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Contributed by Mohammad Shadmani   
Monday, 23 July 2007
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Alphabet
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I  INTRODUCTION
Alphabet, set of letters or other symbols, each representing a distinctive sound of a language. These letters can be combined to write all the words of a language. The letters of an alphabet typically have names and a fixed order. Alphabets are the most common type of writing in the world today. Only a few languages, such as Chinese and Japanese, do not use an alphabet.
The first alphabet was probably developed at least 3,500 years ago by people who lived on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea and spoke a Semitic language. The earliest surviving alphabet is that of the Phoenicians (see Phoenicia). Around 3,000 years ago the Phoenician alphabet spread east to other Semitic peoples and west to the Greeks. The word alphabet comes from alpha and beta, the first two letters of the Greek alphabet. The Greeks helped spread alphabetic writing to the Etruscans and the Romans and through much of the rest of the ancient world.

There are about 50 individual alphabets in use today. They vary greatly in appearance, historical descent, and the degree to which they conform to the ideal of one letter for one sound. Like the Roman alphabet used for English, most alphabets have between 20 and 30 letters. Languages with comparatively few sounds require fewer letters. The sounds of the Hawaiian language, for example, are written using only 12 letters of the Roman alphabet, the fewest letters of any language. Other alphabets, such as Sinhalese, the alphabet of Sri Lanka, have 50 letters or more.

 

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II  BEFORE THE ALPHABET

An alphabet attempts ideally to indicate each separate sound by a separate symbol. The Romans more or less achieved this ideal with a 21-letter alphabet, which they used for writing their Latin language. Later European languages that adopted the Roman alphabet approached this goal with varying success. Finnish and Turkish were highly successful, whereas English, French, and Gaelic have strayed quite far. English, for example, can represent the long o sound with a single o (as in go), the letters ow (as in glow), the letters oa (as in throat), and the letters ew (as in sew). The Korean alphabet, which was invented by scholars in the mid-1400s, most completely achieves the ideal of one symbol for one sound (see Korean Language).

Some writing systems represent a combination of sounds that form a syllable, rather than a single sound. The syllables usually consist of a consonant and a vowel, such as su, but they can also represent an entire word, such as sun. Such systems, called syllabaries, can come close to the ideal of a symbol for each sound, but they are not considered true alphabets because each syllable represents more than a single sound. Syllabic writing systems are also more difficult to learn than alphabets, because they have so many more symbols. Written Chinese, for example, uses thousands of symbols, or characters. Each character represents a syllable, and the syllable also is a word that carries a meaning. Japanese has two complete syllabaries—the hiragana and the katakana—which were devised to supplement the characters that Japanese took over from the Chinese writing system.

A) Pictographic and Ideographic Systems

Early systems of writing used pictures to represent things and then to represent the sounds of those things. Pictographic writing, in which a simplified picture of the sun stood for the word sun, was probably the first step toward a written language. Chinese began as a pictographic language. To represent abstract ideas, the Chinese writing system combined pictographs. For example, the pictographs for sun and tree were combined to represent the concept of east. This method of combining pictographs to represent the words for ideas is known as an ideographic system. In written Chinese today, however, most of the characters for tangible items no longer resemble specific objects.

Pictographs and ideographs provide an inefficient system for writing: There are simply too many things to represent. Moreover, a string of pictures cannot reproduce what language creates: a sentence with a grammatical structure. A crucial step in the development of writing was freeing the pictograph or ideograph from the thing it represented and linking it to a sound. The ancient Sumerians generally receive credit for this advance.


 
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