May 2011: This page is being updated. Intended as a reader service, it presents information on the history of the alphabet—that is, the history of the branch of alphabetic writing that includes (1) our Roman alphabet, from 600 B.C. to now, and (2) the Roman script's direct ancestors in Italy, Greece, and the Near East. The story begins with the origins of alphabetic writing, around 2000 B.C. in Egypt, and continues through today.
Here, just below, is a bibliography of recent English-language work, both scholarly and general, on topics relating to the alphabet's history.
Below that, if you scroll down, you'll find a 8,000-word essay by me, tracing the history of the alphabet down four thousand years, from 2000 B.C. to 2011.
The essay was originally published as the introductory chapter to Alphabets: A Miscellany of Letters (London: Black Dog Publishing, 2010)—a handsome picture book that I did not otherwise help to write or assemble.
Comments and suggestions from readers are welcome. Please email directly: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Further reading on the history of the alphabet
Robb, Don and Anne Smith. Ox, House, Stick: The History of our Alphabet. Watertown, ME: Charlesbridge Publishing, 2007. Ages 9 to 12. Recommended: handsome and lively, and draws on good information collected in my book.
Robinson, Andrew. The Story of Writing. New York: Thames & Hudson, 1995. Ages teen to adult.
Samoyault, Tiphaine. Alphabetical Order: How the Alphabet Began. New York: Viking, 1998. Ages 9 to 12.
Introductions and overviews
Brown, Michelle P. The British Library Guide to Writing and Scripts: History and Techniques. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998.
Campbell, George L. Handbook of Scripts and Alphabets. New York: Routledge, 1997.
Daniels, Peter T. and William Bright (editors). The World’s Writing Systems. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997. Chapter 12 only: “Blueprints and Borrowed Letters: The Evolution of Writing.” Recommended as a convenient starting point for general readers. (However, at one point the author surprisingly confuses the histories of letters U and V.)
Diringer, David. The Alphabet: A Key the History of Mankind. London: Hutchinson & Co., 1968 (3rd edition). Two volumes. Recommended as an overview, although now out of date in treating certain topics such as the early alphabet.
Diringer, David. Writing. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1962.
Firmage, Richard A. The Alphabet Abecedarium: Some Notes on Letters. Boston: David R. Godine, 1993. A delightful grab-bag of info: good on typography, letter hands, and the various letters' iconography.
Fischer, Steven Roger. A History of Writing. London: Reaktion Books, 2001.
Jackson, Donald. The Story of Writing. New York: Taplinger Publishing, 1981.
Jean, Georges. Writing: The Story of Alphabets and Scripts. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1992. Translated from French by Jenny Oates.
Man, John. Alpha Beta: How our Alphabet Changed the Western World. London: Headline Book Publishing, 2000. Recommended: accessible and up to date. Very good on the alphabet's beginnings.
Martin, Henri-Jean. The History and Power of Writing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994. Translated from French by Lydia G. Cochrane. Recommended: an excellent overview, from ancient Sumerian tablets to early computerization. Page for page, the best book available on the history of writing and print.
Meggs, Philip B. A History of Graphic Design. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1992 (2nd edition). Recommended for its superb overview: from the origins of writing to modern advertising and other print design.
Ogg, Oscar. The 26 Letters. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1948, 1961.
Ouaknin, Marc-Alain. Mysteries of the Alphabet: The Origins of Writing. New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 1999. Translated from French by Josephine Bacon.
Robinson, Andrew. The Story of Writing. New York: Thames & Hudson, 1995.
Sacks, David. Letter Perfect: The Marvelous History of our Alphabet from A to Z. New York: Broadway Books, 2004. This is the paperback edition, still in print, of the 2003 hardcover entitled Language Visible (Broadway Books). Both titles provide the same text.
—Yes, this last item is my own book but here is honestly recommended as offering the most up-to-date introduction to the topic for general readers. See the book's Preface and Chapter 1.
—To read the Preface and part of Chapter 1 online, go to the "My books" box at top right of this page and click on the Language Visible blue link; then scroll down the new page.
The alphabet's origin in Egypt, circa 2000 B.C.
Darnell, John Coleman. Theban Desert Road Survey in the Egyptian Western Desert, Volume 1: Gebel Tjauti Rock Inscriptions 1-45 and Wadi el-Hol Rock Inscriptions 1-45. Oriental Institute Publications, Volume 119. Chicago: The Oriental Institute, 2002. Includes description of the two earliest alphabetic inscriptions yet discovered, from about 1800 B.C.
Darnell, John Coleman; F.W. Dobbs-Allsopp; et al. Two Early Alphabetic Inscriptions from the Wadi el-Hol: New Evidence for the Origin of the Alphabet from the Western Desert of Egypt. Boston: Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research, Volume 59, 2005. Gives further analysis of the above.
Hamilton, Gordon J. The Origins of the West Semitic Alphabet in Egyptian Scripts. Catholic Biblical Quarterly Monograph Series. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic Biblical Association of America, 2006.
Man, John. Alpha Beta: How our Alphabet Changed the Western World. London: Headline Book Publishing, 2000.
Sacks, David. Language Visible or Letter Perfect, as above, 2003. Chapter 1.
Wilford, John Noble. "Finds in Egypt Date Alphabet in Earlier Era," New York Times, November 14, 1999. Announcing discovery of the two earliest known alphabetic inscriptions.
The early alphabet in Canaan and Phoenicia, circa 1750 to 700 B.C.
Cross, Frank Moore. Chapter 5, "The Invention and Development of the Alphabet" in The Origins of Writing. Editor: Wayne M. Senner. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.
Hamilton, Gordon J. The Origins of the West Semitic Alphabet in Egyptian Scripts. Catholic Biblical Quarterly Monograph Series. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic Biblical Association of America, 2006.
Healey, John F. The Early Alphabet. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. Chapters 1 to 3. Recommended for its overview, although now not fully up to date.
Isserlin, B.S.J. Chapter 20-a, “The Earliest Alphabetic Writing” in The Cambridge Ancient History, Volume 3, Part 1: The Prehistory of the Balkans; and the Middle East and the Aegean World, Tenth to Eighth Centuries B.C. Editors: John Boardman, I.E.S. Edwards, et al. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982 (2nd edition).
Man, John. Alpha Beta: How our Alphabet Changed the Western World. London: Headline Book Publishing, 2000.
Markoe, Glenn E. Phoenicians. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. Chapter 4 on their alphabet: a good, brief summary.
Naveh, Joseph. Origins of the Alphabet. London: Cassell & Company, 1975.
O'Connor M. Section 5, "Epigraphic Semitic Scripts" in The World’s Writing Systems. Editors: Peter T. Daniels and William Bright. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Sacks, David. Language Visible or Letter Perfect, as above, 2003. Chapter 1.
Sass, Benjamin. The Genesis of the Alphabet and Its Development in the Second Millennium B.C. Wiesbaden, Germany: Otto Harrassowitz, 1988. Recommended but difficult to acquire.
Birth and development of the Greek alphabet, circa 800 to 400 B.C.
Hornblower, Simon, and Anthony Spawforth (editors). The Oxford Classical Dictionary. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Articles including "Alphabet, Greek;" "Books, Greek and Roman;" "Epigraphy;" "Palaeography;" "Papyrology, Greek and Latin;" "Pottery (Greek), Inscriptions On."
Jeffery, L.H. Chapter 20-b, “Greek Alphabetic Writing” in The Cambridge Ancient History, Volume 3, Part 1: The Prehistory of the Balkans; and the Middle East and the Aegean World, Tenth to Eighth Centuries B.C. Editors: John Boardman, I.E.S. Edwards, et al. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982 (2nd edition).
Jeffery, L.H. and A.W. Johnston. The Local Scripts of Archaic Greece: A Study of the Origin of the Greek Alphabet and Its Development from the Eighth to the Fifth Centuries B.C. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990 (revised edition). Recommended: a landmark work, although not aimed at general readers.
Naveh, Joseph. Origins of the Alphabet. London: Cassell & Company, 1975. Thought-provoking but (to my mind) wrong in its treatment of the Greek alphabet's origin. Naveh's too-early borrow-date of 1100 B.C. seems clearly contradicted by the earliest extant Greek letter-shapes, which point to 800 B.C., the date favored by mainstream classicists.
Peruzzi, E. "Cultura Greca a Gabii nel Secolo VIII," Parola del Passato, Volume 47, 1992. Announcing the earliest Greek inscription yet discovered, from about 775 B.C.
Powell, Barry B. Homer and the Origin of the Greek Alphabet. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Recommended: accessibly written and generally reliable.
Powell, Barry B. Writing and the Origins of Greek Literature. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Chapter 16 on the birth of the Greek alphabet.
Ridgway, David. “Greek Letters at Osteria dell’Osca,” Festschrift for P.G. Gierow, London, 1997. More on the earliest found Greek inscription.
Sacks, David. Language Visible or Letter Perfect, as above, 2003. Interstitial section, pages 57 to 63.
Woodard, Roger D. Greek Writing from Knossos to Homer: A Linguistic Interpretation of the Origin of the Greek Alphabet and the Continuity of Ancient Greek Literacy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
The Etruscan and ancient Roman alphabets, circa 700 B.C. to 500 A.D.
Bonfante, Larissa. Etruscan. London: British Museum Publications, 1990.
Bowman, Alan K. Life and Letters on the Roman Frontier: Vindolanda and its People. New York: Routledge, 1994.
Catich, Edward M. The Trajan Inscription in Rome. Davenport, Iowa: Catfish Press (St. Ambrose College), 1961 (2nd edition).
Gordon, Arthur E. Illustrated Introduction to Latin Epigraphy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983. Recommended as a starting point.
Hornblower, Simon, and Anthony Spawforth (editors). The Oxford Classical Dictionary. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Articles including "Alphabets of Italy;" "Books, Greek and Roman;" "Epigraphy;" "Palaeography;" "Papyrology, Greek and Latin;" "Vindolanda Tablets."
Penney, J.H.W. Chapter 15, “The Languages of Italy” in The Cambridge Ancient History, Volume 4: Persia, Greece and the Western Mediterranean c.525 to 479 B.C. Editors: John Boardman, N.G.L. Hammond, et al. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988 (2nd edition).
Sacks, David. Language Visible or Letter Perfect, as above, 2003. Interstitial sections, pages 74 to 81, 103 to 109.
Sandys, Sir John Edwin. Latin Epigraphy: An Introduction to the Study of Latin Inscriptions. Groningen, Holland: Bouma’s Boekhuis N,V., 1969 (2nd edition: revised by S.G Campbell, originally published in 1927).
Wallace, Rex. Chapter 8, "The Origins and Development of the Latin Alphabet" in The Origins of Writing. Editor: Wayne M. Senner. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.
The alphabet in the European Middle Ages, circa 500 to 1500 A.D.
Antonsen, Elmer H. Chapter 9, "The Runes: The Earliest Germanic Writing System" in The Origins of Writing. Editor: Wayne M. Senner. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.
Bishop, T.A.M. English Caroline Minuscule. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.
Drogin, Marc. Medieval Calligraphy: Its History and Technique. Montclair, N.J.: Allanheld & Schram, 1980.
Johnston, Edward. Writing and Illuminating and Lettering. London: Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons, 1932 (1906 edition). Two books in one volume.
Knight, Stan. Historical Scripts: A Handbook for Calligraphers. New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1986.
Martin, Henri-Jean. The History and Power of Writing. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994. Translated from French by Lydia G. Cochrane. Chapter 4: "The Death and Resurrection of Written Culture."
Orme, Nicholas. Medieval Children. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001. Chapter 7: "Learning to Read," on the medieval alphabet.
Page, R.I. Runes. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.
Pei, Mario. The Story of Latin and the Romance Languages. New York: Harper & Row, 1976.
Sacks, David. Language Visible or Letter Perfect, as above, 2003. Interstitial section, pages 141 to 155.
Ullman, B.L. The Origin and Development of Humanistic Script. Rome: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, 1960.
May 2011: Watch for development of this list into further categories—"The print revolution," "The writing of English," etc.—with annotations and recommendations.
Beament, Justin and Esther Dudley. In Blessed Memory: Incised Headstones of North & West Devon and North Cornwall, 1650–1850. Exeter School of Arts & Design, University of Plymouth, 2000.
Blumenthal, Joseph. Art of the Printed Book: 1455–1955. New York: Pierpont Morgan Library, 1973.
Bragg, Melvyn. The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2004.
Chappell, Warren, and Robert Bringhurst. A Short History of the Printed Word. Point Roberts, WA.: Hartley & Marks, 1999 (2nd edition, revised). Recommended.
Claiborne, Robert. Our Marvelous Native Tongue: The Life and Times of the English Language. New York: Times Books, 1983.
Cook, B.F. Greek Inscriptions. London: British Museum Publications, 1987.
Drucker, Johanna. The Alphabetic Labyrinth: The Letters in History and Imagination. New York: Thames & Hudson, 1995.
Dyche, Thomas. A Guide to the English Tongue. First published: London: 1707. Facsimile edition: Menston, Yorkshire, England: The Scolar Press, 1967.
Fairbank, Alfred, and Wolpe, Berthold. Renaissance Handwriting. London: Faber and Faber, 1960.
Goldberg, Jonathan. Writing Matter: From the Hands of the English Renaissance. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1990.
Goudy, Frederic W. The Alphabet and Elements of Lettering. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1942. (2nd edition, revised.)
Gray, Nicolete. A History of Lettering: Creative Experiment and Letter Identity. Oxford: Phaidon Press, 1986.
Harling, Robert. The Letter Forms and Type Designs of Eric Gill. Boston: David R. Godine, 1976.
Hart, John. An Orthographie. First published: London: 1569. Reprinted in John Hart’s Works on English Orthography and Pronunciation, volume 1. Edited by Bror Danielsson. Stockholm: Almquist & Wiksell, 1955.
-------. The Opening of the Unreasonable Writing of Our Inglish Toung. Unpublished: written in 1551. Reprinted in John Hart’s Works on English Orthography and Pronunciation, op. cit., above.
Hoffman, Edward. The Hebrew Alphabet: A Mystical Journey. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1998.
Johnson, Samuel. A Dictionary of the English Language. Three volumes. Second edition, revised by H.J. Todd. London: Longman, Rees, et. al., 1827.
Johnston, Edward. Writing and Illuminating and Lettering. London: Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons, 1932 (two works inone volume, 1906 edition).
Jonson, Ben. The English Grammar. First published: London, 1640 (posthumously). Reprinted: London: Lanston Monotype Corporation, 1928.
Maittaire, Michael. The English Grammar: Or, an Essay on the Art of Grammar, Applied to and Exemplified in the English Tongue. First published: London: 1712. Facsimile edition: Menston, Yorkshire, England: The Scolar Press, 1967.
Man, John. The Gutenberg Revolution: The story of a genius and the invention that changed the world. London: Headline Book Publishing, 2002. Recommended.
Martin, Henri-Jean. The History and Power of Writing. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994. Translated from French by Lydia G. Cochrane.
Massin. Letter and Image. London: Studio Vista, 1970. Translated from French by Caroline Hillier and Vivienne Menkes.
Meggs, Philip B. A History of Graphic Design. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1992 (2nd edition).
Mencken, H.L. The American Language: An Inquiry into the Development of English in the United States. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1955 (4th edition). Chapters: “The Two Streams of English” and “American Spelling.”
Monaghan, E. Jennifer. A Common Heritage: Noah Webster’s Blue-Back Speller. Hamden, CT.: Archon Books, 1983.
Morison, Stanley. Letter Forms: Typographic and Scriptorial. London: Nattali & Maurice, 1968.
---------------. Pacioli's Classic Roman Alphabet. Mineola, N.Y: Dover Publications, 1994. Originally published in New York in 1933.
Mulcaster, Richard. The First Part of the Elementarie which entreateth chefelie of the right writing of our English tung, facsimile edition. Menston, Yorkshire, England: The Scolar Press, 1970. First published: London, 1582.
Murray, James A.H.; Bradley, Henry; et. al. (editors). The Oxford English Dictionary. Unabridged: 13 volumes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1933. Excellent entries on each of the 26 letters, placed as the first entry under each letter in the dictionary.
Nesbitt, Alexander. Lettering: The History and Technique of Lettering as Design. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1950.
Pei, Mario. Invitation to Linguistics: A Basic Introduction to the Science of Language. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1965.
----. The Story of Language. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1966 (2nd edition).
Scragg, D.G. A History of English Spelling. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1974.
Smeijers, Fred. Counterpunch: Making Type in the Sixteenth Century, Designing Typefaces Now. London: Hyphen Press, 1996.
Spiekerman, Erik and E.M. Ginger. Stop Stealing Sheep & find out how type works. Berkeley, California: Peachpit Press/Adobe Systems, 2003 (2nd edition).
Steinberg, S.H. Five Hundred Years of Printing. New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Press, 1996 (3rd edition, revised by John Trevitt).
Tory, Geofroy. Champ Fleury (“Field of Flowers”). Translated and annotated by George B. Ives, 1927. New York: Dover Publications, 1967. Originally published in French in Paris, 1529.
Tuer, Andrew W. History of the Horn-book. Amsterdam: S. Emmering, 1971.
Twyman, Michael. The British Library Guide to Printing: History and Techniques. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998.
Essay: The Story of the Alphabet
1. Our letter shapes come from pictures
“The shapes of letters do not derive their beauty from any sensual or sentimental reminiscences,” the famous English type designer Eric Gill wrote in 1940. “No one can say that the O’s roundness appeals to us only because it is like that of an apple or of a girl’s breast or of the full moon. Letters are things, not pictures of things.”
Doubtless the great Gill’s observation holds true for modern typeface and its esthetic effects. Yet in one sense, his “Letters are things, not pictures of things” is dead wrong. Our letters, in their Bronze Age origins, used to be pictures. Our capital letter shapes—most of them—began as pictures. Their shapes exist today as stylized remnants of pictures.
Think of the M: Its wavy lines, four thousand years ago, were meant as the image of water. The O was the picture of an eye (originally shown with an interior iris, eventually without one). The H was a fence (having since lost its top and bottom horizontal bars). K’s splayed lines began as the image of a hand.
And the A? Well, just turn it upside down, and what you might see, staring back at you down 40 centuries, is the triangular face of a cow or ox, the letter’s legs now changed (back) to horns. Originally the alphabet’s first letter was the picture of an ox’s head, and the letter’s name in ancient Near Eastern languages was aleph, meaning “ox”. Today, in Hebrew, the first letter still is called aleph or alef, “ox”.
The alphabet thus began as a string of pictured objects: “ox,” “house,” “throwing stick,” and so on. But they were carefully chosen objects, whose names collectively held a special quality, as we shall see. And in their shapes and denoted sounds, these picture-letters were the direct ancestors of our ABC’s.
So how did we get from there to here? How did our letters become our letters? The tale begins historically around 2000 B.C. But the clearest explanation might start with the present day and some general principles.
2. An invention, like the wheel
You’re just off the plane in Budapest or Istanbul, Jakarta or Kampala, Nuuk or Baku, and you pick up a newspaper in the local language. Probably (I’m guessing) you can’t read it. But you will at least recognize the letters, for—in scores of countries like Hungary, Turkey, Indonesia, Uganda, Greenland, and Azerbaijan—people write their native language in an alphabet that is more or less our familiar one of English.
Our 26 letters constitute the Roman or Latin alphabet—that is, the 23 letters of ancient Rome, adapted to English. (The Romans had no letter J, V, or W.) Today the Roman alphabet is by far the most popular script on Earth, encompassing about 100 major modern languages and 1.9 billion users, in 120 countries worldwide. And that “modern languages” statistic jumps to over 1,300 if you count the myriad tongues of central and southern Africa, nearly all of them written in Roman letters.
Obviously these many languages represent not just places once part of the Roman Empire, like Italy or Spain, but places also where Roman soldiers never set foot, like Vietnam or Nigeria. The latter category received the Roman alphabet when it was imposed at some time between 600 and 2000 A.D., whether through Christian missionary zeal or European colonialism or Westernizing political will from within. That is, the Roman alphabet was fitted to native languages. In some places, the alphabet arrived as the people’s first writing system; elsewhere, it displaced existing scripts.
Vietnam, for example, uses the Roman alphabet as imposed by French colonialism in 1910. This adapted version—originally developed by Portuguese Catholic missionaries, centuries earlier, to fit the particular sounds of Vietnamese—has 29 letters, with multiple versions of A, E, O, and U showing various accent marks, but with no F, J, W, or Z. It replaced a Chinese-derived script that had previously supplied Vietnam’s writing.
Meanwhile in Turkey, the Turkish language had traditionally been written in the Arabic alphabet. But in 1928, after the downfall of the Ottoman dynasty, Turkey switched to Roman letters by decree of ruler Kemal Atatürk. Turkey’s Roman alphabet has 29 letters (not exactly the same 29 as Vietnam’s), for the sounds of Turkish.
Other tongues that use adapted Roman alphabets include Polish, with 32 letters—the Roman letters being a legacy of Poland’s embrace of Roman Catholicism (900s A.D.), while neighboring Russia, speaking a kindred tongue, received a Greek-derived alphabet from rival Byzantine missionaries—and Tahitian, now spoken by 150,000 inhabitants of French Polynesia and written in an alphabet of just 13 letters.
Ours is not the only international alphabet. Two others today embrace multiple languages and countries. Russia’s Cyrillic alphabet is used for languages of Serbia, Bulgaria, Ukraine, the Mongolian republic, and other lands. The Arabic alphabet serves nine other major tongues, linguistically unrelated to Arabic, including Farsi and Kurdish in Iran, Urdu and Sindhi in Pakistan, and Uighur in western China.
Meanwhile, one Arabic-based language is regularly written in Roman letters: Maltese, on the Mediterranean island of Malta. And Swahili and Malay, while unrelated to either Latin or Arabic, are commonly written in Roman letters but sometimes alternatively in Arabic ones.
Please note the bigger implication: Alphabets get around. An alphabet is not confined to any one language or language family, but can spread from language to language—from French to Tahitian, from Church Latin to Polish, from Arabic to Urdu—across all sorts of language barriers. Even where two tongues are totally unrelated and mutually unintelligible, an alphabet can easily be fitted from one to the other. Typically, you need only drop a few letters and reassign (or invent) a few others, to bring the alphabet into line with the new language’s sounds.
These facts, not intuitively obvious to many of us, are the heart of the alphabet story. The alphabet is best understood as a mechanical invention, like the wheel—an invention for showing sounds of language. Like the wheel, it emerged from the Near East in the Bronze Age and spread across the ancient world by being copied (not reinvented) from place to place. Like the wheel, it is still with us and has never been superseded. And like the wheel or the stirrup or the pulley, the alphabet can work for whoever possesses it.
3. The genius of the letters
Yet how can this be? How can one language’s alphabet adapt easily to a new tongue, whose speech sounds might be quite different? The answer lies in the letters. Letters operate at a fundamental level of human language, in the way that a medical blood transfusion, from one person to another, undercuts any considerations of gender, race, nationality, eye color, etc. The letters are that very basic.
High time, then, for us to define what “letters” and “alphabet” are. An alphabet is a writing system whose symbols (letters) represent exclusively the smallest particles of speech, called “phonemes.” A phoneme is a consonant sound or a vowel sound, usually smaller than a syllable, or, at most, the same as a syllable. Our word “central” has two syllables but seven phonemes, each neatly displayed by a different letter. Our word “around” has two syllables and five phonemes (the combination OU representing, by convention, a phoneme for which no single English letter exists). Historically, alphabetic writing has contrasted with two other major systems: the syllabic and logographic.
In a syllabic script, the symbols are phonetic like an alphabet’s, but each symbol represents a whole syllable. The word “around” would be shown as two symbols (╛▼, for example), not seven. Ancient Babylonian cuneiform used this: The written symbols, when sounded-out correctly, would yield roughly the sounds of the Semitic speech of Babylon. Today, writing systems in India and Korea use a syllabic method, but based on alphabetic components.
A logographic system meanwhile (as its title “word writing” suggests) assigns one whole word per symbol. The major modern example is the script of China, wherein each symbol denotes a word in Mandarin. Symbols or “characters” typically consist of multiple brush strokes. Unlike an alphabet or cuneiform, China’s writing is not primarily phonetic: It does not regularly convey the words’ sounds. (At most, it can include phonetic prompts, whereby two Mandarin words that sound similar may also show similarities in written shapes.)
There are strong historical-cultural-political reasons why China retains its system of word writing, but China, Taiwan, and Japan are the only three nations that use such. Nearly all other nations on Earth today use an alphabet or alphabet-based system: roughly 4.8 billion people, more than three-quarters of humanity, writing in some 25 scripts. Numerically, the Roman alphabet is the clear favorite, as mentioned already.
The reason for this global predominance is that an alphabet enjoys a huge advantage over other methods: It needs fewer symbols—usually only around two dozen, or under three dozen at most. Russia’s Cyrillic alphabet has 33 letters; Iran’s version of the Arabic alphabet, 32. Likewise, 32 for the Roman alphabets of Poland and Lithuania. Although 48 symbols are found in India’s Devanagari script, it technically is not an alphabet but rather a syllabic system, alphabet-based.
Compare here the Chinese system, which requires at least 2,000 different symbols for everyday literacy, out of an inventory of some 60,000 total. Meanwhile, ancient Babylonian cuneiform, writing by syllables, ran to some 600 symbols.
Alphabets exploit a surprising trait of human speech: Most languages employ not many phonemes. No matter how developed a language’s vocabulary, its spoken sounds, once analyzed, will yield typically just 30–50 phonemes. English contains some 500,000-to-a-million words, by far more than any other tongue, but only about 44 or 45 phonemes. At the lower end of the scale, the Finnish language uses only 21 phonemes, each one exclusively represented by a single letter of Finland’s 21-letter Roman alphabet. Tahitian uses 13 phonemes, commanding 13 letters.
In English, we don’t need 45 letters for 45 phonemes, thanks to our spelling conventions such as using letter combinations for certain phonemes—SH, TH, OY, etc.—and assigning two or more possible sounds to some letters. Thus, with 26 letters, we capture reasonably well the sounds of up to a million words.
Now, the roughly 36 phonemes of, say, Arabic are not precisely the same as the 36 phonemes of Czech. But there is an overlap, and an overlap too among most world languages. Which means that an alphabet, once developed for Language A, is in a reasonably strong position to adapt to Language B. Traditionally, very few human languages rely on sounds that are not susceptible to alphabetic writing.
This is the letters’ genius: that they combine versatility with simplicity. By showing phonemes specifically, letters are beautifully precise in symbolizing sound. Yet phonemes by nature are few in number, so that the letter list is never very long. The system is doubly blessed.
The short but efficient letter list has enabled the alphabet to conquer most of the globe. Less cumbersome than any system of syllable- or word-units, an alphabet is easy to use and to teach to children. Students need memorize just two or so dozen symbols, to start building toward literacy. Starting by age six, they can become fully literate by twelve; they can leave school before reaching working age; the study need not interfere with earning a living.
This crucial fact has made the alphabet historically the vehicle of mass literacy, and a technology to be coveted. In Thailand, for example, the late-13th-century King Ram Khamhaeng is remembered for having given his country the gift of an alphabet.
4. The alphabet's origin
Astoundingly, almost all major modern alphabets are related. That is, they stand in historical and causal relation to each other, in a huge family tree that embraces the globe and stretches back four thousand years to a single starting point, the world’s first alphabet. Since that beginning, very few alphabets have been invented in isolation (one such being the Korean script, from the mid-1400s A.D.). More usually, alphabets have descended through the family tree by being copied from language to language: One alphabet would “beget” another, in biblical-style proliferation across ancient lands.
Our Roman alphabet is the grandchild of the ancient Greek alphabet and a distant cousin of the Arabic and a brother of Europe’s medieval runes. The Cyrillic alphabet is the child of the Greek. The Greek and Hebrew letters share a mother in the ancient Phoenician alphabet, from 1000–800 B.C. The Phoenician alphabet is great-grandmother to the Arabic. And so on.
These family relationships are disguised because letters do not usually resemble each other from alphabet to alphabet. The reason is in the writing: Outside of Europe and before the age of print (after 1452 A.D.), an alphabet borrowed by Language B from Language A might tend to evolve away from Alphabet A’s letter shapes, according People B’s visual tastes and writing materials. The classic example is the Hebrew letters. As archaeology reveals, they began as exact copies of the Phoenician but then acquired new shapes, while nevertheless retaining, to this day, the sequence, number, names, and (mostly) sounds of the ancient Phoenician letters.
Such facts notwithstanding, about half of our capital Roman letters do look exactly like the corresponding Greek letters, their “grandmothers”. And a certain few letter-shapes, like Q, line up clearly recognizably amid the letters of the modern Roman, modern Hebrew, modern Arabic, early-ancient Greek, and ancient Phoenician lists, thus testifying to a shared origin.
The Phoenician alphabet was not the first, contrary to some popular belief. Backward beyond Phoenicia lie perhaps a thousand years of prior Near Eastern alphabet-writing tradition. To our eyes, the trail to the origin grows faint here. But archaeology and other scholarship of the past 15 years particularly have provided us with at least a plausible theory of the alphabet’s birth.
Today we believe that the alphabet was invented in Egypt around 2000 B.C. The inventors were not exactly Egyptians but foreigners, or at least people of foreign descent. They were, we think, Semitic peoples, originally from the Levant or Arabia, living in Egypt as slaves or “guest workers” or mercenary soldiers—their historical presence documented in extant Egyptian writings and corroborated apparently by the biblical book of Exodus’s tale of Jewish slaves in Egypt. In 2000 B.C. they would not have been Jews or Hebrews but rather Bronze Age forerunners, cut from same ethnic-linguistic cloth as the future Canaanites, Phoenicians, Jews, Aramaeans, and Arabs of the ancient world. We call them by the noun “Semite” or adjective “Semitic” because they would have spoken a language of the Semitic linguistic family (today represented primarily by Arabic and Hebrew). Their language would have sounded quite different from that of the Egyptians.
Note: Our terms “Semite” and “Semitic” refer to a biblical belief that Noah’s son Shem was father of a Near Eastern ethnic group, the “children of Shem,” which today includes people of Jewish or Arab lineage. However, “Semite” and “Semitic” can sometimes be complicated and unscientific terms, insofar as they were often used in 19th- and 20th-century English as politely intended synonyms for "Jew" and "Jewish". Today “Semite” and “Semitic” are best used just to describe the ancient and modern language-group that includes Hebrew, Arabic, and Aramaic.
Semites in Egypt, with as yet no writing of their own, would have lived amid the grand visible presence of Egyptian picture writing: the famous hieroglyphics. Inset-carved and painted into building stones, or painted flat on wood or fabric, hieroglyphics abounded in public places as official expressions of religious faith or government propaganda. The Egyptians had also a less formal writing system, for personal correspondence, business records, etc., which was a kind of abbreviated hieroglyphics, typically written in ink on papyrus.
Hieroglyphics supply the most beautiful and one of the most expressive of all writing forms, ancient or modern. With an inventory of some 700 images of everyday objects—basket, hand, owl—the system assigned meaning in two possible ways. The image could mean what it showed: a sailboat picture could mean “sailing”. Or the image could work as a phonetic prompt or pun, whereby the object’s Egyptian-language name would contribute phonetically to some entirely different word(s), much as a rebus word-puzzle operates in English. A hieroglyphic tree branch might mean “wood,” or it might help convey the meaning of “after” or “strong,” words in Egyptian that sounded like “wood.” In hieroglyphics, an owl and reed together commonly denoted the word “there,” which in Egyptian would have sounded something like the words “owl-reed” run together.
Among other general traits: Hieroglyphics normally ran horizontally from right to left, and their phonetics tended to ignore words’ vowel sounds and rely just on consonant sounds. Also, there were 25 designated pictures that could, as one alternative, denote a single consonant sound each: “t” or “m,” for example. Here was a rudimentary alphabet, embedded within the immense hieroglyphic system: The 25 major consonants of Egyptian speech were each symbolized by an assigned picture—or, as we would also call it, a letter.
Somehow the Semitic underclass came to comprehend and copy this Egyptian-hieroglyphic alphabetic principle. We will never know how such an unlikely event occurred. Perhaps the Egyptians themselves gave guidance, as might have happened in a large military or mining setting where Egyptian supervisors wished to see their obedient hordes become better organized through the gift of writing.
At any rate, in some century around 2000 B.C., Semites in Egypt started writing their language in an alphabet of probably 27 letters.
The above statement—whose facts you will not find in books or articles written before 2000 A.D.—represents an inference that modern scholars have drawn from two remarkable inscriptions, discovered in central Egypt near Luxor in 1993 A.D. and today deemed to be the earliest extant samples of alphabetic writing. For various reasons, including the two inscriptions' letter shapes and the archaeological context at the inscriptions' locale, many experts now accept 1800 B.C. as the rough date of the inscriptions' writing and agree that they point backward to a date around 2000 B.C., in Egypt, for the invention of an alphabetic writing system.
This would have been the world’s first alphabet proper. The letters were pictures. And remarkably, those picture-letters were destined, in their shapes, their sounds, and (partially) their sequence, to be the direct ancestors of about 19 of our own letters.
The Semites’ chosen pictures were copied from Egyptian hieroglyphics, but with all hieroglyphic values discarded. These were not the same images or sounds as those 25 Egyptian picture-letters that had prompted the idea. The Semites’ letter list was geared wholly to the vocabulary and the main sounds of their own language—a language that we can confidently re-create today, thanks to our knowledge of a kindred tongue, traditional Hebrew.
The alphabet was a list of consonant sounds that were essential for Semitic writing. Only consonants were shown as letters; vowels were not. Although Semitic language did use vowel sounds in speech, the writing-out of them was deemed unnecessary (as in Egyptian hieroglyphics). Alphabetic writing was to be a sstm f cndnsd spllngs tht dd nt rqr vwl lttrs. Although such vowel-less writing could never work generally for our English, it did suffice for Semitic languages—which favor vocabularies of two-or-three consonantal roots wherein words typically begin and end with a consonant sound. This consonantal-framing effect makes vowel-less writing a plausible choice (“…spllngs tht dd nt rqr…”); and to this day, Arabic and Hebrew writing tends to omit the showing of vowels.
The use of pictures as letters was in keeping with the hieroglyphic inspiration and had a strong logic to it. For a picture has a name—“fence,” “wheel”—and the name could prompt the reader as to the letter’s sound. The prompt was the first sound of the object’s name. For example, the picture of a man’s head meant not “head” but the sound “r,” which was the first sound in the Semitic word resh (meaning “head”). A picture of a wavy line, suggesting “water,” denoted the sound “m,” with which began the Semitic word mem, “water.”
It was as if we English speakers were to use 26 pictures for our letters, of which our first letter would be an apple-image, the second a ball, the third a cat, the last a zebra. The object’s name would cue the reader to the letter’s sound, according to the name’s opening sound. A word would be spelled as a string of pictures. The English word “bat,” for example, would be spelled as “ball”-“apple”-“tower,” with the images contributing to the phonetics but with no further meaning for the spelled word.
The original Semitic alphabet, being purely a list of consonant sounds, contained some letters that were destined to become our vowel letters that did not begin as vowels. Our A, for example, descends from the Semitic letter aleph, the ox. But the aleph did not signify the vowel sound “a”; rather, it signified a tiny consonant sound, a catch of breath, which in Semitic speech might be used in front of a vowel. This Semitic consonant (difficult to symbolize in English spelling) was the sound that actually began the word aleph and that was intended in the letter aleph.
Similarly, the Semitic letter ayin, the “eye,” destined to become our O, signified a Semitic guttural throat consonant, unknown in English. Ditto too for the future E, I, and U; all started as Semitic consonants.
5. The Semitic early alphabet: 2000–1000 B.C.
Our knowledge of the early alphabet comes mainly from about 55 short inscriptions found during the 20th century A.D. in locales in modern Egypt, Israel, and Lebanon. The inscriptions survive by chance, having been carved into or painted onto durable material—stone, ceramic, metal—that came to modern eyes through the science of archaeology. Obviously, the extant inscriptions represent just a tiny fragment of alphabetic writings that must have existed, 2000–1000 B.C., most of them inked onto perishable material like papyrus or leather.
Of these 55 inscriptions, the earliest are those two from central Egypt, from about 1800 B.C., as mentioned above. Other early inscriptions seem, in their dates and geographic span, to reflect a gradual northeastward spread of the alphabet, along caravan routes, into the Levant.
Meanwhile a slightly different version of early alphabetic writing traveled southward up the Nile into the Sudan-Ethiopia region and then eastward across the Red Sea into Arabia, resulting in a separate early alphabetic tradition in those places. Today this southern trunk of the early alphabet's progress is referred to by scholars as the "South Arabian" tradition. However, our focus in this essay is on the northeastern trunk, often known as the "north Semitic" or "Canaanite" tradition (after the biblical land of Canaan, the Bronze Age precursor of ancient Israel and Phoenicia).
One Canaanite inscription, unearthed in what is now Lebanon, represents the oldest complete letter-list that has survived for us: a full alphabet of 22 letters, from about 1200 B.C. Thus we know that, by that date, the north Semitic alphabet contained 22 letters, no longer 27, with shapes that were no longer carefully drawn pictures but instead had become more-stylized forms.
These 22 letters from 1200 B.C are the same 22 as would provide the famous Phoenician alphabet of 1000 B.C., with (almost certainly) the same letter names and values that we know from the 22-letter ancient Hebrew alphabet. The first letter was aleph, “ox,” the breath-catch sound; the second was bayt, “house,” the “b” sound; the third, gimel, “throwing stick,” the “g”; then daleth, “door,” the “d”. Although with some obvious differences, here are the originals of A, B, C, and D.
Note: People often wonder about a possible pattern or message in the letters' sequence in the early alphabet; however, no modern explanation satisfies. No modern scholar can plausibly claim to have deciphered the sequence's "meaning": Quite possibly there was no meaning—beyond that this sequence succeeded because it was easy to memorize. The most we can see is that certain letters were grouped together by sound: for example, the three "voiced stops" of "b", "g", and "d" placed at Numbers 2, 3, and 4, or the similar "m" and "n" sounds placed together near the list's middle. But as to any ultimate reason or mystical wisdom behind the sequence, who can say? Readers are urged to be skeptical of (for example) references to the religious importance of the ox in the Bronze Age Mediterranean as an explanation for why the aleph came first. More likely aleph came first because it was a subtle sound, otherwise easy to forget.
The north Semitic alphabet culminated around 1000–700 B.C. under the Phoenicians, a brilliant Iron Age people based in Lebanon. Ethnically and linguistically, the Phoenicians were remnants of the vanished Canaanite civilization of a prior era. Today the Phoenicians are remembered for their alphabet, their seafaring skill, and their trade in a precious purple dye—which may explain the odd name “Phoenicians” or Phoinikes, the “purple ones,” which is what the ancient Greeks called them. What the Phoenicians called themselves may have been Kanannim, “Canaanites”. The seaborne Phoenicians traded widely, eventually across the Mediterranean to Spain.
With the Phoenicians, the Semitic alphabet emerges fully into view for modern study. Some 500 Phoenician inscriptions survive from the few centuries after 1000 B.C., plus 6,000 later ones from Carthage (the mighty, Phoenician-founded city in what is now Tunisia). These include sample letter lists, perhaps from children’s school lessons. The inscriptions show the Phoenician alphabet to have been a continuation of prior Semitic writing, with the letters’ number (22) and sequence permanently fixed, and their shapes reduced to abstract forms that merely suggested the erstwhile picture-images. All the letters were consonants, and writing tended to run from right to left—a Semitic tradition copied from hieroglyphics and preserved today in Hebrew and Arabic.
In the Phoenician list, we find the seeds of our own letters’ sequence. The half-disguised prototypes of our ABCD have already been mentioned here. Similarly, the Phoenician K (called kaph, “palm of the hand”) resembled our K and came 11th in the list, as our K does. Next in sequence came the Phoenician L, M, and N letters—all with shapes that resemble our own letters’. Bringing up the rear were the Phoenician letters for Q, R, the sound “sh,” and T: eminently the ancestors of our Q, R, S, and T.
The 22nd and last letter, the Phoenician T (called taw, “branding mark”) was shaped like a plus sign—almost exactly the image of our lowercase t. The Q letter (qoph, "monkey") looked like a lollipop with the stick's top showing inside the circle: not bad as a stylized monkey face, and nearly at our familiar shape of Q. And the R letter (resh, "head") was written as a stylized human head and neck in profile, looking like a leftward-facing P. This "P" shape would later supply the P-shaped R letter of the Greek and Cyrillic alphabets, as well as our own R.
As mentioned already, the Phoenician letter names are believed to be the same as the Hebrew letter names (as taught today in classrooms of traditional or modern Hebrew). The reason for such an overlap is that, almost certainly, the ancient Hebrew alphabet was created by being copied from the Phoenician.
In the 900s B.C. the Jews constituted a unified kingdom, with its northern border at Phoenicia. This original land of Israel was ruled from Jerusalem, perhaps by Kings David and Solomon of the Bible. Although differing from the Phoenicians in religious worship, the Jews or Israelites were closely akin to the Phoenicians in ethnic type and spoken language: The Phoenician and Hebrew tongues were quite similar—more so, for example, than modern Spanish and Italian. Also the Phoenicians and Israelites were trade partners, as attested in the biblical books of Samuel and Kings, among other sources.
Today the most devout Jewish belief holds that Moses received the Hebrew letters directly from God on Mt. Sinai, perhaps around 1200 B.C. Yet modern archaeology suggests otherwise: that the Israelites, previously illiterate, acquired writing by adopting the Phoenician alphabet, whole cloth, around 975 B.C. Phoenician letters appear on early inscriptions unearthed in what is now Israel, including two items thought to be the oldest known samples of Hebrew writing, from the 900s B.C. In a later century, the 22 Hebrew letter shapes would evolve their own look, different from the Phoenician; but in the earliest extant Hebrew-language inscriptions, the Hebrew letters are the Phoenician.
Such facts help answer a question that has puzzled students of Hebrew down generations of modern times: Why do the abstract-looking Hebrew letters take the names of objects ("ox," "wheel," "pillar")? Answer: The Hebrew letter shapes once looked like those objects, three thousand years ago.
The Phoenician alphabet's “conquest” of ancient Hebrew speakers represents its first step, but not its last, beyond Phoenicia. Soon, other Semitic-speaking peoples, not just the Jews, were copying Phoenician writing. For instance, the ancient Semitic languages Moabite (in what is now Jordan) and Aramaic (in the Damascus region) first emerge into history in the 900s B.C. as being written in Phoenician letters.
The Aramaic branch in particular would have high destiny, comparable within world cultural history to that of the Hebrew and Greek alphabets (the other two famous daughters of the Phoenician). The borrowed Phoenician letters of the Aramaic language would morph eventually into new shapes—the full-fledged Aramaic alphabet—and this in turn would spread dramatically east and south, into Arabia and across the Iranian plateau, spawning new scripts whose modern descendants include the Arabic alphabet, the Devanagari script of India, and the scripts of Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia.
6. Westward to Europe: 1000–600 B.C.
But also—more significantly for our study—the Phoenician alphabet went west. Proving itself not confined to Near Eastern peoples who spoke kindred Semitic tongues, the alphabet around 800 B.C. made its first jump to a new linguistic family: Indo-European, as represented by ancient Greek.
The Indo-European language family, as its name implies, today includes tongues that range geographically from Europe to India, such as English, German, Irish, Spanish, modern Greek, Russian, Farsi, and Hindi—about 60 modern languages, plus many now vanished, going back thousands of years. The best-known ancient Indo-European tongues are Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit, with their major literatures.
Indo-European and Semitic languages are unrelated. Their vocabularies sound quite different, except for loan words. Indo-European words, unlike ancient Semitic, might begin with a vowel sound (“I am able”) and might rely heavily on vowel sounds to establish words’ meanings (pale, Paul, pill, pile, peel, pole, pool, pull). Which is to say, Indo-European tongues need to show vowel letters for writing.
During the 800s B.C. the Greeks were an illiterate but ambitious people, living in mainland Greece, the Aegean islands, the Asia Minor west coast, and the east Mediterranean island of Cyprus—a sphere just west and north of the Phoenicians’ homeland. The two peoples were trade partners. Phoenician ships probably visited Greece; and Greeks and Phoenicians coexisted in settlements on Cyprus and at an important trading station in the north Levant. Although divided by language and ethnicity, and although the Greeks at this time lagged behind the Phoenicians in technical skills, the two peoples shared an aggressive, mercantile spirit and a love of seafaring. They may have intermarried—some evidence exists in documented Greek personal names—which would have produced bilingual children.
Eventually the Greeks began copycatting Phoenician technologies, including methods of ship design, navigation, and metalworking. Also, probably around 800 B.C., they began writing Greek with the letters of the Phoenician alphabet.
Most of the 22 Phoenician consonant letters were suitable for writing Greek, but the list did not suffice for Greek. The challenge to the Greek adaptors was to invent vowel letters. This they did by reassigning a handful of extraneous Phoenician letters to represent vowels and by creating five new letters to supply further needed vowels and consonants. The fully formed ancient Greek alphabet had 27 letters, later honed to 24, including letters for A, E, I, O, and U. Most of the borrowed Phoenician letters received Greek nonsense names that were imitative of the Phoenician names but had no other meaning in Greek. The Phoenician aleph, bayt, gimel, and daleth, for example, became Greek alpha, beta, gamma, and delta. As in Semitic tradition, each Greek letter announced its sound in the opening sound of its name.
Typical of the Phoenician-to-Greek transition is the alphabet’s first letter. No longer alef, the “ox,” written as a stylized two-horned ox head and denoting a subtle Semitic consonant sound, it now denoted the vowel sound “a” and took the Greek nonsense name alpha. The Greek letter name thus having lost any ox reference, the letter’s shape no longer needed to suggest a picture; and so, within a few generations, the Greeks were writing the letter as standing symmetrically on two legs: A. Today the Greek letters names alpha and beta supply our word “alphabet”.
The Phoenicians wrote from right to left, in Semitic tradition. Thus their asymmetrical letter shapes tended to project leftward, in the direction of flow. Our letters project rightward, since we write left-to-right. The Western switch to left-to-right began with the Greeks. As extant inscriptions reveal, early Greek writing could run in either direction, left or right, sometimes even alternating line by line in the same text; the various letter shapes appeared as mirror images of each other. This experimental “either-or” approach to writing-direction would be typical of other European peoples, too, in their first centuries of alphabetic writing. One reason why Europe would settle finally on left-to-right may have been the “mess factor”: A right-handed person writing in ink might naturally prefer a rightward flow, as tending to place the outer hand and outer sleeve in front of the wet ink trail and not behind it.
The Greek adaption of the Phoenician alphabet was one of the most consequential events in world history. At one swoop, it (a) created the several vowel letters necessary for writing European languages, (b) brought the alphabet geographically to Europe, and (c) put it on the shoulders of a people, the Greeks, who would be culturally the most creative and influential of the ancient Western world. Other ancient nations copied the Greeks.
For example: The Etruscans were a mighty people—today commemorated in the place name Tuscany, part of their home base—who ruled much of Italy. They became enthusiastic consumers and imitators of Greek goods and culture after Greek traders reached Italy around 780 B.C. Eventually, Greek influences would help shape Etruscan religion, art, architecture, military tactics, and social norms. Around 700 B.C. (as we know from archaeological remnants), the Etruscans began writing their own language in the 26-letter West Greek alphabet.
Etruscan and Greek were tongues completely unrelated, insofar as Etruscan happened to be not Indo-European. Yet—as with the Greeks’ adaption of Phoenician letters—the Etruscans were able to appropriate the Greek letters. This required only modest tinkering.
To give some examples: Etruscan speech had no “o” vowel sound and no voiced stops (the “b,” “d,” and “g” sounds) and no use for the corresponding Greek letters. Yet Etruscan apparently employed three different shades of unvoiced velar stop (the “k” sound), and since the Greek alphabet supplied only two such letters, the K and Q equivalents, the Etruscans created the third needed letter by reassigning Greek gamma to be an unvoiced velar stop: the letter C. That is why we today inherit the C-K-Q trio, so oddly overlapping in sound—whereas in modern Greek and Hebrew the alphabet’s Number 3 letter denotes the “g” sound, as it did before the Etruscans changed it.
Once adapted to Etruscan, the alphabet did not tarry. It kept spreading, within Italy, to peoples who were subjects or neighbors of the Etruscans and who spoke Italian tongues not Etruscan. Archaeology affirms that in the centuries after 700 B.C., at least seven non-Etruscan peoples began writing with the Greek-derived Etruscan letters. One such was the Romans.
The Romans of that era were a humble, illiterate people under Etruscan rule. Centered at their town Roma (Rome) in the central Italian region Latium, these Romani spoke a language called Latina (Latin), linguistically unlike Etruscan.
Archaeology around modern Rome has clearly revealed the emergence of Roman writing. Excavations at early-seventh-century levels have found inscriptions in Etruscan letters that convey the Etruscan language; but at levels around 620 B.C., something remarkable starts to happen: On some of the found artifacts, the Etruscan-lettered inscriptions spell-out words of Latin, not Etruscan. The Romans had begun adapting the Etruscan letters to Latin. A Roman alphabet had been born.
7. Roman letters, Latin language: 250 B.C.–500 A.D.
The Roman alphabet’s history is entwined with the Romans’ grand achievement and the Roman Empire’s immense legacy in cultures and languages of Western Europe. By 270 B.C. the Romans had conquered and unified Italy; by 130 A.D. they had won an empire that stretched from Solway Firth to the River Euphrates and the first cataract of the Nile. Latin, with its Roman letters, was the language of imperial authority and, in parts of the empire, was the masses’ language as well. Today, a goodly portion of world population speaks one or other of the major Romance languages—Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, and Romanian—which descend from Latin.
The Roman alphabet reached its first mature stage around 250 B.C. in 21 letters, A to X. (Missing, by our standards, were J, V, W, Y and Z.) By then the Romans had fully fitted the Etruscan letters to Latin: They had dropped three extraneous letters, reassigned two others to create our F and G, and resuscitated three old Greek letters to supply B, D, and O, which the Etruscans had not needed. Also by 250 B.C., about a third of Roman letter shapes had evolved from their Etruscan shapes, and Roman writing had settled at left-to-right. All 21 letters would have been familiar to us today, their shapes easily recognizable as being our capital forms.
Surprisingly, the ancient Romans kept the ineffective C-K-Q trio, an Etruscan holdover. In writing Latin, they relied on C (which was always hard C); they reserved Q for specialty use with U to denote the “kw” sound (as in equus, “horse”); and they used K almost never. Today C remains far favored over K and Q in the spellings of Romance languages, while K tends to dominate in Germanic and some Slavic tongues. English, with its mixed Germanic and Romance influences, prefers C, although not radically.
By about 100 A.D. two more Roman letters had been born: Y and Z, appended to the list expressly to help transliterate Greek words into Latin. (The Romans, like the Etruscan before them, were besotted by Greek culture.) The Z was to represent the Greek consonant zeta. The Y denoted the Greek vowel upsilon, which took a narrowed “u” sound, somewhere between a Roman U and I. This Roman Y was exclusively a vowel (as in our “system” and “symphony”).
The Y’s alternative use, as a consonant (“year,” “lanyard”), would be a future development within medieval French and English. Today the Y remains exclusively a vowel in German and certain other northern European tongues; in fact, the letter’s German name is üpsilon. For spelling the consonantal “y” sound, German uses J, not Y.
The absence of ancient Roman J, V, or W needs a quick explanation here. Despite modern English spellings like “Julius,” “Jupiter,” or “Venus,” ancient Latin actually had no “j” or “v” sounds and no need for those letters. Latin did contain a “w” sound, which it spelled through consonantal use of the letter U. For example, the goddess’s name Venus was actually spelled in Latin as Uenus (pronounced “Way-nus”). That first U, placed before the vowel E, provided a consonant: the “w” sound. The word’s second U, placed before a consonant, was a vowel. Our use of a letter V in “Venus” is just modern spelling convention. Similarly, the ancient Roman name Julius was actually spelled Iulius (pronounced “Yoo-lius”), the first letter I being a “y”-sound consonant and the second one being a vowel. In sum, Latin’s 23 letters served it perfectly well, there being no need of a Latin J or V.
But more important, perhaps, are the letter shapes. It was the Romans who added to their letters the finishing touches that we today take for granted.
Marble-carved inscriptions from the Empire show two techniques used by Roman masons to style their letters: 1) the subtle widening of separate sections of a letter—one leg of the A, two opposite sections of the O—for a graceful, three-dimensional effect, and 2) the addition of small finishing touches (serifs) at the letters’ end points. Both details appear, for example, in the shapes of Roman A, E, or S.
These ancient shapes closely resemble certain fonts like Times New Roman or Garamond or Bembo in our personal computers, and with good reason. For, in the late 1400s A.D., 13 centuries after the Roman heyday, the first generations of European printers would look to imperial Roman letter shapes—carved into stone that survived as rubble throughout Italy and elsewhere—to provide models for the printers’ “roman” typefaces, to be cast in metal. (Please note, therefore, the difference between our “Roman” alphabet and our “roman” type. Some versions of the Roman alphabet, such as our pen script or certain modern typefaces, do not use roman print shapes.)
The Roman era also saw the first appearance of what would one day be our lowercase letter shapes: a, b, d, etc. Although not all at once, such shapes began to emerge around 300 A.D. in Roman ink writing.
In that era, all the Roman letters were thought of as capitals; the notion of a second tier, of lowercase or minuscule forms, still lay in the future. But Roman penmanship did allow for stylized or abbreviated capitals, for the sake of speed and convenience in writing. And so, in extant Latin manuscripts penned in the “uncial” lettering style, we first find the shapes a, d, e, h, and a few others, intended as abbreviated forms of capitals: H / h.
Subsequent centuries would see other reduced shapes in ink, some of them destined to supply our lowercase print forms. Of all the lowercase shapes, the last one to show up in ink was the t, about 1200 A.D.
8. Roman letters, English language: 600–1850 A.D.
The Roman Empire’s collapse, around 500 A.D., created a new map of Europe: one mainly of barbarian kingdoms. The thousand-year-long Middle Ages had begun. Crucially, Rome’s alphabet survived. It lived on, not just in the Church-and-diplomatic Latin of the West and in Romance languages like French and Spanish, but also—a pattern we should by now easily recognize—in being fitted to the writing of newer European languages, such as English and German. The Roman letters weren’t just for Latin anymore.
The rich, complex history of our English tongue cannot be done justice here. The Angles, Saxons, and Jutes who invaded Britain by sea in the 400s A.D. brought a language that was basically an ancient form of German. Starting with its arrival on British soil, it conventionally becomes known as Old English, and its country becomes known as England (“Angle-land”). Soon, Christian missionaries had brought Church Latin and Roman letters to the pagan Anglo-Saxons. By 600 A.D., the Roman letters were being used to write Old English.
The next 12 centuries tell the story of the alphabet’s gradual adjustment to become a more perfect vessel of English—an adjustment complicated by major changes within English, after the Norman Invasion of England in 1066. From the fusion of Old English and Norman French, a fundamentally new tongue emerged: Middle English. By about 1660, this had evolved into a form of Modern English. By the long process’s end, around 1850, the English alphabet had gained its last three letters: W (first), then J and V. Other developments included the arrival of printing in England (1476), the ascendance of roman type fonts, and the slow standardization of English-language spellings—a process never to be fully completed, amid today’s differing spelling rules for Britain, the United States, and certain Commonwealth countries.
German goldsmith Johann Gutenberg’s invention of a printing press, around 1452, with movable metal type and non-smearing ink, was a landmark of world history (even if Gutenberg himself was but a brilliant technician who merely solved a mechanical problem that others were studying at the time). The press’s rate of output—one week for three men to print 500 book copies, versus two months for three scribes to hand-copy three books—with the resultant cheaper sale prices, brought books to the middle class and, eventually, reading to the masses.
The consequences were enormous, in society, culture, politics. As the first mass medium, print ushered-in modern journalism and advertising. It helped feed and organize popular unrest in eruptions like the Protestant Reformation (1500s) and the American and French Revolutions (latter 1700s).
For the alphabet, print led to standardization in the letters’ number and shapes. Letters came no longer mainly from a pen but from laboriously prepared metal blocks, and across Europe the new profession of printers felt the business-need to standardize. Print production favored uniformity—for example, fonts of type that could bought, sold, carried across borders, and used for several languages. (The word “font” originally meant the collected metal blocks of a single print typeface—that is, all of its letters, in upper and lower case, plus all punctuation marks and related symbols, at a depth of several dozen blocks for each letter and symbol.)
One outcome of this standardizing drive was the triumph of roman typefaces, as pioneered by printers in Italy in the late 1400s. Inspired by ancient Roman capitals, roman designs added a lowercase tier based on minuscule shapes from the popular, beautiful Italian “humanist” script of the day; this humanist script was descended from certain medieval Latin handwriting. The end-product in print: typefaces with a handsome, Roman-like look.
Soon, throughout most of Western Europe except Germany, roman typefaces had ousted rival typefaces of Gothic lettering (whose shapes came from the Gothic or black-letter medieval ink style). Modern roman type would reach perfection in designs such as Baskerville (1757), Bodoni (1795), and Times New Roman (1931).
Today, roman typefaces normally supply our books, newspapers, magazines, and extended text online. Meanwhile, a second popular category, “sans serif” or “sanserif”, uses letters that are shaped without serifs and is a frequent choice for display type (in magazines, print ads, or public postings, for example) and for short text in advertising or postings. Another major category is italic, which imitates the slanted letters of certain Renaissance Italian penmanship and which is used today as a secondary form of a roman or sans serif typeface.
Partly from print’s impetus, the letter W joined our alphabet probably in the mid 1500s. It had emerged unofficially during the Middle Ages, due to discontent with the old Latin-consonantal-U method of showing the “w” sound. For added clarity, to denote “w,” medieval writers of Latin or German or Norman French might double the U, making it UU or uu. In England, eventually, this doubled U gave rise to a letter name and a letter shape. In print, the shape became our angled W.
Originally W followed in alphabetical order right after its mother-letter, U: thus, ...T, U, W, X... But by the 1800s, with the arrival of letter V, the W had been pushed back one place: ..T, U, V, W...
As mentioned, J and V were the last two letters to enter the alphabet of English. Their arrival was a product of slow, medieval changes in spoken English and French, whereby the sounds “j” and “v” were occurring in speech but were not being consistently symbolized in writing. For complicated reasons, “j” was thought of as a consonantal sound of the letter I, and “v” as a consonantal sound of U; and for centuries, in English, the letters I and U were employed to represent those two sounds as well as the letters’ vowel sounds. This double duty proved unsatisfactory, and by the 1600s the variant letter shapes J and V were being used more or less consistently to cover the two troublesome consonantal sounds.
Yet official admission to the alphabet had to wait another 200 years, as scholars argued whether J and V were proper letters or just variants of I and U. Noah Webster, while not the first writer to observe a 26-letter alphabet, was the first major lexicographer to do so, in his American Dictionary of the English Language (1828). By 1850, J and V had been universally recognized as letters of the English alphabet and had been placed in order right behind their mother-letters, I and U. The English alphabet was final, at 26 letters. (Meanwhile, in French, W was the last letter to arrive, in the late 1800s.)
9. The next Roman Empire
The future of our Roman alphabet looks rosy indeed. While English pursues its own involuntary world domination as the international language of commerce and online media, nations continue to turn to Roman letters to write their own languages, too. Vietnam and Turkey, from the early 20th century, have already been mentioned. But today, in the Caucasus and Central Asia, nations like Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan—former Soviet provinces—are jettisoning the Cyrillic alphabet in favor of the Roman one, while on outlying islands of Indonesia, for example, the use of Roman letters for native languages makes continual inroads against traditional scripts. Lovers of heritage and multiculturalism may lament, yet the movement seems inevitable.
People ask: Would the alphabet ever add another letter? The answer: Highly unlikely. Latecomers W, J, and V were in use in handwriting before print’s arrival and were gradually finalized in print. Since then, the force of print has frozen the alphabet at 26 letters. And who on Earth could declare a 27th letter, anyway: the Chancellor of Oxford University? The U.S. Congress? English and its alphabet are global phenomena, beyond any group’s control.
Yet certain English spellings may someday change, as daily writing starts to admit more nonalphabetic keyboard symbols and phonetic spellings (for example: @ or the popular “nite”). Fuelling this change could be young people’s messaging slang—consider the email at bottom, just in from your 14-year-old daughter—which seems to be returning us to a place of syllabic puns, vowel omission, and interpretive images, somewhat like Egyptian hieroglyphics of four thousand years ago.
One thing for certain: Through their magical flexibility and adaptability, our little Roman letters have proved invincible. A stupendous force in global history, and now buoyed by world English and New Media, they will not be stopped anytime soon. They are our new Roman Empire.
For more information on the alphabet's early history, please see excerpts from my alphabet book, on this site. Either click on the Language Visible blue link inside the "My books" box at top right of this page, or click on the words "My books" inside the blue band at very top of this page. Thanks for your interest.