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Contributed by Mohammad Shadmani   
Monday, 23 July 2007
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C) Cyrillic Alphabet

About ad 860 two Greek missionaries, Constantine and his brother Methodius, from Constantinople (present-day İstanbul) converted the Slavs to Christianity. They also devised for the Slavs a system of writing known as Glagolitic, which was loosely based on Greek. After Constantine died he was canonized as Saint Cyril, and Glagolitic was later replaced by an alphabet that was closely based on Greek and named Cyrillic in his honor (see Cyrillic Alphabet). Additional characters were devised for the alphabet to represent Slavic sounds that had no Greek equivalents. The Cyrillic alphabet, in various forms, is used currently in Russian, Ukrainian, Byelorussian, Serbian, Bulgarian, and Macedonian—languages spoken by Eastern Orthodox Christians. Slavic languages of Roman Catholics, including Polish, Czech, Slovakian, Croatian, and Slovenian, use the Roman alphabet. An interesting division exists in the Balkans, where the Roman Catholic Croats use the Roman alphabet, but the Greek Orthodox Serbs employ Cyrillic for the same language. The Turkic languages of the Central Asian Republics—including Kazakh, Kyrghiz, and Uzbek—had been written in the Arabic alphabet but switched to the Roman alphabet after the regions became part of the Soviet Union in the 1920s. The Soviet government later decreed that these languages should be written in the Cyrillic script. After gaining independence in the early 1990s, most of the republics planned a gradual return to Roman script.

D) Arabic Alphabet

The Arabic alphabet, another offshoot of the early Semitic one, probably originated about the 4th century ad. It spread to such languages as Persian, Pashto, and Urdu and is generally used by the Islamic world in parts of Asia and Africa, and in southern Europe. Arabic is written in either of two forms: Kufic, a heavy, bold, formal script, was devised at the end of the 7th century; or Naskhi, a cursive form and the parent of modern Arabic writing. The question arises whether the various alphabets of India and Southeast Asia are indigenous (native) developments or offshoots of early Semitic. One of the most important Indian alphabets, the Devanagari alphabet used in the Sanskrit language, is an ingenious combination of syllabic and true alphabetic principles (see Indian Languages). The ancestors of the Devanagari alphabet, whether Semitic or Indian, seem also to have given rise to the written alphabets of Bengali, Tamil, Telugu, Sinhalese, Burmese, and Thai.


Most alphabets evolved gradually or were adapted from older prototypes. Some alphabets, however, were constructed for languages previously unwritten, or for nations hitherto using alphabets of foreign origin. An outstanding example is the Armenian alphabet invented by Saint Mashtots (also called Mesrop or Mesrob) in 405 and still in use today (see Armenian Language). Mashtots’s Armenian alphabet, like Cyril’s Glagolitic alphabet for Slavic, roughly follows Greek alphabetic order, but the shapes of the letters resemble those of no other alphabet. Georgian also has a unique alphabet, which was created shortly after the Armenian alphabet, although the two languages are unrelated. Another early effort was Gothic, an alphabet devised for the now extinct Germanic Gothic language by bishop Ulfilas in the 4th century. Also of great interest is the Mongolian hP'ags-Pa script, which was created at the order of Mongol leader Kublai Khan about 1269 and written vertically from top to bottom.

During the 19th century Christian missionaries invented several scripts to translate the Bible into Native American languages. They based these systems on the Roman alphabet and in the Pacific Northwest, where Russian missionaries worked, on the Cyrillic alphabet. One script, a syllabary, was invented for the Cree in northern Canada. It consisted of 35 main signs, arranged in groups. Not all scripts were invented by missionaries, however. A Cherokee syllabary was invented soon after 1820 by the Native American leader Sequoyah. Sequoyah knew very little English and could not read it. His syllabary emerged from the idea of writing, and he freely invented its 86 characters to represent the sounds of the Cherokee language.

Many nations of Asia and Africa gained independence in the second half of the 20th century. The peoples of these nations, including many linguistic and ethnic minorities, had a strong sense of the value of their own traditions and languages. They wished to perpetuate their language and literary traditions, which had been transmitted orally for hundreds of years, through writing. In addition, governments felt the need to establish literacy and effective communication to facilitate economic development. An intensive effort to develop new alphabets followed. Most of the new alphabets were based on a selection of Roman letters, heavily supplemented with other symbols to represent special sounds. When linguists developed the alphabets, they typically drew additional characters from the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) or from some variation of it. The IPA, developed in 1880, was originally intended to have a distinctive symbol for every sound made in human language. Although such a goal was dropped as impractical, a shortened IPA continues to be widely used.

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