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The Alphabet

Updated on July 18, 2010

The Alphabet

So called from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet: alpha and beta. Alphabet is the term applied to the collection of letters from which the words of a language are made up.

It's a set of graphical symbols which, either singly or in combinations, represent the sounds of a language. The characters in an alphabet each identify a consonant or a vowel. Alphabets which have different symbols for each sound are often called phonetic, or regular, alphabets. Finnish and Spanish are considered to be regular, but English is not. Different symbols in English are often used to represent the same sound as, for example, the f sound in 'fear', 'physics', and 'cough'. Other languages, such as Irish Gaelic, are even less regular. Attempts have been made to create regular alphabets.

The letters of an alphabet are really signs which stand for sounds. When we see a p or an s or a d, we know that each letter stands for a certain soundl when we find them in a word, we know what sounds to make when we pronounce the word.

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Alphabet Trivia

  • Alphabetic writing seems to have begun around 1700 BC by either the Egyptians, Phoenicians or Hittites.
  • The letters of the English alphabet come from the Roman alphabet, which is about 2,500 years old. The capital letters are like those the Romans carved in stone about 300 BC. The small letters are rather like those the ancient Romans used when writing quickly in letters and business papers.
  • Latin, Anglo-Saxon and modern Western alphabets all derived from the Etruscan alpahet.
  • The Phoenicians are credited with the first adoption of the alphabet. The Chinese have no alphabet, but signs which convey ideas.
  • The Sanskrit alphabet comprises of 40 letters.
  • The longest alphabet is Cambodian, which has 74 symbols. The shortest is Rotokas with 11 symbols, used in Bouganville in the Solomon Islands.

Alphabet = Civilization

The Alphabet is the substructure of our civilization; alphabetic writing, by means of a small number of symbols (generally between twenty and thirty) which stand for the various elementary sounds used in speech, is the last, the most highly developed, the most convenient and adaptable system of writing which the world has known. Now employed by civilized people over most of the earth, it was preceded by other systems, and even by various primitive devices of communication.

Prehistoric man probably did not think about true writing; neither did certain primitive people of more recent times. Upper Palaeolithic cave painting in France and Spain can hardly represent the beginnings of writing: they had to do with 'sympathetic magic' or ritual practices, it seems; and not with any desire to communicate ideas or record important events. The same may be said of the various geometric signs or conventional figures of men or animals, painted or engraved on rocks or stones, dating from the Palaeolithic ages to modern times and found the world over, from Central Asia to North and South America.

Nonetheless, as man rose from his barbaric state he felt a need to make some record to help his memory. Rude systems of conveying ideas are found everywhere, some belonging to ancient tradition, some in use today. Herodotus describes a 'letter' sent by the Scythians to the Persian king Darius. It consisted of a bird, a mouse, a frog and five arrows, and was supposed to mean 'Persians, can you fly like a bird, hide yourselves in the ground like a mouse, leap through swamps like a frog? If you cannot, then do not try to go to war with us - we shall overwhelm you with arrows.' Means of communication with the help of tangible objects are found amongst the Yebu and other tribes in Nigeria, amongst the Bangalapeople on the Upper Congo, the Lutze on the Tibetan-Chinese border, and the Cara tribes of Ecuador, and amongst primitive peoples in Eastern Turkestan, and in other parts of the world.

One of the commonest memory-aid devices is a knot tied in a handkerchief; the Catholic rosary is also a mnemonic counting device. Others which are widespread are the notched stick and the knotted cord. Notched sticks were employed in Italy, Russia, North America and elsewhere, and are still used in some remote parts of Yugoslavia, in Africa, China, Australia, etc. Notched sticks, or tallies were actually used by the Exchequer of England down to 1832, as receipts for money paid into the Treasury. In Australia and in ancient Scandinavia notched sticks conveyed important messages, convoking an assembly or promulgating war. Ancient China, Tibet, Japan, Bengal, Persia, Mexico and Peru all made use of knot devices, of which the best known kind is the quipu of the ancient Peruvians, a numerical recording contrivance of strings and knots, imparting information by variations of length, thickness, colour and position. The wampum of the North American Iroquois - consisting of belts or cords of coloured shell beads, and used to convey messages - and the North American Indian calumet, a sacred, decorated reed tobacco-pipe, employed to signify war or peace, were other memory-aid devices, a category which includes trade marks, heraldic signs, tattooing, potter's marks, mason's marks, property marks and symbols for magico-religious ceremonies.

A great step forward came when man began to draw a series of pictures so as to tell a connected story. Picture writings are found everywhere, though they can best be studied amongst some native tribes of North America.

All these primitive devices of communication are writing in embryo. None of them constitutes a complete system, such as we find in the ancient scripts of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Crete, the Indus valley, Asia Minor, China and of America before the conquest. These are known as 'ideographic', i.e. they employ characters to represent ideas or things. In fact, they are partly ideographic and partly phonetic (representative of the sounds of speech), the ingredients being combined in various ways. Such systems should rather be called 'analytic'. In these scripts a definite picture, selected by convention from the many which had been used for the particular thing, became the accepted symbol of its name.

On the whole, in embryo writing and in pure ideography there is no inevitable connection between the depicted symbol and the recorded speech. But in phonetic systems writing has become the graphic counterpart of speech, each element of writing corresponding to a specific element or sound element in the language. Generally there is no connection between the external form of the symbol and the sound it represents; and phonetic systems may be of two kinds - syllabic or alphabetic.

In the syllabic systems - these include the late cuneiform writing of the Assyrians, the scripts of ancient Byblos and Cyprus, the Japanese syllabic writings, and some modern syllabaries of North America, Western Africa and China - the single signs represent syllables, i.e. elementary sound-blocks (vowel, or consonant plus vowel) The script of the ancient Persian Empire and the Mero'itic script used at the ancient Meroe, north of Khartoum, were mixtures of syllabic and alphabetic symbols.

Of all systems it is the alphabet which has the most extensive, most intricate and most interesting history. It is now generally agreed that all alphabets derived from one original alphabet. In its broad lines, the story of this system from the end of the second millennium B.C. until now is not very difficult to trace, though its origin and many details of its development and of the origin of some individual alphabets are still uncertain. Various theories have been advanced from time to time since classical antiquity. At one period or another, by one scholar or another, the Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Cretan, Runic and other scripts have been considered the prototype. Probably the original alphabet was an indigenous, more or less original, invention of the North-west Semitic population of Syria and Palestine. It may be argued that this North Semitic alphabet arose in, or rather before, the middle of the second millennium B.C. The great achievement lay in the evolving of a purely alphabetic system, which denoted each sound by one sign only. No other people in the world has been able to create such a system, and the invention of the alphabet must be ranked among the supreme benefactions.

In the late second millennium and the early first millennium B.C., the original alphabet had developed from main branches, the Canaanite, the Aramaic, the South Semitic and the Greek. The main Canaanite scripts were early Hebrew - the original script of the Old Testament, the writing employed by the Hebrew kings and prophets-and Phoenician, including the Punic and neo-Punic forms. From the Aramaic branch sprang hundreds of scripts employed in Asia; they include Square Hebrew (parent of the modern Hebrew script), Arabic, Syriac, the Avesta alphabet, the Mongolian and Manchu alphabets, Brahrni (the parent alphabet of about 200 scripts now used in India, Ceylon, Siam, Burma, Indonesia and the Philippine Islands), the Armenian and Georgian alphabets, the Korean alphabet (which is the only native alphabet of the Far East), and many other scripts. The South Semitic alphabets were mainly confined to ancient Arabia, but one offshoot spread to Abyssinia and gave birth to the Ethio-pic alphabet and its modern descendants.

That leaves the Greek alphabet, which came into being in the early first millennium B.C. Like the Semitic alphabets, the earliest Greek script was written from right to left, a style which was later superseded by the boustrophedon style (alternately from right to left and left to right); after 500 B.C. Greek writing invariably proceeded from left to right and from top to bottom. The Greeks transformed the purely consonantal Semitic script into a modern alphabet, and gave it symmetry and art. Through its direct and indirect descendants the Etruscan (the Etruscans were the famous predecessors of the Romans) and the Latin alphabets, on the one hand, and the Cyrillic (the ancestor of the Russian, Bulgarian, Serbian and other alphabets) on the other, the Greek alphabet has become the progenitor of all the European alphabets we use today; though the origin of some ancient alphabets of Europe (for example the Runes of the Teutonic tribes and the Ogham alphabet used by the Celtic population of the British Isles) is not absolutely clear. In the course of its long history the Greek alphabet had many other offshoots, such as the scripts used in ancient Asia Minor, the Coptic alphabet, in Egypt, and the Gothic alphabet, invented in the fourth century A.D. by the Gothic bishop Wulfila (also called Ulfilas).

Curiously the Latin alphabet fared poorly in the first five or six centuries of its existence. It arose in the seventh century B.C., developing from the Etruscan. A few letters were added and the single letters were externally transformed. To begin with, the Latin alphabet had only one style, the monumental script (which with insignificant changes we still employ in printed capitals); out of this there developed numerous varieties including the capital styles and the cursive hands. At the end of the eighth century A.D. the Caroline cursive minuscule hand developed, and became the main book-hand of Western Europe. In the late twelfth century there came into being the 'black letter' or 'Gothic' literary hand, which was employed in England until the sixteenth century.

In Italy, during the fifteenth century, two beautiful cursive minuscule hands were used, the Venetian minuscule (now known as italics) and the 'roman' type of letters. These were soon adopted in Western Europe, including England (in the sixteenth century) and are the styles now so widely used.


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      8 years ago

      Good work. You have explained how the alphabet came to be very well.


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