In Damascus Museum you have to lean down to peer through a small glass window to see its most interesting exhibit, a small clay tablet about six by two centimetres with the world’s earliest alphabet. Only discovered in 1928, it was found in Ugarit. I’ve stood on this small coastal hill in Syria, now somewhat far from the sea, razed and burnt by the Sea Peoples in 1200 BC, and as clay is unharmed by heat, this act of destruction preserved the tablets. They show us detailed records in a writing system that proved so superior to the previous systems, that it quickly became the Phoenician, Greek then Latin alphabets, literally providing the foundation for Western culture.
This was a turning point for learning, as to learn to read and write was reduced from several thousand to a couple of dozen symbols. The Greek breakthrough was to take the idea of an alphabet from the Phoenicians but invent one of their own, with signs for every sound. The word ‘alphabet’ comes from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet Alpha and Beta. An alphabet simplifies and turbo charges writing, reading and therefore learning.
Why upper and lower case?
At one point all phonetic alphabets were in upper case (or one case). As brushes and pens started to be used, and writing became more cursive, the letters following the first letter in words tended to run together and get smaller and lower case evolved. So it was the physical technology of the brush and pen that led to upper and lower cases. It improves the speed of writing and legibility in reading. In general, lower case letters are not found in European languages prior to 1300. In fact, there were no fixed rules for capitalisation prior to the early 18th century, before this letters could be written larger and distinctly at the start of sentences and on nouns. In English, capital letters indicate proper names, abbreviations, personal pronoun ‘I’ and the start of sentences. In German all nouns are capitalised. Arabic and Hebrew still have only one ‘case’ and therefore no capital letters, whereas Latin, Cyrillic and Greek alphabets have two cases. The actual terms ‘upper case’ and ‘lower case’ are named after the ‘cases’ in which printers’ moveable type were held. In an interesting twist, CAPITAL LETTERS have come to indicate ‘shouting’ when used in emails and txting.
Alphabets and learning
An alphabet accelerates literacy and learning. It not only makes writing and reading easier, it makes learning how to write and read easier. Some languages are more difficult to learn than others as they have more irregular spellings and complex grammar.
So despite the obvious advantages of an alphabet for learning, there’s huge differences across languages on the degree to which the letters represent actual sounds. Finnish, Turkish, Serbo-Croat and Bulgarian have nearly one to one correspondence between letters and words, making spelling easy to learn. English, however, is highly irregular and has lots of mismatches with silent letters, double letters and so on, as it went through a historic vowel shift and has many loan words from other languages. This is brilliantly explored in Crystal (2012). English is therefore more difficult to learn. This may account for some differences in literacy in international comparative tests. This is not all bad news as this irregularity gives English breadth over a wide range of dialects and has a simpler grammar with no gender differences.
Interestingly, research suggests that children learn literacy as much as 3 times faster in countries where phonetic letters match sounds. It has been shown that a reformed phonemic English alphabet can achieve similar results. Some have achieved even faster improvement rates, up to five times faster. Astoundingly, English spelling is about 20% predictable until you memorise dictionary words. With truly phonetic alphabets it becomes nearly 100% predictable. Writing also becomes tighter and faster to produce. At a stroke one eliminates the misery of memorisation and being branded as stupid for being poor at spelling.
There have been two different approaches to the pedagogic problem of spelling; 1) reform spelling; 2) reform the entire alphabet.
Andrew Carnegie tried to reform spelling, with simplifications and got some support from President Roosevelt. Examples include: "bizness" for business, "enuf" for enough, "fether' for feather, "mesure' for measure etc. Mark Twain doubted that spelling reform could work and preferred to recast our “drunken old alphabet” and its “rotten spelling”. American English has benefitted from some of this simplification, and Noah Webster in the early 19th century had a little success with the first edition of his American Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1828. But in English, neither serious spelling nor alphabet reform took off.
Over a century earlier Benjamin Franklin recognised that irregular spelling made English difficult to learn but went for alphabet reform and, in 1768, proposed A Scheme for a new Alphabet and a Reformed Mode of Spelling to simplify the alphabet and its use in spelling. The new alphabet was published in 1779. He eliminated c, j, q, w, x, and y, which he saw as superfluous but added six new letters for sounds he though were not represented. But theory is one thing, embedded practice another and it never took off. He himself lost interest in the project.
Mark Twain and George Bernard Shaw wanted complete alphabet reform and Shaw proposed a 48 letter alphabet that matched the actual sounds of English, 36 brand new letters and 12 combinations. This was radical as he was not interested in just improving spelling but changing the whole alphabet.
Turkey did reform its alphabet in the 20th century in response to western oriented Turkish nationalism. In fact, the new alphabet was more suited to Turkish as Arabic, which had been used for over a thousand years is consonant rich but lacks the vowels so commonly used in Turkish. Ataturk personally promoted the project on the basis of it being easier to learn and therefore produces higher rates of literacy. Indeed the literacy rate rose from 20% to over 90%. However, many factors were at work here. This was an attempt to use alphabet reform to change history and push a country into the modern age by breaking with the past. It was a cultural, historical, linguistic and pedagogic break.
Alphabets, especially when they phonetically match sounds, accelerate literacy and learning. We could, for example, reform English so that literacy can be dramatically improved. However, culturally and practically this is unlikely. Alphabet reform seems to only work where there is enormous political and cultural will to break from the past, as in Turkey. In any case, an alphabet is a boon to learning a language.
Crystal, D. (1995). The Cambridge encyclopedia of the English language. Cambridge [England: Cambridge University Press.
Crystal D (2012). Spell It Out: The Singular Story of English Spelling