History Podcasts

Who created the first alphabet?

Who created the first alphabet?

Before the alphabet was invented, early writing systems had been based on pictographic symbols known as hieroglyphics, or on cuneiform wedges, produced by pressing a stylus into soft clay. Because these methods required a plethora of symbols to identify each and every word, writing was complex and limited to a small group of highly-trained scribes. Sometime during the second millennium B.C. (estimated between 1850 and 1700 B.C.), a group of Semitic-speaking people adapted a subset of Egyptian hieroglyphics to represent the sounds of their language. This Proto-Sinaitic script is often considered the first alphabetic writing system, where unique symbols stood for single consonants (vowels were omitted). Written from right to left and spread by Phoenician maritime merchants who occupied part of modern Lebanon, Syria and Israel, this consonantal alphabet—also known as an abjad—consisted of 22 symbols simple enough for ordinary traders to learn and draw, making its use much more accessible and widespread.

By the 8th century B.C., the Phoenician alphabet had spread to Greece, where it was refined and enhanced to record the Greek language. Some Phoenician characters were kept, and others were removed, but the paramount innovation was the use of letters to represent vowels. Many scholars believe it was this addition—which allowed text to be read and pronounced without ambiguity—that marked the creation of the first “true” alphabet.

The Greek language was originally written from right to left, but eventually changed to boustrophedon (literally, turning like oxen)—where the direction of writing alternated with every line. By the 5th century B.C., the direction had settled into the pattern we use today, from left tor right. Over time, the Greek alphabet gave rise to several other alphabets, including Latin, which spread across Europe, and Cyrillic, the precursor of the modern Russian alphabet.


History of Hangul - Part I

Koreans use their own unique alphabet called Hangul. It is considered to be one of the most efficient alphabets in the world and has garnered unanimous praise from language experts for its scientific design and excellence.

Hangul was created under King Sejong during the Chosun Dynasty (1393-1910). in 1446, the first Korean alphabet was proclaimed under the original name Hunmin chong-um, which literally meant "the correct sounds for the instruction of the people."

King Sejong, the creator of Hangul, is considered to be one of the greatest rulers in the history of Korea. Highly respected for his benevolent disposition and diligence, King Sejong was also a passionate scholar whose knowledge and natural talent in all fields of study astounded even the most learned experts.

During his reign, King Sejong always deplored the fact that the common people, ignorant of the complicated Chinese characters that were being used by the educated, were not able to read and write. He understood their frustration in not being able to read or to communicate their thoughts and feelings in written words.


Who created the first alphabet? - HISTORY

Our editors will review what you’ve submitted and determine whether to revise the article.

M, thirteenth letter of the alphabet. It corresponds to the Semitic mem and to the Greek mu (Μ). The Semitic form may derive from an earlier sign representing waves of water. Early Greek forms from Thera, Attica, and Corinth closely resemble the early North Semitic rendering. The Lydian alphabet also has a similar form. These forms differ only in the direction of the writing. The Etruscan form is similar but has an additional stroke. Since this form is rare in Etruscan, the Latin form may have been borrowed directly from the Chalcidian.

Curious forms occur in the various Italic alphabets, including Umbrian, Oscan, and Faliscan. The rounded form appears in the uncial writing of the 5th or 6th century. The cursive hands of the 6th century show a different rounded form that is based on the Carolingian. The modern minuscule does not differ essentially from the majuscule letter.

The sound represented by the letter has been from the beginning the labial nasal. Of all sounds, the nasals are least liable to change, a fact that is reflected in the consistent history of the letter.

This article was most recently revised and updated by Michael Ray, Editor.


Many early styles of writing involved hundreds of symbols, pictures, and signs.

In one of the earliest types of writing, called cuneiform, a single sign could be used for a word, or a sound, or even give a hint about the type of word to follow. These scripts could be quite difficult to read.

Here is a large cuneiform example found in Turkey. By Bjørn Christian Tørrissen - Own work by http://bjornfree.com/galleries.html, CC BY-SA 3.0, CC BY

Then came alphabets. An alphabet is a set of letters or symbols that can represent the sounds we make when we talk. The different parts of the alphabet can be put together to make different words, just like LEGO pieces that can be clicked together in different ways.

You know our alphabet, I’m sure, but other languages may have their own alphabet.

The Canaanites lived in an area of the ancient world called the Levant, in what we now call the Middle East.

The Old Canaanite script appeared around 3,500 years ago, and the Phoenician alphabet came after.

Unlike the art of writing more broadly, it is thought that all known alphabets (including our own) are in some way related to the Phoenician system.


The Antecedents to the Modern Alphabet

Whilst the Proto-Sinaitic script is still not entirely understood by scholars, another better known early alphabetic system is that of the Ugaritic script. Around 5000 clay tablets written in the Ugaritic script have been discovered in Ugarit (in modern day Syria) so far, and it is thought that this writing system was invented between the 14 th and 12 th centuries BC. Based on the clay tablets, scholars have concluded that the Ugaritic script consisted of 27 consonants and 3 vowels, and, like English, was written from left to right.

It was, however, the Proto-Sinaitic script, rather than the Ugaritic that is associated with the next stage of the development of the alphabet we have today. It has been hypothesised by scholars that the famous Phoenician alphabetic system was based on the Proto-Sinaitic script. Comparisons have been made between the letters of these two ancient scripts in order to find a link between them. Nevertheless, to date, these remain as conjectures, as the Proto-Sinaitic script has not been fully deciphered yet.

Proto sinaitic, phoenician and latin script, alphabet - development, table ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )


Who Wrote The Alphabet Song?

Whether you learned your ABCs while hanging out with the gang from Sesame Street, from someone in your family, or you were schooled in everything from A to Z in kindergarten, you probably learned the alphabet with the help of the alphabet song. The clever tune is imprinted in the brains of most of us English speakers. When you look up a word in the dictionary, you may still sing the song to yourself to remember if L is before J … or maybe that’s just us.

So, where did the ABC song come from?


The Alphabet is Historic

The youngest and newest writers often have a deep interest in the origin of writing itself. The lessons in this curriculum unit will introduce young students to the history of our alphabet. First, students will learn about the Phoenicians, the great trading people of the eastern Mediterranean who invented many of our letters. We'll follow as the Phoenicians taught their alphabet to the ancient Greeks, and follow again as the Greeks taught their alphabet to the Romans. Finally, we'll learn that the Romans left their alphabet to us, and that we use the Roman alphabet to write in English.

By following this path through history we can establish a connection between these ancient civilizations and the youngest writers. We can show them that they are using the alphabet that was developed so long ago. The three lessons in this curriculum unit include short historical introductions to the Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans, hyperlinks to selected illustrations, and suggestions for activities.

Guiding Questions

Where does the alphabet come from?

Learning Objectives

Describe how first the Phoenicians, then the Greeks, and finally the Romans passed down the alphabet.

Compare some letters from the earlier alphabets to our alphabet, and talk about how the alphabet changed over time.

Recognize the Mediterranean area on a map and show that the Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans came from the Mediterranean area.


When did the English alphabet first exist, and why are there 26 letters in the order we know them today?

A distinctively English alphabet grew out of the pagan Germanic runes and the Latin alphabet introduced by Christian missionaries.

This article was first published in 2010

This competition is now closed

Published: April 15, 2010 at 11:00 am

The hybrid alphabet that had emerged by about AD 1000 then developed over time to produce the script with which we are familiar today. The alphabet used in England around the year 1000 consisted of A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S, T, V, X, Y, Z in the order they occurred in the Latin alphabet, plus three runic letters on the end. These runes gave the sounds th, wy and eth.

In form the runes were unlike modern letters. The rune for th was written þ, eth was written ð, while wy was written . There were also a number of letter combinations that were often written in distinct form. For instance, ae and oe were written as the two letters run together as æ and œ, while ss was written as .

The runes disappeared from usage gradually and had generally gone by the 15th century. An exception was the use of the þ rune if the sound th fell at the start of a paragraph. The rune gradually came to be written in a form almost indistinguishable from a capital Y. When printing arrived, this rune was represented by a Y. It is still sometimes encountered when writers are trying to be deliberately old fashioned, as in the sign ‘Ye Olde Booke Shoppe’ for instance.

The rune was replaced by uu by about 1300 and by 1600 this had become w. The new letter u appeared around 1440 as the pronunciation of words containing the letter v began to vary. The new letter j first appeared in the 1630s in words borrowed from French.

The ae, oe and ss letter combinations persisted in common usage until the 18th century, but had been abandoned from the regular alphabet by 1820 at the latest. That left the 26 letters that we know today.


Who invented the alphabet? The untold story of a linguistic revolution

AMENEMHAT III is one of Egypt’s lesser-known pharaohs. He made pyramids, but not on the scale of Khufu’s at Giza. He commissioned many artworks, but none that survive match the opulence of Tutankhamun’s gold mask. He mounted military expeditions, but not with the success of Thutmose III, who built a vast empire. Still, Amenemhat has one claim to fame. Under his rule, a technology emerged that is more impressive, valuable and pervasive than any of these legacies: the alphabet.

The alphabet was a revolutionary way of recording information. But it is more than just a writing system. In a recent book, Philippa Steele and Philip Boyes at the University of Cambridge describe it as an “icon of culture“. Today it is so central to education in most countries that children can often recite it long before they have learned to read or write. Beyond the familiar ABC, a variety of alphabets are used to write in many languages, from Russian to Arabic. But all trace back to one common ancestor.

The story of that first alphabet has long been a mystery, but over the past 25 years we have made enormous progress towards pinpointing when and where it was invented. Most astonishing, the consensus today is that the alphabet didn’t emerge from a state-sponsored initiative as was long believed. Instead, its originators were probably far removed from the ancient world’s elites. Paradoxically, they may even have been illiterate. “No trained Egyptian scribe would write in the way these geniuses wrote,” says Orly Goldwasser at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel. “He would be ashamed to do so.” &hellip

Subscribe for unlimited digital access

Subscribe now for unlimited access

App + Web

  • Unlimited web access
  • New Scientist app
  • Videos of over 200 science talks plus weekly crosswords available exclusively to subscribers
  • Exclusive access to subscriber-only events including our 1st of July Climate Change event
  • A year of unparalleled environmental coverage, exclusively with New Scientist and UNEP

Print + App + Web

  • Unlimited web access
  • Weekly print edition
  • New Scientist app
  • Videos of over 200 science talks plus weekly crosswords available exclusively to subscribers
  • Exclusive access to subscriber-only events including our 1st of July Climate Change event
  • A year of unparalleled environmental coverage, exclusively with New Scientist and UNEP

Existing subscribers, please log in with your email address to link your account access.


7. Conclusion: The Stability of Writing Systems

The origin of the Chinese script and the development of Mesoamerican writing are still obscure. The Mesopotamian script, however, offers a well-documented evolution over a continuous period of 10,000 years. The system underwent drastic changes in form, gradually transcribed spoken language more accurately, and handled data in more abstract terms. The most striking universal feature of all writing systems, however, is their uncanny endurance, unmatched among human creations. The Chinese script never needed to be deciphered because the signs have changed little during the 3400 years of its recorded existence (Xigui 2000). It also always remained ideographic, merely inserting rebus-like phonetic complements in some characters. The Mesoamerican Maya phonetic glyphs preserved the symbolism initiated by the Olmecs in the previous millennium (Coe and Van Stone 2005). Finally, when the last clay tablet was written in the Near East, c. 300 AD, the cuneiform script had been in use for three millennia. It replaced an age-old token system that had preceded it for over 5000 years it was replaced by the alphabet, which we have now used for 3500 years.

References

Bagley, R. W. (2004). Anyang writing and the Origin of the Chinese writing system. In S.D.
Houston (Ed.). The First Writing (pp. 190-249). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Baines, J. (2007). Visual and Written culture in Ancient Egypt. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Black, J. (2008) The Obsolescence and Demise of the Cuneiform Writing in Elam. In J. Baines, J. Bennet, S. Houston (eds). The Disappearance of Writing Systems (pp.45-72). London: Equinox.

Bonfante, G., Bonfante, L. (2002) The Etruscan Language (revised edition). Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Coe, M. D. and van Stone, M. (2005) Reading the Maya Glyphs, Thames and Hudson, London.

Malafouris L, (2010) Grasping the concept of number: How did the sapient mind move beyond approximation, in: I. Morley & C. Renfrew (eds.), The Archaeology of Measurement. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (pp.35-42)

Marcus, J. (1992). Mesoamerican Writing Systems. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Moos, M. A. ed., (1997) Marshall McLuhan Essays, Media Research. Amsterdam:Overseas Publishers Association.

Nissen, H. J., & Heine, P. (2009). From Mesopotamia to Iraq. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Parpola, A. (1994) Deciphering the Indus Script. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Powell, B. B. (2009). Writing: Theory and History of the Technology of Civilization. London: Wiley Blackwell.

Rogers, H. (2005). Writing Systems, A Linguistic Approach. London: Blackwell.

Salomon, R. (2012). Some Principles and Patterns of Script Change. In S.D. Houston (ed). The Shape of Script. (pp. 119-133) Santa Fe: Sar Press.

Sass, B. (2005) The Alphabet at the Turn of the Millennium, The West Semitic Alphabet ca. 1150-850 BC – The Antiquity of the Arabian, Greek and Phrygian Alphabets, Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University.

Schmandt-Besserat, D. (2007) When Writing Met Art. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press.

Schmandt-Besserat, D. (1996). How Writing Came About. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press.

Schmandt-Besserat, D. (1992). Before Writing. (2 vols). Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press.

Xigui, Q. (2000) Chinese Writing, The Institute of East Asian Studies, The University of California, Berkeley.


More stories from Late Night Live:

This, of course, is precisely why we have come to rely on the alphabet because of its entirely neutral nature.

However, after eight centuries of being our primary ordering system, alphabetical order could be on its way out.

With our increasing reliance on sat-navs and search engines such as Google, we no longer need to look things up in alphabetical order. Instead, information is ordered around content and context.

"We have now gone back to pre-alphabetic times," says Flanders, "where you don't put Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers in alphabetical order".

"We don't bother to put sportsmen named Brown in alphabetical order when we look them up on Wikipedia, we just type in the name we want."

After centuries of dominance, alphabetical order could be a phase that is destined to pass.

RN in your inbox

Get more stories that go beyond the news cycle with our weekly newsletter.