August 14, 2019 100

The Alphabet – Origins of Writing – Extra History

The Alphabet – Origins of Writing – Extra History

As the world ended
with fire and sword, and one by one, the lights of civilization
were snuffed out, old ideas died, and from
their ashes, new ideas came. Ideas that would
change the world. (intro) As we’ve talked about
the Bronze Age Collapse, we’ve mentioned time and again that,
across much of the ancient world, As civilizations
fell apart, writing died out. Literacy…
disappeared. In many places, the written word simply
vanished for centuries. But eventually, as humanity
clawed it’s way back, this old idea of writing
started to re-emerge. But, in a new form. In our episode on
the origins of writing, we talked
about cuneiform, and how the written scripts
evolved from scribes making pictures
to record the inventories of the vast temple
warehouses of Sumer. And, as part
of that evolution, the pictures
became simplified, and lost
their pictorial meaning. Instead, coming to mean
the sound of the picture they originally
represented. In doing so, cuneiform became
a syllabic alphabet, where each
cuneiform design represented a syllable
of spoken speech. This rendered
the character sets smaller than pure
pictographical systems. But it still left scribes with hundreds
of characters to memorize. The more characters
you had to memorize, the harder it is
to become literate. The slower the adoption
of the written word will be. And, the smaller the group
it will be limited to. But the Sumerian system had influenced the way that writing in much
of the ancient world developed. and so syllabic sytems
had become the norm. That is,
until the collapse. So where does the story
of the alphabet begin? A writing system
based, not on syllables, but on phonemes, on single sounds. Like many things, it begins
in Egypt before
the collapse. The Egyptians actually had some
single sound characters among
their hieroglyphs. They weren’t
the majority of it, they weren’t
the most important part of it, but they were there. and migratory
Semitic tribes coming to Egypt
latched on to them. borrowing
the sound characters to write in their
own language, Instead
of trying to adopt the whole sets
of Egyptian Hieroglyphs. As the world collapsed, this set
of migratory tribes found themselves
in a pretty good position. They didn’t have any major
infrastructure to topple, or intricate social order to upheave. And so, as the existing powers fell, they set up their own kingdoms in the Levant. One of these loosely tied kingdoms was Phoenicia, sitting at the heart of everything. Phoenicia became a trade hub for a world slowly climbing out of the darkness. And with their trade, came their language and their ideas. With their trade, came their writing. But there’s an interesting thing about trade, A weird quirk of necessity that leads us one step closer to what we think of as an alphabet. You see, cuneiform was based around making impressions in clay, the series of odd wedge marks that give the language its name. Clay made sense as the principal thing to write on when you were keeping track of vast stores of goods or making imperial records meant to stand the test of time. But clay is also pretty bulky. It’s hard to transport, and if your society is based on trade, you’re going to want something else to write on. The Phonecians turned to papyrus. So now they had the single phoneme writing of the Semitic cultures, a new script that could be used on easily portable papyrus, and a vast trading network. This meant that they brought their writing with them. And other cultures began to pick it up and pick it up and modify it to fit their languages. And one of the most enthusiastic adopters of this new system were the Greeks. With the utter destruction of the Mycenaean civilization, the Greeks really had lost their writing system. For the whole dark age that followed, Greek writing was just gone. But, with the re-establishment of trade, the Greek city-states began to grow again. And as they did so, they latched onto this system, that would clearly do so much to help their expansion. But up until this point, the Phoenician alphabet had mostly been used by Semitic speaking peoples, and Semitic languages had an interesting oddity. They used almost no vowels. This meant that the Phoneticians never actually developed vowels for their alphabet. When vowel sounds were part of a word, they were just implied. Everybody could tell what the word was, simply just by writing out the consonants in it. Greek though, is an Indo-European language. It is 𝐟𝐮𝐥𝐥 of vowels. So the Greeks looked at the Phonetician alphabet, and realized that there were a handful of consonants in there that they simply didn’t use. Letters that there simply wasn’t an equivalent sound in Greek for. So, being simultaneously crafty and lazy, they just took those letters, and started using them for Greek vowel sounds. And this is 𝐡𝐮𝐠𝐞, because for the first time, every sound in a language was represented in it’s alphabet. There weren’t a ton of additional things you needed to know from outside the written system to effectively use it. Or that you would need to explain to a foreigner on top of it, in order to teach them your writing. And the Greeks, being traders and seafarers in turn, spread this system westward. First to Italy, and then, if not always, directly, to the rest of the European world. The system they spread is the basis for the alphabets that much of the world uses today. In fact, we are so rooted in it, I would ask you to take a moment to consider the Greek language, with its newly minted vowels. What are the first two letters? Alpha and Beta. and when you push those two together, what do you get? The very word we use to describe our system of written phonemes. Alphabet. So while there are many other changes that this system eventually goes through, this is where we’re going to stop today. Because now, we got an alphabet. We got the next major development in the history of writing. The thing that helps spread literacy, and makes adoption of the written word for many of the European cultures that had never had a writing system before. And a light emerges from the darkness of the Bronze Age Collapse that will kindle the Western World.

100 Replies to “The Alphabet – Origins of Writing – Extra History”

  • Extra Credits says:

    Where did the alphabet come from? How did it develop, and why?

    Support us on Patreon!

  • Kazuichi Souda says:

    No, it'd be Alphabeta. There's an extra a, but point still gotten.

  • أَحْمَد says:


  • Miej dobre uczenie 3 - Dla uczniów ze szkoły says:

    In Polish There are 9 vowels.

  • Mikedaprez says:

    Could you guys do an episodes on the Moors

  • Daniel Sung says:

    Did I here PAPYRUS? (Bonetrousle plays)

  • Mark Arandjus says:

    In Slovenian the word for 'alphabet' is 'abeceda' which is pronounced like 'ah-beh-tse-dah' it's literally just 'a-b-c-d' 😛

  • Travis Collier says:

    Got to give a shout-out to Korean writing (Hangul). A phonetic system specifically designed to be easily learned by common people. Especially cool because the phonetic symbols are stuck together to make syllabic symbols, so easier to read. Great system… Even I can read it, though I have no clue what 99% of the words mean since I can't speak Korean 😉

    The history, such that I understand it, is interesting. The aristocrats were literate in Chinese characters and used that as part of their power over commoners. The royals were getting worried about the aristocrats getting too powerful, so the king invented Hangul (probably actually commissioned someone to do it) and sent out people to teach it.

    PS: About 800 years earlier, the sovereign (Queen Seondeok) had a building/tower which is actually a physical calendar built for the same "empower the people to weaken the aristocrats" reason. That way they wouldn't have to rely on the priests (who were controlled by the aristocrats) to know when to plant crops and such.

  • Trekeia Jackson says:

    Honestly 🙂 (deep chris) Should be a new letter of the alphabet hear some 5 things that should start with it this letter (: (deep Chris) Which means :
    C:ca-pad Electronics
    C:-oji bot An animal
    C:-avid A name
    C:-juicy bar Candy
    C:-essed up corrupted shape A shape/polygon

  • Trekeia Jackson says:

    The smiley face it will be the design of deep Chris It a
    also mean happy to

  • Molly Marjorie says:

    What do you mean when you say Semitic languages used almost no vowels? Are you referring to consonant/vowel ratios in single words, and Semitic languages have more consonant clusters than Greek? Or is this a reference to the different morphological systems (Semitic languages usually having a three consonant root in which vowels are inserted, rather than a root word which is affixed)? Or is this the sheer number of vowels in the language (perhaps that Semitic languages had 2-3 vowels, and the Greeks had 6+ vowels)? Or is vowel usage genuinely rare, and these languages usually opt for syllabic consonants as the nuclei of their words? Please understand, I am not meaning to be snarky or catch you out on something. I sincerely found the statement unclear.

  • Welcome to Nerdland says:

    1:49 who else looked at the sun and thought “TELETUBBIES!”

  • Lando 530 says:

    Who changed the letters?

    Not Walpole, definitely not.

  • Andrew Rose says:

    Do a video about Nova Anglia?

  • Orthodox Fox says:

    Phonecian is very similar to Hebrew. I can even understand it

  • Wilhelm Klink says:

    AZERTY? Ewww….

  • It is TheDon says:

    super interesting, thanks

  • The DryBros says:

    4:44 nice little animation reference

  • Evangelos Mesolongitis says:

    Hey, we are not lazy. Modern-day Greeks are working much harder than any other western country (OECD). Unfortunately, our goods and services are not competitive to the global trade. Which is a shame, because human capital is wasted in low income jobs and then comes brain drain.

  • J Comper says:

    The modern English alphabet is a Latin alphabet consisting of 26 letters, each having an uppercase and a lowercase form: A a. B b.
    According to surveys, the percentage of modern English words derived from each language group are as follows:
    Latin ≈29%
    French ≈29%
    Germanic ≈26%
    Greek ≈6%
    Others ≈10%
    The Latin alphabet used by the Romans (during the Classical Latin period, from the 1st century BCE) had only 23 different letters, which were what we now call uppercase or capital letters: A B C D E F G H I K L M N O P Q R S T V X Y Z
    By today’s standards, this would truly be one of the easiest alphabets in the world to learn. The letters J, W, and U were added much later to write languages other than Latin, and lowercase letters developed gradually around the 6th century CE.
    Which Latin language has the most letters of the alphabet?
    Slovak alphabet is an extension of the Latin alphabet used for writing the Slovak language.
    It has 46 letters which makes it the longest Slavic and European alphabet.

    Learn the Slovak language – is the most simple and logical grammar structured of all the Slavic languages conlang ever.

  • oh no no says:

    Vulture foot basket

  • Jaeden Soon says:

    5:12 wait AZERTY? That's rare.

  • Kenzo says:

    Animation here looks so good!

  • zikiney says:

    Phonicia is not a kingdom, it's a grup of city states like the greeks

  • Noral Asiah says:

    þ,ð,æ and œ

  • Puddintane says:

    That intro sounds like a great last paragraph to a dystopian novel.

  • RuneChaos1.01 says:

    wheel of fourtune? @4:16
    what does that word spell if you add vowels?

  • Christian Johnston says:

    My students love this video and the cuneiform video. "They explain things really well!" This stuff is awesome.

  • Guest 22113 says:

    Anyone else notice that the keyboard is azerty instead of qwerty

  • Glorbiie says:

    Alpha + beta = alphabet.. You just blew my mind! Seriously

  • Arnav Chauhan says:

    Please make a full series on Writing!

  • Eric DH says:

    Thank you. Your channel is what makes me up every day

  • Dave Hoffman says:


  • Bruh Bruh says:

    Beautiful animation with historical education!

  • Olle Hedkvist says:

    Having studied chinese, I have to say I disagree with the common western notion that alfabetic script is easier to learn than ideographic script. I think it is more a question of what you are used to, once the brain becomes accustomed to learning chinese characters they become easy to learn, and you can learn hundreds of words per day just as in any other language. It should also be said that the chinese civilization for most of history was far more literate than any european counterpart and that chinese children today don't seem to struggle more at learning to read than children in other countries. Also syllabic writing is still used in most of asia, and they don't seem to suffer from that either.

  • Aditya Prabhash says:

    5:11 what kinda keyboard yall got?

  • Cogman Inc. says:

    2:20 now the phonecians can get down to buisness

  • Dante I’ll be weary says:

    3:14 so tenetiens(sorry for my spelling) turned to papyrus
    *Bonetrousle starts playing *

  • Chad Speelman says:

    I have large testicles

  • Jon Lark says:

    This is the dumbest shit I've ever seen….

  • Marco Aurelio Vulcano says:

    Sumerians were a great civilization not much for the absolute conquests they achieved but the pioneering of vast infrastructure and civilization.

  • mohammad nweylati says:

    Alfa, Beta
    The original root is "Abgad "
    Which means alfabet in Arabic .

  • Pamela Asmar says:

    I’m proud of my ancestors!

  • David Howells says:

    "Alphabet" kind of means "cow shed" (Aleph -> ox, Beth -> house)

  • Isnisse says:

    You guys need some Æ Ø Å!

  • Cookies The dragon says:

    Papyrus… That sounds, familiar….

    Silent nyehehes can be heard in the distance

  • Annie Zhang says:

    You keep on pronouncing "Cuneiform" wrong. It's Koo-nay-eh-form

  • typograf62 says:

    What is phenomes? 5:40

  • Sarban says:

    The Phoenicians were Hebrews (Canaanites).

  • Valdet Pajaziti says:

    Oldest writing in the world is Winca lethaer in Beograd in Serbia. Before 7500 jears. 5500 before Krist.. Vincan Leather.

  • Spaceexplorer says:


  • Yangster Supreme says:

    2:29 now the Phoenicians can get down to buisness

  • Özgür Fırat BOZ says:

    "Alpha Bet"a
    My mind has transcended to the 8th dimension.

  • Jader says:

    Im so proud to be Greek

  • Jack Yang says:

    Just wanna say that the Chinese language would be so much easier if they adopted this system. Our words are basically pictures drawn and many different words are pronounced exactly the same. Like hundreds of words with very different meaning.

  • hamilton euzarraga says:

    That wasn't qwerty

  • But Hed says:

    Extra Haster? There is only one king.

  • Richard Rabinowitz says:

    Jews – a Semitic people – later ran into the same problem the Greeks had: indo European languages. Sure, they had used Greek and Latin, but in the time period I'm thinking of, the pesky language was German. Which the Jews wrote in the Hebrew alphabet as they turned it into Yiddish. So they had to retrofit a Semitic alphabet to suit an indo European language they had just coined… Confusing, no?

  • James Cain says:


  • Alex Stambaugh says:

    WHY HAVE I NOT SEEN THIS!?!?!?!?!??!!??!?!

  • Kanu PUBG says:

    What about Sanskrit?

  • Aaron Myers says:

    "[Phoenician/Semitic languages] used almost no vowels."

    Huge stretch. Semitic languages do have/have had vowels, but they never use them IN WRITING. Some Semitic languages do have very few phonemic vowels, /a/, /i/ and /u/, but the latter two were weird.

    Let's say in some hypothetical fictitious language that used a Semitic script, you wanted to write the word "nakata". Semitic writing systems never write short /a/s, so they just leave the consonants as is (which is what you were referring to): <NKT>. But let's say you wanted to write a word like "nakuta". Semitic languages got creative – they used the symbol for /w/ as the same symbol for the vowel counterpart, /u/: Thus, you would get <NKWT>.

    (This is actually a whole lot more complicated, but I simplified it enough for the understanding of the layman.)

  • Brownskikuca says:

    Our Serbian Azbuka comes also from the two first letters
    A=Az B=Buki
    And also the letters are aligned as each of them made an entire very big sentence

  • Alex Thoppil says:

    I feel bad for the Phoenicians, the Greeks always get all the credit. Probably because They got destroyed by both the Achaemenids and the Romans in the Punic wars.

  • shara30000 says:

    5:20 prepare to have your mind blown in 5…4…3…2…1

  • Dkaloger says:

    Well I know the Greeks got their from the phinisians

  • Dkaloger says:

    Well I know the Greeks got their from the phinisians

  • Zach Borgan says:

    Papyrus…..NYEH NYEH NYEH NYEN. Who wants spaghetti?!

  • Devadas44 says:

    … makes me wonder if china still has their system of writing based on drawings of objects, because they never had a collapse, or they experienced a far worse collapse, where no ideas survived and their writing took the same path again.

  • profarrington says:

    You have left out Israel and the Hebrew language. Is there a reason for this?

  • Abdul Rahman Sabbagh says:

    Interestingly, the first four letters in greek alphabet are Alpha, Betta, Gama and Delta.. together they form the word "Abgd" which is the Arabic, and the semitic, root of the word Abgedia, which also means Alphabet.

  • Alan Monteros says:

    Did they change artists around this time? I noticed that beginning with the Bronze Age collapse the art style seems different

  • J Luftig says:

    Alphabet came from Hebrew, pre greek. Alaph Bet Gimmel Dalet Hey… look it up. The Hebrews brought the first all sound based symbols to Egypt with them. Peace.

  • freesk8 says:

    Have you done one on the origin of numbers, yet? Roman numerals, Arabic numerals, and what came before those? Thanks!

  • TRU TRU TRAIN says:

    Papyrus sans are you there

  • TRU TRU TRAIN says:

    Get it because he said papyrus and his brother is sans undertale

  • Riley T. says:

    Now the Phoenicians can get down to business

  • KaletheQuick says:

    Dans voice soothes my soul.

  • Chronic Avidness says:

    So… the word "phonetic" is derived from the word "Phoenician"?

  • Pruthiraj Tripathy says:


  • LARSFSO says:

    What am I doing with my life?

  • Nio år gammal Nine years old says:


  • CCC 344 Jordan says:


  • xcelcior knight says:

    Only Papyrus No Sans????

  • The Gaming Dilophosaurus says:

    5:31 A is for Alpha
    B is for Beta
    Alpha + Beta (Without the letter A) = AlphaBet
    M I N D B L O W N

  • Peashooter Winmo says:

    ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?
    Α Β Γ Δ Ε Υ Ζ Η Θ Ι Κ Λ Μ Ν Ξ Ο Π Φ Ρ Σ Τ
    A B C D E Y Z H Θ I K L M N X O P Q R S T

  • HungerGamesFan88 says:

    Reminds me of that LeapFrog series of DVDs

  • TheSealMayor says:


  • Adjective Noun Number says:

    Phoenecians: “Oh hey Persia! I bet you’re marching over here with your troops just to thank us for the invention of the alphabet!”

    Persians: “Sure, sure…”

  • Mike Naughton says:

    Great work. Thanks.

  • Bryce McKenzie says:

    I love being crafty yet lazy

  • John Davenport says:

    "What is that?"

    "Around the corner; is that-"


  • TJ Thomas says:

    Combination of enginuity and laziness is the bases for many great inventions.

  • SuperMarioFigureBoyFan 43 says:

    Wow, nice video! ?

  • Trever101 says:

    I saw this video like a year ago but it only just clicked that the word paper might have come from papyrus

  • Daniel Black says:

    The word “alphabet” actually comes from the Hebrew “Alef Bet” (the Greeks took it from them)

  • nishant kushwaha says:

    5:09 , which keyboard is that?

  • Limmeh says:

    My mind has been blown thinking that ideas created before writing was are lost to time. Imagine, some dude could've had a good idea…all gone,because it couldn't be written. Writing gives things permanence.

  • Boyan TheSomething says:

    Uhmm Bulgarians made their own but they didnt copy the Greeks basically like a b v g no we just thought like the Greeks and yeah

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