(all bolded emphasis is mine)
I was reading the preface to a Latin/English dictionary and ran across this:
The letter c, derived from Greek, was at first used both for the sound of English g in go and for the sound of k . As it continued to be used for k , the letter k eventually went almost out of use. For the g -sound a new letter, G , was formed in the third century BC by the addition of a small stroke to the C .¹
Srsly. I think that’s cool. Kind of like a W actually being double U ‘s. Or that breakfast is actually a compound word: to break fast (of the evening). Of course, we pronounce it differently and use it as a noun, but you get the idea.
This reminded me of a something I read a little while back in Leonard Shlain’s Art & Physics :
The alphabet was civilization’s first abstract art form. As the actual shape of each letter became divorced from any connection to the image of the thing it might once have represented, the abstract quality of alphabets most likely subliminally reinforced the ability of those who used them to think abstractly.²
The idea coordinates with this post in the same manner that words don’t carry any meaning without a contextual relationship of a preceding and/or following word. To take that idea further is true for letters. No longer ideograms, letters are completely abstract symbols that are interdependent upon neighboring letters to construct a code of meaning. A g -sound is completely dependent upon whether or not a vowel precedes or follows it. It could become silent with its best friend h .
Further, I find it incredibly interesting that our concept of relating language to speaking is extremely abstract. I don’t think we (English-speaking Americans) think about it much, but the words we use in English don’t always – and in fact, rarely – correlate with the coupling of letters that represent sounds, and therefore make spelling a more cerebral affair than a natural, logical system, reinforcing a hierarchy of social order.
Some national languages like Finnish, Turkish and Bulgarian have a very regular spelling system with a nearly one-to-one correspondence between letters and phonemes. Strictly speaking, there is no word in the Finnish, Turkish and Bulgarian languages corresponding to the verb "to spell" (meaning to split a word into its letters), the closest match being a verb meaning to split a word into its syllables. Similarly, the Italian verb corresponding to ‘spell’, compitare , is unknown to many Italians because the act of spelling itself is almost never needed: each phoneme of Standard Italian is represented in only one way.
At the other extreme, however, are languages such as English, where the spelling of many words simply has to be memorized as they do not correspond to sounds in a consistent way. For English, this is because the Great Vowel Shift occurred after the orthography was established, and because English has acquired a large number of loanwords at different times retaining their original spelling at varying levels. However, even English has general, albeit complex, rules that predict pronunciation from spelling, and these rules are successful most of the time. Rules to predict spelling from the pronunciation have a high failure rate for English. ³
Progressively I have observed the immediate relationship of language to culture, specifically noting that culture is protected first by language and later by practical rules of social order. If our language is disjointed, therefore should our culture also be disjointed, full of illogical rules and exceptions for individual cases. Just something to think about.
¹ "Some Remarks on the Latin Language." Langenscheidt Pocket Latin Dictionary. Berlin, Germany: Langenscheidt, 1955. p. 6
² Shlain, Leonard. Art & Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time & Light . New York: Quill, 1991. p. 29
³ “Alphabet” Wikipedia . 12 Dec 2008. link .