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  • Informally, we can think of information as some message --

  • stored or transmitted -- using some medium.

  • When you paint, you are representing your message

  • using a continuous pattern,

  • with seemingly endless numbers of possible forms.

  • You are free to express yourself.

  • When humans began developing writing systems,

  • we naturally had to divide our world into a finite

  • number of atomic units -- which we express using 'symbols.'

  • Now any written language can be thought of in this way.

  • Messages are formed by arranging

  • symbols in specific patterns.

  • Let's return to 3,000 BC,

  • and explore two ancient writing systems.

  • First, in ancient Egypt we had 'hieroglyphics' --

  • a priestly form of communication, reserved for

  • governmental, fiscal, magical and religious purposes.

  • It was practiced by a select few writers, known as 'scribes.'

  • And writing was generally unintelligible

  • to the common people.

  • The symbols, themselves, broadly fall into two categories:

  • 'word signs' -- which are symbols that represent

  • a single meaningful concept --

  • back -- apple

  • -- and 'sound signs.'

  • These symbols represent chunks of sound.

  • [PEOPLE PRONOUNCING SINGLE-SYLLABLE SOUNDS]

  • Now the total number of different symbols

  • in common use was over 1,500.

  • And if you divide all of these symbols

  • into word signs versus sound signs,

  • we find a much smaller portion of sound signs.

  • There were around 140 sound signs --

  • -- and of these, only 33 represented distinct consonants --

  • a tiny fraction of all of the symbols in use.

  • At the time, the medium used

  • to store the symbols was primarily rock.

  • And this was ideal for durable inscriptions

  • allowing messages to travel into the future.

  • Mobility was not a main concern

  • when communicating messages in this way.

  • However, a new physical medium

  • for storing symbols was emerging at the time.

  • Along the Nile, silt deposits, left from flooding,

  • made the surrounding land extremely fertile.

  • And one of the many crops they grew was 'papyrus.'

  • It could be sliced into strips,

  • and these strips were then soaked --

  • and [woven] together, and finally, pressed --

  • allowing the natural sugars to act as glue.

  • After several days, it dried and formed

  • an almost weightless tablet.

  • This medium was ideal for sending messages

  • across greater spaces -- [compared to inscriptions on] more

  • durable [surfaces] -- focused on time.

  • Now this shift towards cheap,

  • portable mediums for storing symbols

  • coincided with the spread of writing

  • into the hands of more people, for new purposes.

  • Gradually, as people began to write more on papyrus,

  • the symbols evolved to suit more rapid writing.

  • This led to a cursive script known as 'hieratic.'

  • For example, here is the world's

  • oldest surviving surgical document.

  • It's written in hieratic script, dated to around 1,600 BC.

  • Now these symbols were based on hieroglyphics,

  • however, the pictures were simplified to match

  • the swiftness of writing -- an ancient shorthand.

  • Also, the number of common symbols

  • in use began to shrink -- down to around 700.

  • By escaping from the heavy medium of stone,

  • thought gained lightness.

  • A marked increase in writing by hand

  • was accompanied by the secularization

  • of writing, thought, and activity.

  • This led to a new writing system called 'demotic' --

  • around 650 BC -- which was devised specifically

  • to facilitate the ease of rapid writing.

  • For example, this text is known as a marriage contract,

  • and is one of the earliest known examples of demotic script.

  • It's interesting to notice that there was

  • a dramatic reduction, again, in the total number

  • of symbols with this new system --

  • roughly 10% of the total number

  • of symbols used before.

  • This was due to a shift towards

  • the use of 'phonetic' symbols -- or sound signs --

  • [PEOPLE PRONOUNCING SOUND SIGNS]

  • -- over word symbols -- or meaning signs.

  • And the new simplicity meant that

  • children could be taught to write at a young age.

  • We see this same pattern in other cultures.

  • Let's return back to 3,000 BC and visit Mesopotamia

  • where 'cuneiform' was the writing system --

  • originally used for fiscal purposes,

  • as it was a powerful method

  • of tracking debt and surplus commodities --

  • before the invention of coins.

  • For example, here is a document recording

  • someone's stock of animal hides.

  • And this type of writing evolved to suit other needs.

  • For example, this tablet contains a recipe

  • for bread and beer.

  • And here's another tablet

  • which contains a legal document.

  • Now originally, the writing system

  • was used by the Sumerians --

  • and there were over 2,000 different symbols in use --

  • which could also be divided into

  • word signs and sound signs.

  • Akkadian gradually replaced Sumerian

  • as the spoken language.

  • And here is the earliest known dictionary -- from 2,300 BC.

  • It contains word lists in Sumerian and Akkadian.

  • And this was discovered in modern Syria.

  • When it was adapted by the Akkadians,

  • and fitted to their language,

  • they reduced the number of symbols to around 600.

  • And they did this again

  • by moving towards sound signs.

  • Again, we see both hieroglyphics and cuneiform

  • using several hundred sound symbols

  • in their more evolved forms.

  • And as writing systems escaped their formal usage,

  • and spread to more and more people,

  • the soil was ripe for the invention of

  • a brand new writing system for the people.

  • One of the great discoveries in the history of writing,

  • is dated to around 1,700 BC.

  • The Sinai Inscriptions were found in the Sinai Peninsula --

  • and they were about 20 feet apart.

  • This was important, because each picture

  • denotes a consonant sound --

  • and no word signs are used.

  • When sounded out correctly,

  • the letters would produce words in ancient Semitic.

  • Although not fully deciphered, this message appears

  • to be of the form 'name, rank, and prayer.'

  • The two words deciphered are 'chief' and 'god.'

  • This innocent example was part of a writing revolution --

  • creating meaning by merging sound signs only.

  • [GIRL PRONOUNCING ONE- AND TWO-SYLLABLE WORDS]

  • By 1,000 BC, we arrive at the Phoenician alphabet,

  • which emerges along the Mediterranean,

  • used by the Phoenicians,

  • who are a maritime trading culture.

  • The Phoenician writing system was based on

  • the principle that one sign represents one consonant.

  • And it was used to write a northern Semitic language

  • containing only 22 symbols total.

  • The symbols chosen to represent these sounds

  • were often borrowed from hieroglyphic pictures --

  • so that the letter's name began with the letter's sound.

  • For example, 'mem' -- which stood for 'water' --

  • became what we know of as the letter 'M.'

  • 'Alph' which stood for ox,

  • became what we know of as the letter 'A.'

  • But the secret power of this alphabet --

  • unknown to its inventors --

  • was that it did not need Semitic speech

  • in order to work.

  • [PEOPLE PRONOUNCING SINGLE-SYLLABLE SOUNDS]

  • With modest adjustments, these miraculous letters

  • would be fitted to diverse tongues of

  • Europe, India, and southeast Asia --

  • carrying literacy around the globe.

  • This was the source of the Greek -- and later Roman --

  • alphabet forms we know today.

  • The idea of an alphabet is a powerful method

  • for transmitting and storing information.

  • Realize, it doesn't really matter

  • what the symbols are, or how you choose them --

  • or even what language [they're] in.

  • Information is just a selection

  • from a collection of possible symbols.

  • And over time, we have always looked for

  • faster, more efficient ways of transporting

  • information across greater and greater spaces.

  • And when we tred doing this using new mediums

  • which travel faster than any human or animal,

  • an engineering problem presents itself.

  • Hello? Hello!

Informally, we can think of information as some message --

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B1 writing writing system sound alphabet pronouncing semitic

History of the Alphabet (Language of Coins: 3/16)

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    VoiceTube posted on 2013/07/11
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