The History of our Alphabet
The first recorded piece of writing, the intentional and conscious attempt to share a thought, a feeling, or piece of information, dates back 370,000 years.* Homo Erectus carved symmetrical lines into the shin bone of a straight-tusked elephant, and computer analysis showed those marks could not have happened accidentally while making tools or scraping off the flesh.
We don’t know what our ancestor was trying to communicate then; our knowledge of recognizable writing only goes back about 40,000 years. But we know that the first writing utensil was probably a hand ax, as used for the cave paintings found in France, that date back about 60,000 years. Language was mainly spoken, and written communication took the form of pictograms, until it was stylized to represent phonetic symbols of the spoken word.
The first written language was Sumerian Cuneiform, hailing from Mesopotamia around 3,500 years ago. It comprised about 600 phonograms developed from about 2,000 characters, and they used reed to press pictographs into clay tablets. The Persians adopted cuneiform around 600 BC and reduced it to 41 phonograms.
The Egyptian hieroglyphs (“sacred carving”) could be found on caskets and bowls, as well as temples and tombs to describe the contents of the container or the accomplishments of a leader. The pictograms of animals, plants, buildings, and objects were written in rows or vertical columns. Hieratic script (“sacred writing”) was developed for everyday correspondence, and Demotic script (“popular”) was developed later as a shortened form of Hieratic.
With growing complexity in trade, writing on and carrying shards of pottery and stone became unfeasible, and the introduction of papyrus, ink, and rushes (chewed into form to hold ink and write a row of characters) made written communication a lot more manageable.
The Chinese have always written with brush and ink. Tien Chen invented a mixture of soot and oil that dries lightfast and waterproof into a deep black. Brushes were generally made from rabbit hair and attached to a bamboo cane. The Chinese written language contains over 50,000 characters today, and a writer uses at least two to three thousand for everyday use.
The Japanese system of writing originated from the Chinese system, but some characters had to be adapted. The Chinese have no “R”, whereas the Japanese have no “L”. Both write from top to bottom and from right to left.
The Phoenicians based their writing system on Babylonian cuneiform, but instead of assigning symbols to syllables, they assigned a character to every sound. They no longer used pictograms, and the alphabet could now be reduced to 22 consonants that would be rearranged according to the sounds of the words. Our alphabet today is based on their structure. The Arameans also developed Hebrew from the Phoenician system.
Arabic script is based on hieratic, demotic, and Phoenician alphabets, and in Muslim states, writing was considered a religious service. “Handwriting is a jewel, hand-made from the pure gold of the intellect” - Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi, and 11th-century scholar and calligrapher. Arabic script spread to North Africa, Spain, Mesopotamia, Persia and India (7th to 13th century).
Writing the alphabet we know today, from left to right and in rows, became the norm in the 4th century BC, when the Greeks used Phoenician script and declared some of the consonants were now vowels. The Greeks paid special attention to making the script beautiful, so all characters fit into rectangular shapes and were written with regular spacing. Homer, Archimedes, and Pythagoras scratched their minuscules onto wooden tables with a bone or metal stylus.
The Romans took the letters A B Z I K M N O T X and Y from the Etruscan alphabet, and converted the rest from the Greeks. They added serifs, probably due to the tools used for chiseling characters into stone.
Once the Roman Empire passed (15th century), the art of reading and writing receded to monasteries in Italy, Germany, Ireland, and England. Monks devoted their lives to transcribing the Bible and copying texts, and the rest of the world forgot about it and mostly did without.