2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Linguistics

History of the Alphabet

Middle Bronze Age 19–15th c. BC

  • Canaanite- Phoenician 14th c. BC
    • Paleo-Hebrew 10th c. BC
    • Aramaic 9th c. BC
      • Brāhmī & Indic 6th c. BC
        • Tibetan 7th c.
        • Khmer/ Javanese 9th c.
      • Hebrew 3rd c. BC
      • Syriac 2nd c. BC
        • Nabatean 2nd c. BC
          • Arabic 4th c.
      • Avestan 4th to 6th c.
    • Greek 9th c. BC
      • Etruscan 8th c. BC
        • Latin 7th c. BC
        • Runes 2nd c.
        • Ogham 4th c.
      • Gothic 4th c.
      • Armenian 405
      • Glagolitic 862
      • Cyrillic 10th c.
    • Samaritan 6th c. BC
    • Iberian 6th c. BC
  • Epigraphic South Arabian 9th c. BC
    • Ge'ez 5–6th c. BC
Meroitic 3rd c. BC
Complete genealogy

An alphabet is a complete standardized set of letters — basic written symbols — each of which roughly represents a phoneme of a spoken language, either as it exists now or as it may have been in the past. There are other systems of writing such as logosyllabic writing, in which each symbol represents a morpheme, or word or a syllable or places the word within a category, and syllabaries, in which each symbol represents a syllable.

The etymology of the word "alphabet" itself comes to Middle English from the Late Latin Alphabetum which in turn originates from the Ancient Greek Alphabetos, from alpha and beta, the first two letters of the Greek alphabet. There are dozens of alphabets in use today. Most of them are ' linear', which means that they are made up of lines. Notable exceptions are Braille, manual alphabets, Morse code, and the cuneiform alphabet of the ancient civilization Sumer.

Linguistic definition and context

In spite of its imprecision, the term "alphabet" is commonly used to refer to any writing system whose graphemes represent both consonant and vowel sounds.

A grapheme is an abstract entity which may be physically represented by different styles of glyphs. There are many written entities which do not form part of the alphabet, including numerals, mathematical symbols, and punctuation. Some human languages are commonly written by using a combination of logograms (which represent morphemes or words) and syllabograms instead of an alphabet. Egyptian hieroglyphs and Chinese characters are two of the best-known writing systems with predominantly non-alphabetic representations.

Non-written languages also have alphabetic and non-alphabetic representations. For example, in American Sign Language one can spell words using the character set borrowed from the English language alphabet. Experienced ASL signers express most concepts using ideomatic hand signs which either correspond to English words or are original to the signed language.

Most, if not all, linguistic writing systems have some means for phonetic approximation of foreign words, usually using the native character set.


The history of the alphabet starts in ancient Egypt. By 2700 BCE Egyptian writing had a set of some 22 hieroglyphs to represent syllables that begin with a single consonant of their language, plus a vowel (or no vowel) to be supplied by the native speaker. These glyphs were used as pronunciation guides for logograms, to write grammatical inflections, and, later, to transcribe loan words and foreign names.

However, although seemingly alphabetic in nature, the original Egyptian uniliterals were not a system and were never used by themselves to encode Egyptian speech. In the Middle Bronze Age an apparently "alphabetic" system is thought by some to have been developed in central Egypt around 1700 BCE for or by Semitic workers, but we cannot read these early writings and their exact nature remain open to interpretation.

Over the next five centuries this Semitic "alphabet" (really an abjad like Phoenician writing) seems to have spread north. All subsequent alphabets around the world with the sole possible exception of Korean Hangul have either descended from it, or been inspired by one of its descendants.


World distribution of alphabets ██ Latin Alphabet ██ Cyrillic alphabet ██ Arabic alphabet ██ Brahmic alphabet ██ Latin and Cyrillic ██ Latin and Arabic ██ Other alphabet ██ No alphabet ██ Other or none
World distribution of alphabets ██  Latin Alphabet ██  Cyrillic alphabet ██  Arabic alphabet ██  Brahmic alphabet ██ Latin and Cyrillic ██ Latin and Arabic ██  Other alphabet ██ No alphabet ██ Other or none

The term "alphabet" is used by linguists and paleographers in both a wide and narrow sense. In the wider sense, an alphabet is a script that is segmental on the phoneme level, that is, that has separate glyphs for individual sounds and not for larger units such as syllables or words. In the narrower sense, some scholars distinguish "true" alphabets from two other types of segmental script, abjads and abugidas. These three differ from each other in the way they treat vowels: Abjads have letters for consonants and leave most vowels unexpressed; abugidas are also consonant-based, but indicate vowels with diacritics to or a systematic graphic modification of the consonants. In alphabets in the narrow sense, on the other hand, consonants and vowels are written as independent letters. The earliest known alphabet in the wider sense is the Wadi el-Hol script, believed to be an abjad, which through its successor Phoenician is the ancestor of modern alphabets, including Arabic, Greek, Latin (via the Old Italic alphabet), Cyrillic (via the Greek alphabet) and Hebrew (via Aramaic).

Examples of present-day abjads are the Arabic and Hebrew scripts; true alphabets include Latin, Cyrillic, and Korean Hangul; and abugidas are used to write Tigrinya Amharic, Hindi, and Thai. The Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics are also an abugida rather than a syllabary as their name would imply, since each glyph stands for a consonant which is modified by rotation to represent the following vowel. (In a true syllabary, each consonant-vowel combination would be represented by a separate glyph.)

The boundaries between the three types of segmental scripts are not always clear-cut. For example, Iraqi Kurdish is written in the Arabic script, which is normally an abjad. However, in Kurdish, writing the vowels is mandatory, and full letters are used, so the script is a true alphabet. Other languages may use a Semitic abjad with mandatory vowel diacritics, effectively making them abugidas. On the other hand, the Phagspa script of the Mongol Empire was based closely on the Tibetan abugida, but all vowel marks were written after the preceding consonant rather than as diacritic marks. Although short a was not written, as in the Indic abugidas, one could argue that the linear arrangement made this a true alphabet. Conversely, the vowel marks of the Tigrinya abugida and the Amharic abugida (ironically, the original source of the term "abugida") have been so completely assimilated into their consonants that the modifications are no longer systematic and have to be learned as a syllabary rather than as a segmental script. Even more extreme, the Pahlavi abjad eventually became logographic. (See below.)

Thus the primary classification of alphabets reflects how they treat vowels. For tonal languages, further classification can be based on their treatment of tone, though there are yet no names to distinguish the various types. Some alphabets disregard tone entirely, especially when it does not carry a heavy functional load, as in Somali and many other languages of Africa and the Americas. Such scripts are to tone what abjads are to vowels. Most commonly, tones are indicated with diacritics, the way vowels are treated in abugidas. This is the case for Vietnamese (a true alphabet) and Thai (an abugida). In Thai, tone is determined primarily by the choice of consonant, with diacritics for disambiguation. In the Pollard script, an abugida, vowels are indicated by diacritics, but the placement of the diacritic relative to the consonant is modified to indicate the tone. More rarely, a script may have separate letters for tones, as is the case for Hmong and Zhuang. For most of these scripts, regardless of whether letters or diacritics are used, the most common tone is not marked, just as the most common vowel is not marked in Indic abugidas.

Alphabets can be quite small. The Book Pahlavi script, an abjad, had only twelve letters at one point, and may have had even fewer later on. Today the Rotokas alphabet has only twelve letters. (The Hawaiian alphabet is sometimes claimed to be as small, but it actually consists of 18 letters, including the ʻokina and five long vowels.) While Rotokas has a small alphabet because it has few phonemes to represent (just eleven), Book Pahlavi was small because many letters had been conflated, that is, the graphic distinctions had been lost over time, and diacritics were not developed to compensate for this as they were in Arabic, another script that lost many of its distinct letter shapes. For example, a comma-shaped letter represented g, d, y, k, or j. However, such apparent simplifications can perversely make a script more complicated. In later Pahlavi papyri, up to half of the remaining graphic distinctions of these twelve letters were lost, and the script could no longer be read as a sequence of letters at all, but instead each word had to be learned as a whole – that is, they had become logograms as in Egyptian Demotic.

The largest segmental script is probably an abugida, Devanagari. When written in Devanagari, Vedic Sanskrit has an alphabet of 53 letters, including the visarga mark for final aspiration and special letters for and jñ, though one of the letters is theoretical and not actually used. The Hindi alphabet must represent both Sanskrit and modern vocabulary, and so has been expanded to 58 with the khutma letters (letters with a dot added) to represent sounds from Persian and English.

The largest known abjad is Sindhi, with 51 letters. The largest alphabets in the narrow sense include Kabardian and Abkhaz (for Cyrillic), with 58 and 56 letters, respectively, and Slovak (for the Latin alphabet), with 46. However, these scripts either count di- and tri-graphs as separate letters, as Spanish does with ch and ll, or uses diacritics like Slovak č. The largest true alphabet where each letter is graphically independent is probably Georgian, with 41 letters.

Syllabaries typically contain 50 to 400 glyphs (though the Múra-Pirahã language of Brazil would require only 24 if it did not denote tone, and Rotokas would require only 30), and the glyphs of logographic systems typically number from the many hundreds into the thousands. Thus a simple count of the number of distinct symbols is an important clue to the nature of an unknown script.

It is not always clear what constitutes a distinct alphabet. French uses the same basic alphabet as English, but many of the letters can carry additional marks, such as é, à, and ô. In French, these combinations are not considered to be additional letters. However, in Icelandic, the accented letters such as á, í, and ö are considered to be distinct letters of the alphabet. Some adaptations of the Latin alphabet are augmented with ligatures, such as æ in Old English and Ȣ in Algonquian; by borrowings from other alphabets, such as the thorn þ in Old English and Icelandic, which came from the Futhark runes; and by modifying existing letters, such as the eth ð of Old English and Icelandic, which is a modified d. Other alphabets only use a subset of the Latin alphabet, such as Hawaiian, or Italian, which only uses the letters j, k, x, y and w in foreign words.


Each language may establish certain general rules that govern the association between letters and phonemes, but, depending on the language, these rules may or may not be consistently followed. In a perfectly phonological alphabet, the phonemes and letters would correspond perfectly in two directions: a writer could predict the spelling of a word given its pronunciation, and a speaker could predict the pronunciation of a word given its spelling. However, languages often evolve independently of their writing systems, and writing systems have been borrowed for languages they were not designed for, so the degree to which letters of an alphabet correspond to phonemes of a language varies greatly from one language to another and even within a single language.

Languages may fail to achieve a one-to-one correspondence between letters and sounds in any of several ways:

  • A language may represent a given phoneme with a combination of letters rather than just a single letter. Two-letter combinations are called digraphs and three-letter groups are called trigraphs. Kabardian uses a tesseragraph (four letters) for one of its phonemes.
  • A language may represent the same phoneme with two different letters or combinations of letters.
  • A language may spell some words with unpronounced letters that exist for historical or other reasons.
  • Pronunciation of individual words may change according to the presence of surrounding words in a sentence.
  • Different dialects of a language may use different phonemes for the same word.
  • A language may use different sets of symbols or different rules for distinct sets of vocabulary items (such as the Japanese hiragana and katakana syllabaries, or the various rules in English for spelling words from Latin and Greek, or the original Germanic vocabulary.

National languages generally elect to address the problem of dialects by simply associating the alphabet with the national standard. However, with an international language with wide variations in its dialects, such as English, it would be impossible to represent the language in all its variations with a single phonetic alphabet.

Some national languages like Finnish have a very regular spelling system with a nearly one-to-one correspondence between letters and phonemes. The Italian verb corresponding to 'spell', compitare, is unknown to many Italians because the act of spelling itself is almost never needed: each phoneme of Standard Italian is represented in only one way. However, pronunciation cannot always be predicted from spelling because certain letters are pronounced in more than one way. In standard Spanish, it is possible to tell the pronunciation of a word from its spelling, but not vice versa; this is because certain phonemes can be represented in more than one way, but a given letter is consistently pronounced. French, with its silent letters and its heavy use of nasal vowels and elision, may seem to lack much correspondence between spelling and pronunciation, but its rules on pronunciation are actually consistent and predictable with a fair degree of accuracy. At the other extreme, however, are languages such as English and Irish, where the spelling of many words simply has to be memorized as they do not correspond to sounds in a consistent way. For English, this is because the Great Vowel Shift occurred after the orthography was established, and because English has acquired a large number of loanwords at different times retaining their original spelling at varying levels. However, even English has general rules that predict pronunciation from spelling, and these rules are successful most of the time.

The sounds of speech of all languages of the world can be written by a rather small universal phonetic alphabet. A standard for this is the International Phonetic Alphabet.

The Alphabet effect

Some communication theorists (notably those associated with the so-called "Toronto school of communications", such as Marshall McLuhan, Harold Innis and more recently Robert K. Logan) have advanced the hypothesis that alphabetic scripts have promoted and encouraged the skills of analysis, coding, decoding, and classification. This is known as "the Alphabet effect", after the title of Logan's 1986 work.

The theory implies that a greater level of abstraction is needed to understand the relatively small set symbols in alphabetic systems and to interpret them as phonemes; this has contributed in some way to the development of the societies which use it. McLuhan and Logan (1977) postulate that, as a result of these skills, the use of the alphabet created an environment that lead the development of codified law, monotheism, science, deductive logic, objective history, and individualism. According to Logan, "All of these innovations, including the alphabet, arose within the very narrow geographic zone between the Tigris-Euphrates river system and the Aegean Sea, and within the very narrow time frame between 2000 B.C. and 500 B.C." (Logan 2004).

However, many of these abstractions first occurred in societies which no sufficient data show the use of an alphabet, such as the codified law of Hammurabi in Babylonia, which predated similar laws in societies with the alphabet.

Nonetheless, Paul Levinson argues in his 1997 The Soft Edge that the alphabet facilitated the rise and dissemination of monotheism, by providing an easy way to write about a deity that is omnipotent, omnipresent, yet invisible. In contrast, monotheism did not succeed when Ikhnaton attempted to promulgate it via hieroglyphics in Ancient Egypt, nor did it even arise in places such as China, which relied on an ideographic writing system.

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