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A camel, a house, an ox and our ABCs

By Debra Dobbins

Have you enjoyed a good book recently? Read the sports pages or comics in The Daily Sentinel? Read a bedtime story to a young family member? Nice, huh? The ability to read is truly a wonderful skill.

We can thank the ancient Phoenicians, in part, for our reading pleasure.

They’re the ones credited with trimming a system of a few thousand signs for words and concepts down to a relatively few signs, each of which represented a different sound. Their revised system was the precursor to what we call our alphabet.

“For their signs, the Phoenicians used some marks that were already being used to represent words,” Isaac Asimov writes in Words from History. “The sign for an ox (‘aleph’ in Phoenician) was used to represent the sound ‘ah’ with which the word for ox began. The word for house (‘beth’) represented ‘b,’ the word for camel (‘gimel’) represented ‘g,’ and so on. These signs became what we call ‘letters.’”

The Greeks latched onto the system, Asimov also writes, but made a few changes. “’Aleph’ became ‘alpha,’ ‘beth’ became ‘beta,’ ‘gimel’ became ‘gamma,’ and so on.”

The Romans also picked up the system, Asimov continues, but they, too, modified it. “Their alphabet became the basis of our own, the familiar A, B, C ….”

Symbols of Phoenician alphabet
Illustration courtesy of Wikipedia

Illustration special to the Sentinel
 

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