I was listening to CBC Radio the other day, listening to the tale of the twenty-six letters that we now call our alphabet. The program was originally broadcast in 2007 and this was a re-broadcasting from And Sometimes Y with Russell Smith. The program was interesting for sure, with details from David Sacks who wrote Letter Perfect, The A-Z History of our Alphabet. Sacks told us there are twenty-six major alphabets in use today and all are related to the original ancestor from ancient Egypt. The Korean alphabet was invented on its own, and China and Japan don’t use alphabets. Most of our letters began as pictures – A was referred to as the ox, if you turn it upside down it resembles the face of an ox with two horns; O was originally an eyeball; H was a fence; M was the image of water. Sacks says there is a story for each letter, and he thinks of each letter as a worker bee. E is the most often used letter in English, but that was no surprise. Every letter in the Phoenician alphabet was a consonant. Vowels were used in speech but didn’t show up in the alphabet. Our vowels were once consonants of the Phoenician alphabet, named for common objects. The Phoenician alphabet is probably the ancestor of the Greek alphabet and therefore of our alphabet. Before the 1800s, there were only 23 letters in our alphabet and the missing pieces were V, W, and J. I found this interesting because I have been reading Hudson’s Bay Company post journals dating back to 1780 and I noticed the spelling of some words and the absence of the V. And another difference was the use of the Y where we now commonly use an I. I thought it a spelling mistake in these journals, but the truth is it wasn’t until the printing press came along that the I replaced the Y. Further, the past tense of a verb was simply an apostrophe followed by a D.
This is all fascinating and the differences noted in Old English, but what really captured my attention was the interview with Saki Mafundikwa, the founder and director of the Zimbabwe Institute of Vigital Arts, yes Vigital, that isn’t a typo. Mafundikwa was asked why we don’t hear much about the mystical alphabets used in Africa and his explanation touched me deeply. “Africa has been the most marginalized continent on the planet,” Mafundikwa explained. “If you say Africa had no writing, Africa is a dark continent, then it is almost as if it is true. Colonization of Africa wouldn’t have happened if Africans had been given their due in terms of human achievement. You destroy their psyche by telling them they are nothing, didn’t contribute anything, and they start to actually believe it. Then the job of segregation is much easier.”
I wrote his words down and read them over and over. Segregation is much easier. His words can be transposed to any culture, any individual, any child who has experienced being told she or he are nothing. Colonization did this to Indigenous peoples around the world, pushing them and their culture and their wisdom and value aside, as if they were nothing, and they are still recovering, still trying to reassert their belief in their value, their worth, their importance. Many great achievements found their birth in ancient Africa, achievements in science and technology. We know little of these achievements despite their emergence 40,000 years ago. The first method of counting came from Africa, and it was the Egyptians who used division and multiplication, the use of fractions and formulas for calculating areas and distances and angles, which helped them to predict such things as the size of the floods of the Nile. Early African cultures developed a firm foundation in astronomy that current science relies on, while not knowing how these ancient cultures were able to learn what they did. They developed calendars and clocks and tools like steam engines and metal chisels and saws. Ancient furnaces in Tanzania could heat to 1800 degrees Celsius. The list goes on and on.
Mafundikwa went on to explain that Africans do not use the rectangle. Their scripts are round, looped, curved. If you look at their architecture, their art, their dance – everything is round, oval, organic. I hadn’t noticed that or wasn’t aware and I think of the profoundness of that one simple fact – no ending or beginning, the circle includes everyone, no head of the table, everything equal.