Books and Alphabets

Julian Huxley traces the development of writing and language, and expounds on its meaning for humanity.

There are many objects which take their names from places or people—mostly concerned with adornment like “turquoise”, with special kinds of clothing material like “damask” and “muslin”, or with eating and drinking, like “damson”, “mocha” (especially in French), “jeroboam”, and “turkey”.

There are also “babel” and “bible”. The former is, of course, a reminder of the time when Sumerian civilization was the most advanced in the world, and the great Ziggurat of Babylon, probably the tallest, and certainly the most elaborate building as yet built by man, was a focus for legendary admiration and envy. And bible is from Byblos, which to me is the gateway to the Middle East and its history.

Here I cannot do better than quote from Professor Breasted’s great book, The Conquest of Civilization After reminding us that pens, ink and paper came to Europe from the Middle East, and that the word “paper” is directly derived from “papyrus”, he continues:

“Much of the papyrus used by the Greeks was delivered to them by Phoenician merchants from Byblos” (where, in fact, a great deal of papyrus grew, though doubtless much was. also imported from Egypt). “Just as we apply the word ‘China’ to a kind of tableware which first came to us from China, so the Greeks often called papyrus ‘byblos’, after the Phoenician city from which it came. Thus, when they began to write books on such rolls of paper, they called them biblia.”

And as the Holy Scriptures were the book (or rather, books) par excellence, they were called the biblia, first in the plural, and then as a collective singular noun, the Bible.

To continue reading this article you will need to purchase access to the online archive.

Buy Online Access  Buy Print & Archive Subscription

If you have already purchased access, or are a print & archive subscriber, please ensure you are logged in.

Please email if you have any problems.



Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week