By John Man
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Extra resources for Alpha Beta: How 26 Letters Shaped the Western World
A script’s survival seems to depend more on the nature of the culture, on the materials used and on the determination of its scribes to preserve it and transmit it unchanged down the generations. ★ ★ ★ Let’s see how this idea works out by looking at the second great writing system of the ancient Middle East, Egyptian hieroglyphic. Until the early nineteenth century, Egyptian writing had been a mystery for 2000 years. In the first century BC, a Greek historian Diodorus Siculus visited Egypt. The writing was still in use then, though much overlaid by GraecoRoman culture.
All day, every day, for ten years, he sits in the ‘tablet-house’ on his clay-brick bench with his best friend, learning cuneiform. As a five year old, he has to practise using his stylus to imprint horizontal, vertical and sloping wedgeshapes, in two different lengths. Then he starts to learn his list of 900 signs, with some signs representing more than one syllable, and each sign sounding different in Sumerian and Akkadian. Then he moves on to drills in stringing syllables together to make words, thousands of them, all listed in various categories.
Sentences can be built on the same pattern. As an English example, imagine six little images: Easy, especially if you know a little English literature. But try going on with ‘that is the question’. No common image can stand for the sound of ‘that’, because there are no one-syllable nouns that begin with a voiced ‘th’. If you want to continue the game, you have to improvise. You might, for instance, devise a literary version of charades, using a sign for ‘vat’ and another, a so-called determinative, for ‘sounds like’ or ‘rhymes with’.