The origins of type:
We see it every day on signs, billboards, packaging, in books and magazines; in fact, you are looking at it now — the Latin or Roman alphabet, the world’s most prolific, most widespread abc.
The Sumerians began to experiment with writing at the close of the fourth millennium BC, in Mesopotamia between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates (roughly modern-day Iraq). Like most writing systems, Cuneiform, initially scratched — later impressed by a stylus — into soft clay, started out as a series of pictograms — pictures representing words.
Cuneiform definition: Cuneiform script is one of the earliest known forms of written expression. Emerging in Sumer around the 30th century BC, with predecessors reaching into the late 4th millennium (the Uruk IVperiod), cuneiform writing began as a system of pictographs.
In time, the pictures of things came to represent, not only things but, sounds.
We use 26 letters (and the Romans used only 23 to create some of the most outstanding literature the world has ever known) while the Chinese, for example, have to learn thousands of characters to express themselves.
Below is an example of Proto-Cuneiform, one of the earliest examples of writing know to us.
While the Sumerian language ceased to be spoken after about 2000 BC, the influence of its written form (Cuneiform) is still felt today.
The writing of the Gods: Below is an image showing how the Egyptians developed a similar system of pictograms, one many of us are familiar with. Hieroglyphic inscriptions (literally sacred carving), like Cuneiform started out as pictograms, but later those same pictures were also used to represent speech sounds.
The Egyptian pictographs evolved into a cursive style called hieratic that was freer, written more rapidly and contained numerous ligatures.
A yet later form is demotic, which represents the most abstract form of Egyptian hieroglyphs. Although written mostly in ink on papyrus, the most famous example is to be found on the granite Rosetta Stone. The Rosetta Stone (196 BC), found by scholars who had travelled to Egypt with Napoleon in 1799, is important because it was the key to deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. It is written in two languages, and three scripts: two forms of Egyptian (hieroglyphic & demotic), with a Greek translation.
The first alphabet: Until the discovery of two inscriptions (graffiti) in Wadi el-Hol, Egypt, in 1999, it was generally held that the beginnings of alphabetic scripts could be traced to around 1600 to 1500 BC, to the Phoenicians, a people of traders who lived on the coast of today’s Lebanon and Israel.
This strengthens the hypothesis there must have been ties between Egyptian scripts and their influence on those early Semitic or proto-Sinaitic alphabets. Moreover, it pushes back the origin of the alphabet to between 1900 and 1800 BC.
Phoenicians definition: They were famed in Classical Greece and Rome as 'traders in purple', referring to their monopoly on the precious purple dye of the Murex snail, used, among other things, for royal clothing, and for their spread of the alphabet (or abjad), upon which all major modern phonetic alphabets are derived.
By about 1600 BC in the region between the two dominant writing systems of the time, Cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs, we see the emergence of other more systematised alphabets like ugaritic script (14th century BC) that developed in what is today Syria. The ugaritic script employs 30 simplified cuneiform signs. And thus begins the story of the alphabet.
Note the difference between the signs of Inscription 1 from Wadi el-Hol, and those of the proto-Sinaitic script. The latter are just a little more abstract. Note too the simplified stick figure, representing a person at prayer. Cut off the torso and the head, rotate what’s left, and you will see in it the origins of the Latin E:
The evolution of E:
The Phoenician alphabet was probably developed for quick and easy to read notes that a merchant would make on his trips along the ports of the Mediterranean. The Phoenicians were traders who created a loose empire of city-states along the coasts they visited: Africa, Spain and Sicily. Carthage is probably the best known of these Phoenician colonies. They owed their initial rise to a simple snail that can still be found on the coast of Lebanon and that, left rotting in the sun, could be used to make purple dye — thus the Greek-coined Phoenician or purple people, fromphoiniki, meaning purple or crimson.
This simple and ingenious modern alphabet of consonants from which the last vestiges of pictograms had been erased, is indeed a merchant’s instrument: easy to learn, to write and to adapt. And adapted it was by cultures that we are generally much more familiar with: the Greek and Roman societies that form the base of modern Western civilisation and the lesser-known Tuscans.
The Greek scripts followed no fixed direction, being written left to right, right to left, and in horizontal boustrophedon. (Braille is set boustrophedonically.)
Boustrophedonically definition: Boustrophedon ( // or //; from Greek βουστροφηδόν, boustrophēdon “ox-turning” from βοῦς, bous, “ox” and στροφή, strophē, “turn”; that is, turning like oxen in ploughing), is a kind of bi-directional text, mostly seen in ancient manuscripts and other inscriptions. Every other line of writing is flipped or reversed, with reversed letters. Rather than going left-to-right as in modern English, or right-to-left as in Arabic and Hebrew, alternate lines in boustrophedon must be read in opposite directions. Also, the individual characters are reversed, or mirrored.
The Etruscans came to Italy from western Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey).
Not only did the Etruscans adopt much of the art and religious rites of the Greeks, but, most importantly for our story, they adopted the Greek alphabet.
The tale of Z: The Latin alphabet that we still use today was created by the Etruscans and the Romans, and derived from the Greek. It had only 23 letters: the J, U andW were missing. The J was represented by the I, the U was written as V and there was no need for a W. The story of the Z is particularly interesting. In the third century BC, the letter G (a variant of C) was added; Z was borrowed from the Greek, then dropped as Latin had no need for it — perhaps at the behest of the Roman censor Appius Claudius; G took its place in the line-up, until the first century BC, when the Romans decided they needed the Z for borrowed Greek words (when Greek literature became the vogue), they re-introduced it, and placed it at the end of the alphabet, where it remains to this day.From the square Roman capitals (preserved on the plinth of Trajan’s Column (114 AD), developed the freer-form and slightly more condensed Rustic capitals.
Uncial and half uncial: the entrance of lowercase
Uncial definition: Uncial is a majuscule script (written entirely in capital letters) commonly used from the 3rd to 8th centuries AD by Latin and Greek scribes. Uncial letters are written in either Greek, Latin, or Gothic.
Carlogian to gothic: The anonymous author of Carmen de carolo Magno refers to Charlemagne as ‘the venerable head of Europe’ and ‘the father of Europe.’ Though that’s something of an exaggeration, Charlemagne’s influence was substantial and long-lasting, and he succeeded in uniting most of Western Europe for the first time since the Roman Empire.
Writing and the alphabet: Writing and alphabets evolve for a number of reasons. We can explain the transition from pictograms to the linear, more abstract forms in terms of rationalization. Moreover, regional and national variations develop, their success, in part at least, owed to political and geo-political factors: A victorious invader brings its culture, including its language, both spoken and written. Context is also an important factor: text cut in stone contemplating the deeds of emperors is something different than an advertisement for a brothel scratched on a wall in Pompeii. The substrate, or writing material (whether clay, stone, wax tablets, wood, metal, papyrus, parchment, or vellum; and the writing implement, a reed, chisel, quill, broad nib pen — they all affect the form the alphabet takes.