As the world ended with fire and sword,
and one by one, the lights of civilization were snuffed out,
old ideas died, and from their ashes,
new ideas came.
Ideas that would change the world.
As we’ve talked about the Bronze Age Collapse,
we’ve mentioned time and again that,
across much of the ancient world,
As civilizations fell apart, writing died out.
In many places, the written word simply vanished for centuries.
But eventually, as humanity clawed it’s way back,
this old idea of writing started to re-emerge. But,
in a new form.
In our episode on the origins of writing,
we talked about cuneiform,
and how the first written scripts evolved from scribes
making pictures to record the inventories
of the vast temple warehouses of Sumer. And,
as part of that evolution,
the pictures became simplified, and lost their pictorial meaning. Instead,
coming to mean the sound of the picture
they originally represented.
In doing so, cuneiform became a syllabic alphabet,
where each cuneiform design represented a syllable of spoken speech.
This rendered the character sets smaller
than pure pictographical systems.
But it still left scribes with hundreds of characters to memorize.
The more characters you had to memorize,
the harder it is to become literate.
The slower the adoption of the written word will be. And,
the smaller the group it will be limited to.
But the Sumerian system had influenced the way
that writing in much of the ancient world developed.
and so syllabic sytems had become the norm.
That is, until the collapse.
So where does the story of the alphabet begin?
A writing system based, not on syllables,
but on phonemes, on single sounds.
Like many things, it begins in Egypt before the collapse.
The Egyptians actually had some single sound characters
among their hieroglyphs.
They weren’t the majority of it,
they weren’t the most important part of it,
but they were there.
and migratory Semitic tribes coming to Egypt latched on to them.
borrowing the sound characters to write in their own language,
Instead of trying to adopt the whole sets of Egyptian Hieroglyphs.
As the world collapsed,
this set of migratory tribes found themselves in a pretty good position.
They didn’t have any major infrastructure to topple,
or intricate social order to upheave.
And so, as the existing powers fell,
they set up their own kingdoms in the Levant.
One of these loosely tied kingdoms was Phoenicia,
sitting at the heart of everything.
Phoenicia became a trade hub for a world slowly climbing out of the darkness.
And with their trade, came their language and their ideas.
With their trade, came their writing.
But there’s an interesting thing about trade,
A weird quirk of necessity
that leads us one step closer to what we think of as an alphabet.
You see, cuneiform was based around making impressions in clay,
the series of odd wedge marks that give the language its name.
Clay made sense as the principal thing to write on
when you were keeping track of vast stores of goods
or making imperial records meant to stand the test of time.
But clay is also pretty bulky.
It’s hard to transport,
and if your society is based on trade,
you’re going to want something else to write on.
The Phonecians turned to papyrus.
So now they had the single phoneme writing
of the Semitic cultures,
a new script that could be used on easily portable papyrus,
and a vast trading network.
This meant that they brought their writing with them.
And other cultures began to pick it up
and pick it up and modify it to fit their languages.
And one of the most enthusiastic adopters
of this new system were the Greeks.
With the utter destruction of the Mycenaean civilization,
the Greeks really had lost their writing system.
For the whole dark age that followed,
Greek writing was just gone. But,
with the re-establishment of trade,
the Greek city-states began to grow again.
And as they did so, they latched onto this system,
that would clearly do so much to help their expansion.
But up until this point,
the Phoenician alphabet had mostly been used by Semitic speaking peoples,
and Semitic languages had an interesting oddity.
They used almost no vowels.
This meant that the Phoneticians never actually developed vowels for their alphabet.
When vowel sounds were part of a word, they were just implied.
Everybody could tell what the word was,
simply just by writing out the consonants in it.
Greek though, is an Indo-European language.
It is ???? of vowels.
So the Greeks looked at the Phonetician alphabet,
and realized that there were a handful of consonants
in there that they simply didn’t use.
Letters that there simply wasn’t an equivalent
sound in Greek for. So,
being simultaneously crafty and lazy,
they just took those letters, and started using them for Greek vowel sounds.
And this is ????, because for the first time,
every sound in a language was represented in it’s alphabet.
There weren’t a ton
of additional things you needed to know from outside the written system
to effectively use it.
Or that you would need to explain to a foreigner
on top of it, in order to teach them your writing.
And the Greeks, being traders and seafarers in turn,
spread this system westward.
首先是传播到意大利 接着 间断间接地
First to Italy, and then, if not always, directly,
to the rest of the European world.
The system they spread is the basis
for the alphabets that much of the world uses today.
In fact, we are so rooted in it,
I would ask you to take a moment to consider the Greek language,
with its newly minted vowels.
What are the first two letters?
Alpha and Beta.
and when you push those two together, what do you get?
The very word we use to describe
our system of written phonemes.
So while there are many other changes
that this system eventually goes through,
this is where we’re going to stop today.
Because now, we got an alphabet.
We got the next major development
in the history of writing.
The thing that helps spread literacy,
and makes adoption of the written word
easy for many of the European cultures
that had never had a writing system before.
And a light emerges from the darkness
of the Bronze Age Collapse
that will kindle the Western World.