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History of the alphabet

The origin of letters. Created by Brit Cruise.

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  • leafers sapling style avatar for user Peter Collingridge
    It seems a common pattern is for languages to move from an alphabet representing objects or ideas to an alphabet representing sounds. How has the most used language on the planet, Chinese, resisted this trend?
    (145 votes)
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    • leaf green style avatar for user 福龍丸
      Actually, reality is not so clear-cut. Only a small minority of Chinese characters (Traditional: 漢字; Simplified: 汉字, literally "Han characters") are pictograms or ideograms (representing objects or ideas respectively). Most of them are logophonetic or semanto-phonetic, which means that there is a part of the character that hints towards the meaning and another towards the pronunciation (though by no means being an accurate phonetic guide). Thus, if one has no knowledge of the Chinese spoken language, guessing the exact meaning of a character just by the meaning of its constituent parts isn't possible for most characters. This feature, that is also seen in different forms in the Egyptian, Sumerian, Akkadian and Mayan scripts, among others, is justified by the fact that any human culture has words for concepts that are not visible or readily available to be sketched. A purely logographic/pictographic/ideographic writing system (never existed as a complete, all-purpose script in history) would also be a lot more cumbersome and hard to learn. It is also useful to know that most human languages (extinct or living) were simply not written down until the 19th century, when the Roman alphabet became an increasingly popular choice, due to extensive missionary and colonial activities carried out by European powers.

      Now, Peter, to answer your question, there are mainly two reasons for Chinese not dropping its writing system: Tradition and pride : There are more than 2 millennia of writing using homemade characters in China, the last surviving original (i.e. not inspired from another) script. Switching to Latin or Cyrillic, for example, could be compared to English switching to a mor fenetik speling. No niid te memraiz sensles ruulz eni mor, but the shift would be costly, unpopular with the oldest generations at least, and a break from all past literature. Homophones : If the Chinese language was written phonetically, there would be considerable ambiguity in meaning if enough context was not present, because most, if not all, varieties of Chinese (including Mandarin) have far fewer possible syllables than English or German. In everyday conversations, this drawback can be dealt with, when necessary, by additional explanation and rich context. But in scientific discourse, written language (with all its peculiar features not present in the spoken) and literature/poetry, a move to phonetic transliteration would apparently ruin the cohesion and meaningful-ness of the appearance of the language as refined through time.

      Vietnamese used to be written with a siniform script (Chữ Nôm), but at present it employs a variant of the Roman script (Quốc Ngữ), although it still contains loads of Chinese loanwords. The Korean language, with more than 50% of its (historical, at least) vocabulary coming from Chinese or based on Chinese, has switched to alphabetic Hangul (한글) in the 20th century. It is viable as written today, but in certain contexts Chinese characters are still used to clarify homophones. Japanese, having a similar relationship to Chinese writing, uses it up to the present, and this tremendously facilitates mutual understanding, very important to me for the future, given China's economic might and the need of foreigners to learn Chinese writing.
      (247 votes)
  • leaf grey style avatar for user cmaryk12296
    What do you think would happen if the whole world spoke 1 language? I'm not saying this would ever actually happen though....
    (46 votes)
    • male robot hal style avatar for user Odaxcir
      We in fact, can look at history to answer this. You see, at one point, Latin was very similar to a world language. It was the official language of law, science, religion,and even literature. Many different countries with different cultures used it. But not everybody spoke it.

      So any world language would likely end up being used by government documents, scientific papers, diplomats, and on those extra languages Wikipedia pages come in.
      Meanwhile, the "common people" would go about their lives speaking their old language: the vernacular (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vernacular).

      Such a language could be spoken, or a purely written language of ideograms that can apply to any language (a bit like :) means "happy" whether you speak English, Russian, or Lojban). And such a language could be made up, just like Esperanto or Lojban, or it could be simply adopted, a bit like English is becoming the dominant language of the world.

      (In fact, English would be a prime candidate for a World Language (politics aside). It is a very flexible language, capable of evolving and taking foreign words as its own. It is already more or less the "official" language of Business. And is is the official language of international aviation. Of course, other languages could be chosen too. China is very prominent in business and is very populous. Spanish is also used by alot of people, and in alot of countries.)

      But considering the politics involved in implementing a Global Language, the difficulty in keeping it uniform the more people use it (As Abhishek Kumar has already noted "Diversity is the key of Evolution"), and the plain and simple fact that "we are managing quite well with out one, thank-you very much".

      And so to sum up, if there was official language, politicians and scientists would speak a different language (don't they already?) but every else would use it only during GlobeSpeak 101 and "Sal talks about the new international language (English Version)". If there was one COMMON language? Either there would be grammar police, or very soon regional differences would turn into dialects, and dialects would turn into languages in their own right. Human beings are just too complicated and creative to manage with one static language, other wise, we would still be talking like Shakespeare.

      And now, as Diane's sphere casts her pale illumination through the window, and greets mine eyne with sleep, I bid you: Adieu!
      (104 votes)
  • purple pi purple style avatar for user TheFourthDimension
    So when did all of the modern language symbols come into existence (e.g. English, Arabic, Mandarin etc.)?
    (6 votes)
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    • leaf green style avatar for user 福龍丸
      In the Old World, writing is believed to have independently appeared in four civilizations (according to one view): the Egyptian (hieroglyphic, hieratic, demotic), Sumerian (cuneiform), Indus Valley civilization and in the ancient Chinese culture. The writing systems mostly in use today (except for the Chinese) are derivatives of some kind of Phoenician/Canaanite writing system, which developed from Egyptian signs for single sounds (phonemes). Roman (including Spanish, English, French), Cyrillic (including Russian, Ukrainian), Greek, Arabic and Hebrew all fall within this category, and according to some, Phoenician letters of a kind also gave rise to all South and South-East Asian scripts (Tamil, Devanagari/Hindi, Thai etc.) The cuneiform and Indus scripts did not leave modern descendants.

      Because you're asking when, the more to the point answer is that it was a gradual process. The Greek alphabet that inspired the Roman/Latin was formulated around 800 BCE in many different forms, each usually denoting the city-state that used it. The standardization of the symbols occurred thanks to the rule of empires, the Hellenistic for the Greek and the Roman obviously for the Roman ones. The Chinese writing system (used for Mandarin) is especially interesting because of its (almost) isolation from the rest of the major cultures during a considerable interval of history due to geographical distance, mountains and deserts, which contributed to its uniqueness. It is believed to be a more recent invention compared to Egyptian and cuneiform, but it's the only one of those three surviving today.

      Edit :As I wrote the answer before watching the entire video, I apologize for parts of the answer that are also mentioned in the video.
      (23 votes)
  • hopper cool style avatar for user Bhavesh
    How were there so many consonant sounds in ancient hieroglyphic?
    (8 votes)
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    • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user Troy Cook
      In the set of ancient hieroglyphics there are many symbols that have combinations of basic sounds. Where the modern Latin alphabet has letters that can be combined into digraphs ('bH','bA','Hm','Hw', 'gm', 'tm') and trigraphs ('anx', 'Htp', 'nTr', 'bnr', 'xpr'), hieroglyphics had a symbol for each one of those combinations, too. For just basic sounds we could make several hundred different combinations. Interestingly, there is no symbol for the consonant 'th' in hieroglyphics.

      Since there are no separate symbols for vowels, some historians theorize that vowel sounds were determined by the ideogram symbol that often appears with the phonograms. In fact, most of the ancient Egyptian words are pronounced in modern times by best guess. Luckily, the Rosetta Stone offered the greatest evidence on the meaning of hieroglyphics, although the pronunciations are debatable.

      For instance, Ramses was a person's name written with symbols translated into the Latin alphabet as Rmss. There are no vowels and it could be pronounced like 'Ramzeez', 'Ramuseez', 'Rameses' or even 'Romasis'.

      The premier Egyptologist, Sir Alan Gardiner, dedicated much of his life to the history of Egypt, its customs and language. He wrote volumes on the subject and here is a link to one on Egyptian hieroglyphs and grammar:

      (11 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Bram A
    If we used a different symbol for every item and idea we have today instead of a phonetic alphabet, could we even remember our own language?
    (5 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user Vanessa Flores
      Yes we could, since there are only 26 letters to remember you would think it would be easier then remembering a different symbol for everything. Though there are only 26 letters, the letters are easy to remember but we don't name something after each letter, we name something after a combination of letters for instance ice is a combination of i, c, and e. So basically we have to memorize a new combination of letters for every word and when you think about it, one symbol for each thing is easier then one combination for each thing.
      (2 votes)
  • leafers seed style avatar for user SylviaSchade
    What kind of pencil/writing instrument is being used on the papyrus at ? Is it charcoal?
    (6 votes)
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  • mr pants teal style avatar for user alissa.rico
    Why do we have so many different languages? Why didn't the world decide on ONE LANGUAGE so that everybody could understand? And the world obviously started with one man and one woman then grew larger, they'd split up eventually and live on their own land. How can every race look so different if they are from the same two people from the start? Why change the language and writing they must have already known?
    (0 votes)
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    • leaf green style avatar for user 福龍丸
      Many different languages, dialects and regional variations (including genetic variation, although I'm not going to elaborate on this, as this video is titled "Ancient History: The Alphabet") came about because, for much of human history, there was no writing, there was no printing press, no telegraph, no telephone, no computers, no Internet, no text messaging, no social networking. Also, traveling was more limited and people had narrower educations.

      Thus, people lived for tens of thousands of years isolated in groups without keeping detailed records of the past. Memories faded, and some of what they forgot was discovered by others later on. Some of those memories are still waiting to be rediscovered, while some of them will probably never be.
      (10 votes)
  • leaf orange style avatar for user Josiah Barefoot™
    where does brit get the music for his videos?
    (3 votes)
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  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user NotMyRealUsername
    What does Brit mean by surgical writing?
    (3 votes)
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  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user NotMyRealUsername
    Was Brit writing in a real language when he was writing on the papyrus?
    (2 votes)
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Video transcript

(piano music) Brit: Informally, we can think of information as some message, stored or transmitted, using some medium. When you paint you are representing your message using a continuous pattern with a seemingly endless number of possible forms. You are free to express yourself. When humans began developing writing systems, we naturally had to divide our world into a finite number of atomic units which we express using symbols. Any written language can be thought of in this way. Messages are formed by arranging symbols in specific patterns. Let's return to 3,000 BC and explore two ancient writing systems. First, in ancient Egypt, we had Hieroglyphics, a priestly form of communication reserved for governmental, fiscal, magical, and religious purposes. It was practiced by a select few writers known as scribes, and writing was generally unintelligible to the common people. The symbols themselves broadly fall into two categories, word signs, which are symbols that represent a single meaningful concept... Woman showing mouth: Back. Apple. Brit: ...and sound signs. These symbols represent chunks of sound. Dark haired woman: Be. Boy in red shirt: Ze. Girl in black shirt: Ton. Boy in green shirt: Ca. Brit: Now, the total number of different symbols in common use was over 1,500, and if you divide all of these symbols into word signs versus sound signs, we find a much smaller portion of sound signs. There were around 140 sound signs, and of these, only 33 represented distinct consonants, a tiny fraction of all of the symbols in use. At the time, the medium used to store the symbols was primarily rock, and this was ideal for durable inscriptions, allowing messages to travel into the future. Mobility was not a main concern when communicating messages in this way. However, a new physical medium for storing symbols was emerging at the time. Along the Nile, silt deposits left from flooding made the surrounding land extremely fertile, and one of the many crops they grew was Papyrus. It could be sliced into strips, and these strips were then soaked, (bell tones) Brit: and weaved together and finally pressed, allowing the natural sugars to act as glue. (bell tones) Brit: After several days, it dried and formed an almost weightless tablet. (bell tones) Brit: This medium was ideal for sending messages across greater spaces, rather than the more durable inscriptions focused on time. This shift toward cheap portable mediums for storing symbols coincided with the spread of writing into the hands of more people for new purposes. Gradually, as people began to write more on Papyrus, the symbols evolved to suit more rapid writing. This lead to a cursive script, known as Hieratic. For example, here is the world's oldest surviving surgical document. It's written in Hieratic script, dated to around 1600 BC. These symbols were based on Hieroglyphics, however the pictures were simplified to match the swiftness of writing in ancient shorthand. Also, the number of common symbols in use began to shrink down to around 700. By escaping from the heavy medium of stone, thought gained lightness. A marked increase in writing by hand was accompanied by the secularization of writing, thought, and activity. This lead to a new writing system called Demotic around 650 BC, which was devised specifically to facilitate the ease of rapid writing. For example, this text is known as a marriage contract, and is one of the earliest known examples of Demotic script. It's interesting to notice that there was a dramatic reduction again in the total number of symbols with this new system, roughly 10 percent of the total number of symbols used before. This was due to a shift towards the use of phonetic symbols, or sound signs... Dark haired woman: Be. Boy in red shirt: Ze. Girl in black shirt: Ton. Boy in green shirt: Ca. Brit: over word symbols, or meaning signs. And the new simplicity meant that children could be taught to write at a young age. We see this same pattern in other cultures. Let's return back to 3,000 BC and visit Mesopotamia, where Cuneiform was the writing system originally used for fiscal purposes, as it was a powerful method of tracking debt and surplus commodities before the invention of coins. For example, here is a document recording someone's stock of animal hides, and this type of writing evolved to suit other needs. For example, this tablet contains a recipe for bread and beer, and here's another tablet which contains a legal document. Originally, the writing system was used by the Sumerians, and there were over 2,000 different symbols in use, which could also be divided into word signs and sound signs. Akkadian gradually replaced Sumerian as the spoken language, and here is the earliest known dictionary from 2,300 BC. It contains word lists in Sumerian and Akkadian, and this was discovered in modern Syria. When it was adapted by the Akkadians and fitted to their language, they reduced the number of symbols to around 600, and they did this again by moving towards sound signs. Again, we see both Hieroglyphics and Cuneiform using several hundred sound symbols in their more evolved forms, and as writing systems escaped their formal usage and spread to more and more people, the soil was ripe for the invention of a brand new writing system for the people. One of the great discoveries in the history of writing is dated to around 1700 BC. The Sinai inscriptions were found in the Sinai peninsula, and they were about 20 feet apart. This was important because each picture denotes a consonant sound, and no word signs are used. When sounded out correctly, the letters would produce words in ancient Semitic. Although not fully deciphered, this message appears to be of the form, "name, rank and prayer". The two words deciphered are "Chief" and "God". This innocent example was part of a writing revolution, creating meaning by merging sound signs only. Woman showing mouth: A. Ack. Back. Ba. Pl. Apple. Brit: By 1,000 BC, we arrive at the Phoenician Alphabet, which emerges along the Mediterranean used by the Phoenicians who are a maritime trading culture. The Phoenician writing system was based on the principle that one sign represents one consonant, and it was used to write a northern Semitic language, containing only 22 symbols total. The symbols chosen to represent these sounds were often borrowed from Hieroglyphic pictures, so that the letter's name began with the letter's sound. For example, mem, which stood for water, became what we know of as the letter M. Aleph, which stood for ox, became what we know of as the letter A, but the secret power of this alphabet, unknown to it's inventors, was that it did not need Semitic speech in order to work. Dark haired woman: D. Boy in green shirt: Ah, eh, i, ou, oo. Brit: With modest adjustments, these miraculous letters would be fitted to diverse tongues of Europe, India, and southeast Asia, Boy in red shirt: Za. Brit: carrying literacy around the globe. Boy in red shirt: Ma. Da. Brit: This was the source of the Greek and later Roman alphabet forms we know today. The idea of an alphabet is a powerful method for transmitting and storing information. Realize, it doesn't really matter what the symbols are or how you choose them, or even what language it's in, information is just a selection from a collection of possible symbols. And, over time, we have always looked for faster, more efficient ways of transporting information across greater and greater spaces, and when we try doing this using new mediums, which travel faster than any human or animal, an engineering problem presents itself. (microphone feedback) Voiceover: Hello? (microphone feedback) Voiceover: Hello? (microphone feedback)