The Alphabet

About 2000 BC, the Egyptian pharaohs realized they had a problem. With each military victory over their neighbors, they enslaved more prisoners of war. But the Egyptians could not pass down written orders. Because their slaves could not read hieroglyphics.

Early writing systems, such as Egyptian hieroglyphics, were extremely cumbersome and difficult to learn. For  instance, these systems had thousands of characters and each symbol representing an idea. Memorizing them could take years. Only a handful of Egyptians could actually read and write their complicated script.

Linguists believe that almost all modern alphabets are derived from the simplified version of hieroglyphics. They were devised by the Egyptians four thousand years ago to communicate with their slaves. The development of an alphabet  changed the way the ancients communicated.

In the simplified version, each character represented only a sound. This innovation cut back the number of characters from a few thousand to a few dozen. This way it became far easier to learn and use the characters. But in the end, the complicated hieroglyphic language was eventually forgotten. Scholars were not able to translate the characters until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799. The alphabet was extremely successful.

When the Egyptian slaves eventually migrated back to their home countries, they took the writing system with them. It spread across the Near East. Therefore it became the foundation for many writing systems in the area, including Hebrew and Arabic. The Phoenicians, an ancient civilization of seaborne traders, spread the alphabet to the tribes. The Greek and Roman alphabets, in turn, were based on the ancient Phoenician script. As a result, today most Western languages, including English, use the Roman alphabet.

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