Language is a strange thing when you pause to truly consider it. And writing is another. I found this on social media the other day. I thought that it really captured the magic that the written word can evoke.
Read this to yourself. Read it silently.
Don’t move your lips. Don’t make a sound.
Listen to yourself. Listen without hearing anything.
What a wonderfully weird thing, huh?
NOW MAKE THIS PART LOUD!
SCREAM IT IN YOUR MIND!
DROWN EVERYTHING OUT.
Now, hear a whisper. A tiny whisper.
Now, read this next line with your best crotchety-old-man voice:
“Hello there, sonny. Does your town have a post office?”
Awesome! Who was that? Whose voice was that?
It sure wasn’t yours!
How do you do that?
Must be magic…
And for the grammar police and pedants out there, I am aware that the title of the blog is not exactly grammatical. My reason is a small homage to Ernie Wise, who was part of a UK comedy duo back in the 1970’s called Morecambe and Wise. Ernie Wise fancied himself as a playwright, and every week the duo (with amazingly famous guest stars) would perform his naff new play. His classic line of introduction was always “and now, a play wot I wrote…”
But language and with it, over time, the rules of grammar, always evolve. Shakespeare is famously credited with the creation of over 1,700 words, many of which have fallen into common usage, obscene, worthless and puppy-dog amongst them.
And ahead of a changing language, our alphabet has also continually evolved. I found this graphic really interesting:
Many writing systems stem from Egyptian hieroglyphs dating back to 1850 B.C. and the chart allows you to trace our modern alphabet all the way back to their origins.
Different cultures took elements of Egyptian writing and adapted them to sounds in their own language. For example, the Phoenicians took an existing hieroglyph, a wavy line that stood for n, (the initial character in nt and nwy meaning ‘water’) and used it instead to stand for the initial sound of their own word for water mayim; it would later become our letter m. How cool is that?
The letter A resembles the head of animal with horns. It is fitting because, in ancient Semitic, the letter originally translated to ‘ox.’
Take a look at the letter E. About 3,800 years ago, the letter ‘E’ was pronounced as an ‘H’ in the Semitic language. It looked like a stick figure of a human with two arms and one leg. In 700 BC, the Geeks flipped it, and they changed the pronunciation into an ‘ee’ sound.
Many of the letters origins are surprisingly familiar. Particularly when you consider how their forms have evolved, often due to being reversed (since the Phoenicians wrote from right to left) and often, over the course of a millennia, turned on their sides. If you don’t immediately recognize an early letter, try rotating it in your mind.
And then there are more modern introductions. The ancient Greeks gave us ‘U’, ‘V’, ‘W’ and ‘Y’. It originally resembled ‘Y’ and the Greeks called it ‘upsilon’ and pronounced it ‘waw’. The Romans used V and U interchangeably and then the letter ‘W’ entered use during the Middle Ages, with the scribes of Charlemagne writing two ‘u’s’ side by side, separated by a space. At that time the sound made was similar to ‘v.’ The letter finally appeared in print as a unique letter ‘W’ in around 1700.
It all slowly fed into the Indo-European language family which includes English. The Indo-European language family includes more than 400 other languages. English shares strong common roots with German but also with Spanish and French as well as Bengali, Polish and Persian.
This beautiful chart by Minna Sundberg, a Finnish-Swedish comic artist, shows some of English’s closest cousins, like French and German, but also its more distant relationships with languages originally spoken far from the British Isles such as Farsi and Greek.
Cheers! Santé! Salud! Sei Gesund! Будем здоровы. 乾杯