Historia of Type — The Evolution of Letters

Charchit Garg
11 min readFeb 5, 2019
The Sarcophagus of Ahiram in Lebanon | Source: Wikipedia

This article is the continuation of the Previous Article in which I shared about some of the prominent Writing Systems. In this article, I’ll further discuss the Formation and Evolution of the Alphabet, how the Alphabet became what it is today, and, How it has influenced the World of Typography Today.

The Proto-Sinaitic Letter (c.a. 1800 BC)

There were many attempts made to derive a new set of letters from Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics but due to their complexity and limitations, there was limited success. And around 1900 BC a script began to appear in Egypt, the Sinai and the Levant which is known as ‘Proto-Sinaitic Script’. The script at its earliest is mostly dated to between the Mid-1900 BC to the Mid-1600 BC. It is commonly believed that it was developed by the Semitic-speaking peoples of the Sinai and Levant and it consists of roughly 19 or so signs that can be, at least theoretically, associated with hieroglyphic or hieratic signs.

Sir Alan Gardiner, studied the Proto-Sinaitic Inscriptions. He identified the inscriptions as Semitic on the Red Sandstone Sphinx, dated to ca.1800 BC, which was discovered in 1904–1905 by Sir William Flinders Petrie in the temple ruins at Serabit el-Khadim, a copper and turquoise mining area on the West coast on the Sinai peninsula. The inscriptions on the sandstone are Egyptian Hieroglyphs and Proto-Sinaitic. The Egyptian Hieroglyphs read “Beloved of Hathor [Mistress] of turquoise” and the Proto-Sinaitic reads b’lt (or b’alat “to the Lady” — a title of Hathor).

Red Sandstone Sphinx, ca.1800 BC | Source: codex99.com

According to the “Alphabet Theory”, the early Semitic proto-alphabet reflected in the Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions would have given rise to both the South Arabian script and the Proto-Canaanite script.

Proto-Canaanite also referred to as Proto-Canaan, Old Canaanite, or Canaanite, is the name given to the Proto-Sinaitic script (c.a. 1600 BC), when found in Canaan. The term Proto-Canaanite is also used when referring to the ancestor of the Phoenician or Paleo-Hebrew script, respectively. While there is no existence of Phoenician inscriptions before c.a. 1000 BC, “Proto-Canaanite” is, therefore, was a term used for the early alphabets which were used during the 1300 BC and 1200 BC in Phoenicia. However, the Phoenician, Hebrew, and other Canaanite dialects were largely indistinguishable before the 11t00 BC.

A possible example of “Proto-Canaanite” was found in 2012, the Ophel inscription, during the excavations of the south wall of the Temple Mount by the Israeli archaeologist Eilat Mazarin Jerusalem on a storage jar made of pottery. There are some big letters inscribed on the pot which are about an inch high from which Five are complete and traces of three additional letters are in Proto-Canaanite Script.

William Albright in the 1950s and 1960s published interpretations of Proto-Sinaitic showing the derivation of the Canaanite alphabet from hieratic, leading to the commonly accepted belief that the language of the inscriptions was Semitic and that the script had a hieratic prototype.

The Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions, along with the contemporary parallels found in Canaan and Wadi el-Hol, are thus hypothesized to show an intermediate step between Egyptian hieratic script and the Phoenician alphabet.

Wadi el Hol Inscriptions | Source: Wikipedia

The Phoenician Letter (c.a. 1200 BC)

Around 1500 BC, The Phoenicians adopted the Proto-Sinaitic or Canaanite Script for their transformation of knowledge and to communicate with other civilizations. Phoenicia is located in modern-day Syria, Lebanon, and northern Israel. By creating a ‘Phonetic Alphabet’ (technically still an abjad) of 22 letters, they modified the scripts for their own comfortability. It was written right to left, although there are some texts written in boustrophedon. Phoenician is the oldest verified alphabet known and is called ‘The Mother of all Alphabets’.

Phoenician Alphabets | Source: Wikipedia

The Ahiram epitaph, from about 1200 BC, engraved on the sarcophagus of king Ahiramin Byblos, Lebanon, one of five known Byblian royal inscriptions, shows essentially the fully developed Phoenician script. The name “Phoenician” is by convention given to inscriptions beginning in the Mid-1100 BC.

As the letters were originally engraved with a stylus, most of the shapes are angular and straight. Although more cursive versions are increasingly attested in later times, resulting in the Neo-Punic alphabet of Roman-era North Africa.

The Sarcophagus of Ahiram in Lebanon | Source: Wikipedia

The alphabet was a major success because it had this Phonetic Nature, in which one sound was represented by one symbol, which meant that there were only a few dozen symbols to learn. This simple system also contrasted with the other scripts which were already in use at that time, such as Cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Another reason for its success was the maritime trading culture of Phoenician merchants’, which resulted in spreading the use of alphabet into parts of North Africa and Europe. Phoenician inscriptions have been found in archaeological sites at a number of former Phoenician cities and colonies around the Mediterranean, such as Byblos (in present-day Lebanon) and Carthage in North Africa.

Phoenician Merchants and Traders | Source: Wikipedia

The alphabet had long-term effects on the social structures of the civilizations that came in contact with it. In the West, it became Greek → Etruscan → Latin, or Greek → Cyrillic → Glagolitic. In the East, it became Aramaic → Hebrew, or Aramaic → Nabataen → Arabic, or Aramaic → Brahmi → Devanagari, etc, etc.

Phoenician Alphabet’s simplicity not only allowed it to be used in multiple languages, but it also allowed the common people to learn how to write. This upset the long-standing status of writing systems only being learned and employed by members of the royal and religious hierarchies of society, who used writing as an instrument of power to control access to information by the larger population. The appearance of Phoenician disintegrated many of these class divisions, although many Middle Eastern kingdoms, such as Assyria, Babylonia, and Adiabene, would continue to use cuneiform for legal and liturgical matters well into the Common Era.

The Greek Letter (c.a. 800 BC)

Writing in Greek was first inaugurated by Minoans in c.a. 1900 BC. They used an Egyptian hieroglyphic-like, and an undeciphered script called Linear A. In the course of time, the Minoans in c.a. 1400 BC were conquered by the Mycenaeans, who adopted the script and modified it into Linear B. Linear B was used strictly for administrative purposes, used by scribes serving the royal palaces. The Mycenaeans, in turn, were defeated by the Dorians, or the mysterious Sea Peoples c.a. 1100 BC. Under the Dorian rule, all the signs of Mycenaen culture were lost, including writing, and this was the time when the Greek entered it’s ‘Dark Age’. The period between the use of the two writing systems, during which no Greek texts are attested, is known as the Greek Dark Ages.

Linear A Script | Source: Wikipedia

As legend has it, writing again appeared in c.a. 750 BC in Greece through Cadmus, a Phoenician prince, dragon-slayer, founder of Thebes, son of Agenor and brother of Phoenix, Cilix and Europa. According to Herodotus, from his Histories (V 58), Cadmus introduced Phoenician, phoinikeia grammata (φοινικήια γράμματα, Phoenician letters), to the Greeks. And By 700 BC there were numerous examples of this Phoenician derived writing among Greeks.

Hendrick Goltzius, Cadmus fighting the Dragon | Source: Wikipedia

Greek Alphabet, however, is very different from Semitic Phoenician Alphabet, scribes used some of the unused Phoenician letters as vowels (the Phoenician aleph became the Greek alpha) and created the first true alphabet. Greek was the first alphabetic script to have distinct letters for vowels as well as consonants. In Archaic and early Classical times, the Greek alphabet existed in many different local variants. But by the end of the 4th century BC, the Eucleidean alphabet, with twenty-four letters, ordered from alpha to omega became the standard script. It is this version that is still in use to write Greek today. These twenty-four letters are: Α α, Β β, Γ γ, Δ δ, Ε ε, Ζ ζ, Η η, Θ θ, Ι ι, Κ κ, Λ λ, Μ μ, Ν ν, Ξ ξ, Ο ο, Π π, Ρ ρ, Σ σ/ς, Τ τ, Υ υ, Φ φ, Χ χ, Ψ ψ, and Ω ω.

Greek Alphabet Variants | Source: Wikipedia

Greek was originally written from right to left, just like Phoenician, but scribes could freely alternate between directions. For a time, a writing style with alternating right-to-left and left-to-right lines (called boustrophedon, literally “ox-turning”, after the manner of an ox plowing a field) was common. But in the classical period, the left-to-right writing direction became the norm. Individual letter shapes were mirrored depending on the writing direction of the current line.

Early Greek alphabet on pottery in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens | Source: Wikipedia

Greek Alphabet, apart from its use in the Greek Language, also serves as a source of technical symbols and is used in the domain of Mathematics, Science and other fields.

The Etruscan or Old Italic Letter (c.a. 800 BC)

As early as 740 BC, Greeks from Euboa established trading posts and colonies on the Italic peninsula at Cumae and Ischia. They adapted the Western Greek Alphabet and modified it to their own communications, forming a new Alphabet, “Etruscan Alphabet”. In the alphabets of the West, X had the sound value[ks], Ψ stood for [kʰ]; in Etruscan: X = [s], Ψ = [kʰ] or [kχ] (Rix 202–209).

This antique form of the Etruscan alphabet remained practically unchanged, and the direction of writing was free. However, the alphabet started to evolve from the 6th Century, adjusting to the phonology of the Etruscan Language. Letters which represented phonemes as nonexistent were dropped. By 400 BC, it appears that all of Etruria was using the classical Etruscan alphabet of 20 letters, mostly written from left to right.

Etruscan cippus (grave marker) from the necropolis Crocifisso del Tufo outside Orvieto, Italy | Source: Wikipedia

An additional sign 𐌚, in shape similar to the numeral 8, transcribed as F, was present in both Lydian and Etruscan (Jensen 513). Its origin is disputed; it may have been an altered B or H or an ex novo creation (Rix 202). Its sound value was /f/ and it replaced the Etruscan FH. Some letters were, on the other hand, falling out of use. Etruscan did not have any voiced stops, for which B, C, D were originally intended (/b/, /g/, and /d/ respectively). The B and D, therefore, fell out of use, and the C, which is simpler and easier to write than K, was adopted to write /k/, mostly displacing K itself. Likewise, since Etruscan had no /o/ vowel sound, O disappeared and was replaced by U. In the course of its simplification, the redundant letters showed some tendency towards a semi-syllabary: C, K, and Q were predominantly used in the contexts CE, KA, QU.

The alphabet remained in use until the 2nd Century BC when the Roman Empire took over. They manipulated the alphabet in their own and formed a new alphabet, ‘The Latin Alphabet’.

The Romans, who did have voiced stops in their language, revived B and D for /b/ and /d/, and used C for both /k/ and /g/ until they invented a separate letter G to distinguish the two sounds. And Soon after, the Etruscan language itself became extinct.

But, by this time, Etruscan had already served as the parent of most Italic alphabets, including Faliscan, Marsilianan, Messapic, Oscan, Picene (both North and South), Umbrian, Venetic, and most importantly, Latin.

Etruscan Alphabets | Source: codex99.com

The Latin Letter (c.a. 700 BC)

The Latin alphabet is the writing system originally used by the ancient Romans to write the Latin language.

It evolved from the visually similar Cumaean Greek version of the Greek alphabet, which was itself descended from the Phoenician abjad, which in turn derived from Egyptian hieroglyphics. The Etruscans, who ruled early Rome, adopted the Cumaean Greek alphabet, which was modified over time to become the Etruscan alphabet, which was in turn adopted and further modified by the Romans to produce the Latin alphabet. Latini dropped several unneeded Etruscan letters and added several “dead” Etruscan letters to form a script of 21 characters.

The alphabet underwent several changes over the next 600 years. The first, according to Roman history, was the introduction of the letter ‘g’ to differentiate the sounds of ‘g’ and ‘k’ in the Mid-300 BC by Spurius Carvilius Ruga, a freedman who opened the first grammar school in Rome. Around this time the unneeded Etruscan ‘z’ was dropped.

Towards the end of the Roman Republic, after the conquest of Greece (146 BC) the Greek letters ypsilon and zeta were added to the end of the Latin alphabet, in the form of ‘y’ and ‘z’, so that the Romans could properly spell Greek words and names.

The last attempt to toy with the Latin alphabet came from Emperor Claudius (41–54 AD), who introduced three new letters, a reversed C (antisigma) for ps a turned F (digamma inversum) to represent ü and a half H (sonus medius), for w. The Claudian letters, however, did not survive beyond his death.

Duenos Inscription shows the earliest known forms of the Old Latin alphabet | Source: Wikipedia

This new Latin alphabet spread rapidly and by the end of the 600 BC writing appeared in most of Latin. There was little consistency in early examples and letters appeared in several forms tending to mirror that of their neighbors. Examples are written right-to-left appear near Etruscan territories and boustrophedon examples appear closer to Southern Greek colonies. By around 500 BC the situation calmed down a bit and a standardized script, written left-to-right, became the norm.

The resulting 23 letter alphabet served as the parent of most European languages, including the Romance languages (French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and Romanian), the Germanic languages (German, English, Dutch, Norwegian, Icelandic, Swedish, etc.), and later, through the spread of Christianity and colonization, to languages in Eastern Europe, Australia, Oceania, East Asia, and Africa and South America. Today the Latin alphabet (with letter additions, diacriticals, etc) is the most widely used writing system in the world.

Romans were the one who spread their language and their alphabet throughout the Mediterranean and Europe even more successfully than did the Phoenicians, a millennia earlier. At the height of the Roman Empire, all of the literate societies of the West used either Latin or Greek.

And this was the account of some Prominent Letter Figures in the Historia of Type. Romans were the one who gave attention to the fine details of letters. They introduced Geometry in the construction of Type to start making look all the letters consistent with each other, to make them as they belong to each other. The next article will be specifically about The Roman Letter.

Source: Wikipedia, codex99

Originally published at charchitgarg.com on February 5, 2019.



Charchit Garg

I share what I write in my so called "Crap Diary" and some other stuff too. Sorry for not being specific here.