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NOVA: A TO Z: The First Alphabet

Airs Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020 at 9 p.m. on KPBS TV + Thursday, Sept. 24 at 4 p.m. & Sunday, Sept. 27 at 9 p.m. on KPBS 2 + PBS Video App

Calligraphy, the title graphic for A TO Z:

Credit: © Dox Productions/ Courtesy of NOVA / GBH

Above: Calligraphy, the title graphic for A TO Z: "The First Alphabet" on NOVA.


On Wednesdays, September 23 and 30 at 9 p.m., NOVA will premiere a two-part series, A TO Z: "The First Alphabet" (9/23) and A TO Z "How Writing Changed The World" (9/30), exploring the surprising origins and transformative impact of writing and printing. The programs trace the first known written languages from ancient Egypt to the invention of the first alphabet and eventually to the printing press, which ushered Western civilization out of the Middle Ages and into the Scientific Revolution.

Beginning in ancient Egypt, A TO Z: "The First Alphabet" explores some of the first known scribes, and how they discovered that by recording names and histories, it was possible to achieve a kind of immortality.

Spells were engraved into the tombs of Pharaohs to resurrect the leaders in the afterlife. These written spells allow the thoughts of the dead to live in the minds of future generations. Many times throughout history, writing evolved from simple pictures to more complicated systems like alphabets.

Some of the earliest precursors to writing were founded on the need to keep accounts in order to tax citizens. And for centuries the use of pictograms was limited to accounting.

A TO Z: The First Alphabet Preview

Writing shaped our world and the rise of human knowledge, from the trading of goods to tales of ancient goddesses and kings. Follow the evolution of the written word, from 4,000-year-old carvings in an Egyptian turquoise mine to modern-day alphabets. Airing: 09/23/20

A TO Z: "The First Alphabet" follows that evolution from simple pictograms to Rebus writing, the use of a picture to represent a sound rather than a thing. The process of Rebus writing allowed scribes to use individual pictograms in two different ways: to represent a thing or to represent the name of the thing as a sound.

For example, the Sumerian word “she-ga” was broken down into “she” and “ga.” She, which also meant barley, would be indicated by drawing the symbol for barley, while ga, which also meant milk, would be indicated by drawing the symbol for milk. Together, the illustrations for “she” and “ga” would create the word “shega,” or beautiful.

In the following centuries, the Rebus Principle took hold in the Egyptian language to create one of the first true writing system: hieroglyphs.

The Rebus Principle was the key that unlocked the Fertile Crescent. With written language rulers could record the history of their reigns, draw up legal codes, administer far-flung empires and build monuments.

The Rebus Principle is one of the most consequential intellectual innovations of all time. And it may have evolved several times independently. Systems like it existed in both Egypt and ancient China.

Aboriginal Elder Sings Ancient Creation Song

For tens of thousands of years, Aboriginal culture has been handed down orally through song and poetry without the need to write anything down. Aired: 09/23/20

Next Week:

A TO Z: How Writing Changed the World Promo

Just as handwritten records changed how societies work, the printing press transformed the spread of information, igniting the Industrial Revolution. How did technologies–from pen to paper to printing press—make it all possible? Airing: 09/30/20

Watch On Your Schedule:

This episode will be available for streaming simultaneously on all station-branded PBS platforms, including and the PBS Video App, which is available on iOS, Android, Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV and Chromecast, for a limited time.

Extend your viewing window with KPBS Passport, video streaming for members supporting KPBS at $60 or more yearly, using your computer, smartphone, tablet, Roku, AppleTV, Amazon Fire or Chromecast. Learn how to activate your benefit now.

Join The Conversation:

NOVA is on Facebook, and you can follow @novapbs on Twitter. #NOVAnext


NOVA productions by DOX Productions/Films à Cinq for NOVA/WGBH Boston in association with Arté France and the BBC. Produced by Hugh Sington. Designed by Brody Neuenschwander. Co-produced by Martin De La Fouchardière. Written and Directed by David Sington. Executive Producers for NOVA are Julia Cort and Chris Schmidt. NOVA is a production of WGBH Boston.


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