators of this script; however, all the world now believes that it was them, based on the fact that the Greeks itself called their letters Φοινικικά γράμματα, Phoenician letters”. The Greeks eventually started to make major changes in the alphabet, such as the transition from a spiral arrangement of words and letters to the left- to right writing in succeeding lines that is used today. Even though, the Phoenician alphabet already had vowel sounds, these were not graphically represented; hence, the Greeks were the one who developed spelling for: alpha, epsilon, iota, omicron and upsilon. Moreover, among the Greek civilization there were two distinct alphabets: the Eastern, introduced by the Phoenicians in the Aegean islands, Ionia and later into Greece mainland and the Western introduced to Greece by overland routes possibly from Lydian or Aramean sources. Subsequently, with numerous changes in shapes, order and inclusion/exclusion of letters, these alphabets would evolve in what is today the classic Greek alphabet[9]and the Roman alphabet[10] (Mason, 1940).

Likewise, a proto version of the Latin alphabet based on the Western Greek alphabet, arrived to the coasts of southern Italy around the eighth century B.C. where it continued its development, that consisted in a mixture of all the alphabets to obtain as a result the Etruscan alphabet, which contained the 22 Phoenician letter, 4 Greek vowels, as well as san (M) and sigma (Σ) that have never been together before in any Greek alphabet. The Etruscans were a very mysterious civilization, which is believed comes from Asia Minor and settled in Northern Italy to continue spreading through Italy, while developing the alphabet until they arrived to the south. Although, the Etruscan alphabet went even through more modifications, such as the elimination of 7 letters and the substitution of the corresponding letter to f by our current numeral 8; something interesting that led to the materialization of our current alphabet was the need to write longer vowels, which back then was done by writing the same vowel twice. Later on, on those languages that required[11] vowel extension, different diacritics were added on top of the doubled vowels, as for instance ä ö and å in the Swedish alphabet.

Finally, when Latins adopted the Etruscan alphabet several changes continued to happen. The most important were the creation of Capital letters and orthography modifications concerning to K, C and Q interchangeability. The most recent ones that configured the alphabet we have had since the 16th century were: the addition of J out of I[12], the inclusion of V out of U and the addition of W which was created by the Anglo-Saxons because of their need to find a middle ground between V and U, which was established by putting two U’s together and it can be noticed in the given name to that letter (Moorehouse, 1961).

As a conclusion, it should be said that in contrast to most common beliefs writing is without any doubt the human creation that has gone through the most complex and extensive evolution, perhaps because of the intrinsic need of humanity for immortalizing all the details and thoughts of its current reality. Is feasible that as time goes by and the languages spoken all over the world shift and change so will the alphabet in order to adapt to spoken discourse. However, it should not be forgotten that the alphabet was only invented once, and despite the minimal changes that can be found nowadays in the analogous versions of Indo-European alphabets, they all come from that same starting point that over the centuries have ended up being used in places where those first inventor could not possible imagine, creating a beacon of multicultural solidarity that still supports to certain degree inter-linguistic intelligibility for its users.


Anglo-Saxon runes.[Image]. (2008). Retrieved April 30, 2012, from:

Arabic alphabet. (2012). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from

Arabic alphabet. [Image]. (2012). Retrieved April 30, 2012, from

Briggs, H. (2006, Septmeber 14). Oldest new world writing found. BBC News. Retrieved
              from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/5347080.stm

Cardona, G. R. (1994). Antropología de la escritura. (p. 35). Spain: Gedisa.

DeFrances. (1989). Visible speech: The diverse oneness of writing systems . Honolulu, HI:
             University of Hawaii Press.

Fischer, H. G. (1992). El origen de los jeroglíficos egipcios. In W. Senner (Ed.), Los
              orígenes de la escritura (pp. 65-71). Mexico City, Mexico: Siglo veintiuno   

Greek alphabet. (n.d.). Retrieved April 30, 2012, from:

Henzi [Image]. (2007). Retrieved April 30, 2012, from:   

Man, J. (2000). Alpha beta. (p. 17). London, England: Headline book publishing.

Map of fertile cresent [Image]. (2011). Retrieved April 30, 2012, from:

Mason, W. A. (1920). A history of the art of writing. (pp. 337-344). New York, NY: The
Macmillan Company.

Moorhouse, A. C. (1961). Historia del alfabeto. (pp. 183-198). Mexico City, Mexico:
Fondo de Cultura Económica.

Newfound Olmec script.[Image]. (2006). Retrieved April 30, 2012 from:

Ogg, O. (1971). The 26 letters. (pp. 45-47). New York, NY: Thomas Y. Crowell Company.

Petrie, W. M. (1900). The royal tombs of the first dynasty. London, England: Egypt
             Exploration Fund. Retrieved from http://archive.org/stream/cu31924020551267

Phoenician alphabet.[Image]. (2007). Retrieved April 30, 2012, from:

Roman Alphabet.[Image] (1979). Retrieved April 30, 2012, from:

Sampsom, G. (1990). Writing systems: A linguistic introduction. (p. 78). Stanford, CA:
Stanford University Press.

Spurkland, T. (2005). Norwegian runs and runic inscriptions. Woodbridge, England:
Boydell & Brewer.

Thompsom , T. (1942). The abc of our alphabet. (pp. 28-43). London, England: Balding &

[1] A record-keeping device of the Inca Empire consisting of a series of variously colored strings attached to a base rope and knotted so as to encode information, used especially for accounting purposes.
[2] Writing typified by the use of characters formed by the arrangement of small wedge-shaped elements.
[3] Egyptian hieroglyphs, Demotic (the writing of ordinary life) and Greek
[4] A single symbol representing an entire morpheme, word, or phrase, as for example the symbo
[5] Also knows as Futhark because of the order of its first six initial letters.
[6] A branch or subfamily of the Afro-Asiatic family of languages that includes Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic, Amharic, and such ancient languages as Akkadian and Phoenician
[7] Today’s Israel,
[8] There were two distinct versions of the Phoenician alphabet; the Moabite or Tyrian; and the Sidonian. The two were used side by side in different section of Phoenicia for centuries.

[9] Eastern Greek alphabet
[10] Western Greek alphabet
[11] Such as some members of the North Germanic family
[12] Which functioned as vowel and consonant at the same time,

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