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From Greek to Latin: Visualizing the Evolution of the Alphabet

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Visualizing the Evolution of the Alphabet

From Greek to Latin: Visualizing the Evolution of the Alphabet

Over the course of 2021, the Greek alphabet was a major part of the news cycle.

COVID-19 variants, which are labeled with Greek letters when becoming a variant of concern, normalized their usage. From the Alpha variant in the UK, to the Delta variant that spread from India to become the dominant global strain, the Greek alphabet was everywhere. Seemingly overnight, the Omicron variant discovered in South Africa has now taken the mantle as the most discussed variant.

But the Greek alphabet is used in other parts of our lives as well. For example, Greek letters are commonly used in mathematics and science, like Sigma (Σ) denoting a sum or Lambda (λ) used to represent the half-life of radioactive material.

And the study of linguistics shows us why using Greek letters in English isn’t completely farfetched. This visualization from Matt Baker at UsefulCharts.com demonstrates how the modern Latin script used in English evolved from Greek, and other, alphabets.

It’s All Proto-Sinaitic to Me

Before there was English, or Latin, or even Greek, there was Proto-Sinaitic.

Considered the first alphabet ever used, the Proto-Sinaitic script was derived in Canaan, around the biblical Land of Israel. It was repurposed from Egyptian hieroglyphs that were commonly seen in the area (its name comes from Mount Sinai), and used to describe sounds instead of meanings.

Proto-Sinaitic Letter (Reconstructed Name)Original Meaning
ʾalpox
baythouse
gaml throwstick
dagfish
haw/hillulpraise
waw/uphfowl
zayn/zaytoxhide ingot/sword
ḏiqqmanacle
ḥaṣr courtyard
ḫaytthread
ṭab good
yadhand
kappalm
lamdgoad
maymwater
naḥašsnake
ṡamkpeg
ʿayneye
ġabicalyx
pʿitcorner
ṣadayplant
qobaneedle/nape/monkey
raʾšhead
šimšsun
śadehfield
ṯannbow
tāwmark

As the first Semitic script, Proto-Sinaitic soon influenced other Semitic languages. It was the precursor to the Phoenician alphabet, which was used in the area of modern-day Lebanon and spread across the Mediterranean and became the basis for Arabic, Cyrillic, Hebrew, and of course, Greek.

Evolving into the Greek, Roman, and Latin Alphabets

Over time, the alphabet continued to become adopted and evolve across different languages.

The first forms of the Archaic Greek script are dated circa 750 BCE. Many of the letters remained in Modern Greek, including Alpha, Beta, Delta, and even Omicron, despite first appearing more than 2,500 years ago.

Soon the Greek alphabet (and much of its culture) was borrowed into Latin, with Archaic Latin script appearing circa 500 BCE. The evolution into Roman script, with the same recognizable letters used in modern English, occurred 500 years later in 1 CE.

AlphabetUsage (Year)
Proto-Sinaitic~ 1,750 BCE
Phoenician~ 1,000 BCE
Archaic Greek~ 750 BCE
Archaic Latin~ 500 BCE
Roman~ 1 CE
Modern LatinToday

Many of the letters which first came from Egyptian hieroglyphs made their way into modern English, but they took a long and convoluted journey. As the graphic above highlights, some letters evolved into multiple forms, while others fell out of use entirely.

And this is just a snapshot of the many scripts and languages that the modern English alphabet evolved from. Lowercase letters came from Roman cursive, which evolved into the Insular and Carolingian scripts before becoming modern lowercase English.

Like many things in the long arc of human culture, alphabets are not as far removed from each other as you might think.

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Cities

Vintage Viz: World Cities With 1 Million Residents (1800–1930)

From someone born in the 19th century, in the midst of historic population growth, comes this vintage visualization showing world cities growing ever bigger.

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A cropped chart from our vintage viz series showing world cities with one million residents between 1800 and 1930.

World Cities With At Least 1 Million Residents (1800–1930)

This chart is the latest in our Vintage Viz series, which presents historical visualizations along with the context needed to understand them.

The explosive world population boom in the last 300 years is common knowledge today. Much and more has been written about how and why it happened, why it was unusual, and how the specter of a declining population for the first time in three centuries could impact human society.

However, equally compelling, is how people in the past—those living in the midst of the early waves of this boom—were fascinated by what they were witnessing.

Evidence of this comes from today’s vintage visualization, denoting the increasing number of world cities with at least one million inhabitants through the years.

The above pictogram was made by Austrian philosopher and sociologist Otto Neurath (1882–1945), found in his book, Society and Economy, published in 1930.

World Population Doubles Between 1800 and 1930

In 1800, the world population crossed 1 billion for the first time ever.

In the next 130 years, it doubled past 2 billion.

The Second Agricultural Revolution, characterized by massive land and labor productivity, grew agricultural output more than the population and is one of the key drivers of this population growth.

And in the pictogram above, where one silhouette indicates one million inhabitants, this exponential population growth becomes far more vivid.

In 1800, for example, according to the creator’s estimates, only London had at least million residents. A century later, 15 cities now boasted of the same number. Then, three decades hence, 37 cities across the world had one million inhabitants.

YearCities with One Million Residents
18001
190015
193037

Importantly, the data above is based on the creator’s estimates from a century ago, and does not include Beijing (then referred to as Peking in English) in 1800. Historians now agree that the city had more than a million residents, and was the largest city in the world at the time.

Another phenomenon becoming increasingly apparent is growing urbanization—food surplus frees up large sections of the population from agriculture, driving specialization in other skills and trade, in turn leading to congregations in urban centers.

Other visualizations in the same book covered migration, Indigenous peoples, labor, religion, trade, and natural resources, reflecting the creator’s interest in the social life of individuals and their well-being.

Who Was Otto Neurath and What is His Legacy?

This vintage visualization might seem incredibly simple, simplistic even, considering how we map out population data today. But the creator Otto Neurath, and his wife Marie, were pioneers in the field of visual communication.

One of their notable achievements was the creation of the Vienna Method of pictorial statistics, which aimed to represent statistical information in a visually accessible way—the forerunner to modern-day infographics.

The Neuraths believed in using clear and simple visual language to convey complex information to a broad audience, an approach that laid the foundation for modern information design.

They fled Austria during the rise of the Nazi regime and spent their later years in various countries, including the UK. Otto Neurath’s influence on graphic design, visual communication, and the philosophy of language has endured, and his legacy is still recognized in these fields today.

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