standard set of letters present in some written languages

An alphabet (otherwise known as a word system) is a way to write words and other figures of speech. The basic symbols in an alphabet are called letters. In an alphabet, each letter is a symbol for a sound or related sounds. To make the alphabet work better, more signs assist the reader like punctuation marks, spaces and standard reading direction.

Different alphabets are used over the world:
  Latin Alphabet
  Cyrillic alphabet
  Arabic alphabet
  Brahmic alphabets
  Mixed: Latin and Cyrilic Alphabet
  Mixed: Latin and Arabic Alphabet
  Mixed: no alphabet and other alphabet
  Other alphabet
  Non-alphabetic writing systems
Venn diagram which shows that 11 characters are common to the Greek, Latin and Russian alphabets (upper case letters)

The word alphabet comes from alpha and beta, the names of the first two letters in the Greek alphabet.

This article is written with the Roman alphabet (also called the Latin alphabet). It was first used in Ancient Rome to write Latin. Many languages like English use the Latin alphabet, which is the most used alphabet today.[1]


It seems that the idea of an alphabet, a script based entirely upon sound, has been copied and adapted to suit many different languages. Although no alphabet fits its language perfectly, alphabets are flexible enough to fit any language approximately. The alphabet was a unique invention.[2]p12

13th century calligraphy & illustration

The Roman, the Cyrillic, and a few others alphabets come from the Greek alphabet, which dates back to about 1100 to 800 BC.[3]p167 The Greek alphabet was probably developed from the Phoenician script, which appeared somewhat earlier, and had some similar letter-shapes.

The Phoenicians spoke a Semitic language, usually called Canaanite. The Semitic group of languages includes Arabic, Maltese, Hebrew and Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus. Little is known about how the alphabetic idea arose, but the Phoenicians, a trading people, came up with letters, which were adapted by the early Greeks to produce their alphabet. The major difference is that the Phoenician script had no pure vowels. The Arabic script sometimes has vowels that are shown by diacritics (small marks above or below the line).[4] The oldest Qu'ran manuscripts had no diacritics.[5] Israeli children until about the third grade use Hebrew texts with vowel diacritics that are added.[6]p89

No ancient script, alphabetic or not, had pure vowels before the Greek alphabet even, which has two vowels (Eta) and Epsilon) for "e" and two (Omega and Omicron) for "o" to distinguish between the long and the short sounds.[7] It appears that careful thought occurred for both the Phoenician invention and for the Greek adaptation, but no details survive of either process.[8]

Semitic scripts apparently derive from Proto-Sinaitic script, of which only 31 inscriptions (plus 17 doubtful) are known. It is thought by some researchers that the original source of the script was the Egyptian hieratic script, which by the late Middle Kingdom (about 1900 BC) had added some alphabetic signs for representing the consonants of foreign names. Egyptian activity in Sinai was at its height at the time.[9] A similar idea had been suggested many years earlier.[10]

Short list of alphabets and languagesEdit

Other writing systemsEdit

Other writing systems do not use letters, but they, at least in part, represent sounds. For example, many systems represent syllables. In the past, such writing systems were used by many cultures, but today, they are used almost only by Asianlanguages. A syllabary is a system of writing that is similar to an alphabet. It uses one symbol to indicate each syllable of a word, instead of one symbol for each letter of the word like an alphabet. For example, a syllabary would use one symbol to mean the syllable "ga", instead of two letters of the alphabet "g" and "a".

  • Japanese uses a mix of the Chinese writing (kanji) and two syllabaries called hiragana and katakana. Modern Japanese often also uses romaji, which is the Japanese syllabary written in the Roman alphabet.
  • The Koreans used to use the Chinese writing but they have created their own alphabet called hangul.

In 1200 BC during the Shang dynasty, Chinese characters were originallymainly "pictographic" and used pictures to show words or ideas. Now, only 1% of Chinese characters are pictographic,[11]p97 and 97% of modern characters are SP characters. Ehry are a pair of symbols, one for meaning (semantics) and the other for pronunciation.[11]p99 In many casesm the P and S parts are put together into one joint character.[12]
Chinese is not one but many spoken languages, but the same writing system is used for all of them and has been reformed a number of times.

Related pagesEdit


  1. The Romans largely copied their Latin alphabet from the Etruscans, who based their alphabet on the Greek one. Diringer D. 1968. The alphabet: a key to the history of mankind. 3rd ed, London: Hutchinson, vol. 1, p419. ISBN 009-067640-8
  2. Man, John 2000. Alpha Beta: how our alphabet shaped the western world. Headline, London.
  3. Robinson. Andrew 1995. The story of writing. Thames & Hudson, London.
  4. The modern practice in printed Arabic is not to use diacritics
  5. enWP Arabic diacritics
  6. Ong, Walter J. 1982. Orality and literacy: the technologising of the word. Methuen, London.
  7. Short 'e' is ε (epsilon), long 'e' is η (eta). Short 'o' is o (o micron); long 'o' is ω (o mega). Languages other than Semitic have copied the Greek or Roman alphabets, making such changes as seem right for their particular language.
  8. Diringer, David 1968. The alphabet: a key to the history of mankind. 2 vols, Hutchinson, London.
  9. Sass B. 1988. The genesis of the alphabet, and its development in the 2nd millenium. Wiesbaden.
  10. Gardiner, Alan 1916. The Egyptian origin of the alphabet. J. Egyptian Archaeology III.
  11. 11.0 11.1 DeFrancis, John 1989.Visible speech: the diverse oneness of writing systems. Honolulu: University of Honolulu Press. ISBN 0-8248-1207-7
  12. Boodberg, Peter A. 1957. The Chinese script: an essay in nomenclature (the first hacaton). Bulletin of the History and Philology Academia Sinica (Taipei). 39: 115.