Maarten Maartensz:    Philosophical Dictionary | Filosofisch Woordenboek                      

 A - Alphabet


Alphabet: A system of writing - storing information by marks made on some carrier - based on a choice of marks for sounds of speech, called letters.

The alphabet is one of the truly great inventions of mankind and is fundamental for any complex human civilization that requires the easy and rapid storage and retrieval of information of many kinds.

Here are three paragraphs from a fine book on the subject, also with many fine illustrations of many alphabets and other systems of writing, namely from David Diringers "The Alphabet - A Key to the History of Mankind", from 1948:

The Alphabet

The alphabet is the last, the most highly developed, the most convenient and the most easily adaptable system of writing. Alphabetic writing is now universally employed by civilized peoples; its use is acquired in childhood with ease. There is an enormous advantage, obviously, in the use of letters which represent single sounds rather than ideas or syllables; no sinologist knows all the 80,000 or so Chinese symbols, but it is also far from easy to master the 9,000 or so symbols actually employed by Chinese scholars. How far simpler is it to use 22 or 24 or 26 signs only! The alphabet may also be passed from one language to another without great difficulty: the same alphabet is used now for English, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Turkish, Polish, Dutch, Czech, Croatian, Welsh, Finnish, Hungarian and others, and has derived from the alphabet once used by the ancient Hebrews, Phoenicians, Arameans, Greeks, Etruscans and Romans.

Thanks to the simplicity of the alphabet, writing has become very common; it is no longer a more or less exclusive domain of the priestly or other privileged classes, as it was in Egypt, Mesopotamia, or China. Education has become largely a matter of reading and writing, and is possible for all. The fact that alphabetic writing has survived with relatively little change for three and a half millenia, notwithstanding the introduction of printing and the typewriter, and the extensive use of shorthand-writing, is the best evidence for its suitability to serve the needs of the whole modern world. It is this simplicity, adaptability and suitability which have secured the triumph of the alphabet over the other systems of writing.

Alphabetic writing and its origin constitute a story in themselves; they offer a new field for research which American scholars are beginning to call "alphabetology". No system of writing has had so extensive, so intricate and so interesting a history. In the Second Part of the present book, the author will endeavour to explain the genesis of this last and most important stage of writing. (p. 37, op. cit.)

I do not know other books in the subject of alphabetology, and the one I quoted is out of print, but anyone even mildly interested in the subject - as I said: one of the truly great human inventions - should take a look at this book, if only because it shows very many systems of writing and explains their histories well.


See also:


, Jespersen, Lyons

 Original: Dec 21, 2008                                                Last edited:12 December 2011.   Top