Tag Archives: alphabet

Carthage

The Phoenicians were mighty sea-traders. Wherever there’s trade, you can bet there will be armed protection of trade routes and access to markets. The Phoenicians are thought to be the first people to build ships for military use—for a navy. They set up a humongous colony on the north coast of Africa called Carthage. Carthage was on the western side of the Mediterranean—so Phoenician traders had a safe place to land when they were far from home ports in the east.

Eventually Carthage became big and powerful enough that it was a threat to the Roman Empire. The wars between Carthage and Rome were called the Punic Wars. Maybe the Romans couldn’t pronounce the ph sound? Anyhoo, this was the conflict where Hannibal brought his army across the Alps on elephants, and when Carthage was finally conquered the Romans knocked everything down and salted the fields there so nothing would ever grow.

Rabbit hole time: I wonder if our word ‘punish’ comes from how the Romans treated Carthage? I’m noodling around on the search engine thinghy but can’t find a line from ‘phoenician-punic’ to the Latin verb ‘punire.’
https://www.etymonline.com/word/punish
https://www.etymonline.com/word/Punic
https://www.ageofempires.com/history/phoenician-culture/
https://www.ancient.eu/hannibal/

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Abjad

I’m going to pull a ‘Well, akshually’ and tell you the Phoenician alphabet isn’t quite an alphabet. It’s an abjad. An abjad has consonants but no vowels—no A, E, I, O, U or sometimes Y. You were expected to know how words are pronounced and supply the vowels yourself when you read something written in the Phoenician system.

The word ‘abjad’ comes from smooshing together the first four letters of the Arabic alphabet: alif, bā’, jīm, and dāl.

Pointless rambling for today: There’s a tv show from the 1970s set in the 1950s called Laverne & Shirley. They’re 2 working-class girls from Brooklyn, New York City and speak like Brooklyners. I saw a bit (I can’t find a clip, sorry) where one of the girls is talking about her friend ‘Sheldn’—she pronounces it just that way. It fits with her accent; that’s the way they tawk in Brookln. The punchline: his name really is Sheldn; the ‘o’ was accidentally left out on his birth certificate.

https://linguisticator.com/blog/19729/the-arabic-alphabet-what-is-an-abjad
https://www.lexico.com/definition/abjad
https://www.metmuseum.org/learn/educators/curriculum-resources/art-of-the-islamic-world/unit-two/origins-and-characteristics-of-the-arabic-alphabet
Wikipedia says the Arabic alphabet is the result of the Phoenician alphabet evolving in the Near East, where it took a few different turns from ours in the West. Scroll down to look at the chart.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Arabic_alphabet

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A win for the shmos

monopoly (noun)
mo·​nop·​o·​ly | \ mə-ˈnä-p(ə-)lē
1 : exclusive ownership through legal privilege, command of supply, or concerted action
2 : exclusive possession or control

By the way, this is the beauty of the free market. The Egyptian scribes weren’t about to change hieroglyphics. Hieroglyphics was job security. Hieroglyphics could be read or written by the scribes only—scribes were an elite class because hieroglyphics is so difficult. The scribes controlled who got to read or write. The scribes had a monopoly. But the Phoenician traders had a big-time need for an efficient writing system. A new technology—the alphabet—was invented, the traders enthusiastically adopted it, and so the scribes’ monopoly was busted up.

Here’s homework (yay!): can you think of a communications technology today that’s owned and closely guarded by a small handful of people? What would happen if someone—maybe you—invented a simple, accessible different technology to replace it?

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/monopoly
https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/monopoly
https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/definition/Monopoly

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Canaanite turquoise miners fool around with hieroglyphics during lunch break

My pals (and Western Civ User’s Guide Irregulars) Ilene L and Jeffrey K each sent me a link to this Nova series on PBS about the origins of the alphabet—in it, archaeologist Orly Goldwasser asserts that a group of Canaanite turquoise miners working in Egypt were fooling around with hieroglyphics and almost-by-accident invented the alphabet. I think it’s a compelling theory—that’s exactly how a creative mind works: by fooling around. Okay so far. If that’s how it happened, their invention would still need to be promoted, spread far-and-wide, made popular. How do you do that?

The beautiful top drawing of an ox head was drawn by an expert drawer. Under that is an ox head as the Egyptian hieroglyphic symbol Aleph. Under that is a pathetic attempt at drawing ox heads by some ham-fisted Canaanite turquoise miner. At the bottom is our letter A.

The Phoenician traders and all their customers needed an efficient writing system to keep business records. The alphabet turned out to be the writing system they needed. The Phoenician trade routes were a communications network—like social media today but without the kitten photos. Those sea-captains visited every port around the Mediterranean Sea. Once the Phoenicians started using the alphabet, everybody started using the alphabet.

And how did the Canaanite miners get their invention to Phoenician sea-captains? You kids who go to Sunday school and Hebrew school knew this one already. Look in the back of your study bibles at the map—the Phoenician cities Sidon, Byblos and Tyre are in the Land of Canaan. Canaanites = Phoenicians.

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-9122891/Alphabet-Canaanite-miners-Ancient-Egypt-simple-letters-intricate-hieroglyphs.html
https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2016/12/30/did-illiterate-egyptian-miners-invent-alphabet/95992202/
Very good article here: https://barzilaiendan.com/2012/06/08/cine-a-inventat-alfabetul/

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Twenty-two little letters

‘A’ is ‘Aleph’ and ‘B’ is ‘Beta’—where the word ‘alphabet’ comes from. Aleph and Ayin are glottal stops (‘), like how some people pronounce the double-T in ‘kitten’ or ‘button.’ There are 2 Hs, Ts and Ss—even a third symbol for the impure S, ‘SH.’

The Phoenicians looked at the Egyptian writing system and threw out all the pictograms and ideograms. They kept only the symbols that represented sounds and wound up with a 22 letter alphabet. That’s it. The alphabet was so simple that a sea-captain could write a list of all the stores in his ship without a scribe’s help.

Twenty-two letters! Compare that with the hundreds of symbols (and their variations) you need to memorize so you can understand cuneiform or hieroglyphics or Demotic script. An alphabet of symbols that represent only sounds can be arranged to spell any word you can think of. Suddenly regular shmos could read and write.

Phonetic: a symbol equals sound. Now you know where ‘phonetic’ comes from—those good ol’ Phoenicians.

http://ixoloxi.com/alphabet/gpt2pnc.html
https://phoenician.org/alphabet/
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jvzXRtAe0Mw&feature=emb_logo
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JuwQZ3PbUJM

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A sea-change

Sure, they would have used Demotic script but hieroglyphics is much funnier.

If you own one of these Phoenician trading ships, you’re carrying cloth or papyrus or books or glass or copper or oil. You need to keep track of all that merchandise, how much it cost you and how much you want to sell it for. You’ll be putting in to different ports, unloading some of your cargo and taking on new merchandise. You need to keep records of what you sold and what you bought and who ordered which merch in advance. Egyptian hieroglyphics are way too complicated—even Demotic is cumbersome with symbols for entire syllables—and having a scribe aboard was an additional expense.

The Phoenicians looked at the Egyptian writing system and threw out all the pictograms and ideograms. They kept only the symbols that represented sounds and wound up with a 22 letter alphabet. That’s it. The alphabet was so simple that a sea-captain could write a list of all the stores in his ship without a scribe’s help.

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

Stylin’ with the stylus

You hold it like a pencil.

The Sumerians didn’t have pencils to write with. Instead, they took a dry reed, stiff as a stick, and cut the end off at a 90° angle. Using a knife or by sanding it, they made the end of the reed rectangular. The corners needed to be sharp! They used the corners and the edges of the stylus to press triangles and lines into a soft clay tablet. This style of writing is called cuneiform (koo-NAY-i-form), from Latin words that mean triangle (cune-) and shape (form). The writing tool is called a stylus (STY-loos), plural styli (STY-lee).

http://writingcuneiform.blogspot.com/2012/10/2-making-stylus.html
http://writingcuneiform.blogspot.com/2012/10/5-making-basic-wedges.html

By the way, up until I researched this post I thought that the reed’s cross-section was triangular. Can you see how red my face is? Research, gang. You’re never too old to learn!

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Back in caveman days

Many hairy returns

Way, way back—I mean 2.5 million years ago—nobody read anything, because nobody wrote anything down. If you wanted to say ‘happy birthday’ to your uncle who lived in the next county, you’d have to walk there and tell him yourself. There weren’t any birthday cards, or paper, or pencils—and no alphabet, so you couldn’t even write ‘many happy returns’ (whatever that means).

On the other hand, one thing you have to say about us human beings is: we like stories. Not only that, we like stories with pictures. So prehistoric human beings did the best they could with the resources at hand. They painted gorgeous, inspiring hunting scenes on the inside of caves where they lived. For paint, they used ash, chalk, colored minerals, even blood. These scenes tell the story of triumphant hunters, or maybe they hoped their mural would convince their gods to grant them a successful hunt.

https://www.ancient.eu/Lascaux_Cave/
https://www.history.com/news/prehistoric-ages-timeline
https://www.inrap.fr/en/periods
https://naturalearthpaint.com/blog/natural-earth-paint-through-the-ages-the-prehistoric-era/

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AGAIN!

Have you ever read a book to a little brother or sister? Over & over & OVER again? That kid hasn’t learned to read yet. You, of course, are an expert reader—you don’t need to sound out each letter anymore, you look at a group of letters and right away you know it means ‘cat’, or ‘bicycle’ or ‘salami.’

A cat, a bicycle and a salami.

Our alphabet—the one you’re reading right now—is a code. Each letter stands for a particular sound. A group of letters—a word—can stand for a thing, or an action, or an idea. When a young reader sounds out the letters of a word, he’s learning how to crack that code.

Our alphabet is a gift from people who lived a long time ago—the Phoenicians. Before they came along, hardly anyone knew how to read. Reading was a secret skill practiced by a few select people.

https://www.edweek.org/ew/issues/how-do-kids-learn-to-read.html

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The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing

Okay, gang, here we go! I’m starting up another Western Civ User’s Guide. This time around we’re looking at reading and writing. If you’re a loyal follower, you know we’re all about the history of ideas here at Western Civ User’s Guide world headquarters. In this book I want to explore 2 themes. One, how an ancient invention—the alphabet—was so essential that it’s endured down to our own time. Two, that the history of Western Civ can be seen as a series of culture-changing transfers of power from privileged elites (usually played in the movies by the late Alan Rickman) to the broader population (regular shmoes). For example, the alphabet and later moveable type brought literacy to huge amounts of people; the printing press and later the internet increased the distribution of information.

In case anyone’s fuzzy about what exactly Western Civilization is, here are links to a couple of brilliant explanations:

https://johnmanders.wordpress.com/2019/01/13/what-is-a-civilization/
https://johnmanders.wordpress.com/2019/01/16/where-in-the-world-is-western-civilization/

As usual, there will be lousy gags and badly-drawn cartoons squeezed in between bits of actual history. This is interactive—chime in if you have information to share. I heartily thank you weirdos for following. See you next post!