How Egypt invented the alphabet – History of Writing Systems #7 (Abjad)
August 17, 2019
How did Egyptian hieroglyphs give birth to
the alphabet? Even in these ancient times, Egyptian monuments
have been sitting and weathering for thousands of years. On their great murals and pillars,
you find rows of little pictures. Sorry, not pictures. Hieroglyphs. Sacred symbols. But,
despite appearances, this isn’t some mysterious Pharaonic picture writing. It’s consonants. One consonant signs! Two consonant signs! Three consonant signs! A wall of consonants!! Plus a sprinkle of logographs for determinatives. It’s not that Egyptian was a harsh, vowelless desert of a tongue.
It simply did not write its vowels. Imagine if you wrote this way. Would that work? And
then imagine if you could add in logographs to make sure you really got your point across? Imagine you wrote like that, and you’re
thinking with hieroglyphs. Too difficult? Fine, off to the caves with
you, where you toil away with with ancient miners on the Sinai peninsula. You and your
fellow miners would find it handy to leave messages for one another. But there’s no
time for deep studies of rows of fancy hieroglyphs in here. You need to keep it simple if you
want another “Major Moments in the History of Writing”! Your characters look like scratchy, rushed
versions of those glamorous Egyptian symbols, but their meaning doesn’t matter anymore.
Nothing but consonants. And the same symbol for the same consonant every time. Take this
character. In Egyptian, it means “house”. These Semitic miners are calling a house a
“bet”. Acrophony, or “top sounds”, suggests that you can just take the first
letter of a word, like the Egyptians had already been doing with much of their consonant writing.
You end up with a letter for your sound “b”. Do the same thing with “water”, which
the Semitic speakers are calling “mem”, and you now have an “m” sound. With a
couple dozen elegant simplifications, you create a simple, reliable list of consonants.
An alphabet! And you’ve given generations of future children the joy of reciting their
ABC’s. Actually, at this point in history, their a-b-g-d’s, sometimes called an abjad
or abgad, because who needs that wishy-washy C when you can just use an S or a K! After a long hard day of mining and etching,
you turn to find that someone’s been watching you this whole time. She’s a trader. A Phoenician
merchant who knows a good thing when she sees it. She’s already made major cash in the
paper business, where they turn tufty, stalky, swampy Egyptian papyrus into flat, inkable
sheets of paper. She rushes back home to Phoenicia and smirks. Think of the advantage she has…
keeping track of whatever anyone else tells her just by remembering about as many characters
as she has fingers and toes. Old kings can keep their obtuse hieroglyphs and their stone
monuments. The future of the Mediterranean will belong to alphabets and paper. Writing
is going portable. She uses this newfound alphabetic leverage
to turn a huge profit across the entire Eastern Mediterranean, leaving people inspired to
adopt and adapt her alphabet wherever she goes. All this and she doesn’t even write
you a thank you card! How hard could it be? Writing is easier than ever! It feels universal, like writing’s here
to stay, for everyone. But there’s a peculiar quirk that’s easier to spot in hindsight.
You and your mining crew were communicating in a Semitic language. Phoenician’s a Semitic
language. All of these friendly shades of the Phoenician alphabet were being used for
languages that sounded similar and worked much the same way. Even Egyptian, though no
Semitic language itself, is at least a distant relative of the Semitic languages, with a
similar personality. This consonant alphabet is being tested in easy waters. But history’s
shaking things up. Your merchant friend comes back for your help. She needs you to deliver
your alphabet to a very different people living along her trade route. What will happen when the alphabet gets leaked outside of the family?