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History of the alphabet

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History of the alphabet

The history of alphabetic writing goes back to the consonantal writing system used for Semitic languages in the Levant in the 2nd millennium BCE. Most or nearly all alphabetic scripts used throughout the world today ultimately go back to this Semitic proto-alphabet.[1] Its first origins can be traced back to a Proto-Sinaitic script developed in Ancient Egypt to represent the language of Semitic-speaking workers in Egypt. This script was partly influenced by the older Egyptian hieratic, a cursive script related to Egyptian hieroglyphs.[2][3]

Mainly through Phoenician and Aramaic, two closely related members of the Semitic family of scripts that were in use during the early first millennium BCE, the Semitic alphabet became the ancestor of multiple writing systems across the Middle East, Europe, northern Africa and South Asia.

Some modern authors distinguish between consonantal scripts of the Semitic type, called "abjads", and "true alphabets" in the narrow sense,[4][5] the distinguishing criterion being that true alphabets consistently assign letters to both consonants and vowels on an equal basis, while in an abjad each symbol usually stands for a consonant. In this sense, the first true alphabet was the Greek alphabet, which was adapted from the Phoenician. Latin, the most widely used alphabet today,[6] in turn derives from Greek (by way of Cumae and the Etruscans).


  • Predecessors 1
  • Consonantal alphabets 2
    • Semitic alphabet 2.1
    • Descendants of the Aramaic abjad 2.2
  • Alphabets with vowels 3
    • Greek alphabet 3.1
    • Latin alphabet 3.2
  • Letter names and order 4
  • Graphically independent alphabets 5
  • Alphabets in other media 6
  • See also 7
  • References 8
  • Further reading 9
  • External links 10


Two scripts are well attested from before the end of the fourth millennium BCE: Mesopotamian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs. Hieroglyphs were employed in three ways in Ancient Egyptian texts: as logograms (ideograms) that represent a word denoting an object pictorially depicted by the hieroglyph; more commonly as phonograms writing a sound or sequence of sounds; and as determinatives (which provide clues to meaning without directly writing sounds).[7] Since vowels were mostly unwritten, the hieroglyphs which indicated a single consonant could have been used as a consonantal alphabet (or "abjad"). This was not done when writing the Egyptian language, but seems to have been significant influence on the creation of the first alphabet (used to write a Semitic language). All subsequent alphabets around the world have either descended from this first Semitic alphabet, or have been inspired by one of its descendants (i.e. "stimulus diffusion"), with the possible exception of the Meroitic alphabet, a 3rd-century BCE adaptation of hieroglyphs in Nubia to the south of Egypt – though even here many scholars suspect the influence of the first alphabet.

Consonantal alphabets

Semitic alphabet

The Proto-Sinaitic script of Egypt has yet to be fully deciphered. However, it may be alphabetic and probably records the Canaanite language. The oldest examples are found as graffiti in the Wadi el Hol and date to perhaps 1850 BCE.[8] The table below shows hypothetical prototypes of the Phoenician alphabet in Egyptian hieroglyphs. Several correspondences have been proposed with Proto-Sinaitic letters.

Possible Egyptian prototype
ʾalp ox bet house gaml throwstick digg fish/door haw, hillul jubilation waw hook zen, ziqq handcuff ḥet courtyard/fence ṭēt wheel yad arm kap hand lamd goad mem water nun large fish/snake samek fish ʿen eye piʾt bend ṣad plant qup monkey/cord of wool raʾs head šananuma bow taw signature

This Semitic script adapted Egyptian hieroglyphs to write consonantal values based on the first sound of the Semitic name for the object depicted by the hieroglyph (the "acrophonic principle").[9] So, for example, the hieroglyph per ("house" in Egyptian) was used to write the sound [b] in Semitic, because [b] was the first sound in the Semitic word for "house", bayt.[10] The script was used only sporadically, and retained its pictographic nature, for half a millennium, until adopted for governmental use in Canaan. The first Canaanite states to make extensive use of the alphabet were the Phoenician city-states and so later stages of the Canaanite script are called Phoenician. The Phoenician cities were maritime states at the center of a vast trade network and soon the Phoenician alphabet spread throughout the Mediterranean. Two variants of the Phoenician alphabet had major impacts on the history of writing: the Aramaic alphabet and the Greek alphabet.[11]

Descendants of the Aramaic abjad

Chart showing details of four alphabets' descent from Phoenician abjad, from left to right Latin, Greek, original Phoenician, Hebrew, Arabic.

The Phoenician and Aramaic alphabets, like their Egyptian prototype, represented only consonants, a system called an abjad. The Aramaic alphabet, which evolved from the Phoenician in the 7th century BCE as the official script of the Persian Empire, appears to be the ancestor of nearly all the modern alphabets of Asia:

Alphabets with vowels

Greek alphabet

Greek alphabet on an ancient black figure vessel. There is a digamma but no ksi or omega. The letter phi is missing a stroke and looks like the omicron Ο, but on the underside of the bowl it is a full Φ.
Etruscan writing, the beginning of the writing with the Latin alphabet.

By at least the 8th century BCE the Greeks borrowed the Phoenician alphabet and adapted it to their own language,[14] creating in the process the first "true" alphabet, in which vowels were accorded equal status with consonants. According to Greek legends transmitted by Herodotus, the alphabet was brought from Phoenicia to Greece by Cadmos. The letters of the Greek alphabet are the same as those of the Phoenician alphabet, and both alphabets are arranged in the same order.[14] However, whereas separate letters for vowels would have actually hindered the legibility of Egyptian, Phoenician, or Hebrew, their absence was problematic for Greek, where vowels played a much more important role.[15] The Greeks used for vowels some of the Phoenician letters representing consonants which weren't used in Greek speech. All of the names of the letters of the Phoenician alphabet started with consonants, and these consonants were what the letters represented, something called the acrophonic principle.

However, several Phoenician consonants were absent in Greek, and thus several letter names came to be pronounced with initial vowels. Since the start of the name of a letter was expected to be the sound of the letter, in Greek these letters now stood for vowels. For example, the Greeks had no glottal stop or h, so the Phoenician letters ’alep and he became Greek alpha and e (later renamed e psilon), and stood for the vowels /a/ and /e/ rather than the consonants /ʔ/ and /h/. As this fortunate development only provided for five or six (depending on dialect) of the twelve Greek vowels, the Greeks eventually created digraphs and other modifications, such as ei, ou, and o (which became omega), or in some cases simply ignored the deficiency, as in long a, i, u.[16]

Several varieties of the Greek alphabet developed. One, known as Western Greek or Chalcidian, was used west of Athens and in southern Italy. The other variation, known as Eastern Greek, was used in Asia Minor (also called Asian Greece i.e. present-day aegean Turkey). The Athenians (c. 400 BCE) adopted that latter variation and eventually the rest of the Greek-speaking world followed. After first writing right to left, the Greeks eventually chose to write from left to right, unlike the Phoenicians who wrote from right to left. Many Greek letters are similar to Phoenician, except the letter direction is reversed or changed, which can be the result of historical changes from right-to-left writing to boustrophedon to left-to-right writing.

World distribution of the Cyrillic alphabet. The dark green areas shows the countries where this alphabet is the sole main script. The light green shows the countries where the alphabet co-exists with other scripts.

Greek is in turn the source for all the modern scripts of Europe. The alphabet of the early western Greek dialects, where the letter

  • Animated examples of how the English alphabet evolved by Robert Fradkin, University of Maryland
  • The Greek alphabet on h2g2
  • The Development of the Western Alphabet on h2g2
  • Site by Micheal W. Palmer about the Greek alphabet
  • "The Alphabet – its creation and development" on BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time featuring Eleanor Robson, Alan Millard, Rosalind Thomas

External links

  • Peter T. Daniels, William Bright (eds.), 1996. The World's Writing Systems, ISBN 0-19-507993-0.
  • David Diringer, History of the Alphabet, 1977, ISBN 0-905418-12-3.
  • Stephen R. Fischer, A History of Writing 2005 Reaktion Books CN 136481
  • Haarmann, Harald (2004). Geschichte der Schrift [History of Writing] (in German) (2nd ed.). München: C. H. Beck.  
  • Joel M. Hoffman, In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language, 2004, ISBN 0-8147-3654-8.
  • Robert K. Logan, The Alphabet Effect: The Impact of the Phonetic Alphabet on the Development of Western Civilization, New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1986.
  • Millard, A. R. (1986). The Infancy of the Alphabet. World Archaeology 17 (3). pp. 390–398.  
  • Joseph Naveh, Early History of the Alphabet: an Introduction to West Semitic Epigraphy and Palaeography (Magnes Press – Hebrew University, Jerusalem, 1982)
  • Barry B. Powell, Homer and Origin of the Greek Alphabet, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
  • B.L. Ullman, "The Origin and Development of the Alphabet," American Journal of Archaeology 31, No. 3 (Jul., 1927): 311-328.

Further reading

  1. ^ Sampson, Geoffrey (1985). Writing systems: a linguistic introduction. Stanford University Press. p. 77.  
  2. ^ Himelfarb, Elizabeth J. "First Alphabet Found in Egypt", Archaeology 53, Issue 1 (Jan./Feb. 2000): 21.
  3. ^  
  4. ^ Coulmas, Florian (1996). The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Writing Systems. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.  
  5. ^ Daniels, Peter T; Bright, William (1996). The World's Writing Systems. Oxford University Press. 
  6. ^ Haarmann 2004, p. 96
  7. ^ "hieroglyphics". 
  8. ^ J. C. Darnell, F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp, Marilyn J. Lundberg, P. Kyle McCarter, and Bruce Zuckermanet, “Two early alphabetic inscriptions from the Wadi el-Hol: new evidence for the origin of the alphabet from the western desert of Egypt.” The Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research, 59 (2005).
  9. ^ Hooker, J. T., C. B. F. Walker, W. V. Davies, John Chadwick, John F. Healey, B. F. Cook, and Larissa Bonfante, (1990). Reading the Past: Ancient Writing from Cuneiform to the Alphabet. Berkeley: University of California Press. pages 211–213.
  10. ^ McCarter, P. Kyle. “The Early Diffusion of the Alphabet.” The Biblical Archaeologist 37, No. 3 (Sep., 1974): 54-68. page 57.
  11. ^ [2]
  12. ^ Hooker, J. T., C. B. F. Walker, W. V. Davies, John Chadwick, John F. Healey, B. F. Cook, and Larissa Bonfante, (1990). Reading the Past: Ancient Writing from Cuneiform to the Alphabet, Berkeley: University of California Press. page 222.
  13. ^ Robinson, Andrew, (1995). The Story of Writing: Alphabets, Hieroglyphs & Pictograms, New York: Thames & Hudson Ltd. page 172.
  14. ^ a b McCarter, P. Kyle. "The Early Diffusion of the Alphabet", The Biblical Archaeologist 37, No. 3 (Sep., 1974): 54-68. page 62.
  15. ^ "there are languages for which an alphabet is not an ideal writing system. The Semitic abjads really do fit the structure of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic very well, [more] than an alphabet would [...], since the spelling ensures that each root looks the same through its plethora of inflections and derivations." Peter Daniels, The World's Writing Systems, p. 27.
  16. ^ Robinson, Andrew, (1995). The Story of Writing: Alphabets, Hieroglyphs & Pictograms, New York: Thames & Hudson Ltd. page 170.
  17. ^ Robinson, Andrew. The Story of Writing: Alphabets, Hieroglyphs & Pictograms. New York: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 1995.
  18. ^ Andrew Dalby (2004:139) Dictionary of Languages
  19. ^ Robinson, Andrew, (1995). The Story of Writing: Alphabets, Hieroglyphs & Pictograms, New York: Thames & Hudson Ltd. page 162.
  20. ^ Millard, A.R. "The Infancy of the Alphabet", World Archaeology 17, No. 3, Early Writing Systems (Feb., 1986): 390-398. page 395.


See also

Changes to a new writing medium sometimes caused a break in graphical form, or make the relationship difficult to trace. It is not immediately obvious that the cuneiform Ugaritic alphabet derives from a prototypical Semitic abjad, for example, although this appears to be the case. And while manual alphabets are a direct continuation of the local written alphabet (both the British two-handed and the French/American one-handed alphabets retain the forms of the Latin alphabet, as the Indian manual alphabet does Devanagari, and the Korean does Hangul), Braille, semaphore, maritime signal flags, and the Morse codes are essentially arbitrary geometric forms. The shapes of the English Braille and semaphore letters, for example, are derived from the alphabetic order of the Latin alphabet, but not from the graphic forms of the letters themselves. Modern shorthand also appears to be graphically unrelated. If it derives from the Latin alphabet, the connection has been lost to history.

Alphabets in other media

In early medieval Ireland, Ogham consisted of tally marks, and the monumental inscriptions of the Old Persian Empire were written in an essentially alphabetic cuneiform script whose letter forms seem to have been created for the occasion.

Among alphabets that are not used as national scripts today, a few are clearly independent in their letter forms. The Zhuyin phonetic alphabet derives from Chinese characters. The Santali alphabet of eastern India appears to be based on traditional symbols such as "danger" and "meeting place", as well as pictographs invented by its creator. (The names of the Santali letters are related to the sound they represent through the acrophonic principle, as in the original alphabet, but it is the final consonant or vowel of the name that the letter represents: le "swelling" represents e, while en "thresh grain" represents n.)

One modern national alphabet that has not been graphically traced back to the Canaanite alphabet is the Maldivian script, which is unique in that, although it is clearly modeled after Arabic and perhaps other existing alphabets, it derives its letter forms from numerals. Another is the Korean Hangul, which was created independently in 1443. The Osmanya alphabet was devised for Somali in the 1920s by Osman Yusuf Kenadid, and the forms of its consonants appear to be complete innovations.

Graphically independent alphabets

These 22 consonants account for the phonology of Northwest Semitic. Of the 29 consonant phonemes commonly reconstructed for Proto-Semitic, seven are missing: the interdental fricatives ḏ, ṯ, ṱ, the voiceless lateral fricatives ś, ṣ́, the voiced uvular fricative ġ, and the distinction between uvular and pharyngeal voiceless fricatives ḫ, ḥ, in Canaanite merged in ḥet. The six variant letters added in the Arabic alphabet include these (except for ś, which survives as a separate phoneme in Ge'ez ): ḏāl; ṯāʾ; ḍād; ġġayn; ṣ́ẓāʾ; ḫāʾ

nr. Reconstruction IPA value Ugaritic Phoenician Hebrew Arabic Greek Latin Cyrillic Runic
1 ʾalpu "ox" /ʔ/ 1 𐎀 Aleph ʾālep א ʾālef ʾalif Α alpha A А azŭ *ansuz
2 baytu "house" /b/ 2 𐎁 Beth bēt ב bēṯ bāʾ Β bēta B В vĕdĕ, Б buky *berkanan
3 gamlu "throwstick" /ɡ/ 3 𐎂 Gimel gīmel ג gīmel jīm Γ gamma C, G Г glagoli *kaunan
4 daltu "door" / diggu "fish" /d/, /ð/ 4 𐎄 Daleth dālet ד dāleṯ dāl, ذḏāl Δ delta D Д dobro
5 haw "window" / hallu "jubilation" /h/ 5 𐎅 He ה hāʾ Ε epsilon E Е ye, Є estĭ
6 wāwu "hook" /β/ or /w/ 6 𐎆 Waw wāw ו vāv وwāw Ϝ digamma, Υ upsilon F, V, Y Ѹ / ukŭ → У *ûruz / *ûram
7 zaynu "weapon" / ziqqu "manacle" /z/ 7 𐎇 Zayin zayin ז zayin زzayn or zāy Ζ zēta Z / З zemlya
8 ḥaytu "thread" / "fence"? /ħ/, /x/ 8 𐎈 Heth ḥēt ח ḥēṯ حḥāʾ, خḫāʾ Η ēta H И iže *haglaz
9 ṭaytu "wheel" /tˤ/, /θˤ/ 9 𐎉 Teth ṭēt ט ṭēṯ طṭāʾ, ظẓāʾ Θ thēta Ѳ fita
10 yadu "arm" /j/ 10 𐎊 Yodh yōd י yōḏ يyāʾ Ι iota I І ižei *isaz
11 kapu "hand" /k/ 20 𐎋 Kaph kap כ ך kāf كkāf Κ kappa K К kako
12 lamdu "goad" /l/ 30 𐎍 Lamedh lāmed ל lāmeḏ لlām Λ lambda L Л lyudiye *laguz / *laukaz
13 mayim "waters" /m/ 40 𐎎 Mem mēm מ ם mēm مmīm Μ mu M М myslite
14 naḥšu "snake" / nunu "fish" /n/ 50 𐎐 Nun nun נ ן nun نnūn Ν nu N Н našĭ
15 samku "support" / "fish" ? /s/ 60 𐎒 Samek sāmek ס sāmeḵ Ξ ksi, (Χ ksi) (X) Ѯ ksi, (Х xĕrŭ)
16 ʿaynu "eye" /ʕ/, /ɣ/ 70 𐎓 Ayin ʿayin ע ʿayin عʿayn, غġayn Ο omikron O О onŭ
17 pu "mouth" / piʾtu "corner" /p/ 80 𐎔 Pe פ ף فfāʾ Π pi P П pokoi
18 ṣadu "plant" /sˤ/, /ɬˤ/ 90 𐎕 Sade ṣādē צ ץ ṣāḏi صṣād, ضḍād Ϻ san, (Ϡ sampi) Ц tsi, Ч črvĭ
19 qupu "Copper"? /kˤ/ or /q/ 100 𐎖 Qoph qōp ק qōf قqāf Ϙ koppa Q Ҁ koppa
20 raʾsu "head" /r/ or /ɾ/ 200 𐎗 Res rēš ר rēš رrāʾ Ρ rho R Р rĭtsi *raidô
21 šinnu "tooth" / šimš "sun" /ʃ/, /ɬ/ 300 𐎌 Sin šin ש šin/śin سsīn, شšīn Σ sigma, ϛ stigma S С slovo, Ш ša, Щ šta, / Ѕ dzĕlo *sowilô
22 tawu "mark" /t/, /θ/ 400 𐎚 Taw tāw ת tāv تtāʾ, ثṯāʾ Τ tau T Т tvrdo *tîwaz

The table is a schematic of the Phoenician alphabet and its descendants.

The letter names proved stable among the many descendants of Phoenician, including Samaritan, Aramaic, Syriac, Arabic, Hebrew, and Greek alphabet. However, they were largely abandoned in Tifinagh, Latin and Cyrillic. The letter sequence continued more or less intact into Latin, Armenian, Gothic, and Cyrillic, but was abandoned in Brahmi, Runic, and Arabic, although a traditional abjadi order remains or was re-introduced as an alternative in the latter.

It is not known how many letters the Proto-Sinaitic alphabet had nor what their alphabetic order was. Among its descendants, the Ugaritic alphabet had 27 consonants, the South Arabian alphabets had 29, and the Phoenician alphabet 22. These scripts were arranged in two orders, an ABGDE order in Phoenician and an HMĦLQ order in the south; Ugaritic preserved both orders. Both sequences proved remarkably stable among the descendants of these scripts.

The order of the letters of the alphabet is attested from the fourteenth century BCE in the town of Ugarit on Syria’s northern coast.[19] Tablets found there bear over one thousand cuneiform signs, but these signs are not Babylonian and there are only thirty distinct characters. About twelve of the tablets have the signs set out in alphabetic order. There are two orders found, one of which is nearly identical to the order used for Hebrew, Greek and Latin, and a second order very similar to that used for Ethiopian.[20]

Letter names and order

Simplified relationship between various scripts leading to the development of modern lower case of standard Latin alphabet and that of the modern variants, Fraktur (used in Germany until recently) and Gaelic (Ireland). Several scripts coexisted such as half-uncial and uncial, which derive from Roman cursive and Greek uncial, and Visigothic, Merovingian (Luxeuil variant here) and Beneventan. The Carolingian script was the basis for blackletter and humanist. It should be noted that what is commonly called "gothic writing" is technically called blackletter (here Textualis quadrata) and is completed unrelated to Visigothic script.
The letter j is i with a flourish; u and v are the same letter in early scripts and were used depending on their position in insular half-uncial and caroline minuscule and later scripts; w is a ligature of vv; in insular the rune wynn is used as a w (three other runes in use were the thorn (þ), ʻféʼ (ᚠ) as an abbreviation for cattle/goods and maðr (ᛘ) for man).
The letters y and z were very rarely used; in particular þ was written identically to y, so y was dotted to avoid confusion, the dot was adopted for i only after late-Caroline (protgothic), in Benevetan script the macron abbreviation featured a dot above.
Lost variants such as r rotunda, ligatures and scribal abbreviation marks are omitted, long s is shown when no terminal s (surviving variant) is present.
Humanist script was the basis for venetian types which changed little until today, such as times new roman (a serifed typeface))

The Anglo-Saxons began using Roman letters to write Old English as they converted to Christianity, following Augustine of Canterbury's mission to Britain in the sixth century. Because the Runic wen, which was first used to represent the sound 'w' and looked like a p that is narrow and triangular, was easy to confuse with an actual p, the 'w' sound began to be written using a double u. Because the u at the time looked like a v, the double u looked like two v's, W was placed in the alphabet by V. U developed when people began to use the rounded U when they meant the vowel u and the pointed V when the meant the consonant V. J began as a variation of I, in which a long tail was added to the final I when there were several in a row. People began to use the J for the consonant and the I for the vowel by the fifteenth century, and it was fully accepted in the mid-seventeenth century.

C, K, and Q in the Roman alphabet could all be used to write both the /k/ and /ɡ/ sounds; the Romans soon modified the letter C to make G, inserted it in seventh place, where Z had been, to maintain the gematria (the numerical sequence of the alphabet). Over the few centuries after Alexander the Great conquered the Eastern Mediterranean and other areas in the third century BCE, the Romans began to borrow Greek words, so they had to adapt their alphabet again in order to write these words. From the Eastern Greek alphabet, they borrowed Y and Z, which were added to the end of the alphabet because the only time they were used was to write Greek words.

A tribe known as the Latins, who became known as the Romans, also lived in the Italian peninsula like the Western Greeks. From the Etruscans, a tribe living in the first millennium BCE in central Italy, and the Western Greeks, the Latins adopted writing in about the seventh century. In adopted writing from these two groups, the Latins dropped four characters from the Western Greek alphabet. They also adapted the Etruscan letter F, pronounced 'w,' giving it the 'f' sound, and the Etruscan S, which had three zigzag lines, was curved to make the modern S. To represent the G sound in Greek and the K sound in Etruscan, the Gamma was used. These changes produced the modern alphabet without the letters G, J, U, W, Y, and Z, as well as some other differences.

World distribution of the Latin alphabet. The dark green areas shows the countries where this alphabet is the sole main script. The light green shows the countries where the alphabet co-exists with other scripts.

Latin alphabet

Although this description presents the evolution of scripts in a linear fashion, this is a simplification. For example, the demotic hieroglyphs, was used to write Coptic Egyptian. Then there is Cree syllabics (an abugida), which is a fusion of Devanagari and Pitman shorthand developed by the missionary James Evans.[18]


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