Why is it that in every group of thirty or so individuals, that at least half will know that Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin? It’s true that the widespread use of the cotton gin helped usher in the Age of Industrialization, and that in itself makes it important enough to remember, but how many cotton gins do we run into today? (A Mrs. Green actually detailed the specifics and Whitney simply did the manufacturing and filed the proper patent papers- Genteel ladies of the time were not supposed invent!)

The real curiosity is that not one person in ten thousand will know who invented the apostrophe, the hyphen, or even the background of our alphabet, yet we probably use these things continually. The apostrophe was invented? I thought it just sort of evolved on the keyboard. Think of the language that most uses the apostrophe and it will provide the first clue.

Indeed, for most people the study of letterforms (the basis of written communication) was last undertaken while still in grade school. The mystery of letterforms and the meaning of their shapes and turns are the routine lesson plans of first-graders. (It’s true that for some , the mystery remains, and adult illiteracy is still a challenge for modern society.)

Today, we simply accept the functionally of our alphabet and pass over the rich history of its evolution. It is the intention in these posts is to re-examine lettershapes and perhaps capture some sense of the miracle of invention. I had briefly introduced the letter A, but now a little more detail.

“Korper und Stimme leiht die Schrift dem stummen Gedanken;
Durch der Jahrhunderie Strom tragt ihn das redende Blatt. – Schiller

(Body and voice does writing lend to silent thought,
Borne down the centuries stream by the speaking page.)

Change is constant, and the symbols of our language are not an exception. What is the relationship between language and symbol, and perhaps even by extension, language and thought? How would we describe thought without language? Who shapes who? We can study illiteracy and perhaps make some correlations about abstract concepts, learning modalities, etc.,- but even illiterate individuals are using a structure of language that has been mightily shaped by the symbols the languages uses.

“A scribe who moves as fast as the mouth, that’s a scribe for you.”
Sumerian proverb. Now that’s telling it truthfully.

In the edubbas (tablet house, or school) of Sumer, young people were taught the fine art of being a scribe. This was a “professional” center where ‘additional training’ provided the society with scribes capable of handling all the business, religious and educational needs. In time, the edubbas also became the center of creative writing, providing the culture with written expression as well as trained clerks. The process of becoming a scribe entailed hours of copying stories and lists, until the characters flowed easily, and the speed of writing satisfactory. Thousands of years later, archealogists have discovered these practice tablets and we can catch a glimpse of the culture that was Sumer.

Some of the great proverbs provided by the work of Stanley Kramer.

You don’t tell me what you have found;
You only tell me what you have lost.

Into an open mouth, a fly enters.

The traveler from distant places is a perennial liar.

A sweet word is everybody’s friend.

When walking, come now, keep your feet on the ground.

Dialog between Enkimansi and Girnishag

You dolt, numskull, school pest, you illiterate, you Sumerian ignoramus, your hand is terrible; it cannot even hold the stylus properly; it is unfit for writing and cannot take dictation. And yet you say you are a scribe like me.

What do you mean I am not a scribe like you? When you write a document it makes no sense. When you write a letter it is illegiable. You go to divide up an estate, but are unable to divide up the estate. For when you survey the field, you can’t hold the measuring line. You can’t hold a nail in your hand; you have no sense. You don’t know how to arbitrate between the contesting parties; you aggravate the struggle between the brothers. You are one of the most incompetent of tablet writers. What are you fit for, can any one say?

Why, I am competent all around. When I go to divide an estate, I divide the estate. When I go to survey the field, I know how to hold the measuring line. I know how to arbitrate between the contesting parties. I know how to pacify the struggle between the brothers and soothe their feelings. But you are the laziest of scribes, the most careless of men. When you do multiplication, it is full of mistakes. In computing areas you confuse length with width. You chatterbo, scoundrel, sneerer, and bully, you dare say that you are the ‘heart’ of the student body.

Me, I was raised on Sumerian, I am the son of a scribe. But you are a bungler, a windbag. When you try to shape a tablet, you can’t even smooth the clay. When you try to write a line, your hand can’t manage the tablet. You sophomore (clever-fool), cover your ears! Cover your ears! Yet you claim to know Sumerian like me.

Current information on the world’s alphabet’s would fill dozen’s of books. It is this study’s intention to very briefly cover only a few alphabets, ones that shed the best light on the background of our current alphabet.

First, it should be understood that no one can be completely certain that current translations of alphabets are correct. But the generalities are interesting enough to continue. Working backwards, our closest neighbor is the standard Roman.

The Roman or Latin. We call the Roman alphabet a ‘classical’ alphabet, and part of the reason for this is the examples of letterforms left on classic Roman temples and public buildings. However, a careful examination, without reference to ancient architecture, will uncover simplicity, beauty, balanced curves tapering to perfect symmetry, and in every sense, ‘classical’ all on it’s own.

The earliest Roman alphabet existed of twenty-one letters, most were transferred from the Greek, but some, like the ‘G’ were entirely a Latin invention. Caesar at one time introduced three new letters that even made it on to a few monuments, but they too fell into disuse, and were soon forgotten. Some leaders like to leave their mark in more ways than we can count.

The alphabets that seem to have had the most impact on our current letterforms:
The Etruscan
The Greek
The Phoenician
Semitic/Sinai Scripts
Egyptian hieroglyphs
Sumerian cuneiform

The First Letter — A

Why is A the first letter? In looking again at our alphabet, we should look at the source of our lettershapes but also the fact of alphabetic order, a thing we accept without question, but in many societies (Chinese, for example) it does not exist.

While it is true that the vowel sound that ‘A’ represents is one of the most common of the ancient tongues, it would be wrong to assume that this is the reason the Phoenicians placed it first. The actual lettershape has its roots in the Phoenician language and they did not use representations of vowel sounds. Hebrew has the same characteristic “non-vowel” construction. The Phoenician alphabet is made up of consonants exclusively. If you have trouble imagining this then remember that we, even today, have a lack of symbols to denote inflection (exclamations and questionmarks can hardly handle the full range of human emotions). To repeat the question, why is “A” the first letter? More than likely, the Phoenicians had an appreciation of what modern psychologists define as ‘basic human needs’, and one of our basic is food.

The ox can be said to have provided early society with a variety of significant needs. Certainly the domestication of animals rates with as one of the best ideas ever. Chasing herds over a mountain range is not the best use of a societies time. A reliable, steady food source relieves a great deal of societal worries. And the time saved by not chasing animals could be spent in developing better tools and manufacturing, and maybe even art. For the Phoenicians the oxen was also found to be a mode of transportation, a source of food, and as an engine for various industries (centered around farming). Obvious such a creature deserved special recognition, and the symbol for ox became the Phoenician’s first letter.

Early Phoenician borrowed heavily from the Egyptian pictographs and the symbol for ox was basically a simple drawing of the ox’s head, horns, ears, and nose. As each century passed the symbol became stylized probably because of slow changes related to writing speed. As the scribes picked up speed they found that dropping a few details and sometimes even turning the symbol on it’s side did not cause a significant lack of readability, providing the changes went slow enough. Finally the “alef” (Phoenician for ox) was standardized and shortened to three strokes.

Egyptian hieroglyphs were to meant to be read by reading into the faces of the living creatures, this meant that by simply flopping the creatures, a right to left or a left to right flow would result. The Phoenicians simplified this by having all their characters turned so that a right to left reading order was standard. Even today, Hebrew and Arabic are read right to left. (By the way, there is another theory that holds that the right to left orientation occurred because most of the chiseling in stone was made by holding the chisel in the left hand and the hammer in the right, and by moving from right to left you could see where you are in the text. Erasing a mistake in stone was difficult at best).

The Greeks picked up upon the Phoenician inventions in letters, but had their own ideas as to how to structure the shapes. With the ‘A’, they rotated the whole structure and changed the crossbar to a sloping stroke, and named the symbol alpha. If things weren’t bad enough, the Greeks added an additional style change called boustrophehedon.

Boustrophehedon was a style that enabled writing to move from right to left on one line and then left to right on the next. (The root for boustrophehedon reflects the ox-like turning pattern of a plowed field.) The problem in doing this is that each letterform had to be written backwards (mirror-reflected) when it came to the left to right line. This confusion of reversing letters lasted about 300 years and was finally resolved by the Greeks standardizing on a left to right orientation. It was a unique decision, since no other language at the time read from left to right. A by product of all those years of flopping and mirror-reflecting was that some of the original Phoenician characters remained flopped and some were not. It’s even possible that some characters were altered so a symmetry was established that made it easier to read in either direction. Changing that sloping crossbar of the ‘A’ is a prime example. In any case, the final Greek alphabet can definitely be seen to be largely influenced by the earlier Phoenician.

The Romans acquired the Greek alphabet through the Etruscans and made a few changes of their own. The sound for ‘A’ was now changed to ah, but they left the structure of the ‘A’ looking pretty much as it was (the sound ay is not common in the Latin language, an educated Roman would always say potahtoe, never potaytoe). However, the Romans did experiment with a combination of thick and thin strokes that was eventually standardized, with the prime examples appearing on monuments such as the Trajan Column.

Structure: Unless it has a flat top, the apex of the“A” should protrude slightly above the normal cap height. This is an optical adjustment to keep the letter from looking short.

Normally, the crossbar is placed below the mechanical center of the character, again to ensure optical correctness. The crossbar can, however, be moved above or below the optical center to achieve a desired effect or inject personality into the character; but the more personality a letter has, the less it is suited to a variety of typographic applications.

In some instances, a serif can be added to the left side of the apex. This also gives personality to the letter and can help minimize some spacing problems inherent in the cap A.

With credit to Allen Haley,
Upper & Lower Case magazine, a typographic centered publication last published from 1970 to 1999.

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