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The Alphabet

Updated on January 1, 2010

The alphabet is a fixed set of written symbols, called letters, which represent the sounds of a language. The word is derived from the names of the first two letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha and beta.

There are several different alphabets in use in the modern world. Most Western languages are written in the Roman, or Latin, alphabet. It is written from left to right and, as used in English, contains 26 letters. Another widely used alphabet is the Cyrillic, which is based on the ancient Greek alphabet. It is used in writing Russian, Bulgarian, and other Slavic languages. Other major alphabets include the Devanagari, which is used in India, and the Armenian, the Arabic, and the Hebrew.

The Oldest Writing

Prehistoric man attempted to record his experiences by scratching, drawing, and painting pictures. The pictures were often in a sequence designed to tell a story, comment on an event, or communicate a message. This simple pictographic writing was the first step toward a written language. Ideographic writing, which developed later, also depended on the pictorial representation of objects, but the objects were used symbolically. For example, a picture of a scepter might stand for royalty.

Eventually the use of such ideograms became a matter of convention, or general agreement. It was no longer even necessary to illustrate a scepter well or clearly in order to have it represent royalty. If the ideogram had to be carved in stone or some other hard material, the writer might illustrate only part of the scepter, and his meaning would be understood. Ideograms were thus simplified into a series of shapes and marks called characters. Chinese writing is the only system that is still based on such characters. It contains thousands of half-picture, half-letter symbols.

The First Alphabets

The alphabet is the result of a single revolutionary idea: Written characters can be based on the limited number of speech sounds in a language rather than on a limitless number of objects and ideas. The change from ideogram, or idea symbol, to phonogram, or sound symbol, was not immediate. Several ancient cultures employed both the old ideograms and the new phonetic, or sound, symbols.

The first phonograms were often pictorial, but they did represent sounds rather than objects or ideas. An example of a phonogram in English would be the picture of an eye to suggest the sound made in pronouncing the word "eye". The picture could represent three different things: the organ of sight, the pronoun "I", or the first syllable of a word such as "iodine". Its meaning would depend on the context.

Such systems of phonetic symbols were not true alphabets, because they represented words and syllables rather than letters. They are known as syllabaries, and they were used in the eastern Mediterranean region by the Cypriots, the Persians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Cretans.

One of the earliest true alphabets known is that of the Phoenicians, devised before 1000 B.C. It was probably influenced by the syllabaries but was based more directly on Egyptian hieroglyphic writing, which contained phonetic symbols for consonants. It is believed that Semitic peoples of the Sinai peninsula adopted this idea of a symbol for each consonant but devised new letters of their own. The Phoenicians placed the letters in a fixed order, named them, and used them to represent the sounds of their language.

The Phoenician alphabet spread westward to Europe. It belongs to the Canaanite branch of the North Semitic scripts, which include the now extinct Early Hebrew. Another branch of North Semitic writing is Aramaic. Its alphabet became the basis for several others, including the Arabic and a later form of Hebrew.

Greek and Roman Alphabets

The Greeks probably adopted the Phoenician alphabet directly, but they introduced several changes. The most important was the substitution of vowels for several Phoenician consonants. The Greek alphabet, the first to contain both consonants and vowels, is the ancestor of all the European alphabets in current use. Among its important descendants was the Etruscan alphabet, from which the Roman, or Latin, system was derived.

The earliest known example of the Roman alphabet is an inscription on a gold brooch of the 6th century B.C. The Romans originally took 21 of the 26 Greek and Etruscan letters to represent the sounds of their language. By the 1st century B.C. they had added the letters y and z. During the Middle Ages, j, u, and w were included to make the 26 basic letters of the modern Roman alphabet.

The Roman alphabet was adopted for use in the Germanic languages, including English and German; the Romance languages, including French and Spanish; some Slavic languages, such as Polish and Czech; and the Finno-Ugrian languages, including Finnish and Estonian. Some of these languages, however, added special diacritical marks to certain letters. These marks, used to indicate a sound for which no symbol existed, actually changed the number of letters in the alphabet. For example, the Spanish tilde, n, created an additional letter used only in the Spanish language. In contrast, the Italian alphabet has only 21 letters, omitting j, k, iv, x, and y.

Letter Shapes

Changes in the shapes of letters have been influenced primarily by such practical factors as writing materials and tools. The Sumerians and Babylonians used a stylus to impress their pictures into clay. The stylus made wedge-shaped marks known as cuneiform writing. The marks of the ancient runic alphabet, once used in England and Scandinavia, were devised so that they could be easily inscribed on wood. The Celts, who chiseled their characters into stone, created ogham, a script using simple vertical strokes.

In a similar way, the shape of Roman letters depended on the materials and tools used to inscribe them. At first, letters were used primarily for inscriptions on stone monuments. Since the inscriptions were made with a hammer and chisel, the letters had straight lines and square corners. This monumental style was the forerunner of the modern capital letter.

The need for ease and speed in writing business and administrative documents led to the development of cursive, or flowing, writing. This kind of script was made up of smaller letters with the strokes joined and angles rounded. The materials used were wax tablets and papyrus, and the writing tools were the stylus, brush, or reed pen. These new materials and tools made it possible to eliminate the angular forms of earlier Roman letters and to write with curving lines. Eventually, minuscule, or lowercase, letters developed from these shorter, more rounded forms.

The Modern Alphabet

Ideally, an alphabet should have one character for each sound in its language. Few modern alphabets, however, approach this perfect correspondence between sound and symbol. The modern Roman alphabet includes unnecessary consonants and is inadequate to record the vowel sounds of English. The letter a, for example, must represent at least six different sounds, but the two sounds of the letter c could as easily be represented by the letters k and s.

Many linguists have urged a spelling reform to make written English a more accurate reflection of the spoken language. At present, spelling and pronunciation are often only slightly related, as in the words leave, brief, luxury, light, bomb, know, and scenery. Thus, many words with similar spelling are pronounced differently: tough and cough, wind and find, flood and brood. On the other hand, words with the same pronunciation may be spelled quite differently: ate and eight, bare and bear, peace and piece.

Spelling reform would require a corresponding reform of the alphabet to achieve the ideal relationship of one letter for each sound. Perhaps the most successful attempt is the International Phonetic Alphabet. In this alphabet, applicable to any language, some letters have been altered and others have been added to correspond to most of the sounds heard in human speech. Such an alphabet would simplify the teaching of reading and writing.

In 1961 certain British schools introduced the Augmented Roman Alphabet, also called the Initial Teaching Alphabet (ITA). Developed by Sir James Pitman, the ITA consists of 44 characters that represent the sounds of English. In the experimental method, children are taught to read with the ITA, and after they have developed reading skills, they are taught the standard alphabet. Preliminary results released in 1964 showed that pupils who had learned to read with the new alphabet were more than a year ahead of those who had been taught in the traditional way. In the United States similar experiments with the new alphabet have also had favorable results.


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    • waynet profile image

      Wayne Tully 

      8 years ago from Hull City United Kingdom

      Excellently written hubpage about the history of the alphabet, well done Spelling Nazi! I hope you write more detailed and very well written content like this!


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