RAJ NANDY (CALCUTTA, NOW SETTLED IN NEW DELHI)
*** 'A' FOR ALPHABETS! (THE STORY OF ALPHABETS)
‘A’ – FOR ALPHABETS!
(THE STORY OF WRITING)
PART - I
Having covered –‘A Mythological Account of
Origin of Alphabets’ on page three as a Prelude,
I now commence to narrate the real story of our
‘alphabets’ in verse for you!
Alphabets are the noblest and the greatest of
inventions of our civilization,
For transmitting human thoughts and concepts
through visible notations!
In those olden days, those magical symbols and
Could be written and understood only by a handful
of priests and scribes!
With the invention of printing, literacy gradually
When people began to read and write with standard
The 26 English letters with which we read and express
Has a legendary and checkered past, and an unique
story to tell!
FROM PICTOGRAMS TO A WRITING SCRIPT!
The story of writing can be traced back to the 4th
Millenium BC, -
From pictograms to ideograms, and to various cuneiform
From the ancient Sumarians and the Egyptians, to the
Semitic tribes, -
To the Phoenicians, the Geeks, right up to the Roman
Till the Latin script got refined into modern alphabets,
And with 26 letters our literary aspirations were met!
PICTOGRAMS & IDEOGRAMS ***
Ancient pictograms and symbols painted and carved
on rock walls and caves, -
But speech sounds and letters had remained unrelated!
Followed by the ideographic, logographic and the
Evolving into written alphabets through these different
Ideograms expressed an idea through visual or graphic
Giving rise to Chinese script without any alphabets, -
but with only ideographic symbols! @
The Sumerian cuneiforms and Egyptian hieroglyphs –
were the oldest of these,
Let me tell you something about the Sumerian script!
On that land between the two rivers, the Tigris and
Which the Greek’s called ‘Mesopotamia’;
Rose the earliest of ancient civilizations called –
Those Sumerians used a stylus, - the head of a
To inscribe wedge shaped angular symbols on
clay tablets for their accounting needs!
These tablets could be dried in the sun to form
And also recycled if necessary, giving birth to the
The earliest clay tablets date back to 3500 BC;
While archeologists and linguists could detect and
That with modifications over the centuries this script
was also used, -
By the Akkadians, Elamites, the Hittites and the
And scholars say that it was the forerunner of the
hieroglyphs of those ancient Egyptians!
The earliest clay tablets found in Mesopotamia,
Indicate accounting of barley crops by the Sangu
Sangu was the chief official of their holy temple,
Who recorded all temple wealth on clay tablets, –
with cuneiform symbols!
Herodotus the Greek historian tells us a story,
About a letter sent by the Scythians to the Persian King, -
during their days of glory!
This letter contained symbols of a bird, a mouse,
a frog, and five arrows!
When translated it read, “Can you fly like a bird, hide yourself in the ground like a mouse, leap through the
swamps like a frog? If not, do not go to war with us, -
we shall overwhelm you with our arrows! ”
Hieroglyph comes from a Greek word meaning
Consisting of a large variety of images representing
sounds, as well as ideas and actions!
The images were depicted in rows or columns, -
oriented from right to left,
And the signs were positioned as if looking towards
the beginning of the text!
They were used from end of Prehistory to 396 AD,
And the last text was written on the walls of the
Temple of Isis, on the island of Philae!
The oldest one dates back to 3100 BC - inside the
Temple of Ramesses II at Abydos,
Where Thoth the ibis-headed God, - patron deity
of writing and scribes is seen,
Holding a scribal palette in one hand and in the
other a stylus of reed;
And King Ramesses II holding up a water pot, -
To assist the great Thoth – their writing God!
HIERACTIC, DEMOTIC & COPTIC
The hieroglyphics were used for many varied
Written on temple walls, statues, tombs, papyrus,
and as monumental inscriptions!
Through its 3000 year’s long history it developed
into three other written scripts; -
The Hieratic, the Demotic and the Coptic, as
reformed hieroglyphic scripts!
Hieratic was simplified with a more cursive form,
Could be drawn more quickly as over the years it
Though used in administrative and business text,
Also found its way into literature and religious texts!
Around 600 BC it was supplanted by the most cursive
of all scripts,
Herodotus called it ‘popular’ so it became a ‘Demotic’
Unlike the Hieratic, which on papyrus with a stylus
and ink was written,
This popular one could be engraved and also hand
On a hard surface and on papyrus by those ancient
This script was found in the middle section of the Rosetta
Which for centuries held the secrets of the Hieroglyphic
And finally during the 4th century AD when Egyptian
was written with Greek alphabets,
We arrive at the last stage of the Egyptian language!
It came to be know as the Coptic - with the
adoption of the Greek alphabets;
During the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, became the
pre-Christian Egyptian language!
A PAUSE & A BREAK!
It is interesting to note that all these ancient scripts,
That were inscribed on rocks, or written on papyrus or
engraved on wooden strips;
Were written from right to left, with only consonants,
Without any punctuations or any any breaks!
Till centuries later, due to the innovative Greeks, -
Vowels got introduced to shape up our alphabets!
Here friends, I pause to take a break!
In my Part –II I shall tell you about those Semetic
About those Phoenicians who preceded the Romans
and those Greeks!
Those worthy forefathers of the Latin alphabets,
Which gave birth to ‘English’ with its Anglo-Saxon-
Happily blending with some French vocabulary, -
Making English as unique as it possibly could! !
27 Oct 09
Foot Notes: -
Friends, this is an effort of my research & painstaking notes!
I tried to keep it as simple as possible for my readers; adding
Foot Notes as explanations & for all knowledge seekers!
* = Johhannes Gutenberg in 1440 set up the first printing press in
Europe. William Caaxton in 1476 set up the first printing press in
Westminster, England, he was the first English retailer of books!
** =Lascaux cave paintings of animals in SW France are 16,000
years old! Similar types also found in Spain and Africa!
*** = Pictograms – dates from the earliest cave paintings; represents
concrete nouns. Some civilizations like the North American Indians never
ventured beyond pictogram stage! Ideograms – the next stage, represents an abstract idea and verb also.The Egyptian word-sign showing image of an
eye +a bee+ a leaf = meant ‘I believe’! (Pictogram & Ideogram combined) !
Since they did not write verbs, we do not know how they pronounced it!
Logograph =each written sign represents an actual word & not sound of the word!
A tree is shown by the image of a single tree.A single logogram could be used by a plurality of languages to represent words with similar meanings.
After 3000 yrs of use, a large no. of symbols & the chasm between oral & written script made the Hieroglyphs obsolete! The Semitic people tried to improvise a better script with limited consonant signs only! @ The Chinese use a combination of pictograms & ideograms along with complex symbols, but with only through association of spoken words; instead of alphabets!
$= Rosetta Stone: Discovered by the soldiers of Napoleon in 1799 in Rosetta.
The hieroglyphics on the stone was inscribed in 196 BC in the Ptolemaic era.
The French scholar Jean Champollion deciphered the script and thereby solved the mystery of Egyptian hieroglyphics once & for all!
*** ALL COPY RIGHTS RESERVED BY RAJ NANDY ****
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