by Robert Brow  (www.brow.on.ca) Kingston, Ontario, December 2005

The human brain automatically stores and classifies the millions of pictographs of our experience.   These include feelings, facts, fears, faces, locations, smells, colors, and much else that psychologists are continually discovering.

About 10,000 BC there were carvings and the pictures of animals on the walls and ceilings of caves in France and Spain. The purpose of this kind of art is not clear. Perhaps it was just done to pass the time in the dark caverns. Others think it was a form of magic to express the desire of Cro-Magnon Man to have success in hunting.

The first literary pictographs appeared about 3000 BC in the area around the Tigris and Euphrates in present-day Iraq. Apparently it was the Sumerians who devised a system of pictures to record business transactions. Later six hundred stylized characters enabled them to record historical and political information.

When tablets began to be used, a stylus was used to make wedges in wet clay that was then baked to make permanent records. These quickly replaced the pictographic signs and  were used by the Assyrians (1300 -612 BC), and the Babylonians until the fall of Babylon (539 BC). . Thousands of these cuneiform tablets have been discovered and deciphered.

In Egypt, hieroglyphic writing was developed (about 2780-2280 BC) to express thousands of word and ideas. These stylized pictographs were written on papyrus, and painted on the walls of palaces and tombs.

Far to the east, the Chinese developed an elaborate pictographic script (by about 1350 BC). Over the centuries new characters were created for every idea in their language. The result was a massive volume of 50,000 symbols which only a scholar could master in a lifetime. Newspapers for popular use reduced this number to 7000 characters, but learning them is still a formidable task.

A major advantage is that the same pictographic characters are used for the Mandarin language of Peking and for those who speak the quite different Cantonese language of Hong Kong and the southern coast. Although they cannot understand the spoken language of the others, each group can grasp the meaning of their written ideas.

There had already been a movement to use a limited set of phonetic characters to write in Mandarin. This was viewed with disfavor by traditionalists. But in our day computer keyboards can only handle a limited set of phonetic characters, so the change over to an alphabet has become inevitable.

Alphabetic writing was probably invented in Canaan about the time of Abraham (1952-1777 BC). It is tempting to make the wild guess that, having first spoken Sumerian in Ur, and then Babylonian as he traveled across present-day Iraq, Abraham found himself trying to learn Canaanite. So he (or some other person) created 22 phonetic characters. These were soon expanded to the 30 letters, which were discovered in the hundreds of tablets of Ugaritic cuneiform (1600-1185 BC). These were unearthed in a site called Ras Shamra,on the Syrian coast opposite the tip of Cyprus.

Because of the huge advantage of this phonetic system, it was adopted for the Aramaic language of Syria and the Sanskrit of the Aryan tribes that entered north India. It also became the basis of the Arabic, Persian, and Urdu scripts.

It is interesting to note that when the State of Israel was established in 1948, Jews resurrected the Hebrew alphabet used for the language of Canaan. A variant of this language and script came into use among the Arab children of Ishmael. The result is that both Jews and Arabs use a variant of the same alphabetic script that goes back 3,800 years.

The term alphabetic writing derives from Alpha and Beta, the first two letters of the of the Greek alphabet. It appears in the writing of Homer’s Iliad and Odysse (say about 750 BC), and the same Greek script is still in use in our day. A variant was adopted for the Russian and Ukrainian languages.

The early Romans used a simple variant of the Greek script to write Latin. In due course this was adopted for Italian, Spanish, French, English, German, Dutch, the Scandinavian languages, Finnish, Hungarian, Polish, Czech, Slovak, Croatian, Estonian and Lithanian. In the twentieth century, the Latin alphabet was also adopted in Turkey, Viet Nam, Malay, and Indonesia. Apart from the Arabic languages of North Africa, the hundreds of tribes of central and south Africa also use the Latin script for all business and political purposes.

As a result of the invention and development of computers in North America, England, and Europe, the Latin alphabet gained a huge start in world-wide use and influence. It remains to be seen whether China and Japan can retain and revitalize their ancient pictographic means of written communication.

During the war, when I served in the Indian Army (1942-47), we used Roman Urdu as a means of communicating with soldiers from the various languages of India. When India became independent (1947), Hindi was adopted as the national language, and the ancient Sanskrit script was the official way of writing it. An advantage is that this alphabet is precise and exactly phonetic. But as a reaction, those who spoke the other languages of India all insisted in maintaining their ancient alphabets. This was only a minor problem for Bengali, Gujrati, and Marathi. But the south Indian languages of the Kanarese, Telegu, Tamil, and Malayalam speakers were written in different alphabets. The result is that the only common means of communication for Bangalore and other progressive centers in India seems to be English written in the Latin script, and in many cases the English language.

A similar mistake seems to have been made by the missionaries who learned and reduced to writing the languages of the Inuit and other people of northern Canada. Their concern was to produce scripts which would reflect the exact pronunciation of each tribe. That was heroically achieved, and it has helped to preserve some of these aboriginal languages. But the result was to deny children and grandchildren the opportunity to read and communicate in the Latin script, and to access the English language which is used all over the world.

There are three surviving alphabetic systems in our world. The oldest alphabet in current use is the Hebrew alphabet of modern Israel. This was preserved in the Hebrew Old Testament. Together with the language of Canaan which was spoken by Abraham, the ancient script was revived for the State of Israel after its establishment in 1948. They dropped the vowel sounds invented by mediaeval Jewish scholars, and retained the ancient consonants.

A close second is its Arabic cousin, which may go back to Abraham’s son Ishmael (see the book on www.brow.on.ca Ishmael: The Arab). The Arabic script was used for the writing of the Qur’an and it is used in all Islamic countries except Turkey and Indonesia. The Iranian form of this script is easy to process in a computer, and it will probably become dominant in Arabia, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, and Pakistan.

The 3,000 year-old Sanskrit script was adapted for use in Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, and in other languages of India.

The Latin alphabet is widely used in North and South America, all of Europe (with a Greek alphabetic variant), Australia and New Zealand, and the countries of central and southern Africa.

Whether the newly emerging Chinese alphabet will gain a place in the sun remains to be seen.

What should we conclude from these five thousand years of pictographic and alphabetic writing?

A pictographic script cannot compete with an alphabetic system in our computer age. It is better to have an alphabet that is easily learned than one that is chosen for antiquarian and sentimental reasons. But no alphabet can ever capture all the changing sounds and intonations of an evolving language. It is better to aim for world-wide usefulness than linguistic perfection.


P.S. Most of the dates given in this article are only an approximate guess, and scholars are continually discussing and correcting them.


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