Will the Alphabet Ever Change?

One generation passes away, and another generation comes: but the earth abides for ever. The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to its place where it rises again.
—Kohelet/Ecclesiastes 1:4-5 (Koren Publishers)

Nothing lasts forever. Egyptian hieroglyphics fall into disuse after three thousand years. Demotic rises only to be replaced with coptic. Cuneiform is abandoned after millennia in favor of Aramaic. Coptic and Aramaic are both ultimately dropped as the new Arabic script sweeps the region, also leaving many other forgotten scripts in its wake.1 Europe, too, is littered with lost alphabets. Ancient Greek spawns numerous scripts that last for centuries2 before Latin, an offshoot of Etruscan, overtakes them all. Some languages, restricted to ceremonial or religious use, return and flourish (like Hebrew!) while others will likely never regain their glory (poor Samaritan). The fate of many remains to be seen.3

Why do some writing systems thrive when others fail? How do they change and develop, both into new scripts and within their own orthographies4? From my observations, I’d group changes in writing into four basic categories, all with one thing in common: upheaval.

These four categories of upheaval are all represented in historical episodes I’ve covered and hope to cover.

  1. Political – Phoenician rises after the bronze age collapse; Aramaic fragments after Alexander’s defeat the Persian empire.
  2. Cultural – Sephardi and Ashkenazi Hebrew diverge under Muslim and Latin influence; blackletter is abandoned in favor of roman types.
  3. Religious – Coptic replaces demotic with the growth of Christianity; Arabic replaces just about everything during the spread of Islam.
  4. Technological – Sephardi sidelines Ashkenazi as a result of printing, the same innovation that preserves Rashi script.

As we’ve seen, once languages become established they are very slow to change. In orthography, Akkadian cuneiform preserved Sumerian logograms in an entirely different language. Egyptian hieroglyphics preserved ancient spellings centuries after the pronunciation of the words had changed. Similarly, English retains things like silent Es and multiple pronunciations for “ough” in “rough,” “through,” and “though” after vowel shifts,5 and it has a tendency to preserve foreign spellings like “ph” for the /f/ sound for words of Greek origin and “ight” for Germanic words.6 Shifts in spoken language can lead to writers dropping letters they no longer need from the alphabet, as the Phoenicians and Etruscans did, but that typically only happens at the first adoption of a writing system. That’s also true for writers inventing new uses for letters, as the Greeks did for vowels when they borrowed Phoenician, or creating new letters to fill a need, as the Romans did with the letter G when they took the alphabet from the Etruscans. After adoption, the alphabet stays put.

The inscription on the Arch of Titus in Rome, 82 AD. A frieze inside the arch commemorates the sack of Jerusalem. Photo by George Rex.

Script is just as resistant. Proto-Canaanite retains its iconic signs until it blooms rapidly under the Phoenicians. It sees evolution in bursts followed by long periods of stasis: development into Aramaic, stasis, adoption by Jews, stasis, with only minor changes to today. The Hebrew in the 2,000 year-old Dead Sea Scrolls is easily legible to modern Hebrew readers. The Hebrew alphabet is the same 22 ordered letters now as it was 3,000 years ago. 24 letters of the Latin alphabet remain almost unchanged from 1000 AD, with W and J joining in the 11th and 16th centuries respectively, both acquired into English from the French. That’s only a few more letters than appear identical today to Roman inscriptions in the first century.7

beitsefer. Via Israblog.

Hukt on fonix in “beitsefer.” Via Israblog.

What would it take to change all that? Technology is already changing orthography. A casual approach to writing with the advent of rapid personal typesetting, fed by the growth of advertising, spurred the adoption of spellings like “lite” in mid-20th century. Online chatting and texting have normalized the use of “u” and even added expressions like “lol” to offline use. Similarly, in Hebrew, בֵּיצֵפָר or בֵּצֵפָר is recently used as a slang spelling of בֵּית־סֵפֶר (Hebrew for “school,” pronounced beit sefer). English is now seeing wide usage of phonetic misspellings that may soon be codified as approved spellings in an explosion of creativity not seen since before the invention of dictionaries in the 1700s. That may be happening in Hebrew, too, in constructions like חַלְבָה for חַלְוָה.

English is the primary language of new communication technologies and has become the lingua franca of world communication. As such, it’s already had a significant impact on the way other languages are written, including Chinese. English influence reoriented Hebrew quotation marks from lower/upper („–” / ‚–’) as in German to upper/upper in the 20th century.

But technology cuts both ways. While it engenders innovation, it also codifies conventions that are hard to break. Writers like Chaucer made up spellings as they went and often spelled the same word differently in the same manuscript. Shakespeare’s own name had no set spelling during his lifetime. The printing press drastically increased the quantity of printed materials, putting people in greater contact with each other. Like the internet today, this helped popularize new words, but also led to the widespread adoption of specific spellings that previously had a lot of variability. And once things are set, they tend not to change.

The same is true for punctuation. Manuscript writing and later printing and typesetting led to experimentation in marking sentences, and eventually standardized the system of punctuation as we know it. The internet has yielded new configurations of and applications for existing symbols (#, @), but Kieth Houston wonders if we’re now seeing the end of new punctuation signs. With informal communication happening digitally, he argues, people aren’t coming up with new symbols, and I’m afraid he might be right. Digital communication is reinforcing typographic conformity. The USPS even requested changes to the cursive letter Q to better reflect the printed Q because postal workers couldn’t read it. Add that to the lamented decline of cursive English with schools no longer teaching it and you have a script that can’t grow. I’ve seen some possible evidence of printed forms influencing cursive in Hebrew but need to investigate this further.

Pronunciation guide for Brigham Young's Deseret alphabet, from the Deseret Second Book. See the full book here.

Pronunciation guide for Brigham Young’s Deseret alphabet, from the Deseret Second Book, 1868. See the full book here.

People have long decried written English’s peculiarities. Mark Twain voiced his support for phonographic spellings and shorthand while “patiently and hopefully trying to reform our drunken old alphabet” in 1899. Other humorous pieces poking fun at English spelling from over the years have made the rounds of the internet. Notable figures as Benjamin FranklinBrigham Young, and George Bernard Shaw even took great steps in recreating the English alphabet. Organizations like the English Spelling Society8 and the American Literacy Council carry on the banner. They wrote books like Being Proposals for Simplifying The Spelling of English Without the Introduction of New Letters.9 (There is obviously a difference of opinion here as to whether the answer is to fix English orthography or scrap the alphabet entirely and start over.) The ISO basic Latin alphabet was created to make letter sounds consistent across languages. L. L. Zamenhof went the furthest of all by inventing a whole new language: Esperanto.

But does any of this have any hope of succeeding? In English, I doubt it. The legacies of Young, Shaw, and Zamenhof are historical footnotes and the efforts of those organizations seem laughably idealistic. The Simplified Spelling Board, funded by Andrew Carnegie and directed by Melvil Dewey (of the decimal system, who simplified the spelling of his own name from Melville), Supreme Court Justice Josiah Brewer, the president of Columbia University, the US commissioner of education, who also edited Webster’s dictionary, and Mark Twain himself, dissolved due to internal squabbles and lack of results, and I can barely find any information on its successor, the Simpler Spelling Association, at all. President Theodore Roosevelt tried to effect change by executive order but was thwarted by Congress and the Supreme Court.

List of Hebrew neologisms from the Hebrew Language Committee, 1928.

List of Hebrew neologisms from the Hebrew Language Committee, 1928.

Other languages fare differently. Portuguese-speaking governmental bodies in Portugal and Brazil have made great strides in improving their orthography. The Academy of the Hebrew Language was founded in Israel in 1953 to “[prescribe] standards for modern Hebrew grammar, orthography, transliteration, and punctuation based on the study of Hebrew’s historical development,” as well as create new Hebrew words to stem the tide of foreign words entering general Hebrew usage. This is something the French are doing as well through the latest in a series of language regulators. The Academy replaced an older institution, the Hebrew Language Committee (ועד הלשון העברית), founded in 1890 by Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the man known as the “father of Modern Hebrew” (seated on the right with the rest of the committee in 1912). The Academy is also involved in other efforts to raise the status of Hebrew. Ghil‘ad Zuckermann analyzes the efficacy of their work, and I’d be interested to read other critiques if anyone has insight on that (so please comment!).

But sometimes reforms have only mixed results. The Japanese, too, officially streamlined their writing by reducing the number of symbols on multiple occasions, down to a low of 1,850 characters in 1946 with the long-term goal of abolishing kanji entirely, but public resistance forced the Japanese Language Council to expand the list back to 1,945 characters in 1981, long after recommitting to the mix of kana and kanji in 1965. These and other recent efforts are part of a drive to both increase literacy as well as confront the problems posed by modern computing, which in turn are affecting the way Japanese is written by hand.

The situation is complicated with Hebrew in that Hebrew literacy is rooted in the bible and liturgy. Even though the redundancy in the letters shin/sin/samech is confusing and the סופיות10 are unnecessary there’s nothing that can be done since the language itself is holy. Even foundational Modern Hebrew writers like poet Chaim Nachman Bialik used the structure and diction of scripture to add color to their words, in the same way English-speaking writers and orators reference Shakespeare or the Bible.

The second half of the 20th century exhibited a bifurcation of Hebrew design between the global religious Jewish populace who looked backward and secular Israelis who looked around. I wonder if the same will happen with Hebrew orthography as more secular Israelis make apps that carry Hebrew further into the digital age. Will Hebrew digital slang evolve into a distinct dialect? The last few decades have seen a renewed interest in design on the part of religious Jews, both in Israel and abroad. Could that help bridge the possible growing divide between classic and SMS Hebrew?

From Hugh Schonfield’s New Hebrew Typography, 1931.

“Caslon” type Hebrew from Hugh Schonfield’s New Hebrew Typography, 1931. I will write much more about this book, don’t you worry.

Ultimately, I don’t see religious Hebrew script or orthography as seen in prayer books or ritual items changing much as long as there are religious Jews. There were those in pre-state Israel who thought that romanized Hebrew (Hebrew using the Latin alphabet) would be easier to learn, including Eliezer Ben Yehuda’s son Ittamar Ben Avi, emphatically the first native speaker of Modern Hebrew, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, and Rav Kook. Popular sentiment favored embracing the Hebrew alphabet as an integral part of the language and Ittamar’s romanized Hebrew weekly papers didn’t even last a year. Attaturk mandated a Latin-based alphabet for Turkish during his cultural reforms in 1928, but I can’t imagine anyone having the clout or authority to manage that for Hebrew. Proposals like Hugh Schonfield’s New Hebrew Typography, aimed at making Hebrew more similar to English by using capital letters and roman-style letterforms, went nowhere. Contemporary language-merging thought experiments are nice but are seen as art and not viable systems. Stalin tried to reform Yiddish spelling to distance it from Hebrew and thus Judaism with no luck. Sans serif is as crazy as it’s gonna get.

Yay, I cogg the the true true. ©2012 Warner Bros.

Yay, I cogg it the true true. ©2012 Warner Bros.

As for English, I think for it to meaningfully change at the level of a Brigham Young or even the English Spelling Society, the upheaval would have to be cataclysmic, like whatever happened to future Tom Hanks’ culture in Cloud Atlas or world-altering apocalypse scenarios like Waterworld. It would need to be a powerful enough circumstance to dislodge such stalwart conventions, whether by dethroning English from its position as global language, allowing it to succumb to foreign influence, or creating enough disruptive impetus to start anew. Less depressing possibilities include influence of more advanced civilizations, like utopian humans with futuristic technology introducing universal language in their new world order, or maybe space aliens. Who would have thought nuclear annihilation, alien invasion, or the coming zombie apocalypse would have so much potential for linguists and designers. You ready?

Notes   [ + ]

1. Sogdian, different Arabian scripts like South Arabian and Thamudic
2. Lycian, Lydian, tons of scripts from ancient Italy
3. Tifinagh, Hungarian
4. Orthography encompasses how a language is written, including spelling, punctuation, character variance like capitalization, and other formal and informal conventions.
5. See Ough and Great Vowel Shift
6. The spelling of some words in English was even retroactively changed to fit imagined and inaccurate etymologies.
7. English had experimented with additional letters borrowed from Anglo-Saxon runes (themselves also a descendant of the Greek alphabet) and modifications of other letters like Þ, ð, Ȝ, and Ƿ, but all were eventually abandoned when French letters and digraphs (combinations of letters) filled the same need or pronunciation shifts made them unnecessary. Some would find new life centuries later in language reform proposals and phonetic alphabets.
8. The English Spelling Society was preceded by the Simplified Spelling Society, whose vice presidents included Alfred, Lord Tennyson and H. G. Wells, and they’re still active today.
9. Full text here.
10. The final letters ךםןףץ are alternate forms of five letters that are used when those letters end a word.

2 thoughts on “Will the Alphabet Ever Change?

  1. Ancient Greek spawns numerous scripts that last for centuries8 before Latin, an offshoot of Etruscan, overtakes them all.

    Well, Cyrillic is still going strong, and though Armenian, Georgian, and Greek itself haven’t spread widely, they are still successful in a quiet sort of way.

    • I was in an ancient headspace writing that sentence and was referring to pre-Medieval European scripts there (“Ancient Greek…”), which, looking back, isn’t that clear from the context. Nor is my hyperbole totally accurate, but I’ll excuse it by defining “overtake” as “surpass” and not necessarily “obliterate.” Cyrillic shows up rather late, in the 9th century, but you’re right in that it’s one of the major world scripts today.

      I think your examples actually speak to my article in interesting ways. All of the scripts you mention were significantly shaped by the interplay between cultural domination and cultural assertion. The invention and spread of Armenian, Georgian, and Cyrillic were all tied to the growth of Christianity in those areas. Greek, as well as Armenian and Georgian, did indeed manage to survive the onslaught of Latin in localized areas, and persist today precisely because of the nationalist heritage bundled up in them. Supporters of preservation for those scripts, like supporters of Hebrew (and, until 1941, German blackletter), see the scripts as tangible elements of their peoplehood.

      That’s also true for Cyrillic, which has had a centuries-long push and pull with Western influence. The Russian Enlightenment saw Peter the Great embrace European (mostly French) arts and culture, and amidst other reforms, altered the Cyrillic alphabet to look more like popular European typefaces by adding serifs and using roman-style line-weight. Essentially the same thing Hugh Schonfield did to Hebrew. Then, to distance Russia from Europe and assert their cultural independence, they revamped their orthography after the Russian Revolution and imposed the alphabet on Soviet states in the 1930s. Some countries like Moldova moved back to Latin after dissolution, both due to European influence and to distance themselves from Russia. The choice of Latin or Cyrillic alphabet to use for Chechen largely depends on if you are or are not a separatist. Since these scripts are all tied to national identity and not necessarily religious identity, I wonder if we may see use decline due to cultural/technological influence or fiat of some new fearless leader. Thanks for bringing this up!

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