Evolution of the Alphabet.

Jason Kottke posts about a nicely done chart:

From Matt Baker of UsefulCharts, this chart traces the evolution of our familiar alphabet from its Proto-Sinaitic roots circa 1850-1550 BC. It’s tough to see how the pictographic forms of the original script evolved into our letters; aside from the T and maybe M & O, there’s little resemblance.

Baker has also done a spectacular-looking Writing Systems of the World. Thanks, Bathrobe!

Comments

  1. Interesting chart, which shows the graphical evolution of letter forms. Waw was a very “productive” letter, with 5 modern descendants: f, u, v, w, y.

    As Latin took its alphabet from the Etruscan, rather than directly from Greek, “archaic Latin” could be better labelled as “Etruscan”.

    These charts tend to show an evolution of the alphabet that ends at the English alphabet. It would be interesting to see how alphabetic writing has evolved beyond that, to represent not just consonants and vowels, but also tones, as in some writing systems in China.

  2. The chart also makes it look like every letter was a direct evolution from the listed alphabets, in the order given. However, it is not always so simple. Classical Latin Z was probably directly drawn from Phoenician, perhaps because of increasing confusion with I. Folklore around the Mediterranean attributed the origin of writing (or at least the alphabet) to Phoenicia, so if there were problems with orthography, maybe it would make sense to people to look to Punic characters to get more “correct” versions.

  3. January First-of-May says:

    Folklore around the Mediterranean attributed the origin of writing (or at least the alphabet) to Phoenicia, so if there were problems with orthography, maybe it would make sense to people to look to Punic characters to get more “correct” versions.

    This could explain the Cyrillic Ш, which looks like it’s taken straight from Hebrew/Aramaic…

    Also, I have major doubts about the Y-shaped wau (6th letter) on the Archaic Greek line, but I don’t know enough to be certain that it’s wrong.

  4. David Eddyshaw says:

    I suspect that Cyrillic Ш is modelled on Coptic ϣ; as a well-known Christian language written with the Greek alphabet, it would be a natural source for symbols for non-Greek sounds.

  5. January First-of-May says:

    as a well-known Christian language written with the Greek alphabet, it would be a natural source for symbols for non-Greek sounds

    That makes sense, though I’m not sure how Cyril and Methodius (or Climentus or whoever) in 9th century Thessaloniki could have been familiar with Coptic. It’s kind of a long way (and by 9th century, much of that way got conquered by Islamic caliphates).

    IIRC, the Coptic letter comes straight from the respective Egyptian hieroglyph (possibly through Hieratic and/or Demotic), without Phoenician of any kind being involved, but the Phoenician letter probably comes from the same hieroglyph. Is that correct?

  6. My understanding is that the scholarly consensus holds Constantine / Cyril as the inventor of the glagolitic alphabet. He was conversant with a number of languages, so knowing Coptic wouldn’t be ruled out. The inspiration for š, according to what i’ ve read came from hebrew, rather than coptic. The letter form for š in glagolitic is identical to Cyrillic. Cyrillicis merely an adaptation of Greek with a few peculiar letter to designate Slavic sounds, one of them š, which was borrowed from glagolitic into cyrillic.

    So the derivation of š in cyrillic is from hebrew via glagolitic.

  7. Classical Latin Z was probably directly drawn from Phoenician

    Do you have a source for this? Surely Greek is more likely a priori.

    I have major doubts about the Y-shaped wau (6th letter) on the Archaic Greek line

    It’s wrong for Greek according to LSAG (last two pages), though right for Semitic.

  8. David Eddyshaw says:

    The Coptic letter is certainly from Demotic; don’t know anything about the Phoenician.

    Coptic was still going strong in Cyril and Methodius’ day. I imagine (but don’t know) that the fact that the Copts are Monophysites would have been more likely to cut them off from the Orthodox Greek world than geography.

    C & M seem to have invented Glagolitic rather than Cyrillic (despite the name.) As far as I know (not very) it’s unknown who invented Cyrillic. The various inventors seem to have done a pretty good job of identifying the phonemes of OCS, so I can imagine that they would have had well-above-average-for-the-time knowledge of writing systems in general.

    Horace Lunt’s OCS grammar mentions Coptic specifically in his discussion of the origins of the Slavonic alphabets, but he doesn’t discuss Ш in particular.

  9. Well, whatever hypothesis explains Ш should better explain Ц and Ч as well. The first of the latter two is naturally to derive from tsade in one language or another, the last one is sort of similar and can be just a modification. Any prototypes in Coptic?

  10. My understanding is that followers of the Holy Brothers settled in the Bulgarian state following their persecution by the Germans. There they developed the cyrillic alphabet, under the leadership of St Clement.

    As for C and Č, they are supposed to derive from hebrew tsade.

  11. Cyrillic was developed by the Bulgarian students of Cyril and Methodius, after they fled the Germans in Moravia for Bulgaria. Traditionally it’s held that it was developed by Clement of Ohrid, but it might have been done in the Preslav literary school. The switch from writing in Bulgaria in Glagolithic, which they did devise, to Cyrillic, which only appears after their time is gradual. is In either case, I thought it was settled that Ш was borrowed directly from Hebrew ש . Glagolithic and Cyrillic have an almost one-to-one correspondence, it’s just that eventually a more conventional look was adopted.

  12. Also, I think use of Glagolitic was retained for centuries in Croatia after it stopped being used in Bulgaria.

  13. AJP Crown says:

    Incidentally I recommend Josephine Quinn’s recent book In Search of the Phoenicians.

  14. David Marjanović says:

    Cyril is said to have traveled to a lot of places, including the Crimea, and to have studied a long list of writing systems, including heretic ones like Armenian and Coptic, before he created his own.

    Classical Latin Z was probably directly drawn from Phoenician, perhaps because of increasing confusion with I.

    Never heard of this. What I’m familiar with is that Z was dropped completely for lack of need, then G was created and put in its empty place, and then in imperial times Y and Z were imported from Greek to write Greek words and tacked on at the end of the alphabet.

    The various inventors seem to have done a pretty good job of identifying the phonemes of OCS

    Yes, except they stunningly failed at /j/.

    use of Glagolitic was retained for centuries in Croatia after it stopped being used in Bulgaria.

    Yup. There are printed works in it, and of course a few nationalists expressed a wish to revive it in the 1990s.

  15. Ah, nationalists — what craziness won’t they embrace?

  16. David Marjanović says: Yes, except they stunningly failed at /j/.

    đerv was used for /j/ fairly early on in Croatian Glagolitic. This initially occurred as a result of phonetic developments in čakavian, but then got extended to all other contexts where /j/ was employed. The use of a separate letter for /j/ was then extended into Croatian Cyrillic / bosančica where jat (in Dalmatia) or I (in Bosnia) were used for /j/.

    “a few nationalists expressed a wish to revive it in the 1990s”
    Is that for real? I am not aware of any attempts to revive Glagolitic or to displace the Latin alphabet in Croatian.

  17. This Zagreb cathedral inscription was carved in 1941:
    https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/9a/Zagreb_cathedral_glagolitic_inscription.jpg

    A recent monument is the glagolithic path on Krk which has large stone carvings of each letter.

  18. John Cowan says:

    What I’m familiar with is that Z was dropped completely for lack of need, then G was created and put in its empty place

    Yes, by Spurius Carvilius Ruga the schoolteacher, who got tired of explaining why his name was spelled RVCA and pronounced /ruka/. But there’s an alternative theory proposed by George Hempel in 1899 that G simply is the letter zeta. If you write it with a vertical final stroke instead of a horizontal one, as some people still do in handwriting, then it looks much more Z-ish.

  19. Re Zagreb cathedral: That’s right. The inscription is in Old Slavic.

    Re Sp. Carvilius Ruga: The story shows that Rome at the time was still under Etruscan cultural influence more so than Greek influence. This is because G was created as a modification of C. C in etruscan was used for /k/ because etruscan didn’t have /g/. If Romans were directly exposed to Greek usage, they would have retained C for /g/ and adopted K for /k/.

    Re Z. Handwritten forms of the Greek zeta and Latin Z are almost identical during the relevant time period. Phoenician and Punic Z was different. Anyway, Y and Z were adopted to write Greek words and names, so it makes sense to adopt the greek letter forms. As to a native Roman attempt to create new letters, the emperor Claudius introduced 3 new letters during his reign.

  20. I’m not sure where I read about the Roman’s taking Z directly from Phoenician, rather than Greek. Certainly, either is possible, and the natural place to find the answer would by among the earliest foreign words that were being transcribed into Latin with a Z.

  21. John Cowan says:

    The story shows that Rome at the time was still under Etruscan cultural influence more so than Greek influence.

    Up to a point, Minister. Etruscan didn’t have any voiced stops, so B and D had to come direct from Greek. In any case, Latin originally did use K before A.

  22. The etruscan alphabet initially had both the voiced consonants B C D and voiceless consonants P K T because they inherited them from Greek.
    B and D were later dropped because they werent needed as JC pointed out, and new letters 8 adopted for /f/ and ARROW for /kh/ .
    These changes ocurred after the Latins received their alphabet from Etruscans and didnt affect the Latin alphabet.

    Minister??

  23. Correction: the arrow sign was an original western Greek (red) letter psi with the value /kh/. Etruscan also dropped O as it was not needed in etruscan.

    I havent heard of a theory to account for Latin voiced values for B C D. Maybe there were some etruscans who could differentiate them, or maybe it was from direct greek influence. But where was the greek influence when G was invented?

  24. AJP Crown says:

    “Up to a point, Minister” (i.e. “No”) – William Boot in Scoop, by Evelyn Wauff.

  25. The argument that G was developed when Rome was under etruscan rather than greek influence goes something like this:
    1. C had a dual value in early Latin: /g/ and /k/. If romans had direct exposure to greek, they would have disambiguated C by having it retain the value of /g/ only, and leaving /k/ to K and Q.
    2. At that stage, the (etruscan) alphabet still felt foreign enough to Latins that they felt free to introduce a new symbol for Latin sound G not represented in the (etruscan) alphabet.
    3. Creating new letters for native sounds was common in ancient Italy. Eg etruscan 8 /f/, umbrian d, oscan í and ú. [Apologies for the mix of transcription and graphical representation].

    There is also a view that the etruscan alphabet developed into a semi-syllabary, with C standing for /ke/, K for /ka/ & Q for /ku/, as well as for /k/ . A similar system didnt develop for B and D, because the letter names would have been the same as for P /pe/ & T /te/ respectively. Consequently, etruscans dropped B and D.

  26. John Cowan says:

    But where was the greek influence when G was invented?

    Too late to reintroduce gamma then. C and K were originally both used in Latin indiscriminately: then they were sorted out so that K appeared only before A, as I said. Then K was changed to C except in abbreviations like K. = Caeso (a first name) or Calendae, k.k for “calumniae causa”.

  27. Lars (the original one) says:

    Did the Etruscans actually leave out the relevant vowels after C/K/Q? And was Etruscan consistent in using C/K/Q before them, if not?

    Even if Latin orthographic QU for /kw/ (or /kʷ/) is an echo of Etruscan usage, it seems to have been reshaped a bit — Later Latin was perfectly capable of having cum /kum/ with ‘plain’ /k/, which an Etruscan would presumably have wanted to spell !qum and might not have been able to say without labializing the /k/. (Whereas Latin asimilated ⃰ /kʷ/ before /u/, which is why vowel raising gave quom > cum, IIRC).

    Anyway, what I’m wondering is, if at first the Romans only adopted the QU thing from the Etruscan system and used C and K without distinction everywhere else — could the later (temporary) restriction of K to before A be an attempt to follow the model of Etruscan, for political or other reasons?
    _________
    ⃰The a would be long.

  28. Qum or quum was a spelling used in early latin. There appears to have been a few spellings explainable through either etruscan influence or (latin? Etruscan?) sound change eg. Poplicola for Publicola.

  29. Is /u/ in cum really conditioned by *kʷ, and not the same †o > u shift that appears in endings? This seems like a word that would be often sentence-level unstressed. Also, there appears to be no similar loss of labialization in cases like aequus < *aikʷos, equus < *ekʷos, -sequus < *sekʷos.

  30. I think spellings like ecus did occur in the minority.

  31. Yeah, equus etc. are thought to be analogical. [w] was also lost before a round vowel (parum, secundus).

  32. David Marjanović says:

    The o > u shift in endings was blocked by /kʷ/. Around the time of Augustus, /kʷo/ merged into /ku/. Then analogy set in. The spellings equos, ecus and equus for the nom. sg. are attested in that order.

  33. gwenllian says:

    “a few nationalists expressed a wish to revive it in the 1990s”
    Is that for real? I am not aware of any attempts to revive Glagolitic or to displace the Latin alphabet in Croatian.

    Not that I’ve ever heard of. The only suggestion or change I can think of is the introduction of Glagolitic into the curriculum in an extremely limited capacity, e.g. in the last decade or so young kids learn to write their name in it or decorate the classroom with the letters. Glagolitic isn’t even officially regarded as the Croatian alphabet, but only ever as one of the 3 historical Croatian alphabets (Glagolitic, Cyrillic, Latin), though of course it does play a symbolic role among Croatians, nationalist or otherwise, that the other two don’t.

    It’s the one you’ll see (rarely) on pendants or shirt designs or (much more commonly) on tourist merchandise, house ornaments, or tattoos. If you watch football, I think a couple of Croatian footballers have Glagolitic tattoos, despite mostly coming from areas that historically mostly used Cyrillic and Latin rather than areas that were Glagolitic strongholds.

    Of course, Cyrillic is mostly overlooked as one of the three historical alphabets for political motivations (and so it’s acknowledged but rarely focused on), but also in some part because it’s such a widely used alphabet, whereas people here think of angular Glagolitic as just ours. Though I don’t think most Croatians retain much of what they’re taught of Glagolitic history, so in practice there’s even a tendency to unwittingly appropriate Glagolitic in general as just ours.

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