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Where Does Our Alphabet Come From?
August 10, 2010 5:26 PM   Subscribe

We see it every day on signs, billboards, packaging, in books and magazines; in fact, you are looking at it now — the Latin or Roman alphabet, the world’s most prolific, most widespread abc. Typography is a relatively recent invention, but to unearth the origins of alphabets, we will need to travel much farther back in time, to an era contemporaneous with the emergence of civilisation itself. The origins of abc.
posted by netbros (24 comments total) 46 users marked this as a favorite

 
I thought Paul Rand originated the ABC (along with the IBM and the UPS) (referring to)
posted by oneswellfoop at 5:34 PM on August 10, 2010


oh, and Cuneiform?

yes, I'm being unnecessarily silly; but GOOD ARTICLE
posted by oneswellfoop at 5:37 PM on August 10, 2010


You don't get streamlined written language without extensive trade! It was true in the Civilization games and it's true in real life.
posted by The Whelk at 5:39 PM on August 10, 2010 [3 favorites]


This is an awesome article, really well written and fun to read. Thanks!
posted by lriG rorriM at 5:40 PM on August 10, 2010


The Glagolitic alphabet is my fave alphabet [surviving today as the Cyrllic alphabet].

Simply because it was invented by a dude called Saint Cyril, and it has those cool backwards Rs.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 5:48 PM on August 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


uncanny hengeman, meet me at the PECTOPAH in 10 minutes!
posted by vidur at 5:57 PM on August 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


How is ABC formed?

But seriously, I am always astounded by the fact that almost all extant alphabets (not including Chinese and pre-Columbian Native American ideographic systems) are derived from Proto-Sinaitic.
posted by dhens at 6:19 PM on August 10, 2010


Who put the alphabet in alphabetical order? <>
posted by gomichild at 6:36 PM on August 10, 2010


Who put the alphabet in alphabetical order?

The guy who clicked "sort".
posted by vidur at 6:45 PM on August 10, 2010


"It is unknown whether the earliest alphabets had a defined sequence. Some alphabets today, such as the Hanuno'o script, are learned one letter at a time, in no particular order, and are not used for collation where a definite order is required. However, a dozen Ugaritic tablets from the fourteenth century BC preserve the alphabet in two sequences. One, the ABCDE order later used in Phoenician, has continued with minor changes in Hebrew, Greek, Armenian, Gothic, Cyrillic, and Latin; the other, HMĦLQ, was used in southern Arabia and is preserved today in Ethiopic.[15] Both orders have therefore been stable for at least 3000 years."
-- Alphabet, Wikipedia
posted by aeschenkarnos at 7:00 PM on August 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


uncanny hengeman, meet me at the PECTOPAH in 10 minutes!

Which restaurant?
posted by Talez at 7:41 PM on August 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


Excellent article.
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:55 PM on August 10, 2010


Who put the alphabet in alphabetical order?

The order of the alphabet may have to do with grouping categories of things.

B - bet - house
D - daled - door
E - he - window

I - yod - hand
K - caf - palm

M - mem - water
N - nun - fish

O - ayin - eye
P - pe - mouth
R - resh - head
S - shin - tooth
posted by jabah at 8:36 PM on August 10, 2010 [10 favorites]


I am constantly blown away by the quality of the articles on ilovetypography.com.
posted by letitrain at 9:44 PM on August 10, 2010


I as well am a fan of the Glagolithic alphabet. It makes a marvelous 'secret' alphabet.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 11:35 PM on August 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


And then there's Ogham and Runic.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 11:37 PM on August 10, 2010


Which restaurant?

The PECTOPAH!

That's what I am going to name my restaurant when I get around to opening one (in, say, 30 years).
posted by vidur at 11:57 PM on August 10, 2010


This animation of the evolution of the alphabet is pretty good (more).

But let's not get carried away by this "writing" business. I finished this TTC course lately, and he points out that the sophisticated and powerful Teotihuacán civilization for example apparently thrived without any form of writing. Although they must have known of writing from their Maya neighbours, they never bothered to copy it, and got on quite happily without this newfangled gadgetry.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 12:09 AM on August 11, 2010 [2 favorites]


Well I didn't vote for it.
posted by Evilspork at 12:13 AM on August 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


And then there's Ogham and Runic.

Runic is still related to this family of scripts, whereas it appears (IIRC -- been a while since I studied this) that Ogham arose independently, and was abandoned for the (frankly better) alphabet once that became available.
posted by bokane at 4:02 AM on August 11, 2010


The Dispilio Tablet dates the proto-alphabet to at least 5000BCE. It's a very new find - unlike clay tablets in an arid environment, wood and bark tablets tend not to survive terribly long. The Dispilio Tablet survived by being at the bottom of a lake, which is a relatively oxygen-poor environment, and was unearthed in an underwater excavation.

It's not clear that its characters are a match for the also-insanely-old Vinca symbols, which may have been a contemporaneous writing system, again pre-dating the Sumerians by a few millennia.

Before the Europeans get all het-up with the "We Invented Writing! Go, Us!", the Chinese may have beat them to the punch by a thousand years or so.

As with any recent finds dealing with deep history, there is a considerable amount of extra-crunchy nutbars trying to tie it in with their theory of atlantis, and crotchety knee-jerkers declaring it all hokum. Treat both with skepticism.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:21 AM on August 11, 2010 [2 favorites]


Depends how you define writing -- the Jiahu symbols are almost certainly not writing in the way that Sumerian or Shang oracle bone writing are, though it's likely that the signs were used to encode meaning (as opposed to language).
posted by bokane at 9:40 AM on August 11, 2010


Who put the alphabet in alphabetical order?

I don't care about all that! I wanna know about the origins of "Alphabetti Spaghetti" !!
posted by Twang at 3:13 PM on August 11, 2010


Well, Jimmy - the mommy and daddy proto-alphabets loved each other very much...

No seriously, this was awesome.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 3:28 PM on August 11, 2010


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