Milestones: The birth of the alphabet


Way back in the misty annals of time that was my first term at Oxford, I went to play ice hockey. I forget why exactly, but I do remember that every time I tried to hit the puck I forgot that I was on skates, attempted to sprint, and landed flat on my face – or at least, my hands.

Somewhere around fall no. 7 I injured my right hand and had to go home, where I had terrible, terrible nightmares about what would become of me in Oxford, trying to do an English degree without the use of my writing hand.

Writing is lifeblood here. For Humanities students, it’s like breathing. We study the written word, pick it apart, analyze every inch of its possible meanings.

Mathematicians and Scientists have their own universal writing system made up of numbers and symbols and equations, and Computer Scientists can write in a code that tells computers what to do.

Among all the creations of man, writing is the supreme intellectual achievement. It was invented as many as six separate times, in places as distinct from one another as Central America, Africa and China.

In historical linguistics, monogenesis refers to the idea that all human languages are descended from a single ancestral language.

Whether we accept this or not, the earliest efforts began with simple pictures, strokes and dots to record objects and numbers. When it came to recording the innermost workings of our brains and hearts, a more complex system was required.

The first known ‘script’ came about in the 4th Millennium BC, with the development of ‘proto-cuneiform’ and later ‘cuneiform’ writing – wedge-shaped marks made on clay tablets with a blunt reed stylus.

The inventors of this form of writing were the Sumerians in Mesopotamia, the area of the Middle East which also gave birth to the earliest cities, farms and technology.

The Cuneiform writing system was in use in various forms for more than three millennia. Meanwhile, the Egyptians were developing hieroglyphs – the combination of pictures and signs which is still one of the most complex and beautiful writing systems ever devised.

The 2nd Millenium BC saw the climax of writing’s developmental stage, with the emergence of the Phoenician alphabet. This was spread across the Mediterranean by merchants, where it evolved and was assimilated by many other cultures, ‘birthing’ the earliest forms of alphabets that are still used today, such as Arabic and Greek script – and by extension Latin, Cryllic and Coptic.

The oldest form of writing that is still in use is the Chinese script, which dates back to around 1200 BC, and is still in use in a fairly similar form.

Even today, the story of the beginnings of writing is far from complete. Extensive study led to the eventual decipherment of cuneiform; the Rosetta stone helped us to understand hieroglyphic text -yet there are still ancient writing systems that have been discovered in places such as Crete, Mexico, Iran and Pakistan that remain mysterious.

It is because of writing that we can see inside the mind of people dead millions of years, enabling us to pass down stories upon which whole cultures – and whole degrees – are based. 


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