USU 1320: History and Civilization
©Damen, 2019
A Guide To Writing in History and Classics
Index of Chapters
Course Description

CONCLUSION: The ABG's of History

One of the oldest and most enduring structures in Western Civilization is the alphabet. Children for thousands of years have been learning their ABC's — originally ABG's — in basically the same order and form. Inspired most likely by Egyptian hieroglyphics, alphabetic writing originated in the deserts south of the Holy Lands. From there, it spread across the world, to Phoenicia, then Greece, then Rome, then Medieval Europe and, everywhere it went, promoted literacy, learning and law. The question is not whether this is a great invention—there's no doubt about that!—the question is whether it's a good invention. While the alphabet makes literacy widely accessible, it's tied to spoken language which changes radically over time. That can lead to all sorts of problems, particularly the sort seen widely in modern English spelling. From a historical perspective, the Chinese system of symbolic, non-alphabetic writing makes better sense. Should we replace the alphabet with something like it?

People, Places, Events and Terms To Know:

Jean François Champollion
Syllabic script
Cuneiform Alphabet
Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta
Greek Alphabet
Phoinikeia Grammata
I and J
U, V and W
Chinese Writing

I. Introduction: Pre-alphabetic Writing

"More powerful than all poetry / More pervasive than all science / More profound than all philosophy / Are the letters of the alphabet / Twenty-six pillars of strength / Upon which our culture rests." (Olof Gustaf Hugo Lagercrantz, Swedish author and critic)

It's pervasive. You see it everywhere—you're looking at it right now, in fact—which makes it hard to remember sometimes that someone somewhere invented the alphabet, that it's not a natural part of our being, not even as organic as counting to ten on your fingers. It's also wise to remember that transcribing spoken words is only one way to record thoughts. That is, writing does not have to be alphabetic—it can be pictographic, with symbols representing images, the way men's and women's bathrooms are identified with male and female symbols all across the globe. Symbols are just as valid a way of expressing a thought as any word written using a alphabet. After all, who said what you hear or speak is closer to what you think than what you see or draw? Certainly, not Rembrandt!

Pharaoh limerick (click to see larger image)And so there was a time before the invention of the alphabet, when other systems of writing prevailed in the West. This has always been true in China, for instance, where the writing system has never been tied explicitly to oral communication. In particular, ancient Mesopotamian peoples like the Sumerians and Babylonians wrote using ideograms, graphic symbols representing ideas or objects. Because of that, wherever cuneiform went, so did the supposition that ideograms were the way to write. But what happened to that mode of inscription? If early Western civilizations used a pictorial system to write, why don't we still today?

There's an easy answer to that question. Ideograms require an enormous investment of time, especially in the early stages of acquisition. It takes Chinese children, for instance, considerably more effort and usually much longer to learn how to write than their occidental counterparts trained in an alphabetic system. That's because Asian students must essentially start from scratch and master a whole new way of communicating, whereas Western students with their ABC's can depend somewhat on the spoken language they've already absorbed to help them read and write. "Somewhat" is key here, however, because alphabets are notoriously imprecise in recording the sounds actually articulated in speech. We'll return to that point at the end of this section.

For now, let's begin by surveying in brief what's known about how the alphabet evolved. Its original stimulus seems to have come from Egyptian hieroglyphics, as they spread through Semitic communities in the Sinai and the deserts south of Palestine. From there it moved north across the ancient Near East. The Phoenicians, a sea-faring empire based on trade, carried alphabetic writing west, especially into Greece where it's first evidenced around 850 BCE.

In Greek hands, the alphabet underwent important transformations, particularly the inclusion of vowels for the first time. Because they had strong ties to Italy, the Greeks handed their version of the alphabet to the Etruscans, an early Italic people, through whom it later passed to the Romans. Both made notable changes to accommodate alphabetic writing to their particular tongues. The Roman ABC's subsequently formed the basis of both the Medieval and modern alphabets used in the West. Perhaps what's more important to note is that, for all it's seen, this type of writing has remained remarkably stable because, once set, an alphabet is hard to change.

II. Egyptian Hieroglyphics

The earliest predecessor of today's Western alphabet is evidenced only long after its invention, leaving its origin deep in the mists of historical speculation. But since certain symbols found in ancient Egyptian scripts bear striking resemblance to some later alphabetic forms, scholars have hypothesized that the alphabet evolved out of hieroglyphics, at least in part. This insight stems from our understanding of the nature and evolution of ancient Egyptian writing, and for that we are in debt to the brilliant French linguist, Jean François Champollion, who in 1822 took the first crucial steps toward deciphering hieroglyphics. His principal assumption, that they incorporated at least some phonetic symbols, signs based on sounds—that is, Egyptian writing did not entirely comprised ideograms—broke important, new ground, allowing us not only to hear the Egyptians' stories and histories in their own terms but also to grasp the contribution they made to modern writing, too.

Even though Mesopotamian cuneiform predates any known Egyptian script by at least a century or so, the Egyptians, it seems, invented hieroglyphics independently. If, instead, they learned from Mesopotamians how to write and didn't come up with it all on their own, it can only have been written communication in its most rudimentary form, little more than the inspiration itself to write. That's because there's all but no apparent similarity between the cuneiform and hieroglyphic scripts.

Far more important than any civilization's claim to originality, however, are the advancements the Egyptians engineered in the technology of writing. To understand this, it's necessary to delve briefly into the nature of hieroglyphics itself. In describing a world as complex as theirs, the scribes of ancient Egypt sought ways to expand the possibilities their writing system afforded. So, instead of relying strictly or even primarily on ideographic signs, they explored ways of representing spoken words in a written form. To wit, they began writing down what they heard, not just what they saw.

Egyptian consonants (click to see larger image)From this evolved a syllabic script which could be used to write virtually any word in their language based on its pronunciation. In other words, the Egyptians developed a series of signs representing the syllables they used in speech, symbols, for instance, which represented the letter b in combination with any vowel: ba, be, bi, bo, bu and so on. With these, they could approximate the sound of any word—or wo-ra-de as they might have written our word "word" back then—and to help people remember the values these sounds portrayed, many of them were invested with mnemonic qualities, meaning their shapes served as aids to the reader's memory of the consonants they signified. So, for instance, the sign for "r" in hieroglyphics looked like a mouth since r or r't is the Egyptian word for "mouth."

Still, having to phrase every word as some sort of wo-ra-de left things open to more than a little confusion. In other words, if you use syllabic signs, how can you tell that wo-ra-de means "word," not "ward" or "weird"? But instead of doing what seems so obvious to us now, that is, use vowels to distinguish "word" from "weird"—the assignment of vowel qualities to letters like a, e, i, o, and u came only much later, and from a source far outside Egypt—Egyptian scribes devised a different and remarkably ingenious solution to the problem.

Determinatives (click to see larger image)They came up with a complex system of determinatives, ideographic signs used in tandem with syllabic figures to represent a word. It's as if you wanted to write "pen" but had no vowels and could only put down symbols which represented the sounds "pa" and "ne." Your reader might, then, interpret your pa-ne as not "pen," but "pin" or "pan" or "pane" or "pine" or "pun." So, to clarify which pa-ne you meant you drew an ideograph which looked like a pen after the word to show that the pa-ne you meant was "pen." Such ideographic determinatives are found throughout hieroglyphics, and are part of what made and still makes Egyptian writing a formidable challenge to read.

But that's also clearly part of the point of hieroglyphics. The scribal profession in Egypt was a highly selective and lucrative vocation, a monopoly of a sort in which scribes had a vested interest in maintaining a complex system which only they and their trained colleagues could decipher. Thus, it wasn't in the general interest of the literate community in ancient Egypt to simplify or popularize writing, and so, while the Egyptian scriptural tradition had in it all the elements necessary for the creation of an alphabet, no such revolution ever took place in all of ancient Egypt's long history. Those who could write didn't want anyone to have an alphabet because it would have put them out of a job.

So, because of their inherently cryptic nature, it took a linguistic genius on the order of Champollion to unravel the secrets of hieroglyphics for the modern age. And it took an even greater genius to see that using only the alphabetic symbols inherent in a scribal system like hieroglyphics could make writing a feature of daily life for everyone. That stroke of brilliance belongs to some person or persons whose identity has been lost amidst the ravaged historical records of the second millennium BCE.

III. The Invention and Spread of the Alphabet

"A is for Apple, B is for Boy, C is for Cat, . . ."

Map of Egypt (click to see larger image)The alphabet, then, was not so much invented as isolated. That much is clear, even if the question is when and where and by whom is not. Hints of an alphabetic script are found as far back as 1700 BCE in evidence left behind by miners in the turquoise quarries of the Sinai (the triangular peninsula between Egypt and the Holy Lands). Soon thereafter, other early alphabetic scripts begin to emerge from texts written in Palestine. So it seems the alphabet escaped Egypt, much like the Hebrews of the Exodus, fleeing east and north across the desert, and wandered like Moses for many years in the wilderness.

Map of the Near East, including Ugarit (click to see larger image)Of this alphabet's inventors we know nothing certain other than that they spoke a Semitic language, one related to Arabic and Hebrew, because the letters of this early alphabet conform well with the consonants prevalent in Semitic tongues (see Section 14). As such, it includes a number of gutturals, not the same sounds made in the back of the mouth as we saw in Indo-European languages (see Section 7) but rasping sounds made deep in the throat and found frequently in Hebrew, Arabic and their linguistic kin. In other words, the early alphabet was designed to suit a Semitic speaker's natural mode of talking.

It would be more accurate, however, to say alphabets—plural!—since the letters we ultimately ended up with don't represent the only attempt to craft alphabetic writing in the second millennium BCE. Clearly, the idea of finding a way to simplify and popularize writing was in the air at this time. At Ugarit, for example, a city in northern Syria and a rich cosmopolitan trade center, there evolved an alphabet based not on the letter shapes with which we are familiar but cuneiform symbols, the type of writing popular in Mesopotamia at the time. Thus, this cuneiform alphabet is not a forerunner but an analog of the lettering system we use today. That is, someone faced east and tried doing the same thing with Mesopotamian cuneiform that the inventors of our alphabet did looking southwest to Egypt and hieroglyphics. That this cuneiform alphabet eventually didn't catch on in the long run is probably little more than a fluke of fate.

A. The Phoenician Alphabet

Family Tree of the Western Alphabet (click to see larger image)All evidence, however, seems to indicate that the letters we use to write didn't derive from this cuneiform-based script but the syllabic signs employed in Egyptian hieroglyphics. Somehow these letter forms made their way north to Phoenicia (on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea) where they flourished and began to spread widely, as evidenced by an explosion in alphabetic writing toward the end of the second millennium BCE in the lands around Palestine. There for the first time we see names given to the letters themselves: ‘aleph, beth, gimel, daleth, etc. These would later turn into the well-known register of Greek letters: alpha, beta, gamma, delta, ktl., from which comes our word alphabet, an abridged form of this list "alpha-bet(a-gamma, . . .)."

Though nonsense to us, it's easy to see why these particular names were chosen in Phoenician. They signify the letters' values. ‘Aleph is the Phoenician word for "ox," beth means "house," gimel "camel," daleth "door," and so on. In other words, the Phoenician alphabet incorporates the same mnemonic device the Egyptians used, that each letter's shape depicts a common thing, the word for which begins with the sound that letter represents.

But the Phoenicians went further than the Egyptians and named the very letter itself after that thing. When they then used only these letters in writing, that is, no ideographs or determinatives, a fully alphabetic script had at last been born. And in much the same way we teach children the alphabet today by having them recite "A is for apple, B is for boy, C is for cat, . . .," the Phoenicians memorized their alphabet with similar mnemonics, except that their world was one of oxen and camels.

Evolution of Letters (click to see larger image)In the shapes of the letters themselves it's also possible to see their figurative origin as illustrations designed to aid the memory. A is formed the way it is because it looks like an "ox"—turn it upside down and it has horns—B looks like a "house," originally a rectangle divided in half as if it were an aerial drawing of a two-room home. The curve of C was originally a crude rendition of a camel's hump, and so on. All this was designed to help Phoenicians recall each letter's value, a pictographic reminder of the alphabet's sounds, making it much easier to deploy than the daunting variety of signs required in either cuneiform or hieroglyphic writing.

That clear advantage was, however, offset by the complexity entailed in alphabetic writing as it moved between languages. Many of those problems encountered in transmission stemmed from the wide variety of consonant sounds found in different tongues. For instance, few languages other than English utilize the interdental /th/. Putting your tongue between your teeth as they're closing is a thing most people instinctually avoid.

Early Hebrew and Phoenician inscriptions (click to see larger image)So, exporting the alphabet from Phoenicia wasn't as easy an affair as simply handing it to foreigners and saying, "Here, use this to write with!" The ‘aleph-beth-gimel alphabet, so clearly tailored to Semitic linguistic structures and especially the Phoenician language, makes an excellent in point. To wit, early alphabetic writing evidences well its innate regionalism in one of its more unusual qualities—unusual to Westerners, at least—its lack of vowels.

Phoenician, and Semitic languages in general—which include modern Hebrew and Arabic—freely alter the internal vowels in a word according to an established schema, thereby changing its function. That is, by inserting different vowels it's possible to change the way a word works in a sentence, in the same way we turn "write" into "wrote" to create a past-tense form in English. In Semitic languages, however, this system is far more complex and comprehensive, allowing vowel substitutions to make a verb into a noun. KTB, for instance, is the Semitic root for "write," rendering many words in Arabic: katib "writer," kitab "book," katab "wrote," and so on. To put it simply, consonants in Semitic languages tend to reflect root vocabulary, whereas vowels supply grammatical structures or clarify a word's function in a sentence.

Because of this, the early Semitic inventors of the alphabet wrote only consonants, those being the principal agents of vocabulary in their language. This is why the name of God given to Moses, JHWH, is a string of consonants only, later rendered variously as Jehovah or Jahweh (see Section 11). Early Hebrews had no way to write vowels with their alphabet and, in fact, saw little need for them because through their native understanding of the Hebrew language they could supply the vowels in words as they read. And that's where the Greeks come in.

B. The Greek Alphabet

That the Greeks inherited the alphabet from the Phoenicians is clear in several ways. First, the order of the letters in the Greek alphabet is basically the same as that in the Phoenician. Second, the Phoenician letter-names were carried over into Greek with only minor change —alpha, beta, gamma, delta—even though to the Greeks these names were meaningless terms. Third, the ancient Greeks themselves attested to their alphabet's Phoenician heritage by calling it Phoinikeia grammata, "Phoenician letters," and claiming it was brought to Greece by the Phoenician-born hero Cadmus, a figure in Greek mythology.

Map of the Spread of the Early Alphabet (click to see larger image)The remarkable consistency between the Greek and Phoenician alphabets extends to much more than the names for letters, however. With a stability maintained for millennia, the alphabet underwent very few changes during its translation into Greece, such that even if a Phoenician letter imported a sound the Greeks didn't use, they retained the letter. That, however, opened the door to other developments.

One can see the problems—or opportunities—which the early alphabet presented the Greeks nowhere better than with ‘aleph, the first Phoenician letter. Before the Greeks recast this as it alpha, it represented a guttural consonant, something that sounds like gargling to us and has no counterpart in either English or Greek. Yet, the Greeks not only kept ‘aleph in their alphabet but retained it in the first position, a remarkably conservative posture.

But this conservatism also presented important opportunities for significant change, two in particular. First, when the Greek felt they needed to add new letters, they put them at the end of the alphabet, even where it made more sense to put them next to related letters. That's because it's very difficult to take ABC and turn it into ABWXYZC. Too many parents and teachers have nursed too many young readers on ABC, those letters with those values in that order, to make such a change work.

Thus, the new letters the Greeks needed to add—and they had little choice but to put them in their alphabet, since without them the Greeks couldn't transcribe all the words of their language alphabetically—they more or less had to include them at the end of the alphabet. These were their phi, chi, psi, omega, the last four letters of the Greek alphabet. This set a trend in alphabetic evolution that new comes last, explaining why our alphabet ends W, X, Y, Z. Every one of this final quarter is a later addition appended onto the alphabet.

Besides that, the Greeks introduced a second major innovation in alphabetic writing, the vowel. Because Indo-European languages didn't employ vowels as grammatical markers the way Semitic languages did, it wasn't possible to write Greek or any Indo-European language using only consonants. Wtht vwls ts hrd t knw wht wrds yr rdng. And basic words like English a or I or French eau ("water") would have been completely impossible to write. To make any use at all of the alphabet, the Greeks had to find some way of representing vowels.

Fortuitously, the solution to this problem worked in concert with the remedy for another. The Greeks needed vowels in order to write their language, and at the same time several of the letters they'd inherited from the Phoenicians represented sounds useless to them. So, with typical Greek confidence-in-rationalism they reassigned the phonetic value of these letters and turned them into vowels, without changing the traditional order of the letters. And so ‘aleph became alpha, the forerunner of our letter a, as did epsilon the ancestor of e, iota i, omicron and omega o, and upsilon u.

This explains why our vowels are all over the alphabet instead of being neatly collected in one place, as logic would dictate. They are, at heart, phonetic substitutions for the wide array of Phoenician gutturals found all across the original lettering system inherited by but useless to Greeks who were bold enough to give these letters new value but not so Philistine as to give them a new position in the alphabet. The addition of vowels entailed monumental consequences in the history of writing in the West, showing that, like politics, writing encompasses the art of the possible.

By endowing alphabetic writing with the possibility of much broader cultural applicability, the Greeks' invention of vowels proved a turning point in Western Civilization. John Healey sums up neatly the significance of vowels:

The two great pivotal moments in this story (of the alphabet) are the devising of the consonantal alphabet on an acrophonic basis in the early second millennium BC, and the addition of the vowels to the consonantal repertoire in the earlier part of the first millennium BC. The first of these steps forward we owe to some uncertain group of inventors, possibly in a scribal school in Palestine, Phoenicia or Syria. The second we owe to the Greeks. The only other invention in this field which is more important than either of these is the invention of writing itself . . .

So enticing, in fact, were these Greek-devised vowels that ultimately those cultures which had inspired the alphabet but had at first written only in consonants ultimately adopted them, too. Hebrew and Arabic writing today marks vowels, though not with letters but punctuation marks added near a consonant.

The Greeks fostered one other significant development in alphabetic writing, the regular predisposition to write left-to-right. While early Greek lettering could go either left-to-right or right-to-left, and even sometimes both—a script that alternates between left-to-right and right-to-left on every other line is called boustrophedon, literally in Greek "as the ox turns (in plowing a field)"—eventually the Greeks settled on left-to-right as the standard form for writing, part and parcel of the general privileging of right-handedness in Western Civilization. That is, when righthanders put ink on paper, they're less inclined to smear the letters if they pull their hands away from what they're writing, and thus Greek scripts eventually settled into a left-to-right disposition, leaving lefties, on the other inky hand, to their own sinister deviances.

IV. The Later History of the Alphabet

In the East, the Hebrews and other Semitic groups including the ancestors of the modern Arabs developed their own alphabet and direction of writing (right to left). These, too, evolved into different types of scripts, especially as time passed and Semitic languages multiplied. In particular, Aramaic, the most widespread of those daughter languages, ultimately replaced Hebrew as the common tongue used by the ancient Israelites, bringing with it its own species of alphabet (see Section 13).

A. The Roman Alphabet

Meanwhile, letters were spreading westward, too. The first non-Greek peoples we know of who used the Western alphabet in Italy were the Etruscans. This civilization was based in the area north of Rome, around modern Florence and Tuscany, and during the sixth and fifth centuries dominated the inhabitants of central Italy, including the early Romans. Among the many cultural artifacts which Etruscan control left behind in Roman life was the Greek alphabet, though in an adapted form.

Map of Early Italy (click to see larger image)For instance, the Greek alphabet which began alpha, beta, gamma, the equivalent of our ABG, evolved under Etruscan management into ABC because the letters C and G are closely related and thus easily confused (see Section 7). In the process of this shift, not only did G end up being removed and replaced by C but later it had to be re-inserted into the alphabet to restore the g-sound. This also left the alphabet with two hard c-sounds represented by C and K, the way it still is today. It would have made sense to eliminate either C or K, if that didn't entail effecting a fundamental change in the presentation of the alphabet, a structure rarely so liberal as to admit that sort of editing.

Several other changes occurred as a result of the importation of the Greek alphabet into Italy. One entailed the letter Z, a sound which the Romans didn't use until they came under the influence of the Greek civilization and began borrowing words with zeta in them, the letter that represented that sound in Greek and seen in English words of Greek derivation like zeal, zone and Zeus. In the Greek alphabet zeta comes rather early, immediately after epsilon (the Greek equivalent of E).

While early Italians had inherited zeta along with the rest of the Greek alphabet, they had no words with the z-sound in them and, having no immediate reason to keep the letter, had omitted it from their earlier version of the alphabet. When the later Romans found that they did, in fact, need it, they re-introduced Z into their alphabet, putting it at the end where it wouldn't disrupt the order of letters which was by then well-established. And that's why Z comes last in the Roman alphabet and all its descendants, including ours.

Another such change involved the letter which has come down to us as F. Called digamma in Greek, it originally signified not the f-sound but was the equivalent of our /w/. Before the Classical Age, however, it had fallen into disuse because all w-sounds disappeared from the Greek language. Even though not in use, digamma remained for a long time in the Greek alphabet and, as such, was exported wherever the Greek alphabet traveled, to early Rome for instance. And because the Romans needed a letter to represent the f-sound which they had but Greek didn't, they simply re-assigned digamma the value of /f/, the sound it has signified in Western writing ever since.

B. The Medieval Alphabet

After the disintegration of the Roman synthesis in the fifth century ending classical antiquity (see Section 8), literacy in the West relapsed into near extinction. This again opened up the possibility for substantive changes to be made in the alphabet—the fewer people who know something, the easier it is to revise it—despite that, however, not many modifications of any real significance actually took place in alphabetic writing during the Middle Ages. And those few that did remained generally true to the inherited letter forms in order, sound and shape. So, even amidst several changes in scripts, ABC and its literal successors still held sway.

One of the few notable changes which took place was the separation of I and J, letters which come from the same original character in the Roman alphabet. Originally, the Phoenician letter yod ("hand")—a hand held up with fingers closed still resembles the upright form of the letter I—had developed into the Greek iota, one of the vowel-sounds the Greeks introduced into the alphabet. This subsequently passed to the Romans as the letter I, used in Latin to represent both the vowel sound /i/ and the consonant sound /y/.

In the Middle Ages, this caused confusion since the i-sound and y-sound are different, even though closely related. To distinguish them, Medieval writers added a curved tail onto I when it was being used as a consonant, rendering the modern form J. Even though this letter later took on a different value, the sound which begins modern English words like "jar" and "joint," many modern languages still retain the letter's original vocal quality, the y-sound. So, for instance, a German word like jung is pronounced "yung." Thus, the creation of J out of I explains not only why these letters look alike but also the reason they sit next to each other in the alphabet.

In similar fashion, Roman U replicated during the Middle Ages, but into three different letters: U, V and W. Just like I and J, this trio evolved to reflect separate sounds, the vowel (U) and consonants (V, W), all forms of front rounded sounds, that is, what comes out of the mouth when the vocal chords are used and the lips pursed. The similarity of shape U, V and W share shows their common origin, too.

V. Conclusion: The Alphabet and Spelling

The complexity we've just reviewed—though it's not so complex if you take into account the many centuries the alphabet has been around and all the evolution it might have undergone—the variety of changes in form and value which alphabetic signs have embraced raises the difficult issue of its general usefulness in modern society. That is, it's supposed to be a simple way of writing, but it's not. So then is the alphabet really a good idea? After all, if the spelling of words today has become so obtuse that English speakers can hold spelling bees and people need dictionaries just to figure out how to spell a word—and what would the inventors of the alphabet have to say about that?—we've definitely lost the sight of the original purpose of the alphabet, to simplify writing and make it easier to learn and do.

But it's not the alphabet's fault really. At the heart of modern people's problems with writing in English is the strange misfortune that our spelling has not been comprehensively revised for centuries. So, we can't blame the alphabet itself but our own tendency not to reform the way we deploy it, not only the shape and order of its letters but their application in writing as well. Our reluctance to renovate this long-standing tradition in our society is what leaves us in such dyer straights—I mean "dire straits"?

Yet, conservatism is a hallmark of the alphabet's nature. History certainly documents that much. If that weren't true and the alphabet didn't constitute so basic an element of our culture, we could easily eliminate much of the confusion in spelling, for example, taking out either C or K and having only one way of writing the hard c-sound. But it doesn't seem very likely we'll ever be able to do that—in fakt, one kould kall it klose to inkonkeivable to akkomplish!—because both the letters and the ways we use them are too deeply entrenched in our civilization today.

The result is a cacophony of sound symbols, a confused writing system chock-full of archaic spellings like "knight," originally pronounced "kuh-nee-guh-tuh" which might have been fine for Chaucer but not for anyone alive now. To that can be added a long litany of lost consonants—gnat, gnaw, folk, would, aisle, eight—all pronounced at one time but now the fossil imprints of defunct phonemes. Multiply that with foreign borrowings like buffet and chutzpah which bring with them exotic letter clusters (-et = -ay) or foreign sounds (ch- = guttural) and the situation comes close to untenable. All in all, nothing says absurdity quite like garbage: one word, two g's, and each pronounced differently.

In fact, spelling in English has reached such a pitch of insanity certain sounds are expressed with a ludicrous array of letter configurations. For instance, the /sh/ sound can be represented at least eight different ways in English: shoe, sugar, passion, ambition, ocean, champagne, Confucius, and Sean . The long-o sound shows up in as many manifestations, too: go, beau, boat, stow, sew, doe, though, escargot. Worse yet, even the simplest words aren't consistent in their spelling. Consider four, fourth, fourteen, twenty-four, but forty. They all sound the same, so what happened to the u in forty?

This astounding and needless confusion has inspired many an attempt at reform. Among those who have attempted to revise English spelling are some of the most notable exponents of our language ever: Noah Webster, Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Darwin, Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, Andrew Carnegie and Brigham Young. But all these influential voices have run up against one impassable obstacle: which pronunciation is one to use in revising the spelling of words?

Take girl, for instance. To which spelling do we "correct" it: gal (American dialect), goil (New York), gull (Irish), gel (London), gill (South African) or gairull (Scottish)? Because alphabets are tied to pronunciation, spelling accordingly fragments as languages break up into dialects. And even if we could come up with a quick and ready solution for our pressing literal woes, changing times would demand revisions in spelling almost as soon as repairs had been effected. That's the disadvantage of using a writing system based on spoken language, the dark counterpart to its great advantage, how easy it is to learn.

Except, it's not easy to learn, not any more at least. If we go without revising English spelling much longer, the letter forms will have so little affinity with the sound of words we speak, the alphabet might as well be an ideographic system. We claim, for instance, it's easier to learn to write alphabetically than memorize all the characters a Chinese student has to but, with a century or two more of disjunction in spelling and sound, it won't be. And even as it is, most English-speaking adults have yet to master our incomprehensable spelling completely. Or is that incomprehensible?

And how complex is the Chinese writing system really? There, every word is a separate symbol, each based on about 212 fundamental radicals (basic forms). More complicated ideas employ a combination of symbols, such as "eye" + "water" = "teardrop," or a sign with two symbols for "women" means "quarrel," and with three it means "gossip." Though there are around fifty thousand symbols total, only four thousand are in common use because the combination of symbols allows the system to reach out broadly across the continuum of thought.

Chinese Characters

Typing Chinese is, granted, a nightmare. The best typists manage about ten words a minute, and the old mechanical typewriters were comical to observe in use, so long that typists had to run up and down the keyboard, literally. And Chinese dictionaries are hard to organize, too, since how do you alphabetize words when there's no alphabet? Needless to say, there are no Chinese crossword puzzles, Scrabble® or Morse code.

But in spite of all that, the Chinese system offers some enormous advantages, such as not having to be modified according to changes in dialect or as spoken language evolves. Actually, in some respects Chinese writing hasn't had to evolve at all, no more at least than our form ("star") which is represented today by an asterisk (*, literally "little star" in Greek), a symbol which has remained essentially the same since the time of ancient Babylon. Not only that but the ideographic system used in China can be understood any place the system is known, even where spoken language isn't. Thus, the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius, who would hardly understand a single spoken work today, would be able to read many parts of a modern newspaper. His Western counterpart, Socrates, who lived more than a millennium after Confucius, would be totally at sea in print or conversation.

All this raises the difficult question of whether or not we should perhaps entertain the idea of adopting an ideographic scheme of writing like the one the Chinese employ, and give up on seeking ways to revise the alphabetic system we currently employ. Alphabets inherently bring with them such profound problems—archaisms like "knight," confrontations between what's said and what's written like "girl/gal/goil," letters with multiple values like the g's in garbage, various ways of construing the same sound like /sh/ (ocean, notion, passion, fashion, etc.) and, worst of all, a tendency toward traditionalism which obstructs even the most fundamental and necessary revisions—it seems impossible to come up with a solution that will have any general applicability or appeal. And given the "great men" who have tried, I doubt we ever will. So, in the end, we have to ask: ABC = :-( ?

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