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The Alphabet | The foundations of typing and transcription services

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The basis of typing and transcription services

Alphabet Mother of Invention


In the Bible, John 1:1 is the first verse in the Gospel of John. The King James Version of the verse reads, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God“. Every word is made up of an alphabet and so arguably in the beginning was language which itself was formulated with an alphabet. Without the alphabet there are no words.

When dealing with typing and transcription services on a daily basis, we rarely spare a thought for the foundations of our business, namely the alphabet.

Where would we be without the alphabet?

Without an alphabet we certainly would not be able to document knowledge – the very ability to engage in typing and transcription activity is dependant upon the skeleton of language which itself is made up of DNA that we call the alphabet.

I would not be typing this post if it were not for the alphabet and neither would you be reading it!

The absence of an alphabet would have prevented mankind from ever transcribing and passing its learning from one generation to the next and we would not have advanced as a species to the level that we now take for granted.

Arguably the alphabet was the most significant of the boons conferred upon mankind by Phoenicia. It is generally considered the greatest invention ever made by man.

Nato Phonetic Alphabet



























We live in an age of rapid technological advancement. I am typing this paper in order to pay homage to language and to document the roots of Western civilisation, which we shall trace back to our unique writing system, the phonetic alphabet.

As we explore the history of ideas we shall discover that many of the seminal ideas in Western science, mathematics, jurisprudence, politics, economics, social organisation, and religion are intrinsically linked with the phonetic alphabet. The magic of the phonetic alphabet is that it is more than a system for writing, typing or transcribing knowledge – it is also a system for organising information.

Of all mankind’s inventions, with the possible exception of writing itself, nothing has proved more useful or led to more innovations than the alphabet. It is one of the most valuable possessions in all of Western culture, yet we are blind to its effects and take its existence for granted.

The alphabet has influenced the development of our thought patterns, our social institutions, and our very sense of ourselves. The alphabet, as we shall discover, has contributed to the development of codified law, monotheism, abstract science, deductive logic, and individualism, each a unique contribution of Western thought.

Through the printing press it has reinforced or encouraged many of the key historical events of modern Europe including the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Industrial Revolution, the rise of democracy, mass education, nationalism, and capitalism.

Modern day technology which allows everyone to become a publisher to a greater or lesser extent – self published books are commonplace and most of us now contribute to publishing our thoughts and sharing our knowledge on Internet blogs. Typing and transcription on personal computers will take mankind forward at a rate unimaginable only thirty years ago.

The alphabet is one of the first things that children learn once they are able to speak. It is the first thing that is taught in school because it is the gateway to learning and knowledge. The twenty-six letters of the English (or Roman) alphabet are the keys not only to reading and writing but also to a whole philosophy of organising information.

We use the letters of the alphabet to order the words in our dictionaries, the articles in our encyclopedias, the books in our libraries, and the files on our computers. These systematic approaches to coordinating information based on the medium of the alphabet have suggested other forms of classification and codification that are part and parcel of Western science, law, engineering, economics, and social organisation.

Not only has the alphabet performed admirably as a tool for literacy, it has also served as a model for classification. It has played an instrumental role in the development of the logical style of analysis that is characteristic of the Western way of thinking. Learning how to read and write with the alphabet has brought us more than literacy and a model for classification. It has provided us with a conceptual framework for analysis and has restructured our perceptions of reality. All of these effects take place independent of what we read. The information that is coded is not important; it is the act of coding itself that has been so influential and acted as a springboard for new ideas. Other writing systems exist, but none have provided such fertile ground for abstract ideas nor such an efficient tool for organising information.

The Alphabet as Phonetic Code

The phonetic alphabet is a unique system of writing in which a, small number of letters or visual signs (twenty-two to forty) are used to represent the basic sounds or phonemes of a spoken language. The letters are used to code the sounds of each word phonetically.

The very first alphabet was invented over 3,500 years ago in the Near East by the Canaanites, a Semitic people, and contained only twenty-two letters. It became the model for hundreds of other phonetic alphabets including English, French, Latin, Greek, Latvian, Russian, Romanian, Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Sanskrit, Korean, Hebrew, and Swahili. Each of these phonetic alphabets is descended from the first Canaanite alphabet through a complicated process of borrowing and adaptation. The English alphabet is derived from the Roman alphabet, which in turn can be traced back through the Etruscan, Greek, and Phoenician alphabets.

The letters of today’s European alphabets and their sound values correspond to those of that first Semitic alphabet with some additions. The original alphabet invented by the Canaanites contained only consonants. The Greeks, however, improved on the Semitic alphabet by adding vowels. They also added a small number of new consonants to represent special sounds in their spoken language. In fact, each of the cultures that adopted an alphabetic writing system invariably added new letters to represent the unique sounds of their spoken language.

The order of the letters of modern alphabets is more or less the same as that of the original one. Even the names and shapes of the letters are in many cases recognisable from their original ancestors. For example, our letter B evolved from the Greek letter beta, which in turn is derived from beit, [Hebrew letter beit] (or |-|), which in the original Canaanite meant “a house” and was drawn as a box. The English letter B still stands for the same “b” sound and the upper case form, B, still looks a bit like its original except now the house is not so square and it has two rooms. This letter, whether as b or beta or beit, has always been the second letter of the alphabet.

Not only have the order, name, and shape of the letters remained the same for thousands of years but so too has the sound value of the letters. The “b” sound, which is represented in English or French with b, in Greek by [Greek letter beta], in Hebrew by : [Hebrew letter beit], and in Canaanite by [a “box”] , are not exactly identical; each has its own unique flavour, but they are easily recognisable from one speaking group to another. It is possible to render the approximate pronunciation of a foreign language we do not understand if it is written with the Roman alphabet. This is the power of the alphabet, namely, its ability to phonetically code the spoken word independent of the language being transcribed.

The alphabet is not the only form of writing. Because the alphabet seems to us such a natural way to type, we tend to believe that all writing and typing systems are alphabetic. This is not true. There are two other widely used systems of writing. One is logographic writing in which each spoken word is represented by its own unique visual sign, which denotes or depicts the word symbolically (ideograms) or pictorially (pictograms). It is the oldest form of writing, dating back to 3100 B.C. when the Sumerians first developed their writing system. It is still employed in modern Chinese writing. Such systems are far more difficult to use when it comes to typing and transcription because of the enormous number of symbols used in those alphabets. I am thankful that we have a 26 character alphabet and a very easy typing keyboard as a result. Transcription services are far easier to provide based on our roman alphabet than the 1,000 characters used in the Chinese language.

A third form of writing is the syllabic system, in which each individual syllable in the spoken language is phonetically coded with its own unique sign so that each of the following syllables would have its own sign or character: ba, be, bi, bo and bu. The very first use of syllabic signs was by the Sumerians whose later writing system was a mixture of syllabic signs and ideographic characters. The first purely syllabic code was that of the Akkadians who took over the Sumerian writing system and tailored it to their needs. An example of a modern day syllabic code is the Japanese writing system which employs two different codes one a pure syllabary and the other a mixture of syllabic signs and Chinese characters. Syllabaries lie somewhere between logographic and alphabetic writing systems. Alphabets code each individual phoneme, while syllabaries code each individual syllable, and logographic systems depict an entire word with one sign. The phonetic alphabet is the most recent of the three writing systems. It is also the most economical, with the fewest number of signs, and hence is the most abstract. It is these properties of the alphabet that have influenced the development of Western culture and contributed to what we shall call the “Alphabet Effect”.

Because the alphabet is so much a part of our information environment, however, we often take its existence for granted and we are blind to its effects, much as fish are unaware, of the water in which they swim. The Alphabet Effect is a subliminal phenomenon. Of all the writing systems, the phonetic alphabet permits the most economical typing and transcription of speech into a written code. The phonetic alphabet introduced a double level of abstraction in writing.

Words are divided into the meaningless phonemic (sound) elements of which they are composed and then these meaningless phonemic elements are represented visually with equally meaningless signs, namely, the letters of the alphabet. This encourages abstraction, analysis (since each word is broken down into its basic phonemes), coding (since spoken words are coded by visual signs), and decoding (since those visual signs are transformed back to spoken sounds through reading).There is more to using the alphabet than just learning how to read and write. Using the alphabet also entails the ability to: 1) analyse , 2) code and decode, 3) convert auditory signals or sounds into visual signs, 4) think deductively, 5) classify information, and 6) order words through the process of alphabetisation. Each of these skill sets were essential to the development of the Western or European mode of thought. These skills are the hidden lessons of the alphabet that are not contained (or at least not contained to the same degree) in learning the Chinese writing system or a number of other non-alphabetic writing systems as well. These are the features of the use of the phonetic alphabet that give rise to the Alphabet Effect.

The extra lessons of alphabetic literacy explain why schoolchildren in Western Civilisation take just as long to learn to read and write as Chinese children despite the fact they have to learn only twenty-six letters compared with the one thousand basic characters required to read Chinese. In both China and the West, children begin school at age five and have learned how to read and write, more or less, by the time they are eight years old. Western children take the same time because along with reading and writing they are learning many other things. What they learn are the intellectual by-products of the alphabet, such as abstraction, analysis, rationality , and classification, which form the essence of the Alphabet Effect and the basis for Western abstract scientific and logical thinking. The use of the phonetic alphabet helps to explain why Western and Chinese thinking are so different (abstract and theoretical for the West versus concrete and practical for the East) .

The earliest form of science as it was practiced in ancient China, Egypt, and Mesopotamia was strictly phenomenological and concerned with practical questions. It was based exclusively on observation and not on any particular theoretical foundation. This leads naturally to the question: Why did abstract theoretical science not begin in China itself but rather in the West?

In an attempt to answer this question I suggest that monotheism and codified law, two features of Western culture absent in China, led to a notion of universal law, which influenced the development of abstract science in ancient Greece. Additionally, the phonetic alphabet, another feature of Western culture not found in China, had also contributed to the development of Western science.

Western thought patterns are highly abstract, compared with Eastern. There developed in the West, and only in the West, a group of innovations that constitute the basis of Western thought. These include (in addition to the alphabet) codified law, monotheism, abstract theoretical science, formal logic, and individualism. All of these innovations, including the alphabet, arose within the very narrow geographic zone between the Tigris-Euphrates river system and the Aegean Sea, and within the very narrow time frame between 2000 B.C. and 500 B.C. We do not consider this to be an accident. While not suggesting a direct causal connection between the alphabet and the other innovations, we would claim, however, that the phonetic alphabet (or phonetic syllabaries) played a particularly dynamic role within this constellation of events and provided the ground or framework for the mutual development of these innovations.

The effects of the alphabet and the abstract, logical, systematic thought that it encouraged explain why science began in the West and not the East, despite the much greater technological sophistication of the Chinese, the inventors of metallurgy, irrigation systems, animal harnesses, paper, ink, printing, movable type, gunpowder, rockets, porcelain, and silk. Credit must also be given to monotheism and codified law for the role they played in developing the notion of universality, an essential building-block of science. Almost all of the early scientists, Thales, Anaximenes, Anaximander, Anaxagoras and Heraclitus, were both law-makers in their community and monotheistically inclined. They each believed that a unifying principle ruled the universe.

Phonetic writing was essential to the intellectual development in the West. No such development occurred in the East. Let us be thankful for the phonetic alphabet and the ease at which we are now able to move information around – typing and transcription services certainly owe their existence to the alphabet!

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