History of the alphabet

The history of the alphabet 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 and slaves in Egypt.[2] Unskilled in the complex hieroglyphic system used to write the Egyptian language, which required a large number of pictograms, they selected a small number of those commonly seen in their Egyptian surroundings to describe the sounds, as opposed to the semantic values, of their own Canaanite language.[3][4] This script was partly influenced by the older Egyptian hieratic, a cursive script related to Egyptian hieroglyphs.[5][6] The Semitic alphabet became the ancestor of multiple writing systems across the Middle East, Europe, northern Africa, and Pakistan, mainly through Ancient South Arabian,[7] Phoenician, Paleo-Hebrew (closely related and initially virtually identical to the Phoenician alphabet or even derived from it) and later Aramaic (derived from the Phoenician alphabet), four closely related members of the Semitic family of scripts that were in use during the early first millennium BCE.

Some modern authors distinguish between consonantal scripts of the Semitic type, called "abjads" since 1996, and "true alphabets" in the narrow sense,[8][9] the distinguishing criterion being that true alphabets consistently assign letters to both consonants and vowels on an equal basis, while the symbols in a pure abjad stand only for consonants. (So-called impure abjads may use diacritics or a few symbols to represent vowels.) In this sense, then the first true alphabet would be the Greek alphabet, which was adapted from the Phoenician alphabet, but not all scholars and linguists think this is enough to strip away the original meaning of an alphabet to one with both vowels and consonants. Latin, the most widely used alphabet today,[10] in turn derives from the Etruscan and Greek alphabets, themselves derived from Phoenician.


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