How Nature Inspired the Alphabet

the letter a image

32,000 years ago, ancient humans gathered in a cave in Lascaux, France, where, by firelight, they created the first hand-drawn forms--scenes depicting man's relationship with the natural world. The favorite subject in those first drawings was the ancient ox, so impressive in stature and strength, that it was deified by our earliest ancestors. This reverence for nature remained as civilizations formed, and with it, written language. It is no wonder then that subtly hidden within our alphabet today lie the remnants of these ancient forms--many of which reflect the earliest relationships between man and nature. To find them, you just have to look a little closer.The precursor to many of the characters in our modern script are found in the pictogram hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt. The symbol for the letter 'A', in its earliest representation, depicted the image of the deified ox--which came to represent 'the great one' or 'the creator' in subsequent cultures. So it remained, as the symbol became adopted by the Greeks and Romans in a more rudimentary form, called 'Alpha'--still signifying a supreme position today.

Not all the letters that make up our current alphabet are thought to trace back to forms from nature, however. The letter 'B', for example, is traced back to a pictogram of a house--its dimpled center once representing a doorway. Likewise, the early symbol for 'C' resembles a sling, though some speculate it might depict the hump of a camel.

the letter d image The letter 'D' in its Proto-Semitic was often represented by the pictogram of a fish, though as the symbol was adopted by the Phoenician, it seems that only the triangle-shaped tail was preserved. That triangle would become more precise as the Greek letter 'Delta', until the Romans rotated the shape slightly and rounded one of the pointed sides.

Some believe the letter 'E' originated from a pictogram representing 'the wind'--marked with three horizontal strokes. Others contend that it can be traced back to the image of a human with their arms raised in prayer--seen more clearly if the letter be rotated 90 degrees counterclockwise.

The symbol 'F' can be traced back to a pictogram representing a club or hook, while 'G' was introduced later in Classic Latin. The form for the letter 'H' has changed dramatically over the centuries, thought to have originated as a fence in Egyptian hieroglyph. The best guess as to what the pictogram of the letter 'I', presented horizontally, is that of a penis or outstretched arm. 'J' would come latter--first used in Roman numerals.

the letter k image 'K', in Egyptian hieroglyphs, was represented by an open hand. As the symbol passed to the Phoenicians, who tended not to enjoy carving curved shapes, the 'hand' became more crudely depicted. Greeks are responsible for the design of the symbol we use today.

The hieroglyph for the letter 'L' looked a bit like a cane--a straight line with a bent top. As the shape was adopted by the Phoenicians, it was flipped.

the letter m image Comparing the shape of the letter 'M' with the Egyptian pictogram for 'water', and the relationship is obvious. The hieroglyph's 'waves' were simplified by the Phoenicians later and even more so by the Greeks.

the letter n image The earliest symbol for the letter 'N' was that of a snake or serpent in its distinctive crawl. Semitic people in Egypt are responsible for the shape in later alphabets. Their word for 'snake' began with the letter.

Not so surprisingly, the symbol for 'O' was adapted from a complex Egyptian hieroglyph pictogram of a human eye. Fortunately for the less artistically talented writers, all that remains from that symbol is the 'iris' we draw today. The shape of the letter 'P' was developed later in Classical Latin.

the letter r image While the ancient ancestor of the letter 'Q' is thought to depict a 'cord of wool', the origin of the next letter in the alphabet is a bit more interesting. With just a bit of imagination, it's easy to see the long, goatee on the chin of a pharaoh when looking at the letter 'R'.

The symbol for the letter 'S' was adapted from the Proto-Semitic and Phoenician alphabets, where the pictogram, looking a bit like a backwards '3', represented a woman's breasts. 'T' originally looked more like the addition symbol we use today, and was the symbol made when something was 'marked'.

The rest of the character in the alphabet would be developed in later years and are not directly related to specific pictographs--though some may share a common origin with a symbol discussed above.

From our ancient ancestor's simple designs on the flame-lit walls of a cave in France, to the pixilated letters of which this article is composed, the relationship between human beings and the natural world is more ingrained than one might imagine. In a way, it could be said, both the loftiest prose of some revered classic and the misspelled sentiments of a graffiti-artists are little more than a collection of rivers, snakes, oxen, and the like. So be careful, it's a jungle out there--and in this sentence too.

With reference from The Oxford English Dictionary

Tags: Animals | Arts | Evolution | Urban Life


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