Our skills of communication define humanity as a species and separate us from other creatures on the planet. A written language, made possible by an alphabet, has allowed us to develop as a species. Cooperation has been essential to our development. And strong social skills combined with a sophisticated way of understanding one-another has enabled this. Of course, many animals have achieved verbal communication, yet on it’s own, it has not been adequate for complex development.
The ability to record and share information without verbal communication has vastly improved our abilities. To achieve this, our predecessors created a set of standard inscriptions or symbols understood by most people. Without doubt, this paved the way for the formation of alphabets.
Hieroglyphics were the first graphic symbols, and they preceeded alphabets. Early scribes produced them by making inscriptions into soft clay using tools. This was problematic because it took a long time to write something that could convey even a relatively simple message. Additionally, some of the symbols and their arrangements were complex, and not everyone was capable of interpreting them.
However, between 1700 and 1800 BCE, Semitic speakers adapted a version of the Egyptian hieroglyphs to represent sounds. Each symbol represented a consonant (no vowels yet!) and thus, we gave birth to the first proto-alphabet! Over time, Phoenician traders introduced the system throughout the Middle-East. As more people (most traders) learned how to interpret the symbols, the system flourished.
In time the consonant system, also called an abjad, which had 22 unique symbols, developed. Academics consider this Proto-Sinaitic script to be the first sophisticated writing system and it became well known throughout the region.
By the 8th Century BCE, the Greeks adopted the Phoenician alphabet and adapted it to suit their verbal language. They kept many of the symbols, but removed or replaced others. However, the biggest contribution the Greeks made was the addition of vowels. Modern day scholars believe this inclusion was an important factor in creating modern alphabets. The introduction of vowels enabled people to interpret the symbols with far less ambiguity.
The Greek language was initially written from right to left, but in the 3rd Century, it switched to left to right. The Greek language would give rise to many others, including Latin. Latin would become influential for many modern-day Indo-European languages.
The history of English writing began with the Anglo-Saxons in the fifth century CE. With ties to Scandinavia and other North Seas cultures, ancient Anglo-Saxon (Ænglisc) writing, used runes. Over time, scribes routinely added new runes. As a consequence, although it first appeared in England with 26 characters, by the 11th century it had 33. In the seventh century, the Latin alphabet introduced by Christian missionaries began to take hold. Early scholars created a formal English alphabet in 1011. It included all of our present letters except J, U (or V)* and W.