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

Book 1, chapter IV
The development of the alphabet
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.