The beginnings of our 26-letter alphabet are shrouded in the mists of time. The same is true for most other types of writing, like Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, and Chinese. But three writing systems were actually invented by specific individuals, and went on to be used by thousands and sometimes millions of people. What better way to achieve immortality but to mark your mark on the culture of a whole nation? In this article, we’ll consider these three amazing alphabets from newest to oldest.
Cherokee Syllabary by Sequoyah
The Cherokee script was invented in the early 1800’s by a silversmith named Sequoyah and is still used today in some parts of Oklahoma and North Carolina. Though there have never been enough Cherokee to give this script the kind of fame most alphabets have, it has inspired folks to invent writing systems for other pre-literate languages such as Vai in Liberia. Each character represents not just one sound but a syllable. Many of these characters look like English letters but sound nothing like them. One of the most amazing things about Sequoyah’s accomplishment is that he didn’t know how to read at all when he invented it. The sample above spells out the word “Cherokee.”
Hangul by King Sejong the Great
Hangul is the official script of the Korean language and the most unique of the three. In olden times Koreans used Chinese characters, but this system of word-based symbols is notoriously difficult to learn. In the 1400’s King Sejong of the Joseon dynasty invented this new script to make it easy for ordinary folks to learn to read and write. It’s got 14 consonants and 10 vowels which get joined together into block-shaped syllables. These groupings make them look like other Asian languages, and they’re even written vertically like Chinese. The most brilliant thing about Hangul letters is that the shapes of the consonants are based on the shape a person’s mouth makes when saying them. As you might expect, many elitists from the Korean upper class disliked this ingenious alphabet, preferring to prove their smartness by using difficult Chinese characters.
Cyrillic Alphabet by Saints Cyril and Methodius
Cyrillic is the technical term for the Russian alphabet, which is used for a number of other languages as well, including Ukrainian, Serbian, and Bulgarian. It’s based on the Glagolitic script invented in the Ninth Century by the saintly brothers Cyril and Methodius, Christian missionaries who used it to evangelize the Slavic peoples. This alphabet was a modification of the Greek alphabet with extra characters added for Slavic sounds not found in the Greek language. I’ve always loved the retro-modern way Cyrillic letters look, particularly how the lower-case letters are (almost) all smaller versions of their upper-case equivalent. I was sad to hear that some of the former Soviet republics have been switching over to our boring Latin-based script.
Though I mostly write about science fiction and related topics, sometimes I like to venture into nerdy subjects such as the linguistic focus of today’s article. Would you like to see more of this kind of article? Please let me know in the comments below.