Latin alphabet: timeline of influences and developments

3700 B.C.—Sumerians developed the idea of systemic phoneticism; used cuneiform which would be widely borrowed and adapted.

Systemic phoneticism—a tool for specifying isolated particles of information, such as transcribing foreign words or phonetically sounding out hard to identify signs that held several possible meanings. (History of Writing by Steven Roger Fischer)

Sumerian cunieform


3100 B.C.—Egyptian hieroglyphics emerged when the Egyptians borrowed the idea of writing, logography, phonography, and linearity with sequencing from the Sumerians.

Egyptian hieroglyphics
Egyptian hieroglyphics

2500 B.C.—Mesopotamian cuneiform script was complete; capable of conveying any and all thought.

Letter sent by the high-priest Lu’enna to the king of Lagash (maybe Urukagina), informing him of his son's death in combat. w:Clay tablet, c. 2400 BC, found in Telloh (ancient Girsu).
Letter sent by the high-priest Lu’enna to the king of Lagash (maybe Urukagina), informing him of his son’s death in combat. w:Clay tablet, c. 2400 BC, found in Telloh (ancient Girsu).

2000 B.C.—Egyptian scribes developed a 26 uniconsonantal sign alphabet which spread quickly among Egypt’s Semitic vassals, present in Egypt as slaves, mercenaries, and resident aliens.

1500 B.C.—Proto-Sinaitic derived from Egyptian hieroglyphics and was used in Caanan to write Caananite, the ancestral script of Phoenician and Hebrew. (BAS Library)

cuneiform tablet
Reverse of clay cuneiform tablet

1000 B.C.—The Phoenicians converted the Proto-Sinaitic pictorial Caananite alphabet to a simplified nonpictorial, Phoenician consonantal alphabet. All Western alphabets derive from this script.

"Pyrgi tablets". Laminated sheets of gold with a treatise both in Etruscan and Phoenician languages. From Etruscan Museum in Rome.
“Pyrgi tablets.”Laminated sheets of gold with a treatise both in Etruscan and Phoenician languages. From Etruscan Museum in Rome.

850 B.C.—The Greeks borrowed the Phoenician’s consonantal alphabet, finding it to be a faster and easier way for accountancy than syllabic writing; and added vowels.

Early Greek writing
Early Greek writiing


775 B.C.—The Etruscans were settled by the Greeks and borrowed the Greek alphabet to create the Euboean-Etruscan alphabet, which was Italy’s prevalent writing system until 200 B.C. when Etruria was assimilated into the Roman Empire.

650 B.C.—The Romans borrowed the Euboean-Etruscan alphabet to write Latin and spread a modified version, the Latin alphabet, throughout the Roman Empire.

55 B.C.—The first British exposure to the Roman alphabet took place when Julius Caesar first invaded Great Britain.

300 A.D.—The Romans developed uncial writing, a modification of square capital writing and the origin of present day lower-case letters.

600 A.D.—Christian missionaries from Ireland and Europe took the Latin alphabet to England where it replaced the Etruscan-influenced Germanic runic alphabet, Futhorc.

Example of Futhorc.
Front panel of the 7th century Frank’s casket.

100–1100 A.D.—Reign of Old English alphabet, a.k.a. Anglo-Saxon, and transition away from runic Futhorc alphabet. Beowulf is written in Old English.

Beowulf in Old English.
Beowulf in Old English.

1100–1450 A.D.—Reign of Middle English alphabet, the alphabet used to write Canterbury Tales.

Canterbury Tales
Canterbury Tales

1450 A.D.—Modern English alphabet emerges, the alphabet of Shakespeare and the Internet.

1927 A.D.—Television is first broadcast.

1950 A.D.—Emergence of Visual Language.

1961 A.D.—MIT develops Compatible Time-Sharing System (CTSS) which allows up to 30 users to log in at the same time and share messages.

1980 A.D.—CompuServe’s CB Simulator simulates citizen’s band radio through text-based messages and user handles.

1982 A.D.—Emoticons were started by Scott Fahlman, a Carnegie Mellon University professor; Commodore 64 PC is released and includes Internet service.

1990s—U.S. schools begin to drop cursive writing from their curriculums.

1995 A.D.—Texting was introduced as a way for phone networks to communicate important messages to their subscribers.

1996 A.D.— Mirabulus launched ICQ; text-based messenger that reached broad online audience.

1997 A.D.—AOL launched AIM allows users to send messages to each other and create profiles, included away messages and icons.

1998—Yahoo Messenger, chat room service.

1999 A.D.—Microsoft releases MSN Messenger, which tells users when friends are online and enables them to exchange messages.

2000 A.D.—Jabber, a multiprotocol instant messenger allows users to users to chat with friends.

2003 A.D.—Skype, users can communicate with each other via video, voice, and instant messaging.

2004 A.D.—Facebook is founded.

2005 A.D.—Google Talk (Google Chat), appears in Gmail user’s window, allowing real-time communication with email contacts as long as they are online with Gmail.

2006 A.D.—MySpaceIM, users and instant message with each other on their desktops.

2008 A.D.—Facebook Chat, users can instant message with one or multiple people.

2011 A.D.—Facebook Messenger, a mobile app is released; users can message each other from their handheld devices; Apple announces iMessage.

2013 A.D.—Common Core ceases to require U.S. public schools to teach cursive handwriting. At least 41 U.S. states do not teach cursive reading or writing.

A great post about the history of our alphabet is on I Love Topography.

Dan Carlin’s Excellent Podcasts

Check out Dan Carlin's blog and surf to Amazon to buy books from his reading list.
Check out Dan Carlin’s blog and surf to Amazon to buy books from his reading list. You’ll have to scroll down on Dan’s page to see the book list.

Today I successfully, (I think), linked my Word Wabbit Facebook account to the Word Wabbit blog, so if you prefer to get your blog notifications via Facebook, this should now be working. This is a test to see if it does.

Today, as I read Countdown to Zero Day by Kim Zetter, I can’t help but think about a recent podcast done by Dan Carlin called “Show 42 Logical Insanity,” which shows up in his Hardcore History series. In this podcast, Dan talks about how humans can shift our perspectives in evaluating war crimes, atrocities, and crimes against humanity to make them seem logical and necessary. That’s a pretty impressive mental trick if you ask me and I wanted to learn more.

Dan discusses the firestorms and bombing of civilians in World War II. After listening, I find myself baffled by two things. One is I’m baffled that I never heard anything about this in my history classes. And two, I’m baffled that it happened at all.

And maybe I’ve been listening to too much Dan, but hearing about World War II and what led to the U.S. leadership justifying the need to drop the atomic bomb, I’m becoming worried about what’s in store for us in our next world war.

This makes the storyline of Countdown to Zero Day much more compelling as I gain a greater understanding of the importance of tracking who in the world is enriching uranium. And I’m replaying the Bush (II) years in my mind, which I still don’t have a handle on.

So that’s my weekly plug for Dan Carlin. Dan—you’re welcome. 🙂

Stay tuned for the upcoming post on Countdown to Zero Day. And check out Dan’s reading list, shown in the graphic above. A larger, more legible version is on his website.

Some Classics to Explore

Thermopylae(480 B.C.)

Persians by Aeschylus (472 B.C.)

Histories by Herodotus (450 to 420 B.C.)

Herodotus—The Histories

Antigone by Sophocles (441 B.C.)

Peloponnesian War by Thucydides (YouTube version) (431 B.C.)

Oedipus Rex by Sophocles (429 B.C.)

Hippolytus by Euripides (428 B.C.)

Clouds, Lysistrata by Aristophanes (423 B.C., 411 B.C.)

Bacchae by Euripides (MIT version) (405 B.C.)

Education of Cyrus, Cyropaedia by Xenophon (430 B.C. to 354 B.C.)

Pro Cluentio, On Old Age, On Friendship by Cicero (106 B.C. to 43 B.C.)

On the Nature of Things by Lucretius (somewhere between 99 B.C. and 55 B.C.)

Letters by Seneca (possibly a better version on WikiSource) (65 A.D.)

History of Rome by (Titus Livius) Livy (64 B.C. to 17 A.D.)

Eunichus by Terence (died 159 B.C.)

Annals by Tacitus (56 to 117 A.D.)

Discourses by Epictetus (55 to 135 A.D.)


Dan Carlin—A new find for me

Dan Carlin Hardcore HistoryI am an editor and proofreader by day, and that means that often when I get home, my eyes hurt. My eyes hurt so bad lately that even watching TV is painful.

This is partially how I wandered upon Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast.

I’ve been listening to Blueprint for Armageddon, which is the story of World War I, how it began, why, and then how the battles went. I found it hard to believe. I didn’t learn any of this in school. I didn’t quite believe Dan. Was he a crackpot? So I Googled the battle of Verdun. The photos are there, but hearing Carlin describe the scene makes it more real, makes you realize all of the contents of those photos.

You would think after World War I, no one would have wanted a sequel. You would think that everyone would have lost interest, in even getting out of bed, much less going off to fight. But we humans, I guess that’s a large part of who we are.

So, World War III, it’s what I grew up fearing. The Russians were sure to bomb us. And then I met some Russians, and I really liked them. They were very friendly, kind, warm, helpful, sincere, thoughtful, and intelligent. They were real. They had substance.

Anyway, check out Dan Carlin. My grandmother was eight when WWI started. Oddly, you get the feeling that people were nicer back then. So if nice people could do that…

(There are reading lists all throughout Dan’s blog. Here’s one. Scroll to the bottom of the page.)

War and Peace: Book Review Part I

War and Peace Russian 2By Leo Tolstoy; first published in 1869; Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition; 1408 pages (Notes begin on page 1359).

Around page 1350, I began to wonder, just what is Tolstoy trying to do here? Obviously an intelligent guy, definitely no radical, what is going on with the structure of this book????

[Spoiler Alert]

It seems odd to put a spoiler alert on a book that was published more than 100 years ago, but still, I realize many people haven’t read it and I don’t want to interfere with Tolstoy’s intent by saying: hey watch out for this, especially for those puritans out there who want to experience the work as it was meant to be experienced.

If, however, you are one of those “walk on the wild side” kind of people, here’s what I think is going on.

The whole work is a demonstration of two types of historical thought:

  1. Stories of individuals, descriptions of the lives of people (the drama experienced by specific characters, Pierre, et. al.)
  2. Historical movements of peoples and humanity (the French invading Russia and the Russians chasing them back into Europe)

Tolstoy’s point is that you can look at history in these two ways and these two ways lead to conclusions that are at odds with each other. In the first way, when examining history as though it depends on individual leaders and the multitude of causes performed by individuals, the concept of free will comes under examination. Individuals have free will, they choose their actions, and history results. In the second way, when you look at humanity in more general terms as a unit and think that we are all affected by the natural environment in which we live. We are all affected by space and by time, by our environments, etc. And all of these situational constraints keep us from ever truly being free. For example, we have to eat; therefore, we may be compelled to do things to satisfy this need. The more needs we have to fulfill, the less free we are.

So let’s look at the two points again:

  1. Stories of individuals (the plot) is used to illustrate the concept of free will
  2. Mass migration of armies east and then west (the historical backdrop of Napoleon invading Russia) is used to illustrate the concept of historical laws (in this case the law of necessity)

Tolstoy seems to be saying that historians of his time hesitate to examine this phenomenon of historical laws, in this case the struggle between the law of necessity and that of free will.

“And now…a hard struggle is being conducted between old and new attitudes to history, and in just the same way theology, guardian of the old, calls the new attitude an offense against revelation.”

“…it now seems that once we accept the law of necessity we destroy all concepts of the soul, or good and evil, and all the towering political and ecclesiastical institutions founded on them….the law of necessity in history, far from destroying the foundations on which political and ecclesiastical institutions are constructed, actually strengthens them.”

If you read Part II of the Epilogue, you’ll find this discussion. Reading this before reading the whole book from the beginning is what I suggest to get the most out of Tolstoy’s argument. It won’t ruin the plot for you at all. But it may rob you of that “ah ha” moment—which if you think about it, I am robbing you of right now.

It is very interesting. Perhaps more interesting than any of the preceding pages. I think Tolstoy was trying to prove his point throughout his novel. By the time we get to the Epilogue, we see him pulling these strands together.

In the final analysis, I believe that Tolstoy was saying that we are never completely free. We believe we are free, but by virtue of being alive and all the necessities that state of being brings about, we do not have the free will we think we do.

I got the feeling he was saying freedom and necessity are in constant flux. And some people have their lives set up so that they have fewer needs and greater freedom, whereas others don’t.

Very interesting concepts, indeed.

Life and Death in Shanghai

By Nien Cheng; Grove Press, New York, @1986; 544 pages.

Life and Death in Shanghai
Life and Death in Shanghai (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Life and Death in Shanghai  is wonderful—outstanding. Over and over, it made me ask: how could this happen? and Could this happen again?

Life and Death in Shanghai is an account of the Cultural Revolution that took place in China under Chairman Mao. It opens on a summer evening in 1966 when the author, Nien Cheng, is summoned to attend a struggle meeting. A large crowd of her former coworkers has been assembled to struggle against one of her former colleagues from Shell. Since Shell was a foreign firm that had operations in China and because during the Cultural Revolution all things foreign were deemed against the state, anyone who had worked for such a company was automatically suspected of espionage, or so it seemed.

What in fact was going on was a struggle within the Communist Party in China, with people serving as pawns.

As the revolution progressed, everything that reminded the leadership of the old ways was under attack. Art was destroyed; books were destroyed;  possessions were confiscated; people who had any educational training were deemed enemies of the state; anyone who could be considered a capitalist was under attack.

Nein Cheng, soon after attending her first struggle meeting, was visited by the Red Guard. The Red Guard amounted to a gang of young people who went house to house and ransacked, pillaged, confiscated, and destroyed.

Not too long after this event, Nien herself was seized and taken to a prison for political prisoners. Armed only with the advice to never give a false confession, her intellect, and her will to survive, Nein endured 6 1/2 years in solitary confinement, subject to temperature extremes, medical emergencies, and torture.

As I read this book, I was stunned by the character of its author, Nien Cheng. Through all that she had to endure, she is the most self-assured personality I have ever encountered. She comes to conclusions about her surroundings and the people who populate her life without question, without any kind of self-reproach or self-doubt. I am amazed. I wish I could have known this woman. To have met her would have been an honor.

Even though English was Nien Cheng’s second language, this book is effortless to read. She has great skill for the craft of writing. I looked, and I don’t think that she wrote anything else. It’s a real pity.

I bought this book on a whim for $3. In it I learned more about courage and perseverance and honesty than I think I have in any other place. Even after she was released from prison, she remained under the watchful eye of the party. Nearly everyone who came in contact with her had an agenda and sought to trick her into saying something that could send her back to jail.

For all the trouble they went to, I found myself often wondering, why they didn’t just make up a lie? Why go to the trouble of baiting her to say something against the party and then becoming disgruntled because she didn’t?

Maybe I’m revealing my Western way of thinking here. But for a system that wasn’t above torture and trickery, why were certain lies off limits?

There is so much in this book. It is probably one of the best books I have ever read. I highly recommend it.

Lost in Shangri-La

By Mitchell Zuckoff; Harper Perennial; @ 2011; 316 pages.

Almost as interesting as the story itself is that it was uprooted from the forgotten pages of history and brought back to life. While searching for something else, Mitchell Zuckoff, a professor of journalism at Boston University and a former reporter for the Boston Globe, came across an article about the plane crash of 24 U.S. Army servicemen and Women’s Army Corps (WACs) in an isolated valley in New Guinea. He set the story aside, but it continued to nag him. Over time, he discovered other related information, which grew and grew, until finally the story had to be written.

Based on interviews Zuckoff was able to obtain six decades after the crash, a daily journal kept during the time of the crash, and the rescue, scrapbooks, army documents, maps, radio transcripts, and details from the relatives of the three survivors, Lost in Shangri-La came alive as “a true story of survival, adventure, and the most incredible rescue mission of World War II.”

On May 13, 1945, Colonel Peter Prossen arranged an airplane joyride for some of his staff as a morale booster. Interest had been building about the mysterious valley untouched by civilization that they had recently discovered. Excitement and enthusiasm must have been high aboard the plane. Prossen left the cockpit to his less experienced copilot and joined the passengers to look out their windows and socialize. Clouds obscured the peaks which surrounded the valley, and the copilot discovered too late that he was flying straight into a mountain.

Zuckoff does a fantastic job telling this story. He researched all of the main players extensively and creates a lot of suspense by weaving their back stories into the progression of events that led to the rescue of the survivors. Zuckoff even traveled to New Guinea and interviewed the tribesmen and relatives of the tribesmen. The contrasting perspectives about what had happened and what it meant from the point of view of both the Americans and the tribesmen was fascinating.

It was also interesting to consider that as the outside “civilized” world was in engaged with all its technology and weaponry in World War II, the humans of this isolated valley had their own ongoing wars, just on a smaller scale. Bombs and planes were replaced here with sticks and axes.

The customs for women in this society were interesting. Whenever a male warrior died, his female relative would have one of her fingers cut off as part of her mourning ritual. Youch! By the time many women reached marriageable age, they were all thumbs.

After the war, Christian missionaries went to the valley, converted the natives, and convinced them to stop their ongoing wars. As a result, their independence diminished significantly. I thought that was interesting too, and it made me wonder in broader terms about why humans engage in war and the long-term consequences of doing so.


I recently joined a book club and this was the book that was chosen. We met last Thursday at a coffee shop (not Starbucks) to discuss it. One person had prepared questions and the rest of us sat around a table. I think there were seven of us in all. This was the first book club I had ever attended, and I didn’t know what to expect.

I’m thinking to myself: Don’t talk too much. And then: Don’t talk too little!

One of the first questions was: Who was your favorite character?

One of the women liked the female tribal woman (queen?) who befriended Maggie. The rest of the women liked John McCollom, the twin who survived unscathed and led Maggie Hastings and Ken Decker to safety. They liked that he managed his grief on loosing his brother and kept a cool head. The one man in our group said he liked Ken Decker, the man who even though tremendously beat up in the crash still drug his mangled body down the mountain. I think he really liked Maggie and was afraid to admit it in the midst of a bunch of women.

Me? The character who immediately came to my mind was the playboy soldier with the successful military father. He had wanted to participate in the war, but never got assigned, Captain Earl Walter, Jr.

The women teased me: Of course, you’d like the playboy.

Well, not of course. Yes he was 6’4″. And, yes, he was an All American Swimmer.

But this guy was willing to fly into a valley that no one knew how to fly out of—or get out of, for that matter. He knew the danger involved and motivated a team to go with him. He was the hero!!!!

Ok, so I didn’t agree with the group on that one.

Then someone says: I lost respect for Maggie when I heard that she was hitting on one of the medics.

Even if I believed that, which I don’t, I wouldn’t have lost respect for Maggie for that.

But let’s think this through. She was in a tremendously emotional situation. She had just witnessed 21 people that she knew die in a horrific fiery plane crash. She herself had climbed down a mountain with burns on her feet and legs and face. For the first several days, there was no food to eat. No one knew how they would get out of the valley. Then her wounds got infected and developed gangrene.

What girl wouldn’t feel flirtatious under such circumstances?

So the medics come along and dose Maggie and Ken with antiseptic and remove the gangrene—but cutting the infected skin away from their bodies. This took hours—of cutting.

Hmmm. Yeah. I don’t think so.

More likely is that the guy who wrote in his diary that Maggie was flirting too much was actually turned down by her. It wouldn’t be the first time a guy told a lie.

So, far, I’m not earning any points with the group.

Next question: What were they doing out there anyway? After all, there was a war going on.

—Uh, blowing off steam. Trying to have a little fun in a world full of misery!

—But people were dying!!!

—People are dying RIGHT NOW and we’re drinking coffee and eating muffins, arguing over a book!

(Maybe I’m not the book club sort.)

Next question: What did we think about the ultimate Western influence that came to the valley as a result of the plane crash?

—Yes, yes, simply terrible. We screwed up their war economy, and now they don’t cut the fingers off of little girls.

—But we can’t fault them for that. That was their culture.

—Just because it was part of their culture doesn’t mean it was right. Cultures throughout history have had practices that were not right. Like, oh, slavery. And the fingers were only cut off of the women and girls, even though they were tasked with doing all the chores and gardening around their homes.

—And they got by…

At this point, I think a blood vessel became noticeably visible on my forehead. I was O for 4, and I was starting to have flashbacks to what a former boss said to me after his retirement:

“You’ve got to go along to get along.”

I think he was trying to help me out and meant these as wise words. But I lost some respect for him the moment he said it.

Clearly, this is a skill I could cultivate.