Ancient Information Theory, Symbol Space, and Alphabets

It’s hard to believe that alphabet we use today is essentially a set of symbols that developed over thousands of years. And why are so many alphabets so similar, even though the languages are so different? There’s an answer!

In one of Khan Academy’s Computer Science track of videos, called Journey into Information Theory, there are two videos that are extremely informative in explaining how the written alphabet developed. I’ve included links to the videos on YouTube.

The initial breakthrough is simple: disassociating the meaning of the word from the symbols used to create it. This is also known as the Rebus Principle. (Also seen in picture puzzles and the game show, Catchphrase!) From that, symbols can be rearranged to create different sounds and convey meaning. This principle evolved over thousands of years, getting more and more abstract and, along with writing technology such as papyrus, gives us the alphabets we use today.

There are links below the videos, if you’re interested in learning more. I also recommend watching the whole series of videos on Information Theory.

The first video is the Origin of the Written Language. The video goes into cave drawings, or Pictograms, and the development of symbols called Ideograms, as well as proto-writing.

The second video is called the History of the Alphabet and the development of Hieratic writing, a type of cursive invented for papyrus, and Demotic writing, a further development of hieratic.

Remember that the point of these videos is to explain information theory, so there’s a focus on what is known as symbol space. Symbol space decreased as the use of the alphabet increased, as more information could be shared with fewer symbols.

After watching these, you might be interested in learning more. Here are a few references: