A Brief History of the English Alphabet, Writing, and Printing up to Gutenberg

Types of Writing Systems

There are 3 different general systems of writing, each of which is based on a different unit of speech. Alphabetic systems like English use signs to represent single sounds. For example, the 5 signs, for 'c' 'a' 'm' 'e' and 'l' are used to make up the words 'camel', 'male', 'came', and dozens of others. Most alphabets in used today take the single-sound approach because of its flexibility: a very small group of signs can be used to create hundreds of thousands of meaningful units of speech.

Most alphabets also use fewer letters than the sounds used in speech; English's 26 letters actually make up, individually and in combination (e.g. 'th') about 40 different phonemes. Those 40 phonemes are in turn a subset of the full range of sounds used in human speech around the world; for instance, English doesn't use the 'click' sounds of the African Khoisan languages, and Japanese doesn't distinguish 'l' and 'r' as separate phonemes. The International Phonetic Alphabet, used to transliterate the sounds of all human languages, has more than 80 characters.

Earlier in the history of writing, however, other systems were more common. In particular, logographic (logogram) systems were widespread. Logographic systems use signs to represent whole words: one sign stands for 'camel', another sign for 'male', etc. Egyptian hieroglyphs, Sumerian cuneiform, and Mayan glyphs are among the best-known ancient logographic systems, while contemporary logographic systems in widespread use include Chinese and Japanese kanji.

Syllabaries, the third basic system, use signs to represent syllables, usually a consonant followed by a vowel: 'la' 'ma', etc. In such a syllabary, 'lama', 'mala' and 'lamala' would be possible words. Among the best-known ancient syllabaries is the Linear B writing of Mycenean Greek, while modern syllabaries include Sequoyah's extraordinary 19th century syllabary for Cherokee and Japanese kana, which is used for bank statements, texts for the blind, and other purposes.

In truth, all writing systems are actually mixed, combining aspects of two of these basic approaches. Although it's convenient to think of English as alphabetic, it has logographic aspects in its use of signs like # ('pound'), & ('and'), and 3 ('three'). The earliest Egyptian writing was pictographic (picture writing) and primarily logographic, but it also had a syllabary aspect; that is, images and signs made up either syllables or whole words. There were special indicators to determine whether in any given case the syllable or the word was intended. It also had an alphabetic aspect in that it had a set of signs for all the consonants.

Invention of Writing

Writing appears to have been invented independently only a few times in history, though from those roots it has spread out into a fantastic number of forms. Scholars agree on two of these moments of invention: by the Sumerians in Mesopotamia some time before 3000 BCE, and by Mesoamericans some time before 600 BCE (i.e., long before there is any known contact between the American and Eurasian land masses). Writing may also have arisen independently in Egypt (by 3000 BCE) and China (by 1300 BCE), but many scholars think these developments were both outgrowths of the Sumerian invention.

English owes several aspects of its own writing system to Sumerian cuneiform: the organization of writing into rows and in some cases (e.g. invoices) columns, reading in a uniform direction (in English, left to right), and reading top to bottom.

Phoenician writing, which developed around 1000 BC, used 22 signs for consonantal syllables. It mixed borrowed pictographic representations with purely geometric signs. The Greek alphabet was probably invented about 800 BCE, but the earliest surviving letterforms are capitals scratched freehand into stone around 500 BCE. The Greek alphabet was greatly influenced by Phoenician writing, whose symbols were modified to form the 14-letter Greek alphabet. For example, the first letter of the Phoenician alphabet called aleph became alpha; the second, beth became beta, and so on (note also the similarity with Hebrew and Arabic letter names, as these alphabets ultimately also trace back to the same Sumerian source). The Greeks introduced more vowel sounds, taking over the signs for certain Phoenician consonants that weren't used in Greek.

The Etruscan alphabet was influenced by the Greek alphabet and was developed about 1000B.C. The Roman (Latin) alphabet was a modification of the Etruscan style, initially consisting of 20 letters and gradually gaining three more (J, U, and W, which didn't come into the Latin alphabet until the Middle Ages; Y and Z entered English by other routes). Trajan's Column, finished in 113 CE, has inscriptions in a very refined style of Roman lettering, from which English gets most of its capital letters, as well as the stylistic devices of variable-thickness letters and serifs, both of which are in part artifacts of the physical process used to chisel letters into stone. Roman inscribers began by writing their letters on the stone surface using a flat brush held at an angle; any painter knows that this will tend to create thick-thin variations on the curves. In the carving phase, which was done with a hammer and chisel, a roughness tends to be created when the chisel first digs into the stone, and this can be neatened up with a finishing serif cut across the end of the stroke.

As Latin and other forms of writing spread across Europe in the first few centuries BC - both in inscriptions and on handwritten documents - a number of regional scripts and variant letterforms arose. Some of these were deliberate changes to account for linguistic differences necessitating new letters, and some were more accidental shifts, for example arising from a scribe's desire to simplify or speed up the writing process.

Monastic scribes, who had almost a lock on book-length writing until about the 12th century, started to use the older Roman letterforms (our capital letters) for titles and initials, and the newer, more compact scripts (uncials) for running text. Scripts developed in northern Europe in the later Middle Ages were especially influential on the final forms of those English lower-case letters that differ from the Roman upper-case ('a', 'g', 'q', etc.) Out of this process emerged two things we still have today: the division between upper- and lower-case letters, and the use of different fonts or sizes for titles (heads) and text blocks. The most familiar kinds of English letterforms are known as Carolingian because they can be traced back to forms widely used at the time of Charlemagne, in the 9th and 10th centuries C.E.

Invention of Printing

In the later Middle Ages and early Renaissance, a well-trained European scribe might know and use eight or ten distinct kinds of script for different purposes. Sacred texts would get a different writing treatment from legal documents, for example. In the late medieval period, demand for books escalated due to the rise of the burgher class and the growing influence of major European universities in Paris and elsewhere, to the point that scribes were turning out thousands of books every year. This proto-industry explains in part why a German printer like Johannes Gutenberg would have been looking for ways to speed up and automate book production.

Printing from movable type was actually invented not by Gutenberg but by a scholarly Chinese engineer named Bi Sheng in the 1040s. The earliest surviving printed works date from several centuries later, but there is a handwritten account by the great Chinese polymath Shen Kuo from the 1040s that clearly shows movable type was invented much earlier. Type spread to Korea by the middle 13th century and to Europe by the middle 15th century. Typesetting flourished much more in Europe because of the far fewer characters required by European alphabets. Even as late as the 19th century, most printing in China was done by carving an entire page of text into a wooden printing block - in other words, by making a unique woodcut.

In the mid-15th century, Gutenberg re-invented type molds for casting individual letters - that is, a process by which a piece of hard metal carved with a low-relief mirror image of a letter is pounded into a piece of softer metal, creating a shallow mold of the letterform. Molten metal is then poured into this shallow mold, where it hardens into a chunk of type. Gutenberg's invention made movable type practical because he could produce any quantity of printed pages by setting his type in wooden frames known as 'forms' that were then inked and run through a press.

Interestingly, Gutenberg himself didn't make any money from his invention—he was working with capital borrowed from one Johann Fust, who eventually sued Gutenberg to recover his loan and gained control over the Bible-printing workshop about a year after the first Gutenberg Bible was produced in 1454. Fust and his partner Peter Schoeffer went on to found a highly successful printing business in Mainz, proclaiming their mastery of the new process while conspicuously failing to credit Gutenberg.