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A man obsessed with bringing order to his expanding kingdom, he sought reform in just about every sphere. For our story his most important contribution concerns his efforts to reform writing. Though efforts were already under way, he gave the job to a Yorkshire-man, Alcuin of York. Alcuin strove for clarity and uniformity. These efforts, with the backing of Charlemagne and the Church, brought about the Carolingian minuscule or Carolingian script.

Some sources e.

Early History of the Alphabet

Lettering: A Reference Manual of Techniques , p. That is not the case; rather, Alcuin selected it as a model script for the empire. A beautiful, legible book hand; long ascenders and descenders, letting in light between the lines, open and round letters with few ligatures and variant letterforms. The early, rounder a was dropped in favor of one similar to that found in early Roman Uncials. In manuscripts penned in this hand, it is not uncommon to see the r with a descender.

With Charlemagne and the Church behind it, the Carolingian script quickly spread across Europe, deposing a multitude of regional scripts on its way. By the second half of the tenth century, Carolingian script had reached England, replacing late forms of the Insular script; in Spain it replaced Visigothic. That the open forms of the Carolingian script were replaced, from the 12th century, by the darker, more condensed, angular, ligature-ridden, closed forms of the Gothic scripts is, as Delorez writes, one of the mysteries of history.

Perhaps a partial explanation is to be found in the new Gothic aesthetic that was sweeping Europe. The J was added later. The first J in print was probably made in Italy, early in the 16th century; the written form was first used in the Middle Ages, in France and the Netherlands.

Modding the Latin Alphabet: the odd history of G, J, U, W, Y

The W is a letter not known to the Latins but used often in the vernacular languages of the west. Well into the 17th century it was set in type as VV , but you will also find two V s that have been cut down and joined to form a W. We stand in the seventeenth century, some 5, years after the Sumerians set stylus to clay. We now have a dual alphabet of 26 letters, uppercase and lowercase forms. There is hardly a straight line to be seen in the history of the alphabet. No Darwinian progress there, no survival of the fittest. Many of the aforementioned scripts developed side-by-side, some disappeared and reappeared, some can be shown to be the product of the mind of one man like Alcuin of York.

And we do not know what would have happened if Hannibal had marched straight to Rome after winning the battle of Cannae instead of loitering.


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Writing and alphabets evolve for a number of reasons. We can explain the transition from pictograms to the linear, more abstract forms in terms of rationalization. Moreover, regional and national variations develop, their success, in part at least, owed to political and geo-political factors: A victorious invader brings its culture, including its language, both spoken and written.

Context is also an important factor: text cut in stone contemplating the deeds of emperors is something different than an advertisement for a brothel scratched on a wall in Pompeii. The substrate, or writing material whether clay, stone, wax tablets, wood, metal, papyrus, parchment, or vellum; and the writing implement, a reed, chisel, quill, broad nib pen — they all affect the form the alphabet takes. The speed of the hand is another factor. As an interesting exercise, write the capital alphabet,.

Now write it again at twice the speed. Finally, write it as quickly as you possibly can.

The rapid hand introduces a reduced ductus fewer strokes , and fewer pen-lifts, with those neat capital letters of the first round turning into something freer, more cursive. You can then further evolve your letterforms by using the most rapidly written alphabet, and begin to rationalize it, adjusting the proportions, altering the shading contrast , and the result is an entirely a new hand. I have focused on writing systems that contributed to the later development of the Latin alphabet, but of course the story of the written word is broader and more profound.

The alphabet

I have not mentioned writing systems that developed independently e. Chinese and Japanese , and other scripts that do owe a debt to the proto-Sinaitic and Phoenician alphabets, like Hebrew and Arabic.

The evolution of writing cannot be fully appreciated comprehended, even in isolation. Featured Products Shop All Products.

Another alphabetic sequence

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About the Author Jan van der Crabben. Jan is the Founder and CEO of Ancient History Encyclopedia, leading the non-profit company to best fulfil its mission to engage people with cultural heritage and to improve history education worldwide. Related Content Filters: All. Runes are letters in the runic alphabets of Germanic-speaking peoples Phoenician is a Canaanite language closely related to Hebrew. Sarcophagus of Eshmunazor II, king of Sidon. This sarcophagus is The Phoenician alphabet and its equivalents in four modern alphabets The Sarcophagus of Ahiram, king of Byblos, bearing the oldest inscription