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16.3 Alphabet Writing

But, meanwhile, in Egypt and upon the Mediterranean coast yet another system of writing grew up. Its beginnings are probably to be found in the priestly picture-writing (hieroglyphics) of the Egyptians, which also in the usual way became partly a sound-sign sign system. As we see it on the Egyptian monuments, the hieroglyphic writing consists of decorative but stiff and elaborate forms, but for such purpose as letter-writing and the keeping of recipes and the like, the Egyptian priests used a much simplified and flowing form of these characters, the hieratic script. Side by side with this hieratic script rose another, probably also derivative from the hieroglyphs, a script now lost to use, which was taken over by various non-Egyptian peoples in the Mediterranean, the Phoenicians, Libyans, Lydians, Cretans, and Celt-Iberians, and used for business purposes. Possibly a few letters were borrowed from the later cuneiform. In the hands of these foreigners this writing was, so to speak, cut off from its roots; it lost all but a few traces of its early pictorial, character. It ceased to be pictographic or ideographic; it became simply a pure sound-sign system, an alphabet.

There were a number of such alphabets in the Mediterranean differing widely from each other. It may be noted that the Phoenician alphabet (and perhaps others) omitted vowels. Possibly they pronounced their consonants very hard and had rather indeterminate vowels, as is said to be still the case with tribes of South Arabia. Quite probably, too, the Phoenicians used their alphabet at first not so much for writing as for single initial letters in their business accounts and tallies. One of these Mediterranean alphabets reached the Greeks, long after the time of the Iliad, who presently set to work to make it express the clear and beautiful sounds of their own highly developed Aryan speech. It consisted at first of consonants, and the Greeks added the vowels. They began to write for record, to help and fix their bardic tradition....

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