Inventing an Alphabet, Real or Pretend ; It Seems like an Obvious Idea, but It Took 1,000 Years to Occur to Anyone

By Turner, Pamela S. | The Christian Science Monitor, November 27, 2001 | Go to article overview

Inventing an Alphabet, Real or Pretend ; It Seems like an Obvious Idea, but It Took 1,000 Years to Occur to Anyone


Turner, Pamela S., The Christian Science Monitor


"Dear Hugh," began Ronald's note. "This is just to wish you a happy Christmas." There was nothing special about the message - except that it was written first in a dwarf alphabet, and then in an Elvish one.

As a boy, Ronald loved words. As a teen, he made up a language and wrote it with an alphabet he invented. Even after he became an English professor, Ronald went on inventing. But what good is a language no one writes or speaks? To create a world where his languages would be spoken and written, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien wrote famous fantasy books: "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings."

'Picture writing' came first

Who invented our alphabet? Using an alphabet to write words seems obvious: One letter equals one sound. The letters are put together in various ways to make different sounds. Yet writing was around at least 1,000 years before anyone thought of alphabets.

The first writing was probably "picture writing." When a picture equals a word (or words), it is called a "pictograph." You could write, "I hunt rabbits" by drawing a picture of yourself pointing a bow and arrow at a rabbit. But how would you write, "I will hunt rabbits tomorrow"? How do you draw "tomorrow"?

Writing began to include special symbols called "logograms." A logogram equals a word, but it is not a "picture." For example, you might make a logogram for "tomorrow" that is a square with a dot in it. But writing gets very complex very quickly if you need a different logogram for all the ideas that can't be drawn easily.

Because writing started out with pictographs and logograms, some of the earliest writing was also the most complex. Egyptian writing - hieroglyphics - used pictographs and logograms. Some Egyptian hieroglyphics could also be used as an alphabet. A picture of an owl, for example, could mean either "owl" or the "m" sound. No wonder scholars had a hard time reading them!

Why letters are better

Alphabets are simple. You can say anything you want to in English using just 26 symbols (letters). Because there are so few letters to learn, even young children can read and write.

Why didn't the ancient Egyptians just use their hieroglyphic alphabet? The Egyptians may have thought an alphabet was too simple. Perhaps Egyptian scribes believed only very complicated writing was good enough for a pharaoh.

An alphabet may not have been fancy enough for King Tut, but the idea of writing with an alphabet began to spread, first from Egypt through the Middle East, and then to the rest of the world.

The Phoenicians (foh-NEE-shans) were a seafaring people from the Middle East who used an alphabet. The Greeks traded with the Phoenicians and learned their alphabet. They used it to create a Greek alphabet. The Romans, in turn, made some changes to the Greek alphabet. The words you're reading right now are written in an alphabet very similar to the Roman one.

Today, almost all languages use alphabets, even if they don't use the same letters we do. The Solomon Islands alphabet is the smallest alphabet, with only 11 letters. The Khmer alphabet in Cambodia is the largest, with 74 letters.

But not every language uses an alphabet today. China has a writing system more than 3,000 years old. It uses mostly logograms. Ancient Chinese writing had nearly 50,000 logograms. Modern Chinese uses several thousand. But Japanese writing gets the prize for "most complex" in the world today. A Japanese child must learn not only 2,000 Chinese characters, but also two Japanese alphabets!

Even though we use an alphabet to write English, pictographs and logograms are still very helpful. (See the ones at the top of the next page.) And you already know such logograms as: &, $, +, and =.

New alphabets keep cropping up. Some are invented for practical reasons, and some just for fun. …

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