The alphabets of democracy

Verbal Energy column: Are we ready for the heroes of the alphabet to be an anonymous group of foreign laborers from four millenniums ago?

A book that has been floating around my living room for some time has finally made it to the top of the reading pile – and not a moment too soon. Its owner, who has been in Boston on a three-year assignment, is about to pack up to leave.

The book is "Language Visible" by David Sacks, and it's the engaging story of how the alphabet developed. After beating up on myself for taking so long with it, I calm down with the thought that there are some things we don't get to until we're ready for them.

Here's the story: The Egyptians had developed an elaborate system of sacred carvings. The system was so complex that literacy was largely confined to a specialized class of scribes. In this writing system, pictures communicated the idea behind the word, the consonant sounds of the word, or often both, with multiple pictures.

The hieroglyphic pictures generally represented two or three consonants apiece. But critical to the invention of the true alphabet was a small group of two dozen or so that represented a single sound. These could be conscripted into the service of a very simple idea: one sound per symbol. This was the principle of alphabetic writing.

And who had this very simple idea?

According to Mr. Sacks, whose book was published in paperback under the title "Letter Perfect," archaeological evidence analyzed in 1999 points to a group of foreign workers in Egypt. They were speakers of a Semitic tongue that later gave rise to Phoenician, Hebrew, and Aramaic.

Just as the oil fiefdoms of today's Middle East are heavily dependent on foreign labor, so, too, was ancient Egypt. These foreigners did much of the heavy lifting of the Middle Kingdom – the mining, the stonecutting. Others were mercenary soldiers, the private security contractors of their day. Many came from points east – Sinai, Canaan, and the Arabian peninsula. The Egyptians disparagingly called them "Amu," or "Asiatics."

Sometime around 2000 BC, one or more of them came up with a list of Semitic consonants that could be rendered with characters adapted from hieroglyphs.

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