Historia of Type – The Evolution of Letters
This article is the continuation of the Previous Article in which I shared about some of the prominent Writing Systems. In this article, I’ll further discuss the Formation and Evolution of the Alphabet, how the Alphabet became what it is today, and, How it has influenced the World of Typography Today.
The Proto-Sinaitic Letter (c.a. 1800 BC)
There were many attempts made to derive a new set of letters from Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics but due to their complexity and limitations, there was limited success. And around 1900 BC a script began to appear in Egypt, the Sinai and the Levant which is known as ‘Proto-Sinaitic Script’. The script at its earliest is mostly dated to between the Mid-1900 BC to the Mid-1600 BC. It is commonly believed that it was developed by the Semitic-speaking peoples of the Sinai and Levant and it consists of roughly 19 or so signs that can be, at least theoretically, associated with hieroglyphic or hieratic signs.
Sir Alan Gardiner, studied the Proto-Sinaitic Inscriptions. He identified the inscriptions as Semitic on the Red Sandstone Sphinx, dated to ca.1800 BC, which was discovered in 1904–1905 by Sir William Flinders Petrie in the temple ruins at Serabit el-Khadim, a copper and turquoise mining area on the West coast on the Sinai peninsula. The inscriptions on the sandstone are Egyptian Hieroglyphs and Proto-Sinaitic. The Egyptian Hieroglyphs read “Beloved of Hathor [Mistress] of turquoise” and the Proto-Sinaitic reads b’lt (or b’alat “to the Lady” – a title of Hathor).
According to the “Alphabet Theory”, the early Semitic proto-alphabet reflected in the Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions would have given rise to both the South Arabian script and the Proto-Canaanite script.
Proto-Canaanite also referred to as Proto-Canaan, Old Canaanite, or Canaanite, is the name given to the Proto-Sinaitic script (c.a. 1600 BC), when found in Canaan. The term Proto-Canaanite is also used when referring to the ancestor of the Phoenician or Paleo-Hebrew script, respectively. While there is no existence of Phoenician inscriptions before c.a. 1000 BC, “Proto-Canaanite” is, therefore, was a term used for the early alphabets which were used during the 1300 BC and 1200 BC in Phoenicia. However, the Phoenician, Hebrew, and other Canaanite dialects were largely indistinguishable before the 11t00 BC.
A possible example of “Proto-Canaanite” was found in 2012, the Ophel inscription, during the excavations of the south wall of the Temple Mount by the Israeli archaeologist Eilat Mazarin Jerusalem on a storage jar made of pottery. There are some big letters inscribed on the pot which are about an inch high from which Five are complete and traces of three additional letters are in Proto-Canaanite Script.
William Albright in the 1950s and 1960s published interpretations of Proto-Sinaitic showing the derivation of the Canaanite alphabet from hieratic, leading to the commonly accepted belief that the language of the inscriptions was Semitic and that the script had a hieratic prototype.
The Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions, along with the contemporary parallels found in Canaan and Wadi el-Hol, are thus hypothesized to show an intermediate step between Egyptian hieratic script and the Phoenician alphabet.
The Phoenician Letter (c.a. 1200 BC)
Around 1500 BC, The Phoenicians adopted the Proto-Sinaitic or Canaanite Script for their transformation of knowledge and to communicate with other civilizations. Phoenicia is located in modern-day Syria, Lebanon, and northern Israel. By creating a ‘Phonetic Alphabet’ (technically still an abjad) of 22 letters, they modified the scripts for their own comfortability. It was written right to left, although there are some texts written in boustrophedon. Phoenician is the oldest verified alphabet known and is called ‘The Mother of all Alphabets’.
The Ahiram epitaph, from about 1200 BC, engraved on the sarcophagus of king Ahiramin Byblos, Lebanon, one of five known Byblian royal inscriptions, shows essentially the fully developed Phoenician script. The name “Phoenician” is by convention given to inscriptions beginning in the Mid-1100 BC.
As the letters were originally engraved with a stylus, most of the shapes are angular and straight. Although more cursive versions are increasingly attested in later times, resulting in the Neo-Punic alphabet of Roman-era North Africa.
The alphabet was a major success because it had this Phonetic Nature, in which one sound was represented by one symbol, which meant that there were only a few dozen symbols to learn. This simple system also contrasted with the other scripts which were already in use at that time, such as Cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Another reason for its success was the maritime trading culture of Phoenician merchants’, which resulted in spreading the use of alphabet into parts of North Africa and Europe. Phoenician inscriptions have been found in archaeological sites at a number of former Phoenician cities and colonies around the Mediterranean, such as Byblos (in present-day Lebanon) and Carthage in North Africa.
The alphabet had long-term effects on the social structures of the civilizations that came in contact with it. In the West, it became Greek → Etruscan → Latin, or Greek → Cyrillic → Glagolitic. In the East, it became Aramaic → Hebrew, or Aramaic → Nabataen → Arabic, or Aramaic → Brahmi → Devanagari, etc, etc.
Phoenician Alphabet’s simplicity not only allowed it to be used in multiple languages, but it also allowed the common people to learn how to write. This upset the long-standing status of writing systems only being learned and employed by members of the royal and religious hierarchies of society, who used writing as an instrument of power to control access to information by the larger population. The appearance of Phoenician disintegrated many of these class divisions, although many Middle Eastern kingdoms, such as Assyria, Babylonia, and
The Greek Letter (c.a. 800 BC)
Writing in Greek was first inaugurated by Minoans in c.a. 1900 BC. They used an Egyptian hieroglyphic-like, and an undeciphered script called Linear A. In the course of time, the Minoans in c.a. 1400 BC were conquered by the Mycenaeans, who adopted the script and modified it into Linear B. Linear B was used strictly for administrative purposes, used by scribes serving the royal palaces. The Mycenaeans, in turn, were defeated by the Dorians, or the mysterious Sea Peoples c.a. 1100 BC. Under the Dorian rule, all the signs of Mycenaen culture were lost, including writing, and this was the time when the Greek entered it’s ‘Dark Age’. The period between the use of the two writing systems, during which no Greek texts are attested, is known as the Greek Dark Ages.
As legend has it, writing again appeared in c.a. 750 BC in Greece through Cadmus, a Phoenician prince, dragon-slayer, founder of Thebes, son of Agenor and brother of Phoenix, Cilix and Europa. According to Herodotus, from his Histories (V 58), Cadmus introduced Phoenician, phoinikeia grammata (φοινικήια γράμματα, Phoenician letters), to the Greeks. And By 700 BC there were numerous examples of this Phoenician derived writing among Greeks.
Greek Alphabet, however, is very different from Semitic Phoenician Alphabet, scribes used some of the unused Phoenician letters as vowels (the Phoenician aleph became the Greek alpha) and created the first true alphabet. Greek was the first alphabetic script to have distinct letters for vowels as well as consonants. In Archaic and early Classical times, the Greek alphabet existed in many different local variants. But by the end of the 4th century BC, the Eucleidean alphabet, with twenty-four letters, ordered from alpha to omega became the standard script. It is this version that is still in use to write Greek today. These twenty-four letters are: Α α, Β β, Γ γ, Δ δ, Ε ε, Ζ ζ, Η η, Θ θ, Ι ι, Κ κ, Λ λ, Μ μ, Ν ν, Ξ ξ, Ο ο, Π π, Ρ ρ, Σ σ/ς, Τ τ, Υ υ, Φ φ, Χ χ, Ψ ψ, and Ω ω.
Greek was originally written from right to left, just like Phoenician, but scribes could freely alternate between directions. For a time, a writing style with alternating right-to-left and left-to-right lines (called boustrophedon, literally “ox-turning”, after the manner of an ox plowing a field) was common. But in the classical period, the left-to-right writing direction became the norm. Individual letter shapes were mirrored depending on the writing direction of the current line.
Greek Alphabet, apart from its use in the Greek Language, also serves as a source of technical symbols and is used in the domain of Mathematics, Science and other fields.