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Contributed by Mohammad Shadmani   
Monday, 23 July 2007
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B) Phonetic Systems

The Sumerians began writing about 3200 bc by drawing pictures on tablets of wet clay. In time they found it more efficient to press the pictures into the clay with a writing instrument made from a reed. The wedge-shaped marks produced by the reed, which are now known as cuneiform, soon lost their resemblance to the original pictures. Because the Sumerian language was largely monosyllabic (consisting of single-syllable words), the sign for a word could equally well stand for the sound of that syllable. Sumerian cuneiform was a mixture of word signs and syllables; some symbols served both purposes, some were simply word signs.

The Akkadians, an early Semitic people, turned cuneiform into a syllabary about 2300 bc. Although they spoke a language unrelated to Sumerian, they adopted the syllabic sound values associated with the cuneiform wedges, without their meanings. The Akkadians then used the wedge shapes to create a phonetic (sound-based) system for writing their own language. Whereas each symbol carried a meaning in the Sumerian language, the symbols provided only a guide to pronunciation in Akkadian. During the centuries after 2300 bc other Near Eastern peoples, including the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Hittites, also began using syllabic, sound-based cuneiform for writing (see Assyro-Babylonian Language; Hittite Language).

A phonetic, or sound, system greatly reduces the number of written characters needed, because languages have only a limited number of sounds. The change from a pictographic-ideographic system to a phonetic system did not happen immediately, however. Several ancient cultures employed both the old ideographs and the new phonetic symbols. The ancient Egyptians created a pictographic system shortly after the Sumerians, about 3100 bc, by drawing on papyrus—a paperlike material made from the papyrus plant. Egyptian hieroglyphs represented not only entire words but also sounds whose meanings were unrelated to the pictures. Scholars do not know whether the Egyptians developed a phonetic system independently or borrowed the idea from the Sumerians. Recent studies of the picture writing of the Maya of Mexico and Central America indicate that their system also represented syllables. Such a word-based system becomes an alphabet (single-sound based system) or syllabary (sound-group based system) when pictographs or ideographs are used to represent a spoken sound without an associated meaning.

In many ancient cultures the symbol for a sound came from a pictograph for a common word, signifying the word’s initial sound. In early Semitic languages, for example, the pictograph representing the word for house, beth in the spoken language, eventually came to represent the sound of the consonant b, the first sound in beth. This Semitic symbol, which originally stood for the entire word beth and later for the sound b, became the β of the Greek and Roman alphabets and finally the uppercase B of the English alphabet. If English used the system of a picture to represent the first sound of a word, we might write the word sat by drawing sun + apple + table. We would have to learn not to interpret those pictures as circle + fruit + furniture.

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