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Why is A the first letter of the alphabet?
Why is O round?
Why does Mother begin with M?
This book offers a lighthearted and fascinating voyage back to the origins of our alphabet, based on the pictograms of 3500 years ago. Best-selling author and teacher ...
Why is A the first letter of the alphabet?
Why is O round?
Why does Mother begin with M?
This book offers a lighthearted and fascinating voyage back to the origins of our alphabet, based on the pictograms of 3500 years ago. Best-selling author and teacher Marc-Alain Ouaknin has created a book for many readers—for teenagers and adults, scholars and the merely curious. In Mysteries of the Alphabet he tells how proto-Sinaitic pictograms—derived from Egyptian hieroglyphics and discovered in the Sinai only at the beginning of the twentieth century—evolved through the millennia and left their traces on our alphabet.
Ouaknin coins the term "archaeography" to describe his study of a word's meaning not only through its etymology but also through its image, through the forms of its letters. His interest is not only serious: he suggests that his readers play the game of "reading" their own names and other words in pictograms—after all, "the name you're given influences who you turn out to be."
Other Details: 248 two-color illustrations 384 pages 6 x 6" Published 1999
Praise for the French Edition:
"In Mysteries of the Alphabet Marc-Alain Ouaknin invites us on a marvelous voyage. . . . Enriched with magnificent illustrations, the work is designed to be read at different levels: children as well as adults will discover a world of images and shapes that recall the works of Miro and Klee." —Le Point
"His books, brilliant but accessible, communicate essential ideas." —Le Nouvel Observateur
"At forty years old, Ouaknin is a funny kind of rabbi as well as a rabbi who's often funny... He links the Talmud to secular philosophy, to modern literature, and to psychoanalysis."—L'Evenement du Jeudi
Author Biography: A professor and rabbi, Marc-Alain Ouaknin is the director of the Aleph center for Jewish studies in Paris and is associate professor of comparative literature at Bar-Ilan University in Jerusalem. His books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have been translated into fifteen languages. Two nonfiction titles are available in English, The Burnt Book: Reading the Talmud and Symbols of Judaism, as is a children's book, I'll Tell You a Story.
A Short History of
How can speech, which is in essence ephemeral, be preserved, noted down, and transmitted? This question has been fundamental to every culture and every civilization. A very wide range of solutions has been offered, from tying knots in a piece of string through scratches on bark and drawings and engravings on stone, to (finally) the letters of the alphabet. Numerous ways of transmitting messages have existed for tens of thousands of years, using drawings, signs, or pictures. Twenty thousand years before the common era (B.C.E.), human beings were producing their first drawings on the walls of a cave in Lascaux, in the south of France.
These signs and pictures could not yet be considered writing. They might have recalled a few important and significant monuments in history, be it the record of an event such as war, victory, or plague, the signing of a treaty, or the forming of an alliance, but they were not yet sufficiently organized to acquire the status of writing.
Writing only started when an organized system of signs or symbols was created that could be used to clearly record and fix all that the writer was thinking, feeling, and capable of expressing. Such a system cannot be created in a day. It is a long, slow, and complex process, a fascinating history whose development mirrors the development of the human race. It is wonderful story from which a few vital pages are still missing.
Writing does notrequire an alphabet! There are many forms of writing in which anything can be expressed by means of a large number of signs, without using an alphabet. Examples include the cuneiform script of the Sumerians, Egyptian hieroglyphics, Chinese ideograms, and perhaps the Mayan and Aztec glyphs. All of these scripts consist of signs and symbols, and can be used to express the entire range of human thought, although they do not use an alphabet!
The alphabet can be defined as a system consisting of a limited number of signs expressing the basic sounds of the language, through which it is possible to record in writing whatever the user wishes to express. The word alphabet derives from the Latin alphabetum, which is formed from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet — alpha and beta — themselves borrowed from the Semitic letters aleph and beth.
Mesopotamian cuneiform script, Egyptian hieroglyphics, and Chinese characters all share the ability to transcribe either whole words or syllables, rather than basic sounds. Reading and writing using these systems involves learning a very large number of signs or characters. Reading and writing were thus the prerogative of sages or a privileged class (often the priests), who spent their lives doing little else but writing. An alphabet works entirely differently because the fact that only about thirty signs (it varies between twenty-two and thirty) need to be learned makes it possible for anyone to write and read anything and everything.
The twenty-six letters of the English alphabet, for instance, are far fewer than the thousand characters (based on the 214 traditional root characters) that the young Chinese student has to learn. It is certainly less than the hundreds of hieroglyphics that the young Egyptian student had to memorize, and less than the six hundred signs that the student scribe in Mesopotamia needed to acquire. It can truly be said that the birth of the alphabet marks the real beginning of the democratization of knowledge.
Two major groups of scripts can thus be distinguished: alphabetic scripts and nonalphabetic scripts.
CUNEIFORM: THE SCRIPT OF SUMER AND AKKAD
Cuneiform is the oldest known form of writing. It was invented by the Sumerians who lived in Mesopotamia in the fourth and fifth millennia B.C.E. Mesopotamia is the area between the river Tigris and the river Euphrates, a region of fundamental importance because it is here that the Bible places the Garden of Eden, the birthplace of Adam and Eve. It is the birthplace of human civilization, which according to Hebrew tradition began 5,758 years ago. The term cuneiform was used to describe this writing by the first discoverers of the inscriptions at Persepolis, and it means "wedge-shaped" (from the Latin cuneus) because the signs consist basically of wedges with short and long tails.
Although this was the final stage in the development of the system, rather than the beginning, the word cuneiform has traditionally been applied to this whole system of writing, which was the most widely used in the ancient Near East. Before depicting long and short wedges whose shapes are abstract, cuneiform writing consisted of drawings or pictograms charting various elements in life, nature, animals, or the human body. These signs evolved into abstract forms in which it is often impossible to identify the original shapes on which they were based.
We know the Sumerians were not native to Babylonia, but where had they come from? China, Central Asia, Turkestan, India, the Caucasus? The question remains open.... Their language, Sumerian, belongs neither to the Indo-European nor to the Semitic language group. Sumerian cuneiform writing was adopted in the middle of the third millennium B.C.E. by another people then living in Mesopotamia, the Akkadians, who used it to write down their own language, which was a Semitic one. This caused a complex situation because the same sign could be used but read differently, depending on whether the language was Sumerian or Akkadian. Akkadian was spoken in northern Mesopotamia and Sumerian in southern Mesopotamia.
Akkadian borrowed the cuneiform system and spread it to other nations such as the Elamites and the Hittites. After the fall of the last Sumerian empire (c. 2000 B.C.E.), Sumerian ceased to be spoken and was replaced by two Akkadian (Semitic) dialects — Assyrian in the north of the region and Babylonian in the south. Subsequently, Babylonian became the language of educated people for both the north and south of the region (in the middle of the second millennium B.C.E.). It was the lingua franca of the Near East, just as English is the lingua franca of today, an international language. Sumerian became a dead language, but remained the language of scholars, like Latin in the Middle Ages. The next chapter will contain some comments about the development of cuneiform writing, in order to show how script evolved from images (pictograms) into syllabic phonetic signs (phonograms).
The other ancient system of nonalphabetic writing in the world of antiquity is Egyptian writing. The most ancient and the most typical form of it is called hieroglyphics. Hieroglyphics were engraved signs of religious significance (from the Greek words hieros, sacred; and glyphein, to carve or engrave). They began as a word script; that is, each sign represented a word. The script later began to represent sounds as well, becoming a phonetic script. The language recorded in hieroglyphics is related to the Semitic group of languages. Unlike Sumerian and Akkadian writing, which spread the use of cuneiform characters, hieroglyphics remained restricted to usage in the Egyptian language and land. The oldest trace of Egyptian hieroglyphic writing dates from the start of the third millennium (the First Dynasty). It was during the Third Dynasty that the script reached its brilliant perfection and hardly varied thenceforward until it fell out of use in the fifth century C.E.
Side by side with the signs engraved on stone, there are signs whose shapes were simplified—these are called linear hieroglyphics—which were painted in ink on wooden sarcophagi or on papyrus. The signs were written from top to bottom, from right to left, or from left to right. There is even a third form of Egyptian writing whose characters were drawn more freely and quickly, for everyday use. This writing is known as hieratic, from the Greek hieraticos, sacred, since it mainly became the writing of the priests.
At the most advanced stage of its development, the writing became even more stylized and less figurative. This is called demotic writing, from the Greek demos, the people. In the Ptolemaic era (330-30 B.C.E.), demotic became the script used in Egyptian literature and for administration. This script continued to be used until the fifth century C.E.
Alongside Egyptian hieroglyphic script there exist Hittite hieroglyphic writings. Under Hittite domination of Asia Minor and northern Syria, from the eighteenth through the seventeenth century B.C.E., the cuneiform writing of Sumer and Akkad were used alongside a form of picture-writing known as Hittite hieroglyphics. These hieroglyphics were used to write down a Hittite, Indo-European language that was different from the language written in cuneiform. The signs are ideographic and phonetic. The direction of the writing was boustrophedon (alternating between right to left and left to right). Sites where these hieroglyphics have been discovered are Carchemish and Karatepea in Cilicia.
A proto-Indian civilization was developing in India at the same time as the Babylonian and Egyptian civilizations, toward the middle of the third millennium B.C.E. This civilization bequeathed us a script that has been found on numerous seals and steatite amulets. This writing (from the Mohajo Dao and Haroppa excavations) is very difficult to decipher, and no one has yet succeeded in doing so.
In the third and fourth millennia B.C.E., an advanced and original civilization flourished in Crete and the Aegean Basin; this civilization was then totally lost and forgotten. In both art and writing, the ancient Cretans did not lag behind the other peoples of the Near East. Sir Arthur Evans did for Cretan script what the Frenchman Champollion did for hieroglyphics. Sir Arthur distinguished four types of script, which developed successively over time: (1) pictorial A or archaic (2100-1900 B.C.E.); (2) pictorial B (1900-1750 B.C.E.); (3) linear A (1660-1450 B.C.E.); (4) linear B (1450-1200 B.C.E., when the Mycenean civilization collapsed). Cretan pictorial writing represents people, animals, parts of the human body, objects in current use, plants, houses, a ship. According to Evans, there were 150 of the earliest signs. They were drawn using a stylus on a clay tablet, which was later baked. Linear A contains seventy-five syllabic signs and a certain number of ideograms. Linear B contains eighty-seven or eighty-four signs. Linear B was also used for writing in Greek.
At the same time as the two great systems of writing, cuneiform and hieroglyphics, began to evolve, Chinese script was being introduced. It is an extremely important script because it is still used today by a group of peoples who between them make up almost one-fifth of the population of the earth. Chinese script dates from the third millennium B.C.E., but the oldest documents discovered all date from the second half of the second millennium, the Yin dynasty. Chinese script has evolved very little. It has remained pictographic and ideographic and never became phonetic, so it is not used for recording sounds; in fact it has no real alphabet. In Chinese, the word is a sort of irreducible atom. In most cases, it could be verb, noun, or adjective. There is a character to represent each word, which consists of a single syllable. Each word is monosyllabic.
Until the third century B.C.E., Chinese writing consisted mainly of inscriptions on tortoiseshell, bronze, and stone. The paintbrush, ink, and paper only came into use in the first century C.E. The characters became more flowing and less heavy. Two hundred and fourteen keys are used as determinatives, indicating the category to which the word belongs.
Several neighboring peoples have adopted Chinese writing in order to record their own language, for instance, the Japanese and the Koreans. Chinese script contains a very large number of word-signs or ideograms — fifty thousand (Sumerian only has twenty thousand!).
PRE-COLUMBIAN AMERICAN SCRIPTS
No discussion of nonalphabetic scripts would be complete without mentioning the scripts of the pre-Columbian civilizations of central America. The scripts, which represent words or symbols, emreged in about the second century C.E. and stopped developing in the sixteenth century.
Origin & Development
Chapter I: A Short History of Writing
Chapter II: Pictogram, Ideogram, and Phonogram
Chapter III: The Lady of the Turquoise: Proto-Sinaitic Script
Chapter IV: The Example of the Letter Aleph
Chapter V: When Aleph Became Alpha,
The Archeographic Revolution
Bibliography & Acknowledgments