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28 October 2021

A fascinated audience listened to Mary Bodfish on the evening of Thursday 28 October, when, beginning five and a half thousand years ago with Sumerian cuneiform writing, she traced the development of the alphabet as, in the ancient near east and around the shores of the Mediterranean, it evolved into the Latin alphabet which is the most widely used in the world today. There were then some really interesting insights into the development of various styles of English handwriting and writing implements, from the quill pen to the word processor, up to the present day, when many of us write by hand only rarely, preferring to communicate electronically.

Mary's talk started with the development of cuneiform writing, wedge-shaped symbols made with a stylus on clay tablets, in the Sumerian civilisation located in the so-called Fertile Crescent between the Tigris and the Euphrates. The Egyptians were the first people to write on a form of paper (papyrus) using a type of pen. Their writing developed from the pictographic for known as hieroglyphs to the more accessible demotic script (from "demos" of the people). The Phoenicians, a sea-faring race who traded with countries as far apart as Britain and India, developed the earliest known recognisable alphabet system in the city of Byblos, not far from present-day Beirut, about 2000 BC. This system evolved via the ancient Greeks and the Etruscans to become the Latin alphabet in use throughout the western world today.

Mary then progressed to the development of the written word in western Europe, in particular of handwriting. The Italic script was developed by the printer Aldo Manuzio in Venice in 1501. This sloping style of handwriting was easier to write at speed and became the hand used for private correspondence. The Secretary Hand, a very elaborate style, was used in official documents however. Mary showed us the death warrant of Charles, the official part of which is in Secretary Hand; the signatures of the regicides, however, are in Italic script. Other very elaborate styles include the so-called Engrossing Hand, used in such legal documents as indentures.

And so Mary progressed through the development of types of script, then of the pen, the typewriter and the word processor to the present day when there is speculation that handwriting may die out in a few generations.

This was an amazingly interesting talk. Mary appeared via Zoom to her audience at the Friends' Meeting House. Much animated discussion ensued after she had signed off her Zoom Q and A session. (Some of us, for example, are old enough to remember wooden pens with steel nibs, and inkwells set into the desks of our primary schools!)

Easy as ABC (The history of the alphabet and English handwriting) - by Mary Bodfish: What's On
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