How Did the Ox Start the Alphabet?

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There are many things in our daily life that we take for granted. In most societies of the modern world, literacy, the ability to read and write, is quite common. What we use to read and write varies from society to society. For most of the Western World, and those societies that were influenced by it, an alphabet is used. An alphabet is a system of letters that represent sounds. Examples are the Latin alphabet, which is used to write most languages in the world, including English; the Greek alphabet; and the Cyrillic alphabet, which is used to write most Slavic and other languages that became under the Russian/Soviet sphere of influence. Other writing systems, like Chinese characters or Arabic, are not alphabets, but logograms and abjads respectively.

The word ‘alphabet,’ according to Merriam-Webster’s, has been attested since the early 1500s. It was borrowed from the Late Latin alphabetum, and this from the Greek alphabetos. When the word alphabetos is broken down into two main components, one gets alpha and beta, the names of the first two letters of the Greek alphabet. The story, however, does not end there. The Ancient Greeks adopted their alphabet at around the ninth to eight centuries BCE from the Phoenician one. The Phoenicians were a Semitic-speaking people known for their maritime trade and founding of different city-states along the Mediterranean coast, from their ancestral homeland in modern-day Lebanon to modern-day Spain. The Phoenicians did not invent the alphabet, per se; they inherited it from their ancestors who used a script that borrowed from Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Continue reading to learn more about the origin of the word “alphabet”…

The Phoenicians had names for the letters of their abjad—a writing system where symbols or glyphs represent consonants. The first two happen to be ‘alep, to represent a glottal sound, and bet, to represent /b/. ‘Alep means ‘ox’ and bet means ‘house’. It is always the case that when something is important to a community, that something receives a name—almost everything does. However, with these two Semitic words, we can speculate what may have been important to Ancient Near Eastern societies.

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Oxen were important in the ancient world (and still are in some places of the modern world) because they provided farmers with their agricultural needs: ploughing, transportation, and such. The number of oxen one had meant wealth; in other words, oxen equaled money. The need for shelter is universally human. It is obvious, then, that a physical house would be in second place of importance, for one needs to provide for oneself in order to build.

Ancient peoples of the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia, gave us technological innovations in agriculture, which allowed human beings to develop crops and new ways of eating foods, like making bread or fermented drinks. How interesting that something as simple as the alphabet descended from something that changed how humans would gather food differently—the agricultural revolution.

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