In my opinion, one of the most important “what if” questions ever asked was posed in the eighth century BC by an anonymous Greek scribe looking for ways to improve the reading process.
A little background: at that time, the Greek alphabet — like previous alphabets such as the Phoenician (on which the Greek one was based) and the Hebrew — consisted only of consonants, no vowels. This writing system made reading a slow and imprecise process. To understand a word, the reader had to guess the missing vowel sounds between consonants to correctly grasp the meaning.
For example, a modern English equivalent might be, what does this two-consonant word stand for?
Does it stand for “bad”? How about “bed,” “bid,” “bod,” “bud,” or even “abide”? As with most other cognitive activities, context and experience would be the guides to interpretation.
Much of creative thinking involves looking at the same thing as everyone else and thinking something different. And that’s what this innovative scribe did. As he pondered the alphabet before him, the “what if” question he must have asked himself was,
“What if I looked at these symbols in a different way, and let some of the letters represent the vowels we actually speak rather than just consonants? What would be possible?”
The eventual result was the creation of seven written vowels (alpha, epsilon, eta, iota, omicron, upsilon, and omega, shown above). By combining these with existing consonants, he — and the other scribes of the period who contributed to and adopted this convention —
This is a truly powerful invention! A fully phonetic alphabet — that is, one capable of expressing all the spoken sounds in a language — enabled writers to translate spoken words into written words, and readers to do the opposite. The fact that children could easily learn this new system certainly contributed to its success. Thus, with the addition of vowels, these early Greeks both simplified and gave new power to writing and reading. Considering the importance of language to our thinking processes, it is difficult to understate the significance of this development.
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Think vowels are amazing, but there's something even better? I'd love to hear your nomination for the greatest "What If?" question ever asked.