Dear Friends, kindly read the Foot Notes at the end for
better appreciation. I tried to convey some interesting
information in my verses for my few interested readers!
THE STORY OF ALPHABETS:
Alphabets are the noblest and the greatest of
inventions of our civilization,
For transmitting human thoughts and concepts
through visible notations!
In the olden days those magical symbols and
Could be written and understood only by the
priests and scribes !
But with the invention of printing, literacy began
to spread, * (see notes below.)
When people began to read and write with standard
The 26 English letters with which we read and express
ourselves so easily and well,
Has a legendary and checkered past, and an unique
Story to tell !
FROM PICTOGRAM TO WRITTEN SCRIPTS :
The story of writing can be traced back to over
thousands of years you see ,
From pictogram to ideograms and various cuneiform
From the ancient Sumerians and the Egyptians, to
the Semitic tribes;
Up to the Phoenicians, the Greeks, right up to the
Roman times !
Till the Latin script got refined into modern alphabets,
And with 26 letters our literary aspirations were met !
PICTOGRAM & IDEOGRAMS :
Ancient pictogram and symbols were painted and
carved on rock walls and caves, -
But speech sounds and letters remained unrelated !
Followed by the ideographic, logographic, and the
syllabic stages ,
Evolving into written alphabets through these different
Ideograms expressed an idea through visual or graphic
Giving rise to Chinese script without alphabets, but
with only ideographic symbols! @(notes below)
The Sumerian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs
were the oldest of these,
Let me now tell you something about the Sumerian
CUNEIFORM WRITING :
On that land between the two rivers the Tigris and
Which the Greek’s called ‘Mesopotamia’,
Rose the earliest of ancient civilizations called
Those Sumerians used a stylus, - the head of a
squared-off reed ,
To inscribe wedge shaped angular symbols on
clay tablets - for their accounting needs!
These tablets could be dried in the sun to form
hardened scripts ,
And also recycled if necessary, giving birth to the
The earliest clay tablets date back to 3500 BC ;
While archeologists and linguists could detect
and see ,
That with modifications over the centuries this
script was also used, -
By the Akkadians , Elamites , the Hittites and the
And scholars say that it was the forerunner of the
hieroglyphs of those ancient Egyptians!
The earliest clay tablets found in Mesopotamia,
Indicate accounting of barley crops by the Sangu
Sangu was the Chief Official of their Holy Temples ,
Who recorded all temple wealth on clay tablets, –
with cuneiform symbols !
Herodotus the Greek historian tells us a story ,
About a letter sent by the Scythians to the Persian King
during the days of Scythian glory!
This letter contained symbols of a bird, a mouse,
a frog, and five arrows;
When translated it read: “Can you fly like a bird, hide
in the ground like a mouse, leap through the swamps
like a frog? If not, do not go to war with us, -
We shall overwhelm you with our arrows!”
EGYPTIAN HIEROGLYPHS :
Hieroglyph comes from a Greek word meaning
‘sacred inscriptions’ ,
Consisting of a large variety of images representing
sounds, as well as ideas and actions !
The images were depicted in rows or columns , -
oriented from right to left ,
And the signs were positioned as if looking towards
the beginning of the text!
They were used from end of Prehistory to 396 AD,
And the last text was written on the walls of the
Temple of Isis, on the Island of Philae !
The oldest one dates back to 3100 BC, - inside the
Temple of Ramesses II at Abydos ,
Where Thoth the ibis-headed God, - patron Deity
of Writing and Scribes is seen ,
Holding a scribal palette in one hand and in the
other a stylus of reed ;
And King Ramesses II holding up a water *** , -
To assist the great Thoth, their Writing God !
HIERATIC, DEMOTIC & COPTIC SCRIPTS :
The hieroglyphics were used for many varied
Written on temple walls, statues , tombs , papyrus ,
and as monumental inscriptions !
Through its 3000 year’s long history it developed
into three other written scripts; -
The Hieratic, the Demotic and the Coptic, as
reformed hieroglyphic scripts !
Hieratic script was simplified with a more cursive
Could be drawn more quickly as over the years it
also reformed !
Though used in administrative and business text ,
Also found its way into literature and religious texts!
Around 600 BC it was supplanted by the most cursive
of all scripts,
Herodotus called it ‘Popular’ so it became a ‘Demotic’
script, meaning 'popular' !
Unlike the Hieratic, which on papyrus with a stylus
and ink was written ,
This 'popular' one could be engraved, and also hand
On a hard surface, and on papyrus by the ancient
This script was found in the middle section of the
famous Rosetta Stone, $ = (see notes below)
Which for centuries held the secrets of the Hieroglyphic
Code alone !
And finally, during the 4th century AD, when Egyptian
was written with Greek alphabets,
We arrive at the last stage of the Egyptian language;
Which came to be know as the Coptic Script, with the
adoption of the Greek alphabets.
During the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD , Coptic became
the pre-Christian Egyptian language.
However, after the conquest of Egypt by the Muslims
in 642 AD,
Arabic became the main language of Egypt gradually.
A PAUSE & A BREAK :
It is interesting to note that all these ancient scripts ,
Inscribed on rocks , or written on papyrus or
engraved on wooden strips ;
Were written from right to left, with only consonants ,
Without any punctuations or any break!
Till centuries later, due to the innovative Greeks, -
Vowels got introduced to shape up the Alphabets!
Here friends I pause to take a break .
In my Part Two I shall tell you about those Semitic
About those seafaring Phoenicians who preceded
the Romans and the Greeks;
Those worthy forefathers of the Latin alphabets ,
Which gave birth to ‘English’ with its Anglo-Saxon-
Germanic roots ,
Happily blending with some French vocabulary, -
Making English as unique as it possibly could !
-by Raj Nandy
FOOT NOTES : -
Friends, I tried to keep it as simple as possible for my readers;
adding Notes as explanations & for all knowledge seekers!
= Johannes Gutenberg in 1440 set up the first Printing Press in
Europe. William Caxton in 1476 set up the first printing press in
Westminster, England, he was the first English retailer of books!
* = Lascaux cave paintings of animals in SW France are 16,000
years old! Similar types also found in Spain and Africa!
= Pictogram date from the earliest cave paintings; represents
concrete nouns. Some civilizations like the North American Indians never
ventured beyond pictogram stage! Ideograms – the next stage, represents an abstract idea and verb also.
The Egyptian word-sign showing image of an Eye +a Bee+ a leaf = meant ‘I Believe’, i.e. Pictogram & Ideogram combined ! Since they did not write verbs, we do not know how they pronounced it!
Logograph = each written sign represents an actual word & Not sound of the word!
A tree is shown by the image of a single tree. A single logogram could be used by a plurality of languages to represent words with similar meanings.
After 3000 yrs of use, a large no. of symbols & the chasm between oral & written script made the Hieroglyphs obsolete!
The Semitic people tried to improvise a better script with limited consonant signs only!
@ = The Chinese use a combination of pictogram & ideograms along with complex symbols, but with only through association of spoken words; instead of alphabets!
$= Rosetta Stone, discovered by the soldiers of Napoleon in 1799 in Rosetta. The hieroglyphics on the stone was inscribed in 196 BC in the Ptolemaic Era. The French scholar Jean Champollion deciphered the script, and thereby solved the mystery of Egyptian Hieroglyphics for the world! .
* ALL COPY RIGHTS RESERVED BY RAJ NANDY
INFORMATIVE 'FOOT NOTES' HAVE BEEN ADDED JUST AFTER THE VERSE.