The Ancient Indian Roots of the Western Alphabet By Wim Borsboom


Independent researcher Wim (William)  Borsboom grew up in Holland in a typical Roman Catholic environment, but from when he was six years old, he became increasingly interested in Hinduism, Buddhism, monastic life, meditation, eastern archaeology, arts and languages.

After his retirement from a variety of teaching occupations (the Montessori Method, Microsoft software manual writing and instruction, lifestyle guidance and yoga instruction), he returned to what he loved most in early life: eastern religion and culture, archaeology and linguistics, lately he is focusing his research specifically on the Indus Valley Civilization and Sanskrit literature.

Wim Borsboom, February 2016 at Kolkata’s Narendrapur University delivering his lecture 
on the ancient Indian roots of the Western Alphabet
The Earliest Phonemes and the Indian Alphabet

It must have been more that 4000 years ago in India, that the earliest pre-Panini linguists already had discovered that the sounds we make to verbally communicate

  •  consonants
  •  vowels
can be categorized according to where in the mouth they are articulated: from the throat (larynx) to the front of the mouth (lips) and places in between.

In those early days when communication was not as nuanced as it became later, in addition to the vowel phonemes (A, E, I, O, U), just three types of consonant phonemes were recognized:

  • the guttural k sound,
  • the dental t sound,
  • the labial p sound.

When, over time, communication became more nuanced, also more nuanced sounds were recognized*:
  • three nuances of the guttural k phoneme: ka, ga, nga,
  • three nuances of the dental t phoneme: ta, da, na,
  • three nuances of the labial p phoneme: pa, ba, ma.
When you put those phonemes in a tic-tac-toe like grid it looks like:
ka    ta   pa
ga    da  ba
gna  na  ma

This was one of the earliest, if not the earliest alphabet (Sanskrit 'abugida'). Notice that it adds up to 14 with the five vowels included. This number of 14 shows characters up in early linguistic treatises.
The ancient linguist who discovered this some 4000 years, did not write this down as letters with pen and paper. Of course not! He scratched them with a stick as marks inside a tic-tac-toe grid on the hardened soil in front of him. Whatever shapes he scratched, they were not letters yet, they were figurative scratches - graphemes - that represented voiced human sounds -phonemes.

According to researcher Chaitanya Bhide (Mumbai 2015) the shapes of those graphemes show how the tongue and lips were positioned in relation to teeth and palate, and how the breath flowed when each particular sound was produced.

The use of script to form written words was a much later invention.

The Significance of the Twenty Field Grid

After the previously described nine field grid (which did not include the vowels), a twelve field grid with more nuanced consonant phonemes developed, and in the next phase a twenty field grid was invented, which in addition to 15 consonant phonemes now also included the five vowels.


At this point the following twenty field (5x4) grid was in place. The grid that is shown here contains Devanagari script characters but 4000 years ago they must have been Pre-Ashokan Brahmi ones.



An Early Pre-Panini Sanskrit Alphabet (Abugida) 


For clarity sake I colour coded the columns.
  • The vowels column is blue,
  • he gutturals column is yellow, 
  • The dentals column is green,
  • The labials columns is red.
Notice that the columns have the same colour coding as the western alphabet letters shown belowon the blackboard illustration, but notice how the sequence of the columns on the blackboard is different.

It is important to consider that the use of vowel phonemes must have preceded the use of consonants by thousands of years as Primates,  Neanderthalers, Cro-Magnon and early Homo Habilis and Sapiens were already making use of them 'hooting and hollering'. More than 3400 years ago this grid above stood model for the western alphabet, but a near-eastern linguist (probably from what is now Syria) mistakenly mixed the columns up. The labials (red) were placed ahead of the gutturals (yellow) and the dentals (green).



We have to realize that the 26 letter western alphabet string of letters was originally only 20 letters:

  • The V and W were originally just the V**(often written or chiselled as a U).
  • The X, Y and Q were later Latin and Greek insertions,
  • G and H were originally pronounced similarly,
  • So were the I and J.

More than 3400 years ago - as detailed in my monograph "Alphabet or Abracadabra? - Reverse Engineering the Western Alphabet?" (available on Amazon and Kindle) the Indianpre-Ashokan Brahmi twenty field abugida grid of phonemes was copied by a Western linguist on his study visit to India, onto four palm-leaves each one holding one column of graphemes which later resulted in (initially) a western grid format*** as shown on the blackboard.

What happened with the four palm-leaves that had the phoneme markings written (graphed) on them, was that the linguist initially lost the palm-leave strip with the vowels and then ordered the remaining strips in the wrong order"


The Western Alphabet string (abecedary) seems to have no order, but when they are fitted in a 20 field grid a certain order becomes clear:

  • The first column - the vowels (blue) in their proper order: a e i o u,
  • The second column -  all the red letters are labials,
  • The third column - all the yellow letters are guttural (the 'c' as in the word 'case'),
  • The fourth column - all the green letters are dentals.

Finally, the Western  Alphabet’s Letter Sequence


To find out how that happenedand how a few more errors slipped by - small errors but of historic proportion - read my monograph "Alphabet or Abracadabra? - Reverse Engineering The Western Alphabet?".

The bottom figure (Alphabetic Sequencing) shows the decipherment of the 1400 BCE cuneiform clay tablet from Ugarit (current Syria).


By the time, 3400 years ago, that this alphabet was in use, the abecedary grid was read sequentially row-by-row rather then column-by-column. Hence the current western alphabetic string of characters- errors included. If the columns would not have been mixed up, the western alphabet sequence would have been something like:

A C D B E G L F I K N M O Q R S T P U X Z V


(For certain missing letters, keep in mind that the G and H were at some point similar in pronunciation, so were the I and the J,  of course the W is a double U or double V.)


To order the book on Amazon India

http://www.amazon.in/gp/aw/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?k=Alphabet+or+Abracadabra+


Notes

I borrowed “reverse engineering” and “pattern analysis” techniques from the fields of engineering, software data error checking and statistics, to work my way back from 52 character Sanskrit alphabets (abugidas) and 26 letter western abecedaries.

**In even earlier stages the O and the V were equivalent.

***Not the later bastardized linear string format.


2 comments:

  1. How it all began

    Back in Holland, when I was a kindergarten kid, I loved to play with a set of alphabet letters. They were like the ones that nowadays pretty well every family with kids has stuck on their fridge. But mine were not made from colourful plastic - it was the late nineteen-forties - no, they were well-used grimy little cardboard cut-outs which I kept in a box and which I would empty out on the floor. I would then mix the letters up ‘real good’ and try put them in the right order while singing the alphabet song. I was good at it.
    When I was six years old and in first grade, I posed a - for my grade one teacher - disturbing question, “Miss, why is it that the ABC letters are actually in that order?” Obviously she did not get the depth of my question when she answered, “Well, they are in alphabetic order of course! Now get on with it and recite the alphabet!”
    That question though kept turning up in my mind but remained unanswered until I eventually became a school teacher myself and decided to look for the answer... just in case one of the kids would ask me that same question.
    One day, after school in a coffee shop - after having practiced the “alphabet song” with the kids - I suddenly got a hunch. I grabbed a pencil and drew a tabular grid on a napkin and tried to fit the sequence of letters (“abecedary”) into that row and column format: the vowels in the first column and the subsequent characters in the columns to the right... Lo and behold, it showed a surprising pattern!
    I got that tabular grid idea from Sanskrit which I was studying at the time. The Indian alphabet is not linearly organized, it is in a tabular format (“abugida”) according to logical phonetic characteristics.
    Initially I did not find the discovery important enough to seriously pursue it. “So what? Does knowing this, help kids learn their ABCs faster?”
    Nevertheless, ca. 2000, when I got my first pocket computer (an HP Jornada Pocket PDA) with a built-in spreadsheet program, I playfully tabulated my “coffee-shop napkin discovery” on it, but now in colour as well.
    In the meantime I had learned enough Sanskrit and studied India’s ancient history and archaeology well enough, that I was invited to attend an archaeology conference in Los Angeles on India’s Indus Valley history, where I was able to, quite informally though, present my discovery to some scholars. But they did not get it, they thought I was talking about the shape of the Western letters and that those shapes were based on Sanskrit letters... which is ridiculous of course. Oh well...
    Eventually I turned my speaking notes into this study, and was urged by my Indian friends - the ones who got it - to publish it.

    ReplyDelete
  2. The signs of the Indus Valley show similarity with Old Hebrew. Any theory?

    ReplyDelete

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