How Did We Get the Alphabet?

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Part 2: One Symbol, One Sound

People living in Sumeria are thought to have used the first written language, about 5000 years ago. Other claims have been put forward for civilizations in China and India. But what about the first alphabet?

Recent research suggests that the idea of an alphabet (in which one symbol stands for only one sound) was first used in Egypt about 1900 B.C. Civilizations that traded with or fought against Egypt were exposed to this alphabet, and the idea spread.

The ancient Greeks adapted this alphabet and created their own. The ancient Romans refined it to a state almost like our modern alphabet. The idea of stringing letters together to make words was born. You can see by looking at letters from the Roman alphabet that these letters survive almost intact in our modern English alphabet.

This was the case in the Western world, anyway. A similar thing happened in the East. Paper was invented in China early in the second century A.D. Before that, written communication was done on rocks and shells, in the same way it was done in the West and the Middle East. And the ancient Chinese invented their own system of symbols that eventually became an alphabet.

Much of this is still used today. The Chinese alphabet of today is a mixture of single-sound symbols and symbols that represent a word or a concept. It is a beautiful-looking and elegant-sounding language, one full of tradition and tapestry.

Today, people use letters and symbols. Most written communication uses letters and words, but pictographs haven't gone away. You see them all the time. They are a constant reminder that communication is always evolving but is, at its most basic, always the same.

First page > The Early Days > Page 1, 2

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David White