Who invented the alphabet?

It was partly the ancient Greeks who invented the alphabet – at least the one which is used today in calligraphy.

Perhaps it’s fairer to say that the Greeks put the final touches on it. They had already got the idea of an alphabet from tribes based in the Middle East, who got it in turn from the Sumerians.

The Sumerians kick-started the evolution of writing about five thousand years ago in the area which is now Iraq. But quite a few other cultures also developed writing systems which contributed to the final form of the alphabet we use today.

Note: the various people who invented the alphabet, or at least who influenced the evolution of alphabets, were not necessarily the same people who helped dream up writing or language in the first place.

Language, writing and alphabets are three different ideas. The alphabet, as a system of squiggles meaning sounds, developed a long time after the other two. And in the West, all calligraphy is commonly thought to require an alphabet. But this is not the case at all.

Now, you may possibly be thinking, ‘How can writing be separated from an alphabet?’

Well, look at Chinese. Chinese, too, has been written down for thousands of years. But it doesn’t need an alphabet. Chinese characters are not constructed out of single letters, like English, Greek or Arabic words. In those and most other languages, you can write any and every word by combining just a couple of dozen different letters. By contrast, every single word in Chinese is written as a unique pattern or ‘character’.

Each of these unique Chinese characters has to be learned separately. There are thousands and thousands of them, and each is a different word. (They’re called ‘logograms’ – or sometimes, less correctly, ‘ideograms’ or ‘pictograms’.) Chinese calligraphy is celebrated across the world for its fluid, harmonious forms – but it doesn’t involve an alphabet.

So, writing existed a long time before the person who invented the alphabet. All alphabets (and, therefore, calligraphy alphabets) are quite modern and a bit weird when you think about them. Even though they are read through the eyes, they’re actually about sounds. To understand alphabets you first have to understand ...

Symbols. (And tigers.)

A symbol is just a quantity of matter or energy which is easy to move around and which means something different from what it actually is. A sound can be a symbol; so can a coloured shape, or a textured pattern. Dogs have smell-symbols. Everything living has a DNA symbol.

One day some brilliant cavepersons (let’s be politically correct) started to use sounds as symbols. Very useful. Suppose you wanted to complain about camp security at the weekly Cave Moderators’ meeting. Instead of having to drag along a real live tiger to demonstrate your point, you could make a roaring noise to mean ‘tiger’.

After a while you didn’t even have to roar. You could just say ‘Rargh’ and everyone got it. “Rargh. Rargh!” “Really, another tiger? Bother! Sharpen more sticks!”

The invention of writing happened similarly, by making symbols for the eyes instead of the ears. But visual symbols are a lot different from an alphabet. A piece of tiger-skin could be a visual symbol; so could baring your teeth; or a picture on the wall. All of these are actually also simpler than trying to explain to people that a squiggle means a sound and then the sound means a thing.

So, to return to our original question: who invented the alphabet?

Well, lots of people. But the people who created the alphabet obviously did not think in a very straight line. In fact, it really took bureaucrats to make it happen. After tigers, we had ...

The tax office

It’s quite amazing that we can track back the people who invented the alphabet to 3,500 BC. They were (as mentioned above) scribes and priests in the civilization of Sumer, located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Mesopotamia – modern-day Iraq.

Read on for the next thrilling instalment in the stupendous story of The People Who Invented The Alphabet ...

‘Mesopotamia’ is a great word. ‘Mesos’ means ‘mid, between’ and ‘potamos’ means ‘river’ in Greek. I think some Greek-speaking official must have suffered an imagination deficit on the day he named the place. “So,” [scratch, scribble], “what name shall we bestow upon the fertile lands of this fabulously mighty, inventive and elaborate civilization, upon one side of which flows the ancient and beautiful Tigris and, on the other, the venerable and awe-inspiring Euphrates? ... ‘Mid-Rivers’ ... hm ... good enough for government work ...”

Go on to Part 2: The history of the alphabet

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