A, Alif and the Egyptian Ox

Like the alphabet rhyme A, B, C, D.. in English, there’s the equivalent Alif, Be, Te, Se.. in Urdu. Though the letters might look radically different, both these alphabets are ultimately derived from a single ancient writing system.

Both A (and the Urdu “alif“) is derived from the Egyptian hieroglyphic character (picture) for ox (called “aleph” in Egyptian).

B (and the Urdu “be“) is similarly derived from the same language’s picture for a home (called “Bet“). That’s why “bayt” is used for “house” in so many Semitic languages (including Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, Syriac and many others).

Around 1200BC, a writing system evolved out of the Egyptian hieroglyphics, which used, for the first time, one symbol for one sound.

Before this, most writing systems used one symbol to represent an action or a thing. Since there are so many possible actions and things, “writers” had to memorize a huge number of symbols.

This new innovative writing system (which we now call the Phoenician alphabet) spread like wildfire, and was adopted (with modifications) by many Middle Eastern languages like Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, and others.

But there was one problem with it. This writing system didn’t have any characters for vowels. Only consonants were represented. That’s why in Urdu and Arabic writings, short vowels (zer, zabar) are often left to the reader’s imagination (and consonants are re-purposed as vowels – see the note at the end)

Anyway, it was the Greeks who first came up with the idea of adding characters for vowels too, to the script, and their script, after centuries of modifications, gave rise to the modern English script.

Isn’t it fascinating, that students 3000 years ago, were probably singing a rhyme so similar so us.. “aleph, bet…”

P.S: Languages and scripts are totally different things. Punjabi is written in Gurmukhi script in Indian Punjab, but in the traditional Urdu script, in Pakistani Punjab.


Note: In the traditional scripts of Arabic, Urdu, and many other Semitic languages, long vowels (“eee”, “ooo”, “aaa”) are written using existing consonants. Whether these consonants are going to be read as consonants or vowels, depends upon context.

For example, و can be used as a consonant (“w”) in the word اول, or it can be used as a vowel as in اردو. This feature is technically called “mater lectionis

(Author: Daud Khan; Image via Wikipedia)

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