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The Evolution of the Alphabet

The alphabet, as it exists today, has a rich and diverse history nearly as old as civilization itself. Precursors of what evolved into a phonogramic alphabet originated in Mesopotamia and in Egypt in the proto-literate period of history.

Called the cradle of civilization, the Mesopotamian region gave rise to a rudimentary form of writing known as Cuneiform around four-thousand BC. This consisted of a series of wedge-shaped markings carved into clay tablets. Though more of a collective of symbolic pictograms than an alphabet, Cuneiform served to record some of the earliest beginnings of civilization.

At around the same time, Egyptians were using hieroglyphs both carved into clay and written on papyrus scrolls. These were also pictograms, and each symbol represented an entire word or occasionally a series of words. Gradually, the Egyptians used hieroglyphs as phonograms. Individual symbols now represented individual sounds, as opposed to entire words, these often were combinations of vowel and consonant sounds because vowel sounds did not have individual symbols. The Egyptian hieroglyphs are easily recognizable and their use recorded throughout Egypt.

The Egyptian hieroglyphs directly influenced the Semitic alphabet. Semitic script adapted the hieroglyphs and used them to write consonants based on the first sound of the Semitic name of the object represented by the individual hieroglyph. The Canaanites used the Semitic system of writing especially in governmental writings.

As trade grew throughout the region, the Phoenicians adopted the Semitic alphabet and used it extensively. The Phoenician city- states were maritime entities and took the Semitic alphabet through the Mediterranean region. The Semitic system of writing was adapted and became the Aramaic alphabet. It then was adapted further to become the Hebrew alphabet.

Around eight hundred BC, the Greeks took the Phoenician version of the Semitic alphabet and used the same symbols in the same order for their writing. The Greeks found that a consonant only system of writing was not easily adaptable to their language, so they took symbols, which had no use in the Greek language and converted them to vowels, creating the first complete alphabet, similar to the modern alphabet of today. The Greeks continued to refine their alphabet and regional nuances appeared. Its most common form was the Western Greek alphabet, and its use spread throughout the region.

The Latins, later known as the Romans, began writing in approximately seven-hundred BC. They used the Western Greek alphabet and blended it with characteristics of the Etruscans, a tribe who inhabited the region, which is now central Italy in the first millennium BC. Around one-hundred BC, several centuries after the conquests of Alexander the Great, the Romans began borrowing words, phrases, and customs of the Greeks. Romans would continue to refine their letters and system of writing. Eventually, they would carry it as they built their large empire enforcing, by default, the use of Latin upon the conquered.

As a result of Roman conquest and assimilation, Angelo-Saxons and other groups throughout Europe used the predecessor of the alphabet as it known today. Old English adopted the use of this alphabet in the sixth century. The modern alphabet ceased to evolve around the seventeenth century and after much change and adaptation is still in use today.