Geselowitz “The Alphabet”

Writing systems and written language have taken many different forms and evolved dramatically over time.  Older systems focused on a wide range of symbols representing ideas or certain things, while more advanced systems continued to narrow down the amount of characters it would take to convey a message. Writing systems began to become easier to use and more accessible by a wider range of people through years of evolution and simplification.  Michael N. Geselowitz compares two important writing systems in his article, The Alphabet.

Cuneiform, which first appeared in the Near East in the 3rd millennium BCE, consisted of thousands of symbols that were pressed into clay. Geselowitz claims that the array of symbols and their different meanings in different contexts proved Cuneiform to be a difficult system to use in terms of a society.  Gesolowitz says “Cuneiform — and its related scripts — was obviously a very cumbersome system to use . . . Literacy was the preserve for a tiny group of people” (Geselowitz). Other groups, specifically Phoenicians, began to develop easier to use systems featuring less characters, by identifying words based on their sounds. The system was narrowed down until they had developed their own easy to learn and use system: The Alphabet.  The alphabet was quick to gain popularity and use along the Mediterranean. 

In short, Geselowitz argues that the Phoenicians’ simple and efficient writing system led to its widespread use in other societies, allowing for better communication for trade and language between regions. The evolution of the writing system continued and grew into the western writing system we use today.

An article that further investigates the history and evolution of the Phoenician Alphabet is written by ( The article credits the Phoenician Alphabet with being an important factor of improving trade along the Mediterranean, and ancient hieroglyphics as its predecessor. The pursuit of money and general wealth is also mentioned as an incentive for learning the new and improved writing system, basically forcing more and more people to adapt. The use of a centralized, more efficient writing system would allow for more time to be spent on trade, while minimizing language barriers and the long decoding of messages. As the Phoenician Alphabet became more popular and its use became more present in different regions, it still continued to be even more simplified. The Greeks, for example, created their own version of the Phoenician Alphabet which was then evolved even more by the Romans.


An article that provides a deep history of Cuneiform is The Ancient Near East, an Introduction.(

Brendan Cleary

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