The ABCD of the Alphabet

by Maxime Agez and Kerelous Waghen,
PhD candidates at Polytechnique School of Montreal

Egyptian monuments have been sitting and weathering for thousands of years. On their great murals and pillars, you find rows of little pictures “Hieroglyphs”. Sacred symbols. But, despite appearances, this isn’t some mysterious Pharaonic picture writing.  It’s consonants. One consonant sign! Two consonant signs! Three consonant signs!

The story started in the Sinai Desert. When ancient Egyptian miners would find it handy to leave messages for one another. They try to draw pictures which explain what they want to say. They try to keep it simple and explain what they want to say in form of a picture. They began to use symbols to represent simple concepts and they had some standard symbols with which they relayed information.

The ancient Egyptians tried to use this method in their daily lives. However,  the symbols were limited to the briefest notations, designed to identify a person, a place, an event or a possession. Most likely the earliest field which put writing in purpose was trade. Merchants used writing to convey information about goods, prices, purchases, between one point and another. It basically is the ancestor of all the annoying advertising that you receive everyday in your mail.

However, the problem with a pictogram is that the information it contains is quite limited. One may draw a picture of a woman, a temple and a sheep, but there is no way of relaying their connection. Is the woman coming from or going to the temple? Is the sheep an offering she is leading to the priests or a gift to her from them? Is the woman even going to the temple at all or is she merely walking a sheep in the vicinity? Are the woman and sheep even related at all? The early pictographic writing lacked any ability to answer these questions.

The Sumerians of ancient Mesopotamia had already come upon this problem in writing and created an advanced script. They learned to expand their written language through symbols directly representing that language so that if they wished to relay some specific information regarding a woman, a temple and a sheep, they could write, "The woman took the sheep as an offering to the temple," and the message was clear.

The Egyptians then developed this same system but added logograms (symbols representing words) and ideograms to their script. An ideogram is a 'sense sign' that conveys a certain message clearly through a recognisable symbol. The best example of an ideogram is probably like emoji now. Nowadays, we still use the same method than those Egyptians. We use our dear emojis to express some hidden sense to our texts.

The real expansion of written language started with a Phoenician merchant who had bought a lot of Egyptian papyrus and copied the early states of the egyptian alphabet. She then rushed back home to Phoenicia to make her nation learn these symbols and spread it. The future of the Mediterranean will belong to alphabets and paper. Writing is going portable. She used this newfound alphabetic leverage to turn a huge profit across the entire Eastern Mediterranean, leaving people inspired to adopt and adapt her alphabet wherever.

In the end the alphabet was developed through little pictures/symbols and while evolution of mankind took us away from this notably with the big names like Moliere, Rousseau… our society is going back to using the same structure as hieroglyph: some text and some secondary symbols to emphasize the meaning of the text (emojis).