I recently came across this article discussing the historical development of our alphabet. I think it’s fascinating how little some of our letters have changed since 3,750 years ago, when the first known alphabet (Proto-Sinaitic) was written.
Take our letter A. This started as a picture of an ox head, an ox being called an ‘alp, and this symbol came to represent the sound Ah. This ancient Semitic word for ox came down to us through the Greek alpha and has found its way into our word, alphabet. If you turn our contemporary letter A upside down, you can still see how it is descended from a pictogram of a horned ox head.
Our letter B comes from an ancient Semitic word for house, bayt, which is basically still the same word in Hebrew and Arabic (As in Beth-lehem, house of bread/meat). The original symbol looks like the outline from a bird’s eye view of a house with an open door.
So while our compound word Alphabet now means the collection of letters used to write our language, it also historically translates as ox house – or could it be house ox?
And who knew that our capital E comes from a stick figure who has been tipped over and lost his head and legs? From now on when writing by hand, I may from time to time subtly restore some of his dignity by giving him back his head.
Some letters speak to the continuity of human experience through the millennia, such as dag, which is a symbol for a fish, and the ancestor of our letter D. Other letters, such as gaml (our letter C), remind us that the past really is a foreign land. It means throwstick, which apparently was an ancient hunting device.
Check out the chart at the top of this post to see if you can trace more modern letters and their ancient ancestors. The connections are fun to see and can even make learning some foreign alphabets somewhat easier, once you realize you are merely learning a cousin of the same letter you already know.
As this article states, “Like many things in the long arc of human culture, alphabets are not as far removed from each other as you might think.” In a world of over six thousand languages, it is remarkable that this language tool has been so adaptable to so many of them.