By John Man
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Additional resources for Alpha Beta: How 26 Letters Shaped the Western World
The grassland looks ideal for domestic animals, and as if by a miracle there are no natural rivals, no wild grazers and browsers. The reason there are no trees and wild animals, of course, is that radiation is leaking up from below. < previous page page_29 next page > < previous page page_30 next page > Page 30 But there is a peculiar object that gives this little group pause. It is a monolith, like the one in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, shall we say. It was built to last, and it has done so as well as the pyramids (which still endure, poking up through the floods of a vastly extended Mediterranean).
The ‘priesthood’ might seem to be nothing more than a bunch of Jeremiahs banging on about the end of the world being nigh. Who would listen? As for a universal script, it’s an impossibility. < previous page page_32 next page > < previous page page_33 next page > Page 33 2 THE BEARABLE BURDEN OF SYLLABLES Yet pictures were as essential as childhood in the evolution of writing systems. This was no simple progression, from benighted beginnings to mature enlightenment, as if the story of writing should be seen as one of those ape-to-man charts, with pictures on the left and alphabets on the right.
But a syllabic script has a staggering range of ambiguities. Like all written languages, Sumerian cuneiform had words and syllables that mixed up spelling, meaning and sound. Some were spelled differently but sounded the same (like the English sun/son), or spelled the same but differed in meaning (like a bird’s bill, the name Bill, a bill for payment), or sounded the same but < previous page page_41 next page > < previous page page_42 next page > Page 42 differed in both spelling and meaning (like the ‘bill’ sound in building or ability).