The Alphabet is the basis of modern writing, a symbol system of individual signs which, when strung in order, approximate language as spoken, so others can learn to understand that which has been written. Like a NUMBER system, it not only brings clarity but longevity to thought, as ideas may be recorded for future times after the initial memory or even individual is gone. Very few Societies today exist without a writing system, and those that do are primitive and concerned primarily about The Now. Written language is Time Travel.
Language is basic to human beings, and animal studies show that every creature that can make sounds uses them to communicate (at least emotional states if not specific words) to others of it's species. As we have no video or audio of Primitive Humans, we rely on their Cave Paintings (by 20,000 BCE) to understand the extent to which they were able to defeat time by creating lasting messages on rock for future generations. Language is estimated to have evolved @ 75,000 years ago.
Pictograph writing seems to have been at the foundation of early Semitic / Phonetician / Hebrew letters , Chinese characters, the hieroglyphs of the Egyptians (@ 3,100 BCE), Mayans and the (Sumerian) cuneiform of Babylon (@ 5,000 - 3,500 BCE). But writing divorced from speech requires anyone who wants to do both to learn two languages. If the written language can also be pronounced, it's meaning is clearer and more flexible, thus more useful. A pictorial language requires thousands of symbols, while an alphabet system requires a limited number of symbols (20 -26, usually) placed in specific order to approximate spoken words. Thus, letters which have sounds become increasingly included in pictographic languages, especially as they encounter other Cultures and try to NAME the new people, places and objects by imitating the sounds of other languages. Naming people and places requires a flexibility beyond which most symbol systems can achieve, unless they use combinations like Raging Bull. So many early systems combine pictograms, sometimes for the sound of the object pictured, with other signs for consonants, accents, tense or possession. The 1st stage in any cryptographic or linguistic analysis is to catalog the individual signs, larger numbers of signs show signs being used for individual ideas or phonetic syllables, few signs show they are being combined into words based on a limited letter type system through combination.
There are at least three independently created alphabets which have left writing and therefore evidence: Semitic (@ 1,800 BCE, sometimes called Proto-Canaanite) / Phonetician (@ 1,000 BCE)/ Akkadian /Hebrew (@1,200 BCE), Chinese and New World Indian (Mayan (@600 BCE) and Aztec, not Inca). The Phoenicians adapted the picot-alphabet of the Levant to trading on the Mediterranean Sea, using the sounds of the picture as the sound of the letter, so Aleph, an Ox, becomes the sound "ah", and Beth, a house or womb, becomes the sound "b". Our word Alpha-Bet (sometimes called ABCD) is named after these 1st two letters, as the Runic alphabet Futhark is named after the 1st 4 sounds of the Runic alphabet. Turn our capitol A over, and the Ox horns are still visible in English as with Hebrew. The Hebrew letter Beth looks like a cave, or shelter, and was thought to be a House.
But all these early alphabets relied completely on Consonants, and the breathing between those Consonants was implied by knowing the spoken words. In the West, Semitic/ Phonetician became Hebrew, and several of the redundant consonants evolved into vowel sounds (before 850 BCE). In Hebrew, they came to make up the most Holy NAMEs of God, the letters Yod, Heh, Vau, and to a lesser extent, Aleph and Ayin.*** When the Greeks picked up Phoenician, they kept the general order of Hebrew letters, but changed the vowel pronunciation and sometimes rotated the original letter signs. The Etruscans learn their language and writing from the Greeks, and thus Rome gets the Greek letters and they spread, with adaptions, throughout the Empire.
Thomas Young coined the term Indo-European for the languages which grew out of the (Turkish) Hittite tongue into the Proto-Greek of Minoan Crete (as captured in the Linear A cuneiform), 1800–1450 BCE, with it's undeciphered 100s of symbols, the deciphered Linear B (87 syllables & more than 100 ideographic signs, ideograms for King, place, NAME. NUMBER, and some verbs like thrust, retreat, etc) of Arthur Evans from nearby Southern (Mycenaean) Greece, 1600–1100 BCE, and the island of Cyprus' Cypriot syllabary (56 syllables) , 1000-300 BCE, which reflects Linear A. The Cretan hieroglyphic system of 1625–1500 BCE is contemporaneous as the more pictorial style also used. Much of Linear B tablets that survived have to do with accounting, not literature, propaganda, or philosophy. The Meroitic hieroglyphs and related script, originally mentioned by the ancient Greek writer Diodorus Siculus aka Diodorus of Sicily, from the Kush and the Sudanese Pharaohs, 700 BCE - 200 CE has also yielded some of it's secrets to Francis Llewellyn Griffith in 1909. It seemed to take the very ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, later Demotic and add the Greek vowels (as Egyptian had no vowels per se).
Both Germanic Runes and Russian Cyrillic are based on these Roman borrowings, while Samarian, Aramanic (@ 850 BCE), Hebrew and Arabic show proto-Roman character. Early Egyptian hieroglyphs seem less sound oriented, while later writings show the need for phonetic signs as the Names of foreign leaders and places had no local sign. The sound system of Egyptian fits the general Phonetician model, and while the related cuneiform systems discovered seem related, our knowledge of their sounds remains limited. Chinese is a different model, but like Egyptian it contains both pictures and sounds related to the picture in each character. By compounding letters, new combinations may be obtained, and Japanese and Korean are developments from this Chinese system. In the New World, Mayan writing was well developed, but the catastrophe of the conquest destroyed much of their exiting library, courtesy of Bishop Diego de Landa in July of 1562. While little of the language was understood when I studied there in the late 1970s, there have been major advances since then, and much of the syllable and sign structure is now understood. Aztec literature met a similar fate, which could have left us with only the stone carved Steles and Temples by which to judge their writing. Luckily for us, the very Conquerors who were enslaving them preserved their language structure and grammar, the better to convert them to Catholicism. The Incas had no known writing system except for the quipu aka khipu aka quipo, a series of colored strings in which they tied knots with symbolic meanings. It was an efficient way to hold numbers, but not many words, and was not an alphabet per se. (Thanks to Thanks to Prof. Traci Ardren-Owens , Univ. of Miami Anthropology Dept for keeping me up to date on the Mayan archaeological finds as they occur, Prof. Jacquelyn Williamson of Harvard Divinity for challenging discussions on Egypt, and Lisa M**** aka Chesh in Oxfordtown for assists with Old English);
One good way to watch the evolution of language is to take a well known sentence and watch it evolve through several languages. Try http://www.hebrewoldtestament.com/, an excellent Bible source in many languages, and it becomes obvious how both language and even meaning evolves over time.
In Hebrew, the alphabet is applied to the Tree of Life (http://www.chuckfurnace.com/01a-tree.jpg) as the Paths which connect us to our various Centers. Thus language helps us understand and structure our experiences, even of the Spirit, to better integrate the lessons in our lives. In addition, as every Hebrew letter is also a NUMBER, the Holy Books are filled with numerical substitution puzzles with hidden knowledge and commentary displayed by the language itself, as well as the content of that language. Rabbi Abraham Aben Ezra, Rabbi Dr Hayyim Samuel Jacob Falk aka the Baal Shem of London, Isaac Luria, Eleazar Ben Judah and other Jewish Qabalists pay great attention to the Letters, which are believed to come directly from GOD, and have been the instrument by which the World was created (the WORD, or Exhale). Athanasius Kircher, Antoine Court de Gébelin, The Comte de Mellet, Antoine Fabre d'Olivet; Eliphas Levi and Papus gave Hebrew letters a similar level of attention on the Continent, as did the British Occultists Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers; Dr. William Wynn Westcott; Christan Knorr von Rosenroth; Aleister Crowley and American Paul Foster Case paid a great deal of study to this alphabet and the philosophy hidden within, QABALAH aka Kabbalah aka Cabala aka QBLH.
Thanks to Jean-François Champollion's translation of the Rosetta Stone, we have an understanding of the Egyptian language (Medu Neter, not it's descendent, Coptic), and can compare it to other forms of hieroglyphs from other periods. Professors John Coleman Darnell and Deborah Darnell of Yale discovered at Kharga Oasis aka Umm Mawagir aka “mother of bread molds” (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/07/science/07archeo.html?_r=0, http://www.nytimes.com/1999/11/14/world/finds-in-egypt-date-alphabet-in-earlier-era.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm ; http://archive.archaeology.org/0001/newsbriefs/egypt.html ) alphabetic graffiti among the pictorial hieroglyphs from @ 1800 B.C.E. Also known as Wadi el Hol (aka the Gulch of Terror), it was a trade route which travelers from many of the ancient civilizations used, and some left alphabetic markings of their names among the earlier Egyptian hieroglyphs. Professor Colleen Manassa Darnell of Yale has also referred to these markings in her lectures at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, 2013, 2014;
Alphabets allow writing, the transmission of thought across distance and time. To those who cannot read, it seems magical. In early societies, writing is often the exclusive tool of religion, because it seems so magical. It then becomes more wide-spread as a way of identifying possessions or trade goods, evolving from simpler tokens. As society becomes more complex, and governing is centralized, writing become the providence of accountants and bean-counters for trade and taxes. Soon most citizens acquire a "signature" , symbol or sign to indicate themselves, and their influence. The more writing that a society produces, the greater value in literacy. Thus while we can no longer visit ancient Greece, we can still read Socrates and Plato. The England of William Shakespeare survives to this day in his plays and poems, and it is still accessible despite the evolution of the English language, requiring only a few footnotes to update the terminology for modern readers. But if we follow English back to Geoffrey Chaucer 150 years earlier, many more footnotes are needed to understand the older English. This is a major reason language is conservative, it changes slowly, so as not to require another complete set of language skills to read the treasures of the Past.
- indebted to Joel M. Hoffman 's IN THE BEGINNING: a Short History of the Hebrew Language, 2004, for this theory;
Writing and Civilization: From Ancient Worlds to Modernity lecture series by Professor Marc Zender; The Secret Life of Words: English Words and Their Origins lecture series by Professor Anne Curzan; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Coe; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linear_A (1,800 BCE, Crete) ; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linear_B ( @1,450 BCE); http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eteocretan_language ; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek_alphabet ; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phoenician_alphabet ; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aramaic_alphabet ; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hebrew_alphabet ; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samaritan_script ; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Classical_Arabic; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arabic_language ; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_language ; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_language ; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Korean_language ; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Altaic_languages ( Turkic, Mongolic, Tungusic, perhaps Korean and Japaneses); http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mayan_languages ; The Náhuatl Language of the Aztecs, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nahuatl ; Cusco Quechua (the native Inca language) sort of here - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qusqu-Qullaw ; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demotic_Egyptian (after Egyptian hieroglyphs, before Christian Coptic language or Arabic; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coptic_language ; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linear_A ; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linear_b ; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cypriot_syllabary ; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cretan_hieroglyphs ; http://people.ku.edu/~jyounger/Hiero/ ; http://www.omniglot.com/writing/cypriot.htm ; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meroitic_alphabet ; http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/10/opinion/fish-scholarship-and-politics-the-case-of-noam-chomsky.html?hp&rref=opinion ; http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2526389/The-lost-tomb-Incan-emperor-Ruins-Amazonian-jungle-answer-one-greatest-mysteries-ancient-world.html ; see George Psalmanazar's Formosan / Formolan Alphabet here - http://www.lib.udel.edu/ud/spec/images/forgery/alphal.jpg; on communication by Story, by metaphor and emotions about those stories, rather than letters and words, in Star Trek's Next Gen, http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/06/star-trek-tng-and-the-limits-of-language-shaka-when-the-walls-fell/372107/; see http://news.discovery.com/history/archaeology/rare-incan-calculators-found-in-peru-140627.htm on the Inca quipus or quipa or "khipus" or "talking knots" system of recording simple words and numbers on knotted cords of different colors, also the early Rex Stout novel Under the Andes, see http://www.booksshouldbefree.com/book/Under-the-Andes and https://librivox.org/under-the-andes-by-rex-stout/ ; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quipu ; http://books.google.com/books/about/The_ancient_quipu_or_Peruvian_knot_recor.html?id=BfsqAAAAIAAJ ; http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/10/28/ancient-cd-rom-phaistos-disk-code_n_6055178.html?utm_hp_ref=mostpopular on the Phaistos disk inscription to the Goddess in Minoan; http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/s7249.html ;