The Labyrinth of Scripts
Source collection Labyrinth of Scripts
One of the earliest writing systems known to us was the Cuneiform, invented by the Sumerians on the territories of the contemporary Iraq. Its name refers to the shape of the characters, which in turn was defined by the way it was created: pushing a reed stylus into a soft clay tablet. For instance, personal letters were clay balls decorated with these wedge-shaped signs.
The form of Egyptian hieroglyphs originated from pre-literate art, which was slowly transformed into a complex writing system of around 1000 characters. When literacy became widespread, simplified ways of writing came to being, structurally similar to the hieroglyphs. The meaning of these signs was lost after the fall of the Egyptian empire, and could only be deciphered through the Rosetta stone, a tri-lingual engraving.
Phoenician, dating from 1050 BC, is probably the oldest phonetic alphabet. It was used the Phoenicians, living in the eastern Mediterranean, and spreading their writing system throughout Europe, Northern Africa and Asia. It became the source of most alphabets of the region, eg. Latin and Greek, but also Arabic and Brahmi.
The clear basis for the Latin alphabet was the Etruscan. It was used by the people inhabiting the southern parts of Italy, and who later founded the Roman Empire. It had 26 characters, and was applied on pottery and stone carvings.
Developed from the Phoenician script, the Greek alphabet was the first to have separate symbols for both vowels and consonants. It first appeared in the 9th century BC. Even though it was adapted when the language changed, it still keeps much of its original shape. It is not only used to write the greek language, but as scientific and technical symbols and labels.
Through the modifications of the Etruscan, the Latin alphabet was formed during the Roman Empire. It spread quickly throughout Europe with the Romans and later with Catholicism, and beyond that through trade and colonisation. The new users added new characters and diacritics, and the forms evolved continously thogughout history: the lowercase letters were created in the Middle Ages, and the invention printing re-shaped the forms as well.
When St. Ciryll worked on the spreading of catholicism amongst the Slavs, he realised that their languages were hard to write with Greek or Latin scripts. Therefore he developed the Galgolitic script, the first alphabet made and used to write Slavic languages. Althought today it’s commonly replaced by cyrillic or latin, it is still used for liturgy in Croatian communities.
The Cyrillic alphabet developed throughout the 9-10th century to write Slavic languages. Peter the Great reformed it drastically, and introduced Western European typographic rules in the 18th century. Today it is also used among people who speak non-slavic languages, but live in territories ruled by Russia. For many, it is the symbol of the Soviet Union and Russian Imperialism.
Before the Germanic tribes settled and turned to Catholicism they used the Futhark scripts, also called runes. These writing systems were probably inspired by the Roman or the Greek alphabets, which the tribes encountered during their migrations. The uses of script were various, from daily correspondence through pursuing magic to “graffiti” inscriptions.
In the early Middle ages Ogham was used to write the Irish language. Even though the meaning of the alphabet is deciphered, its origin the purpose of its creation remained unclear. Some suppose that it was a secret language, others think it was more efficient for writing primitive Irish language than Latin.
The Syriac alphabet, the “grandfather” of Arabic and other middle-Asian writing systems is an ‘abjad’: it only contains consonants, and ‘Abjad’ stands for the first four (aleph, beth, gamel, dalet). The vowels can be optionally added by using diacritics, or it is up to the reader to “fill them in”.
The Persian emperors adopted the Aramiac script to use as a standard throught the empire. It served as a vehicle to transmit messages among the distant parts of the empire, and connect its multilingual inhabitants. The script probably contributed largely to the success of the empire.
Hebrew is used to write Jewish languages. According to the Kabbalah, letters of the alphabet have existed eternally, even before Earth was created, and letters have creative power and holiness on their own. Mysticism says, that there is one letter missing from the alphabet, and this is responsible for the imperfections of the world. Once this is found, it corresponds with the coming of the Messiah.
Arabic script has developed around the 4th century, and it was used to write Arabic languages. It spread around the Middle-East, Africa and beyond with the Islam, to become one of the most used scripts today. Its letter-shapes and typography are defined by the calligraphic traditions. Due to the prohibition of depicting humans, Arabic letters became a centre-point of Islamic visual art.
The Georgian alphabet has a distinctive look, when comparing it to neighbouring scripts, however, based on the structure it most probably originated from Greek. The order of the letters is the same for the two, and the typical Georgian sounds are added at the end.
Several Central-Asian writing systems originated from the Syriac, and one of them is the Mongolian script. Even though it is an important part of Mongolian cultural heritage, it’s usage has been declining. Firstly it was oppressed during the Soviet Union and replaced by Cyrillic. But also, because of its calligraphic construction it is hard to adapt it to moving type, whereas its vertical writing direction is an obstacle in its digital usage.
In the Indus Valley a civilisation from around 3000 BC left behind stamps with beautiful animal drawings and inscriptions of what is called now the Indus script. In spite of the effort of finding out about the origin and meaning of the script, due to the shortness of the inscriptions it has not been possible to decipher it yet.
The scripts of the Maldivians are called Dhivehi, which have been used since very early times, and were in constant change. Whereas the ancient scripts were derived from the Brahmi, the modern forms are inspired by the Arabic numerals - and also written from right to left. However, the script does not follow the logic of its ancestors; therefore it was possibly introduced first as a secret language for magical purposes.
The Javanese syllabary does not follow the order of the western alphabet, it is normally thaught in a rhyming sequence: ha-na-ca-ra-ka—da-ta-sa-wa-la—pa-dha-ja-ya-nya—ma-ga-ba-tha-nga. It translates to the following story: ‘There (were) two messengers. (They) had animosity. (They were) equally powerful. Here are the corpses’.
Brahmi is an ancient writing system of the Indian subcontinent, which originates from the Phoenician alphabet, and which is the root of many contemporary scripts of the region. It was disseminated during the Empire of Asoka, whose laws are still preserved on large rocks, inscribed with Brahmi script.
An abundance of ancient sources of the Devanagari can be found in religious writings and relics of the medieval India. “The City of God” to which its name translates was the official script to note down the holy texts written in Sanskrit language. However, its use was common in every field of life, and today being used for 120 languages, it is the most adopted script in the world.
Kawi is an ancient Brahmic script, used between 800-1500 AD. It was spread by the merchants around the Malay Archipelago, and became the root of several writing systems of the area.
Baybayin is the script of the Philippines, and it was used to write the Tagalog language before the Spanish colonialisation. After this it was replaced by the Latin aphabet, but nowadays there are efforts for its revival.
The roots of Chinese writing date back to the 2nd milleneum BC, when pictograms were carved into animal bones and turtle shells. The carving was used in pyromantic rituals as oracles, therefore the name Oracle Bone Script.
The route from the pictograms carved in bone to a standardized Chinese writing went through many steps and long centuries. These scripts are referred to as Seal Scripts, and they differ according to time period and region. The development of the characters was largely influenced by the medium and tools used: clay molds, sytlus, bamboo books and ink-brush…
Chinese consists of logographic characters, which mean, that each sign stands for a certain word. This results in a large number of characters: an average educated reader should know around 4000. Several attempts were made to simplify this system in order to promote literacy. Among these the simplified Chinese, which is used today in mainland China.
Hangul was introduced in 1443 by King Sejong the Great to write Korean language. The ruler wanted to increase the literacy of his people, therefore he designed a phonetic alphabet He wrote in the “user’s manual”: -A wise man can acquaint himself with them before the morning is over; a stupid man can learn them in the space of seven days.
Japanese writing combines three kinds of characters: the logographic kanji, which are adapted Chinese characters, and the phonetic katakana and hiragana, which formally also derive from Chinese characters, but are much simpler and stand for syllables. The combination of the three systems is also used to indicate, for instance, word space or emphasis.
The script of Cool Mountain, a territory of China, is the Yi Script. It was created during the Tang dynasty in the 7th century, and contained 1485 signs. Throughout time the script grew, and today it comprises 90 000 characters. For instance, there are 40 different characters to write the word “stomach”.
Nüshu, which literally translates to “women’s script” is claimed to be the most efficient simplification of Chinese. The forms of the letters were simplified - partly - to make their application on textile easier. It has been exclusively used by women to transmit knowledge, for instance by transitional rituals.
The script of the Nakhi people, an ethnic group living the foots of the Himalayas is the Dongba. This is a pictographyic script - or can be called hieroglyphs as well: the only of this kind that is still used to this day.
In 1959 Shong Lue Yang, a spiritual leader who claimed himself to be son of God, invented Pahawh Hmong, a writing system for the Hmong languages. The people were happy about the script, and helped to refine and spread it. In 1971 Yang was assassinated by the Government, because of his growing influence.
The writing system for the Tangut language was the Xia-xia, which is nominated by linguists as the most inconvenient writing system. It’s structure and looks is similar to Chinese, but there are much more characters needed, which are also more complex. No wonder, that it went extinct around 1500.
Most Cherokee people believed that writing was sourcery. An exception was Sequoyah, son of a silversmith, who saw the benefits of writing and decided to give a writing system to his people that would fit their language. Although the first sketches of the script were destroyed by his wife - thinking they were black magic - the cherokee alphabet became a great success, one of the few attempts when pre-literate people created an original, efficient writing system.
The Mik’maq hieroglyph system was developed by missionaries in Canada in the 17th century. They created a writing system based on the aboriginal children’s carved drawings, in order to communicate with these people. This writing system should have served as memory aid for religious texts.
Quipus, also called “talking knots” are collections of coloured and spun threads and strings, with knots on them. The knots indicate quantities: quipus were used for preserving inventories, bookkeeping, census records and other organisational information in Andean South America.
Zapotec may be one of the the oldest scripts of Central- and South America, however it remains largely a mystery for researchers. Unfortunately not just the writing system, but the language it is representing is unknown.
Mayan hieroglyphs are the only of the Mezoamerican writing system, that is more or less decyphered. It was used to write the Ch’olti language, which was the common language of the Mayan empire. The script is built up by image-writing complemented with syllables. Therefore several image-combinations an be created to note down the same word.
Momolu Duwalu Bukele from Liberia invented the Vai syllabary in his dream in 1840. Probably before this he saw the advantages of writing in the costal parts of the country, and he still needed some awake-time to work out the details of his alphabet.The syllabary was created to write the Vai language, which became one of the most successful indigenous scripts of West Africa.
A colorful script, Ndebele is the symbol writing of the Bantu people. It is a set of symbols with set meaning, that are combined in a more free way than alphabets, however always according to a specific logic. This way its users tell stories on tapestries, beadwork and on the walls of the houses, where the writing is applied.
Bassa Vah is the written alphanet of Bassa people of Liberia. It evolved from a tradition of leaving marks in nature to transmit messages to the peers. In times of colonization it was prohibited, but it was found back among slaves in Brazil by Dr. Lewis. He revived the script, and brought it back to Liberia. Since Bassa is a tonal language, the script incorporates diacritics, used to define the tonal quality of the sounds.
Several languages of Ethiopia and Eritrea use the Ge’ez script. Next to its everyday use its history is entangled with that of religion. According to the Eritrean Ortodox Church the script was divinely revealed to Enos as an instrument of codifying the laws. Consequently several Bible manuscripts were written in Ge’ez, yet today it is also considered as the sacred script of the Rastafari movement.