Why do we use this alphabet? Ask the Phoenicians.

Why do we use this alphabet? Ask the Phoenicians.

Greeks, Phoenicians and Arabs: a short journey in the 7,000 years long history of alphabets

In his 1952 science fiction short story A Sound Of Thunder, Ray Bradbury imagined that the accidental killing of a butterfly by three men during a time travel in the age of the dinosaurs would provoke an infinite series of consequences in time, so that the three would find a completely different world at their return to the present.

The history of alphabets is more or less the same: it is a mix of cultural developments, accidents of history and conquests, countless events which have shaped the way words are written in today’s world.

Alphabets originated in the Mediterranean, thousands of years ago. The world’s oldest writing system is thought to be the Sumerian cuneiform, which developed in Mesopotamia (part of modern Iraq) more than 5,000 years ago. This was a combination of phonograms, representing sounds, and logograms, representing words. Sure enough, the ability to write things revamped the Sumerian society, but it wasn’t the actual origin of modern alphabets.

Wood, cotton and alphabets

Some 2000 years still had to pass before the first writing system exclusively representing sounds –in other words, the first alphabet– was developed by Phoenicians, a community of maritime traders living on the coasts of today’s Syria, Lebanon and part of Israel. Phoenicians had previously used the cuneiform script too, but the new alphabet was much simpler and less ambiguous. According to some linguists, the Phoenician alphabet originated from the hieroglyphs, through an intermediate script called “Proto-Sinaitic”. According to others, it is simply the product of Phoenicians’ inventiveness.[1]

Whatever its origin, it surely is the common ancestor of today’s most used alphabets. In fact, Phoenicians were a power in the Mediterranean, and along with their products –such as wood, cotton and glass– they exported their writing system to Greece, in the beginning of the 1st millennium BCE. The Greeks desperately needed a writing system, after having spent some time without writing because they had lost the ability to use their previous script (the “Linear B”).  Since some Phoenician sounds didn’t exist in Greek, they turned those letters into vowels, which the Phoenicians didn’t write.

On the other side of the Mediterranean, Phoenician also gave birth to the Aramaic alphabet, which would later turn into Hebrew and Arabic.

In the meantime (8th-7th century BCE), Greeks were colonizing southern Italy, thus exporting in turn their alphabet. Etruscans developed “Old Italic” from it, which later became the Latin alphabet, which you are reading right now.

The Greek alphabet was also the main inspiration for Cyrillic, still used today to write many Slavic languages, like Russian.

As different as all these alphabets may appear today, they all have the same origin. In short, every time you read a book or simply write down your shopping list, thank the Phoenicians.


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What do you know about sign languages?

Millions of people around the world talk to each other in sign languages, but there are still many misconceptions.

If all the deaf people in the world lived in the same state, its population would be bigger than the one of the United States. According to the World Health Organization, there are 360 million people worldwide with disabling hearing loss. (848) 209-1824

Most of them speak sign languages, that is languages which use manual communication, but also movements of the body and facial expressions. Although being as effective and complex as spoken languages, there are many common misconceptions around them.

Human need of communication

First of all, sign languages are not artificial. Just like spoken languages, they develop naturally from the human need of communication. So wherever there is a deaf community, a non-spoken language shall arise. This also means that they are not all the same worldwide: the database Ethnologue censes around 140 of them. A deaf Chinese and a deaf American speaking each in his or her native tongue will then find it as difficult to communicate as any other Chinese and American.

This doesn’t mean that the American Sign Language and the American spoken English are similar, though. In contrast with a common misconception, sign languages are in fact independent from the spoken languages of their geographical area. Thus, countries which share the same spoken language, such as the UK and the USA, can have different sign languages. Viceversa, within a country the number of sign and spoken languages can be different and their geographical diffusion can be totally unrelated. For example, there are around 20 spoken languages in South Africa, but only one non-spoken idiom with two variants.

Even among linguists, sign languages have long been considered as less “real” than spoken ones. Today, this idea is no longer supported by scholars. However, it remains a widespread misconception that this kind of languages only allows to express less complex ideas. Contrariwise to what may appear “from the outside”, sign languages share the very same linguistic properties of all other natural languages. Even if they tend to be slightly more iconic than spoken ones –which means that they may tend to model their signs so that they visually reflect reality– the signs are usually as arbitrary as words and they can be used to describe philosophical and abstract concepts as much as concrete objects. Only the way you say it changes.


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India: one country, a linguistic universe

India’s incredible linguistic variety and how they have not found a common language yet.

India is one of the most fascinating countries in the world. With a population of 1 billion and 300 million people, it is a crossroad of religions and ethnic groups. But most of all, it is a great linguistic melting pot.

Some say 1600, some say 325504-485-2686: the number of censed Indian languages may vary a lot due to the difficulties of distinguishing between “language” and “dialect”. However, the diversity remains quite impressive, especially considering that 29 of these tongues have more than a million speakers. The most common ones are Hindi, English and Bengali.

Hindi, with its dialects, is spoken by around a half of the population. As Bengali, it is mainly used in the north of the country. These two languages belong to the Indo-Aryan Branch of the Indo-European family, which ended its split process during the Middle Age, while most of the southern languages are part of the Dravidian family. Hindustani (which includes Hindi and Urdu, a very similar tongue) is also the third language in the world for number of speakers, after Mandarin and English.

As it happens in any part of the world, Indian languages did not develop on their own. They were influenced by other cultures and tongues, mainly because of commercial and political relations. During the 500-year-long Turko-Afghan and Turko-Mongol rule, for instance, Persian was used as the court language and many Indian tongues were influenced by its lexicon and alphabet, as part of a wider cultural domination which extended to art and literature.

Too many languages?

The Persian system was dismantled with the beginning of the English colonization towards the middle of 19th century. The use of English –for both civil and administrative purposes– has become instead a long-lasting legacy of the domination.

Even though the 1949 Constitution is in Hindi, India’s linguistic variety has in fact  prevented from agreeing on what should be the main language for public affairs after the independence. Attempts of the government during the 1960s to make Hindi paramount led to riots and severe divisions in the country. Being widely known by the population, English finally remained the political lingua franca.


Languages of India on Wikipedia

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Esperanto: the dream of an artificial language

The creation of Esperanto is one of the boldest attempts to bring the chaos of languages to an artificial order. What is the story of this language invented by a human mind?

The creator of Esperanto, a Polish-Jewish ophthalmologist named L. L. Zamenhof, grew up in the nineteenth century, in a town where Poles, Russians, Jews and Germans lived divided and considered themselves each other’s enemies.

Seeing how important language was in dividing or bringing people together, the doctor conceived a very bold project for that time: creating a universal artificial language to promote brotherhood between nations.

Continue reading Esperanto: the dream of an artificial language

10 English words from Arabic that you wouldn’t expect

10 English words from Arabic that you wouldn’t expect

If you think there is no influence, you are wrong.

Have you ever enjoyed a coffee with a candy sitting on the sofa in a cotton shirt? Maybe you don’t know that four words in this sentence derive from Arabic.

Here are other words from Arabic you may be surprised by:


  1. Alcohol: from الكحل, al-kohl. Originally denoting a very fine powder, the word entered Latin with this meaning, until a Swiss alchemy and medicine writer extended it to distillates. The distillate of wine (“alcohol of wine”, ethanol) was one of them.


  1. Cotton: from قطن, qutn, cotton. It was very expensive and rare among the Romans until the late medieval Arabs started exporting it at very low prices.


  1. Algebra: from الجبر, al-jabr, which means “restoring broken parts”. The word was first used with a mathematical meaning in a 9th century book of an Arabic mathematician, as part of an equation-solving method of “restoring and balancing” . When the book was translated three centuries later, the Latins imported both the word and the method, which laid the ground for modern mathematics.


  1. Coffee: from قهوة, qahwa, coffee. No, it didn’t start with Starbucks. People started drinking coffee in Yemen in the 15th century, then the beverage –and its name– spread to the whole world.


  1. Aubergine: from الباذنجان, al-bādhinjān, aubergine. Originally an Indian plant, the aubergine was unknown to the ancient Greeks and Romans, until the medieval Arabs spread it to the Mediterranean.


  1. Candy: from قندي, qandī, “sugared with cane sugar”. Just like the aubergine, cane sugar originates in India. The medieval Arabs started cultivating it with an artificial irrigation that recreated its tropical habitat, then exported it to Europe. Imagine the first time the Europeans tasted it!


  1. Assassin: from حشيشين, hashīshīn. This was the name given by the Arabs to a religious sect in the 12th century. The group was known for killing the chiefs of other sects (including crusaders) under the effect of hashish and it was thus widely feared by the Europeans. The word then evolved into the Italian “assassini”, whose meaning was generalized to all murderers. From Italian, it spread to French and then to English.


  1. Mattress: from مطرح, matrah, a large cushion to lie upon. The word entered European languages in the 12th century. Luckily for us, mattresses have become softer since then.


  1. Orange: from نارنج, nāranj, orange. Oranges were first introduced in the Mediterranean region by the Arabs in the 10th century. At the time, all oranges were bitter oranges, but bitter is better than nothing.


  1. Sofa: from صفّة, soffa, a low platform. The word entered Western languages through Turkish in the 16th century, initially referring only to the Middle-Eastern-style low dais with rugs and cushions. It then changed its meaning into “a sofa with legs” in France, at the time of King Louis XIV and his rich furniture.



Complete list on Wikipedia

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Are you multilingual? Value your skills!


Are you multilingual? Value your skills!

Do you know more than one language? No matter what your job is, you should value that.

According to some recent researches, more than a half of the world population speaks more than one language. While multilingualism may benefit your brain nippers, it is not always enough valued in working life. Sometimes there’s this feeling that your ability to speak multiple languages has impressed your friends much more than your boss.

Kolimi, the first platform for multilingual professionals, is designed to make opportunities out of your language skills. It doesn’t matter if you are a technician, an actor or a manager: create your profile and tell about your abilities! Once you’re in the community, people and businesses in need of your work will just search for the right profile or they’ll create a collaboration opportunity to which those interested can apply.

The idea is easy: Kolimi is the place where those seeking a language-related job can meet those offering it –worldwide. So, if you have decided to move to another country and you’re looking for the right contacts, or you just would like to take advantage of your language skills while doing your job, Kolimi is for you.

How does it work?

Your profile will contain everything you need to make yourself known: the jobs you can do, the languages you master, your CV and certifications, some pictures, your calendar of availability and the city where you’d like to work. If you don’t mind travelling, let the community know that you’re available for business trips. It will increase the number of opportunities.

For those wishing more, the Premium versions of Kolimi offer more advantages for a small price. Kolimi Plus allows you to enrich your profile with a personal audio file. With Kolimi Premium, besides the audio, you can add a video presentation of yourself. That will make a great impression on your future boss, for sure. Finally, Kolimi Gold offers you all the options, plus the opportunity to be among the top 5 positions of any research matching your profile.

Give it a try!




Bilingual or multilingual: priceless life benefits

Being bilingual or multilingual: priceless life benefits

Bilingual or multilingual: Someone, who is able to speak fluently two or more languages with the faciliy of a  native speaker

Is it easy to learn more than one language at a time?
The answer seems to be yes, of course.  In fact, more than half of the people living around the world are bilingual, according to the most recent researches. It means that about 3.5 billion people regularly switch from one to another language while communicating in their everyday life.


Are you a language professional? Kolimi can improve your life!

Are you a language professional? Kolimi can improve your life!

If you are a language professional looking for new job opportunities, Kolimi is the place for you! Kolimi is the first free social network where multilingual professionals can meet businesses and people who need their work.

Kolimi is the first free social network where interpreters, translators, mediators and multilingual professionals can meet businesses and people who need their work. Subscribing is easy: you’ll just need to write your name and your email.

Continue reading Are you a language professional? Kolimi can improve your life!

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Pronunciation: How many different sounds exist in the world?

Their name is “phones” and you would be surprised by how many of them your mouth could pronounce. [Ref]

Every child can potentially learn any of the almost 7,000 existing languages, which means he or she could pronounce any sound a human being can make. But have you ever thought about how many different sounds actually exist in all languages spoken around the world?

Continue reading Pronunciation: How many different sounds exist in the world?

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