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Easy as ABC

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A fraction of textual content inscribed on the Mesha Stele, c.840 BC. Louvre/Wiki Commons.

Few applied sciences are as essential to our day by day lives because the alphabet. However, as Johanna Drucker argues, we not often give its historical past any thought in any respect. Regardless of its title, her e book will not be concerning the invention of the alphabet per se, however about how individuals have thought about its invention. The alphabet has been regularly reinvented by every era of thinkers in a narrative that meanders from Herodotus to the current day, through Jewish mystics, Arabic students, early fashionable typographers and 18th-century antiquarians.

As Drucker writes, the concept that the Greeks invented the alphabet is deeply ingrained in fashionable thought. However that is the alternative of what the Greeks themselves thought; they have been clear that it was borrowed. From the Greek perspective, the alphabet was invented both by the Phoenicians and given to the Greeks by Cadmus (that is the account given to us by Herodotus) or invented by the Egyptian god Thoth (as within the account of Plato). Different Greek descriptions are likely to riff on both or each of those fundamental narratives. For a lot of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries scholarship lauded the ‘genius’ of the Greeks for including vowels to the prevailing consonantal alphabet utilized by the Phoenicians. Solely just lately has it begun to explain the beginning of the Greek alphabet as a strategy of cultural contact, borrowing and collaboration.

Inventing the Alphabet raises all the questions which have vexed historians. The Bible presents insoluble issues. If God wrote the Ten Commandments for Moses, what language have been they in? What alphabet? If it was the primary ever written textual content, how did Moses know the way to learn it? These questions led early fashionable thinkers to develop an intense curiosity in Hebrew and different Semitic languages. However Drucker additionally reveals how incomplete every era’s data was. Information of inscriptions and cash was very restricted within the early fashionable interval, which meant that the Hebrew alphabet recognized in Europe was the elegant ‘sq.’ script somewhat than the Palaeo-Hebrew script used within the earliest a part of antiquity. This was, due to this fact, how they imagined Hebrew to have been written within the distant previous as nicely.

It’s only as we transfer nearer to the current day that Drucker turns to research of the alphabet primarily based on inscriptions somewhat than historic narratives. The 18th century noticed a flourishing of curiosity, not simply in Greek, Roman and Hebrew writing, but additionally northern European writing methods equivalent to runes. It additionally noticed a change in how data was organised – from the specimen alphabets produced for early printing, to the analytical tables that in contrast alphabets letter by letter. New sources of data and new methods of organising that data on the web page made profound variations to how individuals understood the hyperlinks between completely different alphabets.

Drucker doesn’t shrink back from the consequences of politics – and, significantly, imperialism and colonialism – on how understanding of the alphabet developed. The episode of the Mesha Stele (or Moabite Stone) reveals this profoundly. Relationship from round 840 BC, it was a massively vital Canaanite inscription written in a model of the Phoenician script present in a near-perfect state of preservation in Dibon (now in Jordan). However the jostling and competitors between the western European students decided to publish it not directly led to its destruction, because the native Bani Hamida individuals tried to forestall the Ottoman Empire from benefiting from its sale. Our data isn’t just contingent on what has survived antiquity, but additionally on shifting political climates.

The e book is dense in locations and technical phrases will not be at all times adequately defined. Readers are left to their very own gadgets with matres lectionis (actually ‘moms of studying’, but additionally a time period for the diacritical marks used to point vowels in some writing methods which should not have them). The organisation of the fabric will not be at all times intuitive; it is just about three-quarters of the way in which into the e book that we get a proof of how the alphabet was first created. However the reader’s effort is repaid within the depth and breadth of data supplied. Inventing the Alphabet shines within the sections on the early fashionable interval and the 18th century, the place the world of antiquarianism and the Grand Tour comes alive. There are some small factual errors on the traditional aspect – describing Persian as a Semitic language, when it’s Indo-European, for instance. 

Drucker takes us on a journey by way of centuries of mental historical past, from the musings of the primary historians to the scientific strategies of recent archaeologists and linguists. On the coronary heart of all of it is the alphabet: an invention that’s each ubiquitously banal and world-changingly revolutionary.

Inventing the Alphabet: The Origins of Letters from Antiquity to the Current
Johanna Drucker
College of Chicago Press 384pp £32
Purchase from bookshop.org (affiliate hyperlink)


Katherine McDonald is Assistant Professor in Classics on the College of Durham.

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