How the Alphabet Came to Be

Systems can be frail or roust, complex or simple. Prior to 1077 BC humanity enjoyed a reasonably robust complex system that involved trading heavy goods such as raw metals from mid-Asia to the Mediterranean. Carting raw metal from Afghanistan to Syria is no easy feet and requires a network made up of dedicated movers. These movers (whether on cart or boat) were experts in their mode of transportation, and it was their source of primary income. Not everyone was the rural peasant farmer we envision in our minds when we think of the olden days and people were not statically linked to one location, it just took them longer to get to where they were going than it does us today.

However that society was organized, it collapsed. In one of the more recent books on the subject, Eric H. Cline discusses how the collapse of a complex society was likely due to a myriad of significant destructive activities. His list sounds like something out of a movie. Civil unrest, massive migration, droughts, seismic activities, and volcanoes. By 1177 BC the whole thing had collapsed and it would take a few hundred years before such a complex society could be rebuilt.

There were many participants ready to rebuild the network between people and among that group was a people called the Phoenicians. They had an alphabet. They wanted to trade. With so few literate people in the world it makes sense to reduce the cost of translation, so they introduced people to their alphabet. It caught on. The people that later became the Greeks adopted it. Then Rome adopted it from the Greeks. Europe adopted it from the Romans. There were changes between versions, but the core is very similar.

English, and its predecessors, used several alphabets prior to the Roman alphabet’s introduction, but because the Roman alphabet was superior (and required for use by the Roman government) it became the alphabet of choice. What a wonderful piece of technology.

The amount of letters and the type of letters we’ve used as well as the sounds they make has changed over time. We’ve ended up with an interesting heritage when now ghoti is fish. Trough, women, nation.

Thank you, Charles Oliver.

Image: By Luca – Own work, Public Domain,

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