Phoenicians Invent the Modern Alphabet Part 1

About the Phoenicians inventing the modern alphabet, the process in history and linguistics whereby pictures or ideograms are broken to component sounds to creat a writing system.


WHEN: About 1000 B.C.

HOW: Most letters in our English alphabet are simplifications of what were ancient drawings of animals or objects. A capital Q, for instance, represents a monkey. Ch, from the word for "fence," became H. An M was 1st an owl and later meant "water."

But let's go back to the beginning--or as close to it as we can get. Historians generally agree that our alphabet descended from ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, meaning "sacred writings," because they were 1st recorded by priests more than 5,000 years ago. Hieroglyphics were simple pictures carved in stone or inscribed on papyrus. A small circle with a dot in its center stood for "sun." A figure showing 2 arms, one holding a shield and the other a spear, meant "battle."

As new words came into the vocabulary, new picture symbols were created, until finally the "writing" of some documents became more complicated than a wiring diagram for a modern computer. So the Egyptians began to combine certain pictures to represent sounds instead of the objects pictured. For example, orally the Egyptian word meaning "lapis lazuli" was khesteb. There was no picture of a khesteb, but there was a symbol called khesf, meaning "to stop," and a picture of a teb, or "pig." Thus a combined drawing of a man holding a pig by the tail meant khesteb or "lapis lazuli."

Centuries after Egypt's decline, explorers who discovered hieroglyphic carvings in Egypt were mystified as to their meanings until 1799, when an officer in Napoleon's Army near the Egyptian village of Rosetta discovered a smooth, thick, black stone covered with carvings divided into 3 separate sections. One section was a historical account in Greek; the other 2 were in hieroglyphics and demotics (simplified hieroglyphics). The Greek account said that it was exactly the same as the Egyptian, and this now enabled scholars to decipher the mysterious ancient carvings.

One great difficulty with picture writing was that different "readers" might make wrong interpretations of what they saw. An old story tells how Darius the Great, King of the Persians, led an army against Scythian forces north of the Black Sea about 512 B.C. As the armies neared one another, an emissary from the enemy brought Darius a message. Instead of pictures carved in stone, the enemy commander had sent Darius the real things--a mouse, a frog, a bird, and some arrows.

Darius summoned his officers. "We've won," he said. "These arrows mean the enemy will lay down his weapons. The mouse and frog mean he will give us his land and water. And the bird means that his armies will fly from our victorious legions!"

That night the Scythians swooped down and conquered the Persians. Said the Scythian general: "My message was clear. It said that unless you could turn yourselves into birds and fly away, or into mice and burrow under the ground, or into frogs and hide in the swamps, you would never escape death from our arrows."

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