A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 1, chapter IV
The development of the alphabet
Babylonian writings
While the civilization of the Nile Valley was developing this extraordinary system of hieroglyphics, the inhabitants of Babylonia were practising the art of writing along somewhat different lines. It is certain that they began with picture-making, and that in due course they advanced to the development of the syllabary; but, unlike their Egyptian cousins, the men of Babylonia saw fit to discard the old system when they had perfected a better one.[5] So at a very early day their writing - as revealed to us now through the recent excavations - had ceased to have that pictorial aspect which distinguishes the Egyptian script. What had originally been pictures of objects - fish, houses, and the like - had come to be represented by mere aggregations of wedge-shaped marks. As the writing of the Babvlonians was chiefly inscribed on soft clay, the adaptation of this wedge-shaped mark in lieu of an ordinary line was probably a mere matter of convenience, since the sharp-cornered implement used in making the inscription naturally made a wedge-shaped impression in the clay. That, however, is a detail. The essential thing is that the Babylonian had so fully analyzed the speech-sounds that he felt entire confidence in them, and having selected a sufficient number of conventional characters - each made up of wedge-shaped lines - to represent all the phonetic sounds of his language, spelled the words out in syllables and to some extent dispensed with the determinative signs which, as we have seen, played so prominent a part in the Egyptian writing. His cousins the Assyrians used habitually a system of writing the foundation of which was an elaborate phonetic syllabary; a system, therefore, far removed from the old crude pictograph, and in some respects much more developed than the complicated Egyptian method; yet, after all, a system that stopped short of perfection by the wide gap that separates the syllabary from the true alphabet.

A brief analysis of speech sounds will aid us in understanding the real nature of the syllabary. Let us take for consideration the consonantal sound represented by the letter b. A moment's consideration will make it clear that this sound enters into a large number of syllables. There are, for example, at least twenty vowel sounds in the English language, not to speak of certain digraphs; that is to say, each of the important vowels has from two to six sounds. Each of these vowel sounds may enter into combination with the b sound alone to form three syllables; as ba, ab, bal, be, eb, bel, etc. Thus there are at least sixty b-sound syllables. But this is not the end, for other consonantal sounds may be associated in the syllables in such combinations as bad, bed, bar, bark, cab, etc. As each of the other twenty odd consonantal sounds may enter into similar combinations, it is obvious that there are several hundreds of fundamental syllables to be taken into account in any syllabic system of writing. For each of these syllables a symbol must be set aside and held in reserve as the representative of that particular sound. A perfect syllabary, then, would require some hundred or more of symbols to represent b sounds alone; and since the sounds for c, d, f, and the rest are equally varied, the entire syllabary would run into thousands of characters, almost rivalling in complexity the Chinese system. But in practice the most perfect syllabary, Such as that of the Babylonians, fell short of this degree of precision through ignoring the minor shades of sound; just as our own alphabet is content to represent some thirty vowel sounds by five letters, ignoring the fact that a, for example, has really half a dozen distinct phonetic values. By such slurring of sounds the syllabary is reduced far below its ideal limits; yet even so it retains three or four hundred characters.

In point of fact, such a work as Professor Delitzsch's Assyrian Grammar[6] presents signs for three hundred and thirty-four syllables, together with sundry alternative signs and determinatives to tax the memory of the would-be reader of Assyrian. Let us take for example a few of the b sounds. It has been explained that the basis of the Assyrian written character is a simple wedge-shaped or arrow-head mark. Variously repeated and grouped, these marks make up the syllabic characters.

To learn some four hundred such signs as these was the task set, as an equivalent of learning the a b c's, to any primer class in old Assyria in the long generations when that land was the culture Centre of the world. Nor was the task confined to the natives of Babylonia and Assyria alone. About the fifteenth century B.C., and probably for a long time before and after that period, the exceedingly complex syllabary of the Babylonians was the official means of communication throughout western Asia and between Asia and Egypt, as we know from the chance discovery of a collection of letters belonging to the Egyptian king Khun-aten, preserved at Tel-el-Amarna. In the time of Ramses the Great the Babylonian writing was in all probability considered by a majority of the most highly civilized people in the world to be the most perfect script practicable. Doubtless the average scribe of the time did not in the least realize the waste of energy involved in his labors, or ever suspect that there could be any better way of writing.

Yet the analysis of any one of these hundreds of syllables into its component phonetic elements - had any one been genius enough to make such analysis - ould have given the key to simpler and better things. But such an analysis was very hard to make, as the sequel shows. Nor is the utility of such an analysis self-evident, as the experience of the Egyptians proved. The vowel sound is so intimately linked with the consonant - the con-sonant, implying this intimate relation in its very name - that it seemed extremely difficult to give it individual recognition. To set off the mere labial beginning of the sound by itself, and to recognize it as an all-essential element of phonation, was the feat at which human intelligence so long balked. The germ of great things lay in that analysis. It was a process of simplification, and all art development is from the complex to the simple. Unfortunately, however, it did not seem a simplification, but rather quite the reverse. We may well suppose that the idea of wresting from the syllabary its secret of consonants and vowels, and giving to each consonantal sound a distinct sign, seemed a most cumbersome and embarrassing complication to the ancient scholars - that is to say, after the time arrived when any one gave such an idea expression. We can imagine them saying: "You will oblige us to use four signs instead of one to write such an elementary syllable as 'bard,' for example. Out upon such endless perplexity!" Nor is such a suggestion purely gratuitous, for it is an historical fact that the old syllabary continued to be used in Babylon hundreds of years after the alphabetical system had been introduced.[7] Custom is everything in establishing our prejudices. The Japanese to-day rebel against the introduction of an alphabet, thinking it ambiguous.

Yet, in the end, conservatism always yields, and so it was with opposition to the alphabet. Once the idea of the consonant had been firmly grasped, the old syllabary was doomed, though generations of time might be required to complete the obsequies - generations of time and the influence of a new nation. We have now to inquire how and by whom this advance was made.

The alphabet achieved

We cannot believe that any nation could have vaulted to the final stage of the simple alphabetical writing without tracing the devious and difficult way of the pictograph and the syllabary. It is possible, however, for a cultivated nation to build upon the shoulders of its neighbors, and, profiting by the experience of others, to make sudden leaps upward and onward. And this is seemingly what happened in the final development of the art of writing. For while the Babylonians and Assyrians rested content with their elaborate syllabary, a nation on either side of them, geographically speaking, solved the problem, which they perhaps did not even recognize as a problem; wrested from their syllabary its secret of consonants and vowels, and by adopting an arbitrary sign for each consonantal sound, produced that most wonderful of human inventions, the alphabet.

The two nations credited with this wonderful achievement are the Phoenicians and the Persians. But it is not usually conceded that the two are entitled to anything like equal credit. The Persians, probably in the time of Cyrus the Great, used certain characters of the Babylonian script for the construction of an alphabet; but at this time the Phoenician alphabet had undoubtedly been in use for some centuries, and it is more than probable that the Persian borrowed his idea of an alphabet from a Phoenician source. And that, of course, makes all the difference. Granted the idea of an alphabet, it requires no great reach of constructive genius to supply a set of alphabetical characters; though even here, it may be added parenthetically, a study of the development of alphabets will show that mankind has all along had a characteristic propensity to copy rather than to invent.

Regarding the Persian alphabet-maker, then, as a copyist rather than a true inventor, it remains to turn attention to the Phoenician source whence, as is commonly believed, the original alphabet which became "the mother of all existing alphabets" came into being. It must be admitted at the outset that evidence for the Phoenician origin of this alphabet is traditional rather than demonstrative. The Phoenicians were the great traders of antiquity; undoubtedly they were largely responsible for the transmission of the alphabet from one part of the world to another, once it had been invented. Too much credit cannot be given them for this; and as the world always honors him who makes an idea fertile rather than the originator of the idea, there can be little injustice in continuing to speak of the Phoenicians as the inventors of the alphabet. But the actual facts of the case will probably never be known. For aught we know, it may have been some dreamy-eyed Israelite, some Babylonian philosopher, some Egyptian mystic, perhaps even some obscure Cretan, who gave to the hard-headed Phoenician trader this conception of a dismembered syllable with its all-essential, elemental, wonder-working consonant. But it is futile now to attempt even to surmise on such unfathomable details as these. Suffice it that the analysis was made; that one sign and no more was adopted for each consonantal sound of the Semitic tongue, and that the entire cumbersome mechanism of the Egyptian and Babylonian writing systems was rendered obsolescent. These systems did not yield at once, to be sure; all human experience would have been set at naught had they done so. They held their own, and much more than held their own, for many centuries. After the Phoenicians as a nation had ceased to have importance; after their original script had been endlessly modified by many alien nations; after the original alphabet had made the conquest of all civilized Europe and of far outlying portions of the Orient - the Egyptian and Babylonian scribes continued to indite their missives in the same old pictographs and syllables.

The inventive thinker must have been struck with amazement when, after making the fullest analysis of speech-sounds of which he was capable, he found himself supplied with only a score or so of symbols. Yet as regards the consonantal sounds he had exhausted the resources of the Semitic tongue. As to vowels, he scarcely considered them at all. It seemed to him sufficient to use one symbol for each consonantal sound. This reduced the hitherto complex mechanism of writing to so simple a system that the inventor must have regarded it with sheer delight. On the other hand, the conservative scholar doubtless thought it distinctly ambiguous. In truth, it must be admitted that the system was imperfect. It was a vast improvement on the old syllabary, but it had its drawbacks. Perhaps it had been made a bit too simple; certainly it should have had symbols for the vowel sounds as well as for the consonants. Nevertheless, the vowel-lacking alphabet seems to have taken the popular fancy, and to this day Semitic people have never supplied its deficiencies save with certain dots and points.

Peoples using the Aryan speech soon saw the defect, and the Greeks supplied symbols for several new sounds at a very early day.[8] But there the matter rested, and the alphabet has remained imperfect. For the purposes of the English language there should certainly have been added a dozen or more new characters. It is clear, for example, that, in the interest of explicitness, we should have a separate symbol for the vowel sound in each of the following syllables: bar, bay, bann, ball, to cite a single illustration.

There is, to be sure, a seemingly valid reason for not extending our alphabet, in the fact that in multiplying syllables it would be difficult to select characters at once easy to make and unambiguous. Moreover, the conservatives might point out, with telling effect, that the present alphabet has proved admirably effective for about three thousand years. Yet the fact that our dictionaries supply diacritical marks for some thirty vowels sounds to indicate the pronunciation of the words of our every-day speech, shows how we let memory and guessing do the work that might reasonably be demanded of a really complete alphabet. But, whatever its defects, the existing alphabet is a marvellous piece of mechanism, the result of thousands of years of intellectual effort. It is, perhaps without exception, the most stupendous invention of the human intellect within historical times - an achievement taking rank with such great prehistoric discoveries as the use of articulate speech, the making of a fire, and the invention of stone implements, of the wheel and axle, and of picture-writing. It made possible for the first time that education of the masses upon which all later progress of civilization was so largely to depend.




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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.