Alphabet – History

The alphabet, by standard definition, is a set of written text usually representing the sound or syllable of a language. This was considered the next step in written or visual communication after pictograms and ideograms.

The Origin

Ancient Egypt

There are scholars who claim, the earliest alphabet may have originated from the Semitic people around southern Egypt around 1900 BC, whose identity has yet to be established. This was evidenced through archaeological findings in the “Valley of Horrors” where rock carvings reveal what may have been the earliest form of alphabet. In 1999, archaeologists discovered another system of writing around the Sinai Peninsula. They place its origin around the 15th century BC and called it Proto-Sinaitic, after the region where it was found. They think that the text from Southern Egypt may have found its way up north and moved further east.

Scholars have to come to the conclusion that these texts may have evolved from hieroglyphics. Egyptians developed a set of roughly 25 hieroglyphs called uniliterals. These represented syllables that begin with a single consonant of their language, which may or may not include a vowel. It can be surmised these uniliterals were not yet used as a form of communication. Instead, they were used as an aid to pronunciation for logograms, to represent inflections, and help the Egyptians transcribe loan words from other languages in order to make them part of their vocabulary.


Given its geographic proximity to one another, the Phonecians adopted this script and in turn came up with their own system of writing and was called Proto-Caananite. Earliest evidence of Phoenician text is an inscription on the tomb of King Ahiram who may have lived around 1000 BC. This script consisted of 22 letters and they were all consonants.

Evidence showed they were widely used in the Mediterranean region, notably in the Holy Land, the Iberian Peninsula, parts of Northern Africa and Southern Europe where Phoenicians conducted their trade and commerce and in doing so, transplanted their language and writing in these areas. In the Holy Land, this script had evolved into two distinct texts – Caananite and Aramaic, and in the latter case, this would then lead to the development of the Hebrew text.

Phoenician script has been considered to be the ancestor of the western alphabet. The reason it was possible for the alphabet to evolve is Phoenician text was flexible. It was so simple, making it easy to learn considering Phoenicians were doing business in foreign lands and it was essential that they needed to communicate in writing. In relation to that, it was so handy in aiding in the translation of other languages because it recorded words phonetically.

Ancient Greece

Greece was one the places where the Phoenicians carried on with their trade and the locals had adopted their alphabet. But the Greeks took it a step further and built on it to create their own script by adding vowels. The vowels have independent letter forms making them distinct from consonants. The Greeks chose letters that serve to symbolize sounds that did not exist in their language to represent these vowels. Strangely enough, there were many variants of the Greek alphabet owing that the city-states had their own distinct culture and this had an influence on their language and writing. As a result, many different alphabets evolved from it.

As a sidebar, Greek text was brought to Eastern Europe around the 9th century AD by a Greek missionary named Cyril. He found Greek text too complicated for the Slavic people to use so he modified it into a simpler form, thus giving birth to the Cyrillic alphabet that continues to be used in Russia and its surrounding countries.


The Greek alphabet, in turn, was carried over by Greek colonists to the Italian peninsula, where this was also adopted by locals to develop their own languages. Probably the most recognizable of these texts is the Latin alphabet that is still in use today. As the Roman Empire grew, it was natural for Latin to take root in these lands. Even after the fall of the Roman Empire and the start of the Middle Ages, the alphabet survived in intellectual and religious works because they were preserved by the religious who were them the sole guardians of Roman culture. The Latin language would also evolve into the Romance languages and the alphabet would be affected too as European cultures developed their own alphabet distinct from one another.


The English language is Germanic in origin, owing to its ties with the Anglo-Saxons in the fifth century AD. This was evidenced by the runes and scholars discovered it has 26 characters though some dispute it is 33. By the seventh century AD, Latin was introduced by Christian missionaries and had taken root here as this was also taught to the locals. In 1011, the English alphabet, based on Latin text, was formally recorded and these included all but a few letters we use today.

English would evolve further when the Normans arrived in 1066 and they brought with them their distinct language. This gave rise to Middle English which added combinations of letters as an aid to pronouncing certain words and new letters were added such as “W” which was absent in Old English. Modern English came about in the 15th century as English became more standardized. It was here the letters “U” and “V” were introduced as separate letters (they used to be one in Old English), and “J” was also introduced as well, thus completing all 26 letters of the alphabet we know today.

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