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Where do our alphabets come from?

In today’s day and age we take a lot for granted, making use of what we have without actually digging a little bit deeper to see where these things come from. One of those things has to do directly with language, the way we communicate and the tools we use to get our messages across. That one thing is the alphabet. Not many of us take the time to think about the symbols we use to communicate via writing, but the truth is that the alphabet didn’t just appear out of thin air. Our ancestors (I’m talking pre-history here) developed writing systems based on different symbols for different sounds, and over the course of many (many, many) years, the set of symbols developed into systems, which in turn became the alphabets we know today (the most common being the Greek and Latin alphabets, respectively). The Greek alphabet itself derives from the Phoenician alphabet, while the Latin alphabet dates back to the Etruscan. Today we’ll take a quick glimpse at the Greek alphabet.

As previously mentioned, this alphabet came about through the adaptation of the Phoenician alphabet. It’s still used today, although the Modern Greek alphabet has been codified and standardized. The Phoenician alphabet was used long ago (dating as far back as 1200 B.C.) as a consonantal alphabet, although some vowels began to be represented a few centuries after the rise of the alphabet itself through matres lectionis. At this time, around the 8th century B.C., the Phoenician alphabet was adopted by for Greek as shown through philological studies of Phoenician inscriptions from these times. After that, history itself took a toll on these writing systems and the Greeks further standardized their alphabet in order to shape it into something more or less similar to the one we’re familiar with today. This meant basically removing “useless” letters, adding vowels as needed and keeping the letters they would continue to use.

The history of the alphabet is a complex one, a long and arduous process (the alphabet’s present isn’t too simple either, as one can tell by taking a glimpse into the world of Cyrillic). It’s easy to see that not everything is as simple as it seems and that the 26 letters we use today in many languages for written communication are part of a large and important history directly linked to our abilities to process ideas and get them across.