Our Modern Alphabet Has Quite a Wordy History

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), May 23, 1996 | Go to article overview

Our Modern Alphabet Has Quite a Wordy History


Byline: J. Hope Babowice

Hooray for alphabet day! Celebrated Oct. 9 in Korea, this national holiday gives countrymen a chance to stop and reflect on the importance of the written word.

But where does our alphabet come from? Kevin Kirkemo, 7, a first-grade student at Butterfield School in Libertyville, wants to know.

Suzanne Leibman, an instructor at the College of Lake County, offered this explanation.

Before there were alphabets, real objects were used to communicate information. Displaying a horseshoe as a symbol for good luck is an example. But what happens when you want someone to know something, but you aren't there to tell them? Thousands of years ago, people used pictures to relate necessary information, such as how many horses there were on a nearby plain. Cave paintings illustrate these early efforts at communication.

Around 5,000 years ago, the Sumerians accounted for trade items by marking lumps of clay. At first, the picture depicted what item was being sold. A picture of a horse's head was stamped into the clay to represent the sale of horses.

As the system began to evolve, a picture was used to represent word sounds. Egyptian hieroglyphics used this system. Hundreds of different signs were used to represent either entire words, such as $, or to represent syllables. This was a complex system. It was subject to inconsistencies since so many combinations of symbols could create the same word.

About 1000 B.C., the Phoenicians developed a system that used only 22 signs, all syllable-based. …

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