Think those pictorial signs on bathroom doors in the malls, or on roads or in airports, are a new innovation? Think again. Those and other such pictorial symbols constitute a return to an older form of communication. They may get the correct message across to people who speak thousands of languages all over the world, but unfortunately, they are almost completely useless outside of the one specific context they are used for.
And that’s the reason we need an alphabet.
Imagine having to use such pictorial symbols to get a more complex idea across. It might work for a grocery list: there could be simple drawings for carrots, apples, or even dishwashing detergent. And many companies clearly believe that if you have to assemble a bookcase or a couch, pictorial instructions are all you need. Some people, on the other hand, might consider those bookcase instructions a good example of the limitations of this method of communication.
The earliest form of written or drawn communication was pictorial. But even if people drew or carved actual scenes, those pictures didn’t represent the actual words they used, so if they wanted to convey specific facts about the event, they were still out of luck. If they carved a battle scene and wanted to say something like, “We defeated these people, but they were rebels and their fellow citizens weren’t our targets,” that would have taken many more pictures to explain clearly.
So the emphasis eventually moved to smaller pictures in which one specific symbol represented a single idea. You can see this type of writing, called the “logogram,” in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics or, even today, in Chinese and Japanese scripts. With this type of writing, you could have one symbol for “rebel” and another for “citizen,” and you could begin to make a differentiation.
But with one logogram representing one idea, imagine trying to memorize all the symbols for all the ideas in English! Even if you combined some simpler ones to make a more complex idea, you’d still need to know many thousands of the basic symbols first. And the relationship of the symbols to the actual words spoken in the language would still not be entirely solid. For one thing, you’d have no way of knowing how the language is pronounced.
Historically, though, some of those logogram symbols gradually became associated with the sounds of the words they represented. So for example, if we had a symbol for “hand” in English, a hand symbol might come to stand for the “h” sound. A ball symbol might signify a “b” sound. And so on.
And that was the beginning of the revolution. Because even though you could combine idea-symbols to represent more complicated ideas, you were still not conveying the actual words. Furthermore, you needed to memorize thousands of those idea-symbols. But once you could represent the sounds in the language, you could combine those a lot more powerfully. And you wouldn’t need thousands of those – you probably wouldn’t even need as many as one hundred. But they could combine not just to form the exact words in the language, but they could even give a better clue about how the words were pronounced.
And the precision in what you could say was magnified many thousands of times. For example, with logograms you’d pretty much be stuck expressing something like, “Army – south – defeated – rebels – surprise – morning.” To say anything more elaborate would take a great many more pictures and a lot of space. But with an alphabet forming actual words, you could say explicitly, “The army coming from the south soundly defeated the rebels who had not been expecting an attack so early in the morning.”
Alphabets work phonetically, representing sounds rather than separate ideas. In English we have twenty-six sound symbols, and they combine to express both the meaning and pronunciation of about a million words. Symbols in other languages can easily express hundreds of thousands of words. Can you imagine how many separate pictorial symbols it would take to represent those words, if there was no alphabet?
Sometimes, even now, logograms work better than an alphabetical system. Just think of those universal symbols that let people know where the bathroom is, no matter what part of the world they’re in. But for expressing complex linguistic ideas, with economy of space and a precision of detail, the alphabet was pretty much the best invention ever.