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NOVA: A TO Z: The First Alphabet

Calligraphy, the title graphic for A TO Z: "The First Alphabet" on NOVA.
© Dox Productions/ Courtesy of NOVA / GBH
Calligraphy, the title graphic for A TO Z: "The First Alphabet" on NOVA.

Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022 at 9 p.m. on KPBS TV + Sunday, Sept. 4 at 9 p.m. on KPBS 2 / On demand with KPBS Passport!

Beginning in ancient Egypt, NOVA "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.

NOVA: A to Z: The First Alphabet: Preview

"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.

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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.

How Egyptian Hieroglyphs Influenced Modern Alphabets

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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.