Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Apple #18: The Alphabet


Today I did quite a lot of alphabetizing. I love the alphabet. It's so useful, for one thing. And you can play with it endlessly. Sometimes I use it to help me fall asleep. I think about the shape of a particular letter, like "G" for example. Or I try to think of words all on the same subject (fish, say), one for each letter of the alphabet. Though sometimes that gets me so excited, it wakes me up all over again.

  • An alphabet in itself means nothing; it is a system of organizing the letters or characters of a given language.
  • The word alphabet comes from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet: alpha and beta.
  • Alphabets are supposed to represent a one-for-one relation between a character or letter and a specific sound. However, as the Columbia Encyclopedia notes, "Few alphabets have achieved the ideal exactness." In other words, lots of languages have various sounds floating around that are represented by a composite of characters or that are imprecisely represented, such as English's notorious shwa e. The Korean language is considered to come closest to the one-sound-one-symbol concept.
  • English uses an alphabet of Roman characters, as do the languages of Western Europe and newly written languages in Africa.
  • The Roman alphabet is based on the Greek alphabet. Russian, Serbian, Bulgarian, and other Slavic languages use a Cyrillic alphabet, which is also derived from the Greek alphabet.
  • The Greeks imitated the Phoenicians when they developed their alphabet; the Phoenician, Hebrew, Arabic, and Devangari (India) alphabets likely all were based in some way on Egyptian heiroglyphics.
  • The Egyptians, who based their heiroglyphics on Sumerian pictographs, created their system of language around 3100 BC.
  • Chinese and Japanese languages do not use alphabets. They are considered to be syllabic languages, meaning each character represents a syllable, like su, rather than a single sound, like s.
  • The Japanese syllabary (like an alphabet, but of syllables) is derived from Chinese.
  • The Mayans in Mexico and Central America also used a syllabic language.
  • There are about 50 alphabets in use today. Most are between 20 and 30 characters long. The Hawaiian alphabet, however, uses only 12 letters, the fewest of any language. Sinhalese, the language of Sri Lanka, uses more than 50 letters.
  • The Greeks originally wrote from right to left, as the Phoenicians did. That practice evolved to writing one line right-to-left followed by the next line going left-to-right. This was called boustrophedon, meaning as the ox plow turns. After a few hundred years or so, the Greeks began using left-to-right only and kept it that way.

Columbia Encyclopedia, "alphabet"
Encarta, "Alphabet"

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