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Cherokee scriptFor some reason, I’ve always been fascinated by writing. Not “writing” as in prose or poetry, the content, but by the process itself. The marks on paper. When engineers designed the first computers that could handle text, they included codes for all the printed characters they’d ever heard of. The twenty-six letters of the Roman alphabet, digits and a bit of punctuation. (They were Americans, you see.)

Modern English is unusual among languages written in the Roman alphabet in that it doesn’t generally use accents or any modified letters. (A factoid I read was that Hawaiian is the only other such unadorned one. Believe that if you like.) But those Americans didn’t even include accented letters for common imported words from French, Spanish and so on. One excuse for them is that they were still thinking in terms of typewriters, where you can fudge an “é” by e-backspace-‘. Doesn’t work on the screen though.

I like the history of our alphabet, since the letters are mostly descended from Egyptian heiroglyphs. Some time around 1800 BC, a Canaanite migrant worker in Egypt took some of the heiroglyph signs and assigned them to the sounds of his own language. The earliest known examples are brief inscriptions to the goddess Hathor at a temple in Sinai, but it wasn’t long before the script spread back to the homeland in what is now Palestine and Israel, and indeed it’s the ancestor script to both Arabic and Hebrew.

And also the ancestor of our own writing system. The Phoenician civilization developed it and the script was adopted and modified by Greeks, Etruscans and Latins in the centuries BC. The latter Latins, of course, became the Romans.

It seems that writing is very contagious, although usually a script is modified when adopted for use by a different culture and language. For example, like modern Arabic and Hebrew, the Phoenician script that the Greeks adopted didn’t have signs for vowels. So the Greeks assigned the vowel sounds to some of the signs representing sounds not used in Greek. If they hadn’t adopted that solution, then written English would prbbly lk vry dffrnt tdy.

Even when a script isn’t copied and modified, the concept of writing has spread from one civilization to another. Even the beginning of Egyptian heiroglyphs may have been influenced by a similar system in Mesopotamia. The Irish Ogham alphabet obviously inherits some of the ideas of Latin or Greek script, but doesn’t look like either, and is organised in a more systematic way.

In 1820, Sequoyah invented a script to represent the sounds of his Cherokee language. He couldn’t read English, but had been very impressed with the use that white settlers in his area made of written communication, and believed that a written form of Cherokee would be a big advantage to his people. He adopted some of the upper-case Roman letters, but not using their sound in English. Other symbols are similar to our digits, and others he invented outright.

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