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The history of the alphabet begins in Ancient Egypt, more than a millennium into the history of writing. The first pure alphabet emerged around 2000 BCE to represent the language of Semitic workers in Egypt (see Middle Bronze Age alphabets), and was derived from the alphabetic principles of the Egyptian hieroglyphs. Most alphabets in the world today either descend directly from this development, for example the Greek and Latin alphabets, or were inspired by its design.

Pre-alphabetic scripts

Two scripts are well attested from before the end of the fourth millennium BCE: Mesopotamian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs. Both were well known in the part of the Middle East that produced the first widely used alphabet, the Phoenician. There are signs that cuneiform was developing alphabetic properties in some of the languages it was adapted for, as was seen again later in the Old Persian cuneiform script, but it now appears these developments were a sideline and not ancestral to the alphabet. The Byblos syllabary has suggestive graphic similarities to both hieratic Egyptian and to the Phoenician alphabet, but as it is undeciphered, little can be said about its role, if any, in the history of the alphabet.

Early history

Beginnings in Egypt

By 2700 BCE the ancient Egyptians had developed a set of some 22 hieroglyphs to represent the individual consonants of their language, plus a 23rd that seems to have represented word-initial or word-final vowels. These glyphs were used as pronunciation guides for logograms, to write grammatical inflections, and, later, to transcribe loan words and foreign names. However, although alphabetic in nature, the system was not used for purely alphabetic writing. That is, while capable of being used as an alphabet, it was in fact always used with a strong logographic component, presumably due to strong cultural attachment to the complex Egyptian script. The first purely alphabetic script is thought to have been developed around 2000 BCE for Semitic workers in central Egypt. Over the next five centuries it spread north, and all subsequent alphabets around the world have either descended from it, or been inspired by one of its descendants, 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 that first alphabet.

Semitic alphabet

The Middle Bronze Age scripts of Egypt have yet to be deciphered. However, they appear to be at least partially, and perhaps completely, alphabetic. The oldest examples are found as graffiti from central Egypt and date to around 1800 BCE [158149]/[158150].These inscriptions, according to Gordon J. Hamilton, are evidence that the place of the alphabet’s invention was likely in Egypt proper.

This Semitic script did not restrict itself to the existing Egyptian consonantal signs, but incorporated a number of other Egyptian hieroglyphs, for a total of perhaps thirty. It is thought, with no direct evidence, that they used Semitic rather than Egyptian names for them. So, for example, the hieroglyph per ("house" in Egyptian) became bayt ("house" in Semitic). It is unclear at this point whether these glyphs, when used to write the Semitic language, were purely alphabetic in nature, representing only the first consonant of their names according to the acrophonic principle, or whether they could also represent sequences of consonants or even words as their hieroglyphic ancestors had. For example, the "house" glyph may have stood only for b (b as in beyt "house"), or it may have stood for both the consonant b and the sequence byt, as it had stood for both p and the sequence pr in Egyptian. However, by the time the script spread to Canaan, it was purely alphabetic, and the hieroglyph originally representing "house" stood only for b.

The first Canaanite state to make extensive use of the alphabet was Phoeniciamarker, and so later stages of the Canaanite script are called Phoenician. Phoenicia was a maritime state at the center of a vast trade network, and soon the Phoenician alphabet spread throughout the Mediterranean. Two variants of the Phoenician alphabet would have major impacts on the history of writing: the Aramaic alphabet and the Greek alphabet. [158151]

Descendants of the Aramaic abjad

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:

:{| class=wikitable style="text-align:center;"
Table: The spread of the alphabet west (Greek, Latin) and east (Brahmic, Korean). Note that the exact correspondence between Phoenician (through Aramaic) to Brahmic is uncertain, especially for the sibilantsand the letters in parentheses. The transmission of the alphabet from Tibetan (through Phagspa) to Hangul is also controversial.

Greek alphabet

Transmission to Greece

By at least the 8th century BCE the Greeks borrowed the Phoenician alphabet and adapted it to their own language. The letters of the Greek alphabet are the same as those of the Phoenician alphabet, and both alphabets are arranged in the same order. However, whereas separate letters for vowels would have actually hindered the legibility of Egyptian, Phoenician, or Hebrew, their absence was problematic for Greek, where vowelsplayed a much more important role. The Greeks adapted those Phoenician letters for consonants they didn't use to write vowels. 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 ’alepand hebecame Greek alphaand e(later renamed e psilon), and stood for the vowels and rather than the consonants and . As this fortunate development only provided for five or six (depending on dialect) of the twelve Greek vowels, the Greeks eventually created digraphand 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.

Several varieties of the Greek alphabet developed. One, known as Western Greek or Chalcidian, was west of Athensmarker and in southern Italy.The other variation, known as Eastern Greek, was used in present-day Turkeymarker, and the Athenians, and eventually the rest of the world that spoke Greek adopted this variation.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.

Descendants of the Greek alphabet

Greek is in turn the source for all the modern scripts of Europe. The alphabet of the early western Greek dialects, where the letter etaremained an h, gave rise to the Old Italicand Roman alphabets. In the eastern Greek dialects, which did not have an /h/, eta stood for a vowel, and remains a vowel in modern Greek and all other alphabets derived from the eastern variants: Glagolitic, Cyrillic, Armenian, Gothic(which used both Greek and Roman letters), and perhaps Georgian.

Although this description presents the evolution of scripts in a linear fashion, this is a simplification. For example, the Manchu alphabet, descended from the abjadsof West Asia, was also influenced by Korean hangul, which was either independent (the traditional view) or derived from the abugidasof South Asia. Georgian apparently derives from the Aramaic family, but was strongly influenced in its conception by Greek. The Greek alphabet, itself ultimately a derivative of hieroglyphs through that first Semitic alphabet, later adopted an additional half dozen demotichieroglyphs when it was used to write CopticEgyptian. Then there is Cree syllabics(an abugida), which appears to be a fusion of Devanagariand Pitman shorthand; the latter may be an independent invention, but likely has its ultimate origins in cursive Latin script.

Development of the Roman alphabet

A tribe known as the Latins, who became known as the Romans, also lived in the Italian peninsula like the Western Greeks. From the Etruscansmarker, a tribe living in the first millennium BCE in central Italymarker, and the Western Greeks, the Latins adopted writing in about the fifth century.In adopted writing from these two groups, the Latins dropped four characters from the Western Greek alphabet. They also adapted the Etruscan letterF, 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 Gsound in Greek and the Ksound in Etruscan, the Gammawas used. These changes produced the modern alphabet without the letters G, J, U, W, Y, and Z, as well as some other differences.

C, K, and Qin the Roman alphabet could all be used to write both the /k/ and /g/ sounds; the Romans soon modified the letter C to make G, inserted it in seventh place, where Zhad been, to maintain the gematria(the numerical sequence of the alphabet). Over the few centuries after Alexander the Greatconquered 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 Yand Z, which were added to the end of the alphabet because the only time they were used was to write Greek words.

The Anglo-Saxonsbegan using Roman letters to write Old Englishas they converted to Christianity, following Augustine of Canterbury'smission to Britain in the sixth century. Because the Runicwen, 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, Wwas placed in the alphabet by V. Udeveloped when people began to use the rounded Uwhen they meant the vowel u and the pointed Vwhen the meant the consonant V. Jbegan as a variation of I, in which a long tail was added to the final Iwhen there were several in a row. People began to use the Jfor the consonant and the Ifor the vowel by the fifteenth century, and it was fully accepted in the mid-seventeenth century.

Letter names and sequence of some alphabets

The order of the letters of the alphabet is attested from the fourteenth century BCE, in a place called Ugaritmarker located on Syriamarker’s northern coast.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 which is nearly identical to the order used for Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, and a second order very similar to that used for Ethiopian.

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

The letter names proved stable among many descendants of Phoenician, including Samaritan, Aramaic, Syriac, Hebrew, and Greek alphabet. However, they were abandoned in Arabicand Latin. 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 orderremains or was re-introduced as an alternative in the latter.

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

These 22 consonants account for the phonology of Northwest Semitic. Of the reconstructed Proto-Semiticconsonants, seven are missing: theinterdental fricatives , the voiceless lateral fricatives , the voiced uvular fricative , and the distinction between uvular and pharyngeal voiceless fricatives , in Canaanite merged in . The six variant letters added in the Arabic alphabetaccount for these (except for , which survives as a separate phoneme in Ge'ez):
 >  ;
 >   ;
 >  ;
 >  ;
 >  ;
 >   (but note that this reconstruction of 29 Proto-Semitic consonants is heavily informed by Arabic; see Proto-Semitic for details).

Graphically independent alphabets

The only modern national alphabet that has not been graphically traced back to the Canaanite alphabet is the Maldivianscript, which is unique in that, although it is clearly modeled after Arabicand perhaps other existing alphabets, it derives its letter forms from numerals. The Osmanya alphabetdevised for Somaliin the 1920swas co-official in Somalia with the Latin alphabet until 1972, and the forms of its consonants appear to be complete innovations.

Among alphabets that are not used as national scripts today, a few are clearly independent in their letter forms. The Zhuyinphonetic alphabet derives from Chinese characters. The Santali alphabetof 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 finalconsonant or vowel of the name that the letter represents: le"swelling" represents e, while en"thresh grain" represents n.)

In the ancient world, Oghamconsisted of tally marks, and the monumental inscriptions of the Old PersianEmpire were written in an essentially alphabetic cuneiform script whose letter forms seem to have been created for the occasion.

Alphabets in other media

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 alphabetderives from a prototypical Semitic abjad, for example, although this appears to be the case. And while manual alphabetsare a direct continuation of the local written alphabet (both the British two-handedand the French/American one-handedalphabets retain the forms of the Latin alphabet, as the Indian manual alphabetdoes Devanagari, and the Koreandoes Hangul), Braille, semaphore, maritime signal flags, and the Morse codesare essentially arbitrary geometric forms. The shapes of the English Braille and semaphore letters, for example, are derived from the alphabetic orderof the Latin alphabet, but not from the graphic forms of the letters themselves. Modern shorthandalso appears to be graphically unrelated. If it derives from the Latin alphabet, the connection has been lost to history.

See also


  1. Himelfarb, Elizabeth J. "First Alphabet Found in Egypt", Archaeology 53, Issue 1 (Jan./Feb. 2000): 21.
  2. Hamilton, Gordon J. "W. F. Albright and Early Alphabetic Writing", Near Eastern Archaeology 65, No. 1 (Mar., 2002): 35-42. page 39-49.
  3. 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.
  4. McCarter, P. Kyle. “The Early Diffusion of the Alphabet.” The Biblical Archaeologist 37, No. 3 (Sep., 1974): 54-68. page 57.
  5. 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 212.
  6. 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.
  7. Robinson, Andrew, (1995). The Story of Writing: Alphabets, Hieroglyphs & Pictograms, New York: Thames & Hudson Ltd. page 172.
  8. Ledyard, Gari K. The Korean Language Reform of 1446. Seoul: Shingu munhwasa, 1998.
  9. McCarter, P. Kyle. "The Early Diffusion of the Alphabet", The Biblical Archaeologist 37, No. 3 (Sep., 1974): 54-68. page 62.
  10. Robinson, Andrew, (1995). The Story of Writing: Alphabets, Hieroglyphs & Pictograms, New York: Thames & Hudson Ltd. page 170.
  11. Robinson, Andrew. The Story of Writing: Alphabets, Hieroglyphs & Pictograms. New York: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 1995.
  12. BBC. "The Development of the Western Alphabet." [updated 8 April 2004; cited 1 May 2007]. Available from
  13. Robinson, Andrew, (1995). The Story of Writing: Alphabets, Hieroglyphs & Pictograms, New York: Thames & Hudson Ltd. page 162.
  14. Millard, A.R. "The Infancy of the Alphabet", World Archaeology 17, No. 3, Early Writing Systems (Feb., 1986): 390-398. page 395.

Further reading

  • 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
  • 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.
  • Joseph Naveh, Early History of the Alphabet: an Introduction to West Semitic Epigraphy and Palaeography (Magnes Press - Hebrew University, Jerusalem, 1982)
  • B.L. Ullman, "The Origin and Development of the Alphabet," American Journal of Archaeology 31, No. 3 (Jul., 1927): 311-328.

External links

Western ←
→ Brahmic
→ Korean
ㅂ, ㅁ
C, G
ㄱ, (ㆁ)
ધ (ઢ)
ध (ढ)
F, V
Ϝ, Υ
દ (ડ)
द (ड)
ད (ཌ)
ㄷ, ㄴ
થ (ઠ)
थ (ठ)
ཐ (ཋ)
I, J
પ, ફ
प, फ
པ, ཕ
ㅈ, ㅅ
ત (ટ)
त (ट)
ཏ (ཊ)
other descendants

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