Alphabet and Writing

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 27th, 2013

Technology 101

(Originally published November 23rd, 2011)

The Necessary Information to Survive in Prehistory was Minimal and did not Require a Written Language

Hunters and gatherers had little need for language.  For they did little in life but hunt, gather, eat, sleep and propagate the species.  Much like wildlife today.  Such as feral cats.  Abandoned house cats.  Who mate and produce more feral cats.  And these animals are survivors.  They hunt.  Gather food from human garbage.  Eat.  Sleep.  And reproduce.  If you ever had any in your neighborhood you know that they can be very loud, too.  Making a variety of sounds.  Meows, cries, growls and hisses.  Not an advanced language.  But sufficient to survive.  And enough to keep you from trying to pick one up.

Early man was similar to feral cats.  They had a limited language.  That allowed them to survive.  And make modest advances.  They made tools out of stone.  Used fire.  Made clothes from animal hides.  Even left art on the walls of caves.  Far more than any wild animal ever did.  But they didn’t do much more.  If they did it was probably nothing to write about.  Because they didn’t.  Write about it.  Either because they had no written language.  Or because they were a modest people.

History starts with written language.  Before that we have only archaeology.  And best guesses.  But based on the archaeology they weren’t doing much.  Other than surviving.  And in these prehistory times life was pretty simple.  See above.  The necessary information to survive was minimal.  Eat.  And don’t die.  It wasn’t necessary to write that down.  So they didn’t.  Memory was more than sufficient.  And it was like that for millions of years.

The Phoenician Alphabet was the Basis for the Greek and Latin Alphabets

But then the simple became complex.  There were food surpluses that allowed a division of labor that led to trade.  And a burgeoning economy.  Which required a more sophisticated way of communicating.  And a system of maintaining records of economic exchanges.  For memory and talking just wasn’t good enough anymore.

In the 4th millennium BC, in Mesopotamia, this began with clay tokens to represent an economic commodity.  And the first system of accounting was simply counting and storing these tokens.  But as the division of labor produced an ever more complex economy, the number of tokens used became too great.  So they represented the economic commodity with a symbol scratched in a clay tablet.  Instead of counting tokens they read these tablets.  We call this writing cuneiform.   Which was later used to write down the spoken Sumerian language.

Over time we developed alphabets.  We represented the sounds of the words we spoke with letters.  The Phoenician alphabet being one of the first alphabets.  Used by one of the greatest traders and merchants of all time.  The Phoenicians.  Which spread this language around.  Giving rise to Canaanite and Aramaic.  Aramaic giving rise to Arabic and Hebrew.  Incidentally, all languages without vowels.  But the granddaddy of all alphabets was Greek.  Which added vowels.  And formed the basis for Latin.  As well as all other western languages.

We Know about the Glory of Greece and the Grandeur of Rome because they Wrote about It

Athens was the cradle of modern civilization.  The Athenian empire grew because it was based on a complex trade economy.  Ditto for the Roman Empire.  At the height of their power the civilized world spoke their languages.  Conducted their trade in Latin or Greek.  Wrote their laws in Latin or Greek.  Conducted their diplomacy in Latin or Greek.  Why?  Because they could.  Their alphabets and their written language allowed them to manage the complex.

And they wrote.  A lot.  We know so much about Greece and Rome because we can read what they wrote.  And we can build on the glory that was Greece.  And the grandeur that was Rome.  Because we, too, have complex trade economies.  Giving us comforts in life that not even the Greeks or Romans could have dreamt about.


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