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Contributed by Mohammad Shadmani   
Monday, 23 July 2007
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A) North Semitic Alphabets

The Phoenicians, who lived in what is now Lebanon, created the earliest North Semitic alphabet known today. The Phoenician alphabet had 22 letters to represent consonant sounds. Further north on the coast of what is now Syria, another North Semitic-speaking group in the city-state of Ugarit developed an alphabet of 30 consonants, written in cuneiform, about 1400 bc. The Ugaritic alphabet was written in cuneiform, although its wedge shapes did not resemble Babylonian syllables. Its letters had the same order as the Phoenician alphabet, although the precise relationship remains unclear between the Ugaritic letters pressed into clay and the Phoenician letters drawn on papyrus. Ugarit was destroyed in 1200 bc, and scholars today know little about the development of its alphabet.

Other ancient Semitic groups, including the early Hebrews, the Moabites, and the Aramaeans, used variants of Phoenician writing. Aramaic became the dominant language in the Middle East from the 6th century bc on, adopted by the Persian Empire and by the Jews of Palestine. The square letter shapes of Aramaic diverged from the pointed Phoenician letters, and they became the basis for several later alphabets, including Arabic and the form of written Hebrew still used today.

The present-day Hebrew and Arabic alphabets still consist of consonant letters only, Hebrew having 22 letters and Arabic 28. Some of these letters, however, acquired the added function of representing long vowels. Another method of indicating vowels in written Hebrew or Arabic is by adding dots or dashes placed below, above, or to the side of the consonant. This system for indicating vowels developed for Arabic, Hebrew, and Aramaic during the 8th and 9th centuries ad to ensure the correct reading of sacred texts, and avoid the multiple readings possible when vowels are missing. Bls, for example, could be read as bless, bliss, bills, or bales. Like Phoenician and other Semitic languages, Arabic, Hebrew, and Aramaic are written from the right to the left. See Arabic Language; Hebrew Language; Aramaic Language; Semitic Languages.

Many scholars believe that about 1000 bc four branches developed from the original North Semitic alphabet: South Semitic, Canaanite, Aramaic, and Greek. (Other scholars, however, believe that South Semitic developed independently from North Semitic or that both developed from a common ancestor.) The South Semitic branch was the ancestor of the alphabets of now-extinct languages once used in the Arabian Peninsula and of the alphabets used for the modern languages of Ethiopia and Eritrea, in particular Amharic and Tigrinya. Canaanite was subdivided into Early Hebrew and Phoenician, and the extremely important Aramaic branch became the basis of Semitic and non-Semitic scripts throughout western and southern Asia. The non-Semitic group was the basis of the alphabets of nearly all Indian and Southeast Asian scripts.

B) Greek and Roman Alphabets

The Greeks adopted the Phoenician variant of the Semitic alphabet, including the order of the letters. Some scholars believe this adoption occurred as early as 1100 bc, whereas others favor a date around 800 bc, shortly before the earliest surviving text in the Greek alphabet was written—on a wine jug. The Greek and Phoenician languages had many of the same consonants, but Greek was left without letters for some consonants and with letters it did not need. The Greeks, as a result, were able to assign new sound values to the leftover Phoenician letters. Most importantly, the Greeks let some letters represent vowel sounds, making Greek the first language to contain letters of equal status for consonants and vowels. The Greeks also added four new letters—phi, psi, chi, and omega—to the end of the alphabet, expanding it to 24 symbols. Although the Greeks originally adopted the right-to-left direction of Phoenician writing, many Greek documents show one line written from right to left and the next line written from left to right. This method is called boustrophedon, from Greek words meaning “ox-plow turning,” because it follows the direction of an ox in plowing. By about 500 bc left to right had become the standard direction of Greek writing.

Among the important descendants of the Greek alphabet 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 from the 6th century bc. Because of Roman conquests and the spread of the Latin language, the Roman alphabet became the basic alphabet of all the languages of western Europe.

The Romans originally took 21 of the Greek and Etruscan letters to represent the sounds of their language. The Greek letters upsilon (Y) and zeta (Z), unnecessary in early Latin, dropped out. But the Romans valued Greek culture highly and borrowed many words from Greek. By the 1st century bc they had brought back the letters Y and Z for spelling some of the borrowed words. These letters were eventually added to the end of the alphabet. During the Middle Ages, j and u appeared in writing as variants of i and v, respectively; they acquired the status of separate letters during the Renaissance. In northern Europe a two-letter sequence of vv or uu became fused into the new letter w, providing the 26 letters of the Roman alphabet used for modern English.

The Roman alphabet was adopted for use in the Germanic languages, including English and German, and the Romance languages, including French and Spanish. It was adopted for some Slavic languages, such as Polish and Czech, and Finno-Ugrian languages, such as Finnish and Estonian, after their speakers accepted Christianity during the Middle Ages. Some of these languages added letters, or added diacritical marks (accents, dots, and other signs) to certain letters, to indicate a sound for which no symbol existed. Germanic-speaking peoples, for example, revived the letter k, which the Romans had almost never used. People in southern Europe, who spoke Romance languages, maintained the hard c for the k sound. Modern English, with its mixed heritage from both Germanic and Romance languages, retains both letters for the same sound, as in cat and kitten. The Spanish tilde, ñ, and the Czech hačcek, ň, provide a symbol for the ny sound, as in the English word canyon. The sound is written with the letter group gn in French and Italian, ny in Hungarian, and nj in Croatian. The hačcek turns c, s, and z into the symbols č, š, and ž in Czech and certain other Slavic languages, sounds that are spelled ch, sh, and zh (pronounced as in Zhivago) in English. In some languages these characters have their own place in the alphabet.

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