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Chinese writing system

basically logographic writing system using symbols of pictorial origin to represent

words of the Chinese language.
Chinese writing and Semitic writing constitute the two great writing systems of the
world. Just as the Semitic writing system was fundamental to the evolution of
modern writing systems in the West, Chinese script was fundamental to the writing
systems in the East. Chinese writing, at least untilrelatively recently, was more
widely in use than alphabetic writing systems, and until the 18th century more than
half of the world's books had been written in Chinese, including works of speculative
thought, historical writingsof a kind, and novels, along with writings on government
and law.
When China was united in the 3rd century BC, the first emperor, Shih huang-ti,
ordered that the writing system be standardized throughout the empire. This common
writing system bound the Chinese people together, forming a medium of
communication that could be read by groups who spoke very different, often
mutually incomprehensible dialects of the language. Chinese writing is the only form
of writing that has been in continuous use from the time of the invention of writing
down to the present time.
Chinese script is logographic. Characters or graphs represent not units of sound as in
phonographic writing systems but rather units of meaning, morphemes. Chinese, like
any other language, has thousands of morphemes, and, as one character is used for
each morpheme, the writing system has thousands of characters. Two morphemes
that sound the samewould, in English, have at least some similarity of spelling; in
Chinese they are represented by completely different characters. The Chinese words
for parboil and for leap are pronounced identically. Yet there is no similarity in
the way they are written.
The fact that the Chinese script is logographic and that its characters or graphs have a
pictorial property has led some writers to conclude that it is less abstract than soundbased writing systems. However, recent scholars point out that all writing systems
began with pictorial signs that lost their pictorial properties to the requirement of
ease of writing; it is easier to draw an arbitrary sign than a realistic picture. And it is
now recognized that a logographic script is a relatively optimal solution to the
problem of representing the Chinese language.
The Chinese language has clearly distinguished syllables that are easily recognized
in speech and hence easily represented by a sign. These syllables correspond to
morphemes; each morpheme is one syllable long. In English one morpheme is often
expressed by two syllables (e.g., balloon), and two morphemes may be contained
in one syllable (e.g., boys). In Chinese, with a general correspondence between
morpheme and syllable, each morpheme is easily represented by a sign for the
corresponding syllable. Moreover, one morpheme in Chinese is more or less
equivalent to a word. Unlike English, in which morphemes combine to make new
words (e.g., make + past = made), Chinese is an isolating language, in which
elements of meaning are strung together as a series of isolated morphemes. Similarly,
the pronunciation of a syllable is relatively uninfluenced by adjacent syllables,

which, therefore, remain relatively invariant. It is these invariant units of sound and
meaning that are represented by distinctive logographs.
The earliest characters of the Chinese script were motivated; that is, they
resembled the things they represented. With the adoption of the brush as the tool and
of ink on paper as the medium for writing, graphs became essentially arbitrary,
involving simple lines and shapes. The basic stock of characters are simple graphs,
some of which represent the names for objects or parts of objects, such as river, fish,
man, and woman, and others of which stand for more abstract terms, such as yield,
love, quarrel, prince, and the like. There are approximately 1,000 of these simple
characters or graphs.
These basic characters serve two other roles. First, they may double as loanwords.
Thus, the character representing the word prince doubles for thin-sliced, law,
beating the breast, avoid, and others that were difficult to depict directly. The
principle for borrowing the character was that the new word be pronounced in the
same or a similar way as the word represented by the character. This acrophonic
principle played a similar role in the development of hieroglyphic and cuneiform
writing. Indeed, it has been suggested that if this principle had been applied
consistently, the Chinese would have ended up with a syllabic rather than a
logographic system. However, the writing system would then have been extremely
ambiguous, with one character representing a dozen or more unrelated words as a
consequence of the extreme homophony of the Chinese language. The logographic
principle eliminates that ambiguity by providing one character for one meaning.
The second use of the basic characters was in combination with other characters to
make up complex characters. Complex characters consist of one graph representing
the pronunciation of the characterthat is, a graph standing for a set of similar
sounding words based on the acrophonic principle combined with a second graph
indicating the semantic category of the word. One part represents the sound of the
syllable, the other the semantic category of the morpheme; e.g., the character for
foundation is composed of the character for winnowing basket, a word that
sounds, in Chinese, similar to the word foundation, together with the character for
earth,a word that is semantically related to the word foundation.
The process of combining simple graphs to make complex ones is enormously
prolific and had been used to generate thousands of unique characters capable of
representing the morphemes of the language. With some 40,000 graphs, the system
comes close to the ideal of a fully explicit writing system that represents each
distinctive unit of meaning with a distinctive unit of writing. But, of course, such a
large number of graphs imposes a major obstacle to learning to read and write. The
problem is made more complex by the fact that neither the sound property nor the
semantic property of the characters is of much help in the recognition of a character.
Because of changes in pronunciation of the language, the complex signs no longer
reflect the sound pattern that they originally grew out of. Similarly, the semantic
relations represented by the graph are no longer so clear. Consequently, as the
relations between the characters and what they represent are largely unknown to
readers and writers of the language, the graphs are seen as groups of lines and angles
that make up repeated visual units, just as readers of English recognize whole words

without analyzing them into their constituent letters. A literate Chinese person knows
perhaps 4,000 of the
also called N(garY, Indian script used to write the Sanskrit, Pr(krit, Hindi, and
Marathi languages, developed from the North Indian monumental script known as
Gupta and ultimately from the Br(hmY alphabet, from which all modern Indian
writing systems are derived. In use from the 7th century AD and occurring in its
mature form from the 11th century onward, Devan(garY is characterized by long,
horizontal strokes at the tops of the letters, usually joinedin modern usage to form a
continuous horizontal line through the script when written. Devan(garY is written
from left to right and uses 48 letters34 consonants and 14 vowels and diphthongs.
In practice, the scriptthough alphabetic in originis syllabic, with a short a sound
being understood after each consonant unless the sign for an alternative vowel is
used; in the past, Devan(garY was frequently written without the vowel signs,
sometimes resulting in confusion.
writing system ancestral to all Indian scripts except KharohY. Of Aramaic
derivation or inspiration, it can be traced to the 8th or 7th century BC, when it may
have been introduced to Indian merchants by people of Semitic origin. Br(hmY is
semialphabetic, each consonant having either an inherent a sound pronounced after it
or a diacritic markto show another vowel; initial vowels have separate characters. In
most cases Br(hmY and its derivatives are written from left to right, but a coin of the
4th century BC, discovered in Madhya Pradesh, is inscribed with Br(hmY characters
running from right to left. Among the many descendants of Br(hmY are Devan(garY
(used for Sanskrit, Hindi, and other Indian languages), the Bengali and Gujarati
scripts, and those of the Dravidian languages.
Gupta script
any of a group of Indian alphabetic writing systems (sometimes modified to
represent syllables instead of single sounds) derived from a northern Indian alphabet
of the 4th6th century AD. The ruling Gupta state at that time gave the script its
name. It was developed out of Br(hmY and was spread with the Guptaempire over
large areas of conquered territory, with the result that the Gupta alphabet was the
ancestor (for the most part via Devan(garY) of most later Indian scripts.
The original Gupta alphabet had 37 letters, including 5 vowels, and was writtenfrom
left to right. Four main subtypes of Gupta script developed from the original
alphabet: eastern, western, southern, and Central Asian. The Central Asian Gupta can
be further divided into Central Asian Slanting Gupta and its Agnean and Kuchean
variants and Central Asian Cursive Gupta, or Khotanese.A western branch of eastern
Gupta gave rise to the Siddhamatrka script (c. AD 500), which, in turn, evolved into
the Devan(garY alphabet (c. AD 700), the most widespread of the modern Indian
Theories of the origin of the alphabet
The evolution of the alphabet involved two important achievements. The first was
the step taken by a group of Semitic-speaking people, perhaps the Phoenicians, on

the eastern shore of the Mediterranean between 1700 and 1500 BC. This was the
invention of a consonantal writing system known as North Semitic. The second was
the invention, by the Greeks, of characters for representing vowels. This step
occurred between 800 and 700 BC. While some scholars consider the Semitic
writing system an unvocalized syllabaryand the Greek system the true alphabet, both
are treated here as forms of the alphabet.
Over the centuries, various theories have been advanced to explain the origin of
alphabetic writing, and, since classical times, the problem has been a matter of
serious study. The Greeks and Romans considered five different peoples as the
possible inventors of the alphabetthe Phoenicians, Egyptians, Assyrians, Cretans,
and Hebrews. Among modern theories are some that are not very different from
those of ancient days. Every country situated in or more or less near the eastern
Mediterranean has been singled out for the honour. Egyptian writing, cuneiform,
Cretan, hieroglyphic Hittite, the Cypriot syllabary, and other scripts have all been
called prototypesof the alphabet. The Egyptian theory actually subdivides into three
separate theories, according to whether the Egyptian hieroglyphic, the hieratic, or the
demotic script is regarded as the true parent of alphabetic writing. Similarly, the idea
that cuneiform was the precursor of the alphabet may also be subdivided into those
singling out Sumerian, Babylonian, or Assyrian cuneiform.
Among the various other theories concerning the alphabet are the hypotheses that the
alphabet was brought by the Philistines from Crete to Palestine, that the various
ancient scripts of the Mediterranean countries developed from prehistoric geometric
symbols employed throughout the Mediterranean area from the earliest times, and
that the proto-Sinaitic inscriptions (discovered since 1905 in the Sinai Peninsula)
represent a stage of writing intermediate between the Egyptian hieroglyphics and the
North Semitic alphabet. Another hypothesis, the Ugaritic theory, evolved afteran
epoch-making discovery in 1929 (and the years following) at the site of the ancient
Ugarit, on the Syrian coast opposite the most easterly cape of Cyprus. Thousands of
clay tablets were found there, documents of inestimable value in many fields of
research (including epigraphy, philology, and the history of religion). Dating from
the 15th and 14th centuries BC, they were written in a cuneiform alphabet of 30
The Early Canaanite theory is based on several undeciphered inscriptions also
discovered since 1929 at various Palestinian sites; the writings belong in part to c.
1700 BC and are thus the earliest preserved documents in an alphabetic writing.
Despite the conflict in theories, scholars are generally agreed that, for about 200
years before the middle of the 2nd millennium BC, alphabet making wasin the air in
the Syro-Palestinian region. It is idle to speculate on the meaning of the various
discoveries referred to. That they manifest closely related efforts is certain; what the
exact relationship among these efforts was, and what their relationship with the
North Semitic alphabet was, cannotbe said with certainty.
It can, however, be ascertained that the period from 1730 to 1580 BC in Syria,
Palestine, and Egypt, during which there was an uprooting of established cultural and
ethnic patterns in the Fertile Crescent, provided conditions favourable to the
conception of an alphabetic script, a kind of writing that would be more accessible to

larger groups of people, in contrastto the scripts of the old states of Mesopotamia and
Egypt, which were confined largely to the priestly class. In default of other direct
evidence, it is reasonable to suppose that the actual prototype of the alphabet was not
verydifferent from the writing of the earliest North Semitic inscriptions now
extant,which belong to the last two or three centuries of the 2nd millennium BC.
TheNorth Semitic alphabet was so constant for many centuries that it is impossible to
think that there had been any material changes in the preceding two to three
centuries. Moreover, the North Semitic languages, based as they are on a consonantal
root (i.e., a system in which the vowels serve mainly to indicate grammatical or
similar changes), were clearly suitable for the creation of a consonantal alphabet.
The inventor or inventors of the alphabet were, no doubt, influenced by Egyptian
writingperhaps also by other scripts. Indeed, it is probable that those who invented
the alphabet were acquainted with most of the scripts current in the eastern
Mediterranean lands at the time. Though the nationality of the inventor or inventors
of the alphabet is unknown, it is now generally agreed that he or they belonged to the
Northwest Semitic linguisticgroup, which includes the ancient Canaanites,
Phoenicians, and Hebrews.
Originally, graphs were perhaps motivated pictorial signs that were subsequently
used to represent the initial sound of the name of the pictured object. The North
Semitic alphabet remained almost unaltered for many centuries. If the signs' external
form (which, it must be emphasized, had no particular significance) is ignored and
only their phonetic value, number, andorder are considered, the modern Hebrew
alphabet may be regarded as a continuation of the original alphabet created more
than 3,500 years ago. TheHebrew order of the letters seems to be the oldest. The
earliest evidence that the Hebrew alphabet was learned systematically was left in the
form of a schoolboy's scribbling on the vertical face of the upper step of a staircase
leading up to the palace at Tel Lakhish, in southern Israel. It includes the scratching
of the first five letters of the early Hebrew alphabet in their conventional order, and it
belongs to the 8th or 7th century BC.
Development and diffusion of alphabets
At the end of the 2nd millennium BC, with the political decay of the great nations of
the Bronze Agethe Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Hittites, and Cretansa
new historical world began. In Syria and Palestine, the geographical centre of the
Fertile Crescent, three nationsIsrael, Phoenicia, and Aramplayed an increasingly
important political role. To the south of the Fertile Crescent, the Sabaeans, a South
Arabian people (also Semites, though South Semites), attained a position of wealth
and importance as commercial intermediaries between the East and the
Mediterranean. To the west, seeds were sown among the peoples who later
constituted the nation of Hellasthe Greeks. As a result, an alphabet developed with
four main branches: (1) the so-called Canaanite, or main branch, subdivided into
EarlyHebrew and Phoenician varieties; (2) the Aramaic branch; (3) the South
Semitic, or Sabaean, branch; and (4) the Greek alphabet, which became the
progenitor of the Western alphabets, including the Etruscan and the Latin. The
Canaanite and Aramaic branches constitute the North Semitic main branch.

The Canaanite alphabet

The two Canaanite branches may be subdivided into several secondary branches.
First, Early Hebrew had three secondary branchesMoabite, Edomite, and
Ammoniteand two offshootsthe script of Jewish coins and the Samaritan script,
still in use today for liturgical purposes only. Second, Phoenician can be divided into
Phoenician proper and colonial Phoenician. Out of the latter developed the Punic
and neo-Punic scripts and probably also the Libyan and Iberian scripts.
The term Early Hebrew is used to distinguish this branch from the later so-called
Square Hebrew. The Early Hebrew alphabet had already begun to acquire its
distinctive character by the 11th century BC. It was used officially until the 6th
century BC and lingered on for several centuries more. In a stylized form it was used
on Jewish coins from 135 BC to AD 132135. The most ancient example of Early
Hebrew writing is that of the Gezer Calendar of the period of Saul or David (i.e., c.
1000 BC). The oldest extant example of the Early Hebrew ABCs is the 8th7thcentury-BC schoolboy graffito mentioned above. A cursive style reached its climax
in the inscriptions at Tel Lakhish, dating from the beginning of the 6th century BC.
The Leviticus and other small Early Hebrew fragments found in the Dead Sea caves,
which areprobably from the 3rd century BC, are the only remains of what is
considered to be the Early Hebrew book, or literary, hand.
It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the Phoenician alphabet in thehistory
of writing. The earliest definitely readable inscription in the North Semitic alphabet
is the so-called Ahiram inscription found at Byblos in Phoenicia (now Lebanon),
which probably dates from the 11th century BC. There is, however, no doubt that the
Phoenician use of the North Semitic alphabet went further back. By being adopted
and then adapted by the Greeks, the North Semitic, or Phoenician, alphabet became
the direct ancestor of all Western alphabets. Only very few inscriptions have been
found in Phoenicia proper. This rarity of indigenous documents is in contrastto the
numbers of Phoenician inscriptions found elsewhereon Cyprus, Malta, Sicily, and
Sardinia, and in Greece, North Africa, Marseille, Spain, and other places.
The Aramaic alphabet
The adaptation of the North Semitic alphabet to the Aramaic language took place at
some time in the 10th century BC, when Aramaic was spoken in several petty
kingdoms in northern Mesopotamia and Syria, the most important of them being
Dammeshek (Damascus). The process of the reestablishment of the Assyrian Empire
and its hegemony over a good part of the Middle East began in the 9th century. One
after another, the Aramaeanstates gave way under Assyrian onslaught. Dammeshek,
the last survivor, fell in 732 BC. The end of Aramaean political independence
marked the beginning of Aramaean cultural and economic supremacy in western
Asia. The transplantation of masses of Aramaeans by the Assyrians, a political
measure designed to break up military alliances, bore remarkable fruit. By the end of
the 8th century BC the use of the Aramaic language and alphabet had become very
widespread in Assyria itself; by the end of the following century all of Syria and a
large part of Mesopotamia had become thoroughly Aramaized.

On the whole, the few early Aramaic inscriptions that have been found belong to the
9th, 8th, and 7th centuries BC. Inscriptions from the 6th and later centuries are more
numerous; the increase reflects the rapid spread ofthe Aramaic alphabet throughout
the Middle East. Numerous Aramaic papyriand ostraca (inscribed pottery fragments)
have been found in Egypt; the earliest of these can be dated to c. 515 BC, while the
most famous are the Elephantine papyri, containing information of a religious and
economic nature about a 5th-century Hebrew military colony in Egypt. Aramaic
inscriptions have been found in northern Arabia, Palestine, Lycia, Cappadocia, Lydia,
Cilicia, Assyria, and as far afield as Greece, Afghanistan,and India.
Almost as if by prearrangement, all of the alphabetic scripts west of Syria seem to
have been derived, directly or indirectly, from the Canaanite alphabet, whereas the
hundreds of alphabetic writings of the East apparently have sprung from the
offshoots of the Aramaic alphabet. On the whole, the direct and indirect descendants
of the Aramaic alphabet can be divided into two main groups: the scripts employed
for Semitic languages and those adapted to non-Semitic tongues. With regard to the
Semitic offshoots, six separate alphabets may be discerned: the Hebrew, the
Nabataean-Sinaitic-Arabic, the Palmyrene, the Syriac-Nestorian, the Mandaean, and
the Manichaean. Some of these alphabets became links between the Aramaic
alphabet and the numerous scripts used for the non-Semitic languages of Central,
South, and Southeast Asia.
Among these scripts, which were directly or mainly indirectly adapted to nonSemitic languages from the Aramaic alphabet, are: (1) the Persian (Iranian) scripts
known as Pahlavi, which were used for such writings as sacred (pre-Isl(mic) Persian
literature; (2) Sogdian, a script and language that constituted the lingua franca of
Central Asia in the second half of the 1st millennium AD; (3) Kk Turki, a script
used from the 6th to the 8th century ADby Turkish tribes living in the southern part
of central Siberia, in northwesternMongolia, and in northeastern Turkistan (this
alphabet was the prototype of the early Hungarian alphabet); (4) the alphabet of the
Uighur, a Turkic-speaking people who lived in Mongolia and eastern Turkistan in the
early 13th century; this script was adapted, with Tibetan influence, and adopted as
the writing of the Mongol Empire (the so-called Kalika script); (5) the early scripts
of the Mongols, including Kalmuck, Buryat (Buriat), Mongolian proper, and the
allied Manchu alphabet.
The Aramaic alphabet was probably also the prototype of the Br(hmY script of India,
a script that became the parent of nearly all Indian writings. Derived from the
Aramaic alphabet, it came into being in northwest India. The Armenian and Georgian
alphabets, created by St. Mesrob (Mashtots) in the early 5th century AD, were also
based on the Aramaic alphabet.
The South Semitic alphabet
The South Semitic, or Sabaean, branch remained within the confines of the Arabian
Peninsula for most of its history. It was in use at the beginning of the1st millennium
BC. The most that can be said about its origins is that it neither developed from nor
directly depended upon the North Semitic alphabet. It may have been derived,
ultimately, from the proto-Sinaitic script, with some influence from the North
Semitic. Offshoots from the South Semitic branch include the Minaean, Himyaritic,

Qatabanic, and Hadhramautic alphabets in southern Arabia, and Thamudene,

Dedanite, and Safaitic alphabets in the northern part of the peninsula. Numerous
inscriptions in these alphabets are the principal source for the study of those onceflourishing kingdoms, including Saba (the biblical Sheba), relegated by the rise of
Isl(m to the backwaters of history.
The Sabaean offshoot, a graceful and elegant script consisting of 29 letters, spread
into Africa, where it became the progenitor of the Ethiopic alphabet; this in turn gave
birth to the modern Amharic, Tigr, Tigrinya, and other alphabets of modern
Ethiopia. These are the only South Semitic scripts still in use today.
The Greek alphabet
As in so many other things, the importance of the ancient Greeks in the history of the
alphabet is paramount. All of the alphabets in use in European languages today are
directly or indirectly related to the Greek. The Greek achievement was to provide
representations for vowel sounds. Consonants plus vowels made a writing system
that was both economical and unambiguous. The true alphabetic system has
remained for 3,000 years, with only slight modifications, an unparalleled vehicle of
expression and communication in and among the most diverse nationalities and
languages. The Greek alphabet, created early in the 1st millennium BC, spread in
various directions in Asia Minor, Egypt, Italy, and other places, but far and away its
most important descendants were the Etruscan Latin and the Cyrillic alphabets.
Theories explaining diffusion
There is no complete agreement among scholars as to how or why certain alphabets
have come to dominate much of the world. Some believe that diffusion is explained
by the efficiency of the orthography; the Greek alphabet, capable of representing
unambiguously a full range of meanings, was adopted throughout western Europe.
Others hold that the alphabet follows the flag; that is, that the diffusion of an
alphabet results from political and military conquests by the people who use it. Still
others hold that the alphabet follows trade or religion. A few examples may illustrate
the point: (1) The Latin language and script were carried by Roman legionaries and
imperial officers to all parts of the vast Roman Empire, particularly to the regions
that were not Hellenized. In later centuries, however, churchmen and missionaries
carried the Latin language and script still farther afield. The ascendancy of Latin led
to the adoption of the Latin (Roman) alphabet by a large majority of nations; it
became used for tongues of the most diverse linguistic groups, not only in Europe
but in all other parts of the worldas well. (2) Two alphabets, the Cyrillic and the
Latin, are used for writing Slavic languages. Cyrillic is used by those Slavic peoples
who accepted their religion from Byzantium, whereas Roman Christianity brought
the use of the Latin alphabet to the Poles, Lusatians, Wends, Czechs, Slovaks,
Slovenes, and Croats. (3) The Arabic alphabet is, after Latin, the most generally used
in Asia and Africa. The rise of Isl(m in the 7th century AD and the tremendous
Isl(mic expansion and conquest carried the Isl(mic holy book, the Qur(n, written in
the Arabic alphabet, over a vast area: the Middle East, North and Central Africa,
South and Southeast Asia, and even southern Europe. The Arabic alphabet was,
therefore, adapted to Semitic and Indo-European forms of speech, to Tatar-Turkish,

Iranian, and Austronesian (Malayo-Polynesian) tongues, and to several African

languages. (4) The movement eastward from India of the Indian Br(hmY-Buddhist
alphabets was much more peaceful than that of the Arabic alphabet. These offshoots,
which took root in Sri Lanka, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Cambodia, Laos,
Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines, were again the result of the spreading of a
religionBuddhismbut by missionaries and not by armies.
Major alphabets of the world
Hebrew alphabet
It is generally believed, in accordance with Jewish tradition, that the Early Hebrew
alphabet was superseded in the Holy Land by the Aramaic alphabetduring the
Babylonian Exile (586516 BC) and that the Aramaic script therefore became the
parent of the Square Hebrew (in Hebrew ketav meruba [square script] or ketav
ashuri [Assyrian writing]). The theory may be only partly correct, because in the
Holy Land the Early Hebrew alphabet was an object of such strong local attachment
that for several centuries it was used side by side with the Aramaic script.
At any rate, there is little doubt that the Square Hebrew did derive from the Aramaic
alphabet. A distinctive Jewish variety of the Aramaic alphabet that can be regarded as
the Square Hebrew script can be traced from the 3rd century BC. It became
standardized just before the Christian Era, and it was from this script that the modern
Hebrew alphabet, in all its styles, eventually developed. The development was
gradual and purely external (i.e., in the shapes of the single letters); from the internal
standpoint (i.e., considering the phonetic values of the letters), there has been no
development, though it must be borne in mind that for several letters (waw, Ret,
tzade, qof, shin, sin, and so forth) the exact original phonetic value is still uncertain.
When the Square Hebrew alphabet became standardized, it took (at least, in its
formalstyle and, much later, in its printed form) the form that, with insignificant
changes, it has today. Minute rules laid down by the Talmud made further
development of the Square Hebrew all but impossible.
In the Square Hebrew alphabet there are five letterskaf, mem, nun, pe, and tzade
that have dual forms. That is, there is one character for initial or medialposition and
another for final position.
The Hebrew alphabet consists of 22 letters, all consonants, though four of them
alef, he, waw, and yodare also employed to represent long vowels. The absence of
vowel letters was not at first a problem, because Hebrew, like other Semitic
languages, has consonantal roots, with vowels serving principally to denote
inflections in nouns, moods of verbs, and other grammatical variations. As Hebrew
speech passed out of daily use (being superseded by Aramaic, which became the
vernacular of the Jews) and the knowledge of biblical Hebrew steadily declined, it
became necessary to introduce some form of vocalic distinction so that the Bible
could be read and explained correctly. The three main vowel systems now extant are
the Babylonian, the Palestinian, and the Tiberiadic; of these the latter is the most
important and, indeed, the only one still in use. The Tiberiadic system consists of
dots, combinations of dots, and small dashes.

Before the discovery of the celebrated Dead Sea Scrolls, several Square Hebrew
inscriptions belonging mainly to the 1st century BC and the succeeding centuries
were known; they were found on rocks, tombs, or ossuaries (depositories for the
bones of the dead) and in synagogues and catacombs in Palestine, Syria, North
Africa, and Italy. The biblical manuscripts, except for some fragments written on
papyrus, belong to a much later date. The earliest fragment is the Nash papyrus of
approximately the 1st century BC, now in the University of Cambridge Library.
Many thousands of fragments of Hebrew biblical and other manuscripts, partly of the
7th and 8th centuries AD, were discovered in the Geniza, an archive in the old
synagogue in Cairo.
The focus of scholarly interest during the late 1940s and the successive years was the
sensational discovery of Hebrew biblical and nonbiblical scrolls in caves near the
Dead Sea. The tens of thousands of fragmentary manuscripts, composing what are
popularly called the Dead Sea Scrolls, may be divided into several groups, the oldest
being a collection of biblical and other Hebrew manuscripts dating approximately
from the 3rd century BC.
In the more than bimillenary development of the Square Hebrew alphabet, four
fundamental types can be noticed: (1) the square script, which evolved into the wellproportioned printing type of modern Hebrew (the majority of Dead Sea Scrolls are
in this Square Hebrew script); (2) the medieval formal styles; (3) the rabbinic, also
known as Rashi writing, which was the medieval book or literary hand; and (4) a
cursive script or daily handwriting, which gave rise to many local varieties (Oriental,
Spanish, Italian, Franco-German, and so on), of which the Polish-German became
the current Hebrew handwriting of today. The Hebrew script has been adapted to
some other languages, such as Arabic, Turkish (for the Karaite people of Crimea),
and so forth, but particularly to Germanhence, Yiddishand Spanishhence,
Arabic alphabet
The Arabic script descended from the Aramaic through the Nabataean and the neoSinaitic alphabets. After the Latin script, it is the most widely used form of
alphabetic writing in the modern world. The Arab conquests of the 7th and 8th
centuries AD brought the language and the script to the vast expanse of territory
extending from India to the Atlantic Ocean. The Arabic alphabet was adapted, with
some necessary modifications, to such diverse languages as the Slavic tongues,
Spanish, Persian, Urdu, Turkish, Hebrew, Berber, Swahili, Malay, Sudanese, and
The Arabic alphabet probably originated at some time in the 4th century AD, but the
earliest extant Arabic writing is a trilingual inscriptionGreek-Syriac-Arabicof
AD 512. The two principal types of Arabic writing, which developed quite early in
the Muslim period, were the Kfic, from the town of Kfah in Mesopotamia, seat of a
famous Muslim academy, and the naskhY, or Mecca-Medina script. Kfic, a heavy,
bold, and lapidary style, appeared toward the end of the 7th century AD. It was
particularly suitable for writing on stone or metal, for painting or carving inscriptions
on the walls of mosques, and for lettering on coins. Its letters are generally thick,

squat, and unslanted. With the high development of Arabic calligraphy, Kfic writing
became an exceptionally beautiful script. From it there were derived a number of
other styles, chiefly medieval, in North and Central Africa, Spain, and northern
Arabia. Thereafter, it was virtually discontinued except for formal and monumental
writing. Nevertheless, it was also used for writing precious manuscripts of the
Qur(n, many of which are extant today.
The naskhY style was from the very outset a more cursive form. It was
alwaysemployed chiefly for writing on papyrus. In time, it evolved into innumerable
styles and varieties, including the taliq, the riqa, the divani, the thuluth, and the
syakat, and became the parent of the modern Arabic writing.
Like other Semitic scripts, Arabic is written from right to left. Its alphabet contains
28 consonantal letters, 22 being directly derived from the Aramaic-Nabataean branch
of the North Semitic alphabet and six being newadditions; three of the lettersalif,
w(w, and y(are also used as long vowels.
The written letters undergo a slight external change according to their position within
a word. When they stand alone or occur at the end of a word, they ordinarily
terminate in a bold stroke; when they appear in the middle of a word, they are
ordinarily joined to the letter following by a small, upward curved stroke. With the
exception of six letters, which can be joined only to the preceding ones, the initial
and medial letters are much abbreviated, while the final form consists of the initial
form with a triumphant flourish. Theessential part of the characters, however,
remains unchanged. On the whole, the evolution of the forms of the Arabic letters
was the most rapid of all the branches of alphabetic writing.
Although the absence of vowel letters was not strongly felt in Arabic (as in Hebrew
and other Semitic languages), for teaching purposes and for correctreading of the
Qur(n, the use of diacritical marks (including signs for short vowels, which are
sometimes used in conjunction with the letters alif, w(w, and y() was introduced in
Basra in the early 8th century. The practice was probably borrowed from the Syriac
script. It not only provides vowel sounds but also distinguishes different consonants;
diacritical points are also used as endings in the inflection of nouns and the moods of
verbs. These marksthere are three of themare written above or below the
consonants (preceding the vowel), while a sign called sukn indicates the absence of
a vowel. Thus, there are, on the whole, a great number of diacritical points; these
form a peculiar characteristic of this writing form.
Indian alphabets
The Aramaic alphabet was probably the prototype of the Br(hmY script of India, the
ancestor of all Indian scripts. The transmission probably took place in the 7th century
Bc. Adapting the Aramaic script to the Indo-Aryan tongue of India was by no means
simple or straightforward. The shapes of many Br(hmY letters show clear Semitic
influence; moreover, the Br(hmY script was originally written from right to left. It is
obvious, however, that on the whole it was the idea of alphabetic writing that was
transmitted and that the fully developed Br(hmY writing was the outcome of the
brilliant philological and phonological elaboration of the scientific Indian school.

During the 5th century BC the second of the prototypal Indian alphabetsthe Kharo
hY scriptcame into being in northwest India (which was then under Persian
rule). Although the origin of Br(hmY is still uncertain and hotly discussed, it is
commonly accepted that the KharohY alphabet is a direct descendant from the
Aramaic alphabet. Moreover, the direction of writing in KharohY script is as in
Aramaic, from right to left, and there is also a likeness of many signs having similar
phonetic value.
In the later centuries of its existence, Br(hmY gave birth to eight varieties of script.
Three of themthe early and late Maurya and the ungabecame the prototypes
of the North Indian subdivision of the Br(hmY script in the 1st centuries BC and AD.
Out of this North Indian subdivision there arose the Gupta, which was employed
from the 4th to the 6th century AD and became the ancestor of the great majority of
Indian scripts.
The western variety of the Gupta spread into eastern (or Chinese) Turkistan, where it
was adopted for a number of languages, including the recently discovered Turfanian
and Kuchean (Tocharian A and B), and where it strongly influenced the invention or
revision of the Tibetan script (AD 639). There were two main offshoots of the
Tibetan writing: the 'Phags-pa, adapted to the Chinese and Mongolian languages in
1272; and the Lepch(, which arose in the beginning of the 18th century.
Much more important was the Siddham(tka script, developed during the 6th
century AD from the western branch of the eastern Gupta character. The
Siddham(tka became the ancestor of the Devan(garY, or N(garY, script (Sanskrit
deva [divine], n(garY [script of the city]), which is the script used for Sanskrit. It
is, therefore, the most important Indian script. Consisting of 48 signs (14 vowels and
diphthongs and 34 basic consonants), it is the common means of communication
among the learned throughout India. The Devan(garY developed in the 7th to 9th
centuries and has remained since then essentially unaltered.
From the Devan(garY writing as used in eastern India in the 11th century, there
developed the proto-Bengali and the early Nep(lY, or New(rY, scripts, from which
the many scripts employed at present in northern India and Bangladesh descended
(e.g., the Bengali, Oiy(, ManipurY, Assamese, Gujar(tY, and Hindi scripts and the
various Eastern Hindi local scripts).
In northwestern India several other scripts are employed. The S(rad( script, a
descendant of the western type of the Gupta character, originated inthe 8th century
and is still employed for KashmirY. In addition, there are the several varieties of the
(krY, used by the people living on the lower ranges of the western Himalayas; the
DogrY, used for a dialect of Punj(bY; the Lap;(, the national alphabet of Punj(bY,
which has many varieties and is used mainly by shopkeepers of Punjab and Sindh;
and the Gurmukhi script, the characters of the Sikh scriptures.
In South India, which is inhabited by peoples speaking Dravidian languages, several
other scripts are used, of which the Kanna;a, or Kanarese, the Telugu, the Grantha,
the Tulu-Malay(lam, the Tamil, and the Vaeduttu are the most important.

Long before the existence of the Gupta script, the Br(hmY script had already begun
its eastward movement. The Indo-Aryan migration in the 5th century BC to the
island now known as Sri Lanka had set the stage there, and the earliest Br(hmY
inscriptions in Sri Lanka can be dated to the 3rd century BC. Most dramatic of all,
however, was the expansion of Buddhism from India into what are now Sri Lanka,
Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia. As already
mentioned, unlike the conquests of Isl(m, this was a peaceful movement; its
soldiers were Buddhist monks, political independents who built an empire founded
on the cultural and spiritual community of peoples. Among their many achievements,
these monks brought into being offshoots from the Br(hmY script, principally from
its South Indian varieties, throughout the vast extent of territory from India itself to
the Philippines. Thus arose the many scripts of Southeast Asia, fromthe Cham
writing of Cambodia to the Kavi character of Java and its Sumatran offshoots and the
Tagalog writing of the Philippines.
All these Indian and Southeast Asian scripts involve types of semi-syllabaries rather
than alphabets. They consist of vowels and diphthongs and basic consonants (i.e.,
consonants followed by a short a); there are no pure consonants (i.e., consonants
written by themselves).
Greek alphabet
The Greek alphabet derived from the North Semitic script in the 8th century BC. The
direction of writing in the oldest Greek inscriptionsas in the Semitic scriptsis
from right to left, a style that was superseded by the boustrophedon (meaning, in
Greek, as the ox draws the plow), in which lines run alternately from right to left
and left to right. This change occurred approximately in the 6th century BC. There
are, however, some early Greek inscriptions written from left to right, and after 500
BC Greek writing invariablyproceeded from left to right.
The letters for b, g, d, z, k, l, m, n, p, r, and t, which are sounds common to the
Semitic and Greek languages, were taken over without change. The principal Greek
change arose in applying a script developed to represent a Semitic language, in
which vowel sounds are of minor importance to the identity of a word, to a language
in which such vowel differences are crucial to the identity of a word. In Greek,
/kat/, /kit/, and /kot/ are entirely different words, while in Semitic languages they
would be the same word in different grammatically inflected forms. The Greek
addition of vowels to the alphabet to make it an analogue of the sound pattern
produced a writing system that was both manageable and accurate. The different
ways in which these adaptations were carried out allow the two main branches of the
early Greekalphabetthe eastern and the westernto be distinguished. These again
subdivided, each into secondary branches. Within this general grouping there were
many local peculiarities, but the differences between all these local alphabets
involved variations in detail rather than essential structure.
The eastern and western subdivisions were the two principal branches of the early
Greek alphabet. The Ionic alphabet was the most important of the eastern variety,
which also included the Greek alphabets of Asia Minor and the adjacent islands, of
the Cyclades and Attica, of Sicyon and Argos, and of Megara, Corinth, and the
Ionian colonies of Magna Graecia. A secondary branch of the eastern subdivision

was made up of the alphabets used on the Dorian islands of Thera, Melos, and Crete.
The alphabets of Euboea (Chalcidian), Boeotia, Phocis, Locris, Thessaly, the
Peloponnesus (except its northeastern part), and of the non-Ionian colonies of Magna
Graecia belonged to the western subdivision. It is a controversial point whether the
eastern or the western branch was the earlier in time, whether there was any
derivative link between one and the other, or whether they represent two quite
independent adaptations of the Semitic alphabet. The latter alternativeseems rather
Gradually, the Greek local alphabets became more and more similar. In 403BC the
Ionic alphabet of Miletus was officially adopted in Athens and later also in the other
states. By the middle of the 4th century BC almost all the local alphabets had been
replaced by the Ionic, which became the common,classical Greek alphabet of 24
After this time the development of the Greek alphabet was almost wholly external, in
the direction of greater utility, convenience, and, above all, beauty.The classical style
was retained as a monumental script at the same time that more cursive forms grew
up for writing on such surfaces as parchment, papyrus, and wax. The classical letters
were also retained as the capital letters in the modern print (though some of the
capitals in modern Greek handwriting are borrowed from the Latin alphabet). On the
other hand, the classical Greek alphabet also evolved into the Greek uncials, the
cursive, and the minuscule script. (Uncial letters were somewhat rounded and
separated versions of capital letters or cursive forms; minuscule letters developed
from cursive writing and have simplified, small forms.) Until about AD 800 the
uncials were used as a book hand; later the minuscule script was employed for the
same purpose. The cursive scripts evolved into the modern Greek minuscule.
In the middle of the 3rd century BC, the Greek scholar Aristophanes of Byzantium
introduced the three accentsacute, grave, and circumflexthat were thereafter
used to assist students, particularly foreigners, in the correctpronunciation of Greek
words; these continue to be used in most Greek texts printed today. Originally, these
marks indicated tone or pitch, not stress.
Countless inscriptions have been discovered all over the Hellenic and Hellenistic
world and beyond. They include official decrees, annals, codes oflaw, lists of
citizens, civic rolls, temple accounts, votive offerings, ostraca (fragments of pottery),
sepulchral inscriptions, coins, lettering on vases, and so forth. These, along with
many thousands of Greek manuscripts, both ancient and medieval, serve as sources
for the studies known as Greek epigraphy and Greek paleography and are of untold
importance for all branches of ancient history, philology, philosophy, and other
The most direct offshoots from the Greek alphabet were those adapted to the
languages of the non-Hellenic peoples of western Asia Minor in the 1st millennium
BC: the scripts of the Lycians, Phrygians, Pamphylians, Lydians, and Carians. The
first three of these were derived directly from the Greek; the Lydian and Carian were
strongly influenced by it. The Coptic alphabet was the other non-European offshoot
from the Greek and the only one used in Africa. Twenty-four of its 31 letters were
borrowed from the Greek uncial writing, and seven were taken over from a

particularly cursive variety of the Egyptian demotic writing; the demotic letters were
used to express Coptic sounds not existing in the Greek language.
More significant, however, were the European offshoots. In Italy, two alphabets
derived directly from the Greek: the Etruscan and the Messapian (Messapic). The
Messapii were an ancient tribe who inhabited the present Apulia (in southern Italy) in
pre-Roman times; their language is presumed tobelong to the Illyrian group. More
than 200 Messapian inscriptions have been discovered. In southeastern Europe there
were three offshoots from the Greek alphabet: the Gothic, Cyrillic, and Glagolitic
alphabets. The Gothic alphabet, not to be confused with the so-called Gothic script (a
variety of the Latin alphabet), was a script created by the Gothic bishop Ulfilas (or
Wulfila),who died c. AD 382. The script consisted of 27 letters, of which some 19 or
20 were taken over from the Greek uncial script. Ulfilas translated the Bible into
Gothic; of this translation, some fragments are extant in manuscripts of the 5th and
6th centuries. The most important manuscript is the Codex Argenteus, preserved in
Uppsala, Swed.
Cyrillic and Glagolitic alphabets
The two early Slavic alphabets, the Cyrillic and the Glagolitic, were invented by St.
Cyril, or Constantine (c. 827869), and St. Methodius (c. 825884). These men were
Greeks from Thessalonica who became apostles to the southern Slavs, whom they
converted to Christianity. An early tradition, in attributing the invention of an early
Slavic writing to Cyril, does not indicate whether his contribution was the Cyrillic or
the Glagolitic. It is just possible that both alphabets were invented by him. The
earliest dated Old Slavic documents belong to the late 10th and the 11th centuries.
The Cyrillic and the Glagolitic alphabets differed widely in the form of their letters,
in the history of their development, and partly also in the number of the letters, but
they were alike in representing adequately the many sounds of Slavic.
The Cyrillic alphabet was based on the Greek uncial writing of the 9th century. It
originally had a total of 43 letters; the two Hebrew letters tzade andshin were
transformed into the Cyrillic letters for the sounds ch, sh, and shch. The modern
forms of this alphabet have fewer letters. Glagolitic writingconsisted of 40 letters,
externally very unlike either the Greek or Cyrillic scripts.
Cyrillic became, with slight modification in each case, the national script of the
Bulgarians, Serbs, Russians, Belorussians, and Ukrainians. (The other Slavic peoples
the Slovenes, Croats, Czechs, Slovaks, Wends, Lusatians, and Polesuse the
Latin alphabet.) In the Balkan Peninsula a single language, Serbo-Croatian, is written
in Cyrillic by the Greek Orthodox Serbs and in the Latin alphabet by the Roman
Catholic Croats. For a time, Cyrillic was also adapted to the Romanian language, and
in recent times, through the medium of Russian script, it became the writing of a
number of Finno-Ugric languages (Komi, Votyak, Mordvinian, Vogul, Ostyak, etc.),
Turco-Tatar languages (Chuvash, Turkmenian, Azerbaijanian, etc.), Iranian
languages (Ossetic, Kurdish, Tajiki), and Caucasian languages (Abkhaz, Circassian,
Avar, etc.).

The history of the Glagolitic alphabet is particularly connected with the religious
history of the Slavic peoples of southwest central Europe and the western Balkan
Peninsula. In the second half of the 9th century it was introduced, together with the
Slavonic liturgy, into the Moravian kingdom, but with the banning of this liturgy by
the pope it disappeared from Moravia. It was, however, accepted (also with the
Slavonic liturgy) in Bulgaria and Croatia and spread along the Dalmatian coast
southward into Montenegro and westward into Istria. Although the Glagolitic script
soon disappeared among the Greek Orthodox Slavic peoples because of the victory
of the Cyrillic, it continued, notwithstanding the opposition of the higher Roman
Catholic authorities, to be employed among the Roman Catholics of the western
Balkan Peninsula together with the Slavonic liturgy and finally succeeded in
obtaining the special license of the pope. It is still employed in the Slavonic liturgy in
some Dalmatian and Montenegrin communities; the inhabitants of these places are
the only Roman Catholics to use the Slavonic liturgy. The earliest preserved
Glagolitic secular document dates from 1309. Glagolitic had a short flourishing
period in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Etruscan alphabet
The Etruscans, a highly civilized people who were the ancestors of the modern
Tuscans and the predecessors of the Romans, inhabited what is now Tuscany in
central Italy; their language, still mainly undeciphered, has come down in more than
11,000 inscriptions, the earliest being the 8th-century-bc Marsiliana Tablet, preserved
in the Museo Archeologico in Florence. This is also the earliest preserved record of a
Western alphabet. The early Etruscan alphabet, unlike any early Greek alphabet
found in the Greek inscriptions, contains the originalthe prototypeGreek
alphabet, consisting of the 22 North Semitic letters, with the phonetic values given to
them by the Greeks, and the four additional Greek letters at the end of the alphabet.
The Etruscans introduced various changes in their script, and several features in the
modern alphabets can be attributed to the influence of the ancient Etruscans. An
example is the phonetic value of /k/ for the letters c, k, and q. Like the Semitic and
the early Greek alphabets, Etruscan writing nearly always reads from right to left,
though a few inscriptions are in boustrophedon style. The probable date of the origin
of the Etruscan alphabet is the late 9th or early 8th century BC.
About 400 BC the classical Etruscan alphabet took its final form of 20 letters
four vowels and 16 consonants. Because the voiced and voiceless sounds b and p, d
and t, g and k were not differentiated in the Etruscan language, the letters b and d
never appear in pure Etruscan inscriptions, and after the disappearance of k and q,
the letter C was employed for g and k.
The Etruscan alphabet had many varieties and several offshoots. Among
theoffshoots, apart from the Latin, were many alphabets used by Italic populations of
pre-Roman Italy and by non-Italic tribes (e.g., the Piceni).
Latin alphabet
The adaptation of the Etruscan alphabet to the Latin language probably took place
some time in the 7th century BC. From this century there is a gold brooch known as
the Praeneste Fibula (preserved in the Museo Preistorico Etnografico Luigi Pigorini

in Rome). The inscription, written in an early form of Latin, runs from right to left
and reads clearly: manios: med:fhefhaked:numasioi, which in classical Latin is
Manius me fecit Numerio (Manius made me for Numerius).
Dating from the end of the 7th or the beginning of the 6th century BC is a famous
cippus (small pillar) from the Roman Forum; it is inscribed vertically on its four
faces, in boustrophedon style. Another inscription, probably of the 6th century BC, is
known as that of the Duenos Vase and was found in Rome, near the Quirinal Hill. It
is also written from right to left. Some Sabine inscriptions belong to the 5th or the
4th century BC. There are also a few inscriptions belonging to the 3rd and 2nd
centuries BC.
The Roman capital letters, a form of writing that was used under the empire with
unparalleled effectiveness for monumental purposes, became a byword for precision
and grandeur, despite a very unprepossessing beginning. Indeed, for the first six
centuries of its existence, Roman writing was relatively unimpressive. Only with the
advent of the 1st century BC were there signs of magnificence to come.
An opinion that used to be commonly held, and still is held by many, is that the Latin
alphabet was derived directly from the Greek in a form used by Greek colonists in
Italy. The theory rested on an assertion that the Latin alphabet corresponds to the
Chalcidian variety of the western group of Greek scripts employed at Cumae in
Campania, southern Italy. This theory is unlikely; indeed, as already mentioned, the
Etruscan alphabet was the link between the Greek and the Latin. For instance, the
most interesting feature in the inscription of the Praeneste Fibula is the device of
combining the letters f and h to represent the Latin sound of f. This was one of the
Etruscan ways of representing the same sound. Also, most of the Latin letternames,
such as a, be, ce, de for the Greek alpha, beta, gamma, delta, and so on, were taken
over from the Etruscans.
Runic and ogham alphabets
Runes, in all their varieties, may be regarded as the national script of the ancient
North Germanic tribes. The origin of the name rune (or runic) is probably related to
the fact that the ancient Germanic tribes, like all primitive peoples, attributed magic
powers to the mysterious symbols scratched on armour, jewels, tombstones, and so
forth. This is given credence by two related Germanic forms that mean mystery,
secret, secrecy: the Old Germanic root ru- and the Gothic runa. The most interesting
runic inscriptions are those that were cut for magical purposes and those that appeal
to deities.
The origin of the runes offers many difficult problems and has been hotly argued by
scholars and others. The theory of the Urrunen (forerunners of therunes), a supposed
prehistoric north Germanic alphabetic script, holds that it is the parent not only of the
runes but also of all the Mediterranean alphabets, including the Phoenician. This
belief, based on racial and political grounds, need not be seriously considered. Some
scholars propounded the 6th century BC Greek alphabet as the prototype of the
runes;others have suggested the Greek cursive alphabet of the last centuries BC.
Several eminent scholars have proposed the Latin alphabet as the source of the runes.
The most probable theory, supported recently by many scholars, is that the runic

script derived from a North Etruscan, Alpine alphabet. In that case, it is very
probable that it originated about the 2nd century BC or a little later.
It is still unknown whether the runes were originally employed mainly for magical
purposes, as suggested by the name runa, or as a usual means of communication. The
earliest extant runic inscriptions, numbering over 50, come from Denmark and
Schleswig and date from the 3rd to the 6th century AD. About 60 inscriptions from
Norway date from the 5th to the 8th century, slightly later than the continental ones.
There are also about 50 Anglo-Saxonrunic inscriptions extant, including the Franks
Casket (about AD 650700); theright side of the casket is in the Museo Nazionale
del Bargello, in Florence, and the rest is in the British Museum. The largest number
of inscriptions, about 2,500, come from Sweden; most of these date from the 11th
and 12th centuries AD.
There is no certain evidence of wide literary use of runes in early times, but some
scholars hold that the runic writing was widely employed for all kinds of secular
documents, such as legal provisions, contracts, genealogies, and poems. The known
manuscripts are, however, rare and relatively late. The gradual displacement of the
runes coincided with the increasing influence of the Roman Catholic Church. The
runic scripts lingered on for a long time after the introduction of Christianity,
however; indeed, the use of runes for charms and memorial inscriptions lasted into
the 16th or even the 17th century.
The ogham alphabet was restricted to the Celtic population of the British Isles. There
are over 375 known inscriptions: 316 of them have been discovered in Ireland,
chiefly in the southern counties, with only 55 from the northern counties; 40
inscriptions have been discovered in Wales; two come from Devon; and one from
Cornwall. One inscription was discovered at Silchester in southern England. About
10 come from the Isle of Man, and a few from Scotland. The Welsh inscriptions are
usually bilingual, Latin-Celtic.With one exception, the Irish records are in ogham
alone. Most peculiar is the runic-oghamic inscription from the Isle of Man (the runes
being a kind of secret writing and the oghams being a cryptic script). The
distribution of the ogham inscriptions, combined with their language and
grammatical forms, point to South Wales or southern Ireland as their place of origin
and to the 4th century AD as the date of their origin.
The ogham character was used for writing messages and letters (generally on
wooden staves), but sometimes it was also written on shields or other hard material
and was employed for carving on tombstones. The oghams formed a cryptic script,
and there were several varieties, such as wheel oghams, bird oghams, tree oghams,
hill oghams, church oghams, colour oghams, and others. The main ogham alphabet
consisted of 20 letters represented by straight or diagonal strokes, varying in number
from one to five and drawn or cut below, above, or right through horizontal lines, or
else drawn or cut to the left, right, or directly through vertical lines. The ogham
alphabet was divided into four groups (aicme), each containing five letters. Oghams
were employed during the Middle Ages; the 14th-century Book of Ballymote
reproduces the earliest keys for translation. In many cases the ogham inscriptions run

Several ogham inscriptions known as the Pictish oghams were found in western
Scotland, on the small island of Gigha off the western coast, in Argyll, in
northeastern Scotland, and on the northern isles, such as the Shetland Islands. They
either belong to the same type as the Irish and Welsh oghams or are written in
another ogham variety.
Later development of the Latin alphabet
As already mentioned, the original Etruscan alphabet consisted of 26 letters,of which
the Romans adopted only 21. They did not retain the three Greek aspirate letters
(theta, phi, and chi) in the alphabet because there were no corresponding Latin
sounds but did employ them to represent the numbers 100, 1,000, and 50. Of the
three Etruscan s sounds, the Romans kept what had been the Greek sigma. The
symbol that represented the aspirate later received the shape H as it did in Etruscan. I
was the sign both of the vowel i and the consonant j. X was added later to represent
the sound x and was placed at the end of the alphabet. At a later stage, after 250 BC,
the seventh letter, the Greek zeta, was dropped because Latin did not require it, and a
new letter, G, made by adding a bar to the lower end of C, was placed in its position.
After the conquest of Greece in the 1st century BC, a large number of Greek words
were borrowed by the Latin language. At that time the symbols Y and Z were
adopted from the contemporary Greek alphabet, but only to transliterate Greek
words; hence, they do not appear in normal Latin inscriptions. They were placed at
the end of the alphabet, and the Latin script thus became one of 23 symbols.
A few permanent additions or, rather, differentiations from existing letters occurred
during the Middle Ages, when the signs for u and v, and i and j, previously written
interchangeably for either the vowel or the consonant sound, became
conventionalized as u and i for vowels and v and j for consonants. W was introduced
by Norman scribes to represent the English sound w (a semivowel) and to
differentiate it from the v sound.
The connection of the capital letters of modern writing with the ancient SemiticGreek-Etruscan-Latin letters is evident even to a layman. The connection of the
minuscules (i.e., the small letters) with the ancient Latin letters is not as evident, but
in fact both the majuscules and the minuscules descended from the same ancient
Latin alphabet. The different shapes of the small letters are the result of a
transformation of the ancient letters by the elimination of a part of the letteras, for
instance, h from H or b from Bor by lengthening a part of itfor instance, d from
D. Moreover, the change of the Latin writing into the modern script was induced by
the nature of the tool, primarily the pen, and the material of writing, mainly papyrus
and parchment, and, from the 14th century onward, also paper. It was the pen, with
its preference for curves, that eliminated the angular forms; it was the papyrus, and
still more the parchment or vellum, and, in modern times, paper, that made these
curves possible.
In ancient times the minuscule did not exist, but there were several varieties of the
capital and the cursive scripts. There were three varieties of the capitals: the lapidary
capitals (used mainly on stone monuments); the elegant book capitals, somewhat

rounded in shape; and the rustic capitals, which were less carefully elaborated than
the lapidary script and not as round as the book capitals but more easily and quickly
written. In everyday life the cursive scripti.e., the current handwas developed
with continuous modifications for greater speed. There were several varieties of it,
such as those of Pompeii and Alburnus Major (a town in ancient Dacia, modern
Roia Montan!, Romania). Between the monumental and the cursive scripts there
was a whole series of types that had some of the peculiarities of each group. There
were lapidary mixed scripts and book semi cursive scripts, and there was the early
uncial, or rather semi uncial, script of the 3rd century AD, which seems to have
developed into the beautiful uncial script.
When the various European countries had shaken off the political authority of Rome
and the learned communities had been dissolved and their members scattered, a
marked change took place in the development of the Latin literary, or book, hand.
Several national hands, styles of the Latin cursive, assumed different features. There
thus developed on the European continent and in the British Isles the five basic
national hands, each giving rise to several varieties: Italian, Merovingian in France,
Visigothic in Spain, Germanic, and Insular or Anglo-Irish hands. At the end of the
8th century the Carolingian (Caroline) hand developed and, after becoming the
official script and literary hand of the Frankish Empire, developed as the main book
hand of western Europe in the following two centuries. The combination of the
majuscules, or capital letters, and minuscules, or small letters, can be attributed
mainly to the Carolingian script.
In the course of the next centuries, various book hands or chart hands and other
cursive scripts developed from the Carolingian style. In the late 12th century and
during the next two centuries the letters gradually became angular in shape; this
resulted from the pen being held in a position that made a slanting stroke. The new
hand, termed black letter or Gothic, was employed mainly in northwestern Europe,
including England, until the 16th century. It is still used, though rarely, in Germany,
where it is called Fraktur script.
In Italy the black letter was also used, but the Italians preferred a rounder type, called
littera antiqua, old letter. During the 15th century the round, neat, humanistic or
Renaissance hand was introduced in Florence and was employed for literary
productions, while the needs of everyday life were met by an equally beautiful,
though not as clearly legible, cursive hand. The two styles developed into two main
varieties: (1) the Venetian minuscule, nowadays known as italic, traditionally (though
wrongly) considered to be an imitation of Petrarch's handwriting; and (2) the Roman
type, preferred in northern Italy, chiefly in Venice, where it was used in the printing
presses at the end of the 15th and the beginning of the 16th centuries; from Italy it
spread to Holland, England (about 1518), Germany, France, and Spain. The classical
Roman character was adopted for the majuscules. This majuscule writing, along with
the Roman-type minuscule and the italic, spread all over the world. In England they
were adopted from Italy in the 16thcentury.
The survival of the black letter (Gothic) in Germany is attributed to the fact that it
was the current style at the time of the invention of printing in Germany and was
thus employed by Gutenberg. In Italy the littera antiqua was used by the German

printers Konrad Sweynheym and Arnold Pannartz, as well as by Nicolas Jenson, the
great Venetian printer who perfected the Roman type.
The modern national alphabets of the western European nations are, strictlyspeaking,
adaptations of the Latin alphabet to Germanic (English, German, Swedish, Dutch,
Danish, etc.), Romance (Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, etc.), Slavic (Polish,
Czech, Slovak, etc.), Baltic (Lithuanian, Latvian), Finno-Ugric (Finnish, Hungarian,
etc.), and other languages. The adaptation of a script to a language is not easy,
especially when the language contains sounds that do not occur in the speech from
which the script has been borrowed. There arises, therefore, the difficulty of
representing the new sounds. This difficulty was met quite differently in various
alphabets. For instance, the sound such as in English Ashchurch, which in Russian
is represented by one sign ([Cyrillic transliteration follows]c[End Cyrillic
transliteration]), is represented in Czech by two signs (2), in Polish by four (szcz),
in English likewise by four, though different ones, and in German by as many as
seven (schtsch). Thus, in these instances, combinations of two or more letters were
introduced to represent the new sounds.
In other cases, new signs were invented; e.g., in the early Greek alphabet and in the
Anglo-Saxon adoption of the Latin alphabet. In more recent times the most common
way of representing sounds that cannot be represented by letters of the borrowed
alphabet has been to add diacritical marks, either above or under the letters, to their
right or left, or inside. To this group belong the German vowels , , ; the
Portuguese and French cedilla in ; the tilde on Spanish and Portuguese and ;
the Italian , , , , , etc.; the great number of marks in the Latin-Slavic alphabets
(Polish, Czech, Croatian, etc.)a, e, 2, ., , , , , , and so on. The Latin-Turkish
alphabet, introduced in 1928, became general throughout Turkey in 1930. It contains
29 letters, of which two vowels ( and ) and three consonants (, I, and ) are
distinguished by diacritical marks; in one instance there is a distinction in reverse
the dot from i is eliminated ([) to represent a new sound.