History of the Alphabet: From Cuneiform to Greek Writing

  • 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
Create An Account
To Start This Course Today
Used by over 10 million students worldwide
Create An Account
Try it free for 5 days
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.

Phonemes

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.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 10 million people use Study.com

Become a Study.com member and start learning now.
Become a Member

Already a member? Log In

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 100 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 2,900 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? Study.com has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Click "next lesson" whenever you finish a lesson and quiz. Got It
You now have full access to our lessons and courses. Watch the lesson now or keep exploring. Got It
You're 25% of the way through this course! Keep going at this rate,and you'll be done before you know it.
1
The first step is always the hardest! Congrats on finishing your first lesson.
5
Way to go! If you watch at least 30 minutes of lessons each day you'll master your goals before you know it.
10
Congratulations on earning a badge for watching 10 videos but you've only scratched the surface. Keep it up!
20
You've just watched 20 videos and earned a badge for your accomplishment!
50
You've just earned a badge for watching 50 different lessons. Keep it up, you're making great progress!
100
You just watched your 100th video lesson. You have earned a badge for this achievement!
200
Congratulations! You just finished watching your 200th lesson and earned a badge!
300
Congratulations! You just finished watching your 300th lesson and earned a badge!
500
You are a superstar! You have earned the prestigious 500 video lessons watched badge.
1K
Incredible. You have just entered the exclusive club and earned the 1000 videos watched badge.
20
You have earned a badge for watching 20 minutes of lessons.
50
You have earned a badge for watching 50 minutes of lessons.
100
You have earned a badge for watching 100 minutes of lessons.
250
You have earned a badge for watching 250 minutes of lessons.
500
You have earned a badge for watching 500 minutes of lessons.
1K
You have earned a badge for watching 1000 minutes of lessons.