History of the Alphabet: From Cuneiform to Greek Writing

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  • 0:07 Early Days of Writing
  • 0:52 Problems with Cuneiform
  • 1:45 Solving Cuneiform Problems
  • 2:55 Phonemes
  • 3:54 Characters of the Alphabet
  • 5:28 Greek Alphabet
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Max Pfingsten
This lecture follows the development of writing, from the pictographs of proto-cuneiform to the symbolic phonemes of cuneiform and hieroglyphics. Then from the abjads of the Phoenecians, Minoans, Hebrews and Arabs to the complete alphabets of the Greeks. It explores the limitations and strengths of each development and draws modern parallels.

The Early Days of Writing

In an earlier lecture, we saw how writing enabled the peoples of the Fertile Crescent to form cities, conquer their neighbors and build empires. With a tool so valuable as writing, it is not surprising that some clever people would attempt to refine it. Not all writing systems are created equal.

If you want your words to be remembered and learned by as many people as possible, what you write does not matter nearly as much as how you write it

As you may recall, the first writing appeared about 3,500 B.C. This early cuneiform was merely a collection of drawings or pictographs. In this system, every word had its own corresponding drawing.

The Problems with Cuneiform

Communicating via pictographs has several limitations:

1. If someone is bad at drawing, then your message might be lost. You might think you had 300 horses instead of 300 cattle.

One problem with cuneiform was the difficulty in reading the writing made by bad drawers
Cuneiform Problems

2. It is difficult to represent something abstract with a picture. It's easy to draw a picture of a cow. It is less easy to draw a picture of say, 'equality.' Even if a society had a word for such a thing, without a way to write it down, development of such an idea would be very slow.

3. If every word has its own symbol, you end up with a massive writing system with thousands of characters. This makes a writing system very hard to learn, resulting in a low literacy rate.

The fewer people who can read and write, the less useful writing is. Conversely, the more people who can read and write, the more useful writing is.

Solving the Problems of Cuneiform

Some smart people realized this and decided to find ways to make the writing system more simple and, thus, more accessible to more people. Over 3000 years, cuneiform underwent some drastic changes to overcome these limitations.

To solve problem 1, drawings came to be replaced with the wedge shaped summaries we now recognize as proper cuneiform, a similar writing system that's similar to modern Japanese kanji.

To solve problem 2, symbols came to represent the sounds, or phonemes, of the words they represented, instead of the things themselves. This was a huge development. It moved the subject of writing from objects in the real world to sounds in the spoken language.

Now, though I cannot come up with a symbol for equality, I can still write it: eye-quail-eye-tea, equality. Hooray! This style of writing, called symbolic phonemes, would reach its apex in Egyptian hieroglyphics. A modern example would be Japanese hiragana.


The breakdown into phonemes, in turn, began to solve problem 3. Though there are thousands of things one might want to write about, there are only so many sounds a human being can make. Since you only need one symbol for each sound, many redundancies are removed.

If I tried to write cat, cattle and catalog, in the old style, I would've needed a unique character for cat, a unique character for cattle and a unique character for catalog. With this new style, I can spell cat with the symbol for cat. I can spell cattle with the symbol for cat and the symbol for tail. And catalog can be spelled with the symbol for cat, the symbol for tail and the symbol for log, spelling cat-tail-log.

Thus, any time I want to represent a particular sound, I can use the same symbol. With this refinement, cuneiform was reduced from thousands of characters to about 400. This allowed literacy to expand and empires to grow in size.

The Characters of the Alphabet

Yet, even with this dramatic reduction, anyone trying to read Cuneiform would still need to learn those 400 characters. This might not seem so bad to someone who can read Chinese, which still holds onto thousands of characters. But we Westerners, used to a mere 26 characters, would find this daunting, to say the least. So how did we get down from 400 characters to 26?

The Phoenicians seem to have begun this process. About 1050 BC, the Phoenicians did away with the symbolic pictographs of cuneiform and invented simple characters to represent specific sounds.

But the Phoenicians did not stop there. Rather than having a character for each syllable (like Japanese Hiragana, Ka Ki Ku Ke Ko) the Phoenecians recognized the distinction between vowels and consonants. They noticed that the 'K' sound remains the same in all of these syllables. From there, they simply assigned a character to each consonant. By doing so, they were able to reduce the 400 characters of cuneiform to a mere 22 characters, one for each consonant.

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