Professor of English Language and Literature at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, Fellow of St. The english alphabet history of All Souls College, Oxford, Professor of English Literature, University College, London French Influences Benoit de Ste. Further chapters on Fugitive Social Literature of the 14th and 15th centuries will be found in Vol. Downing Professor of the Laws of England.
By permission of the Council of the Selden Society. This article is about sets of letters used in written languages. The Proto-Canaanite script, later known as the Phoenician alphabet, is the first fully phonemic script. Thus the Phoenician alphabet is considered to be the first alphabet.
Many languages use modified forms of the Latin alphabet, with additional letters formed using diacritical marks. Alphabets are usually associated with a standard ordering of letters. This makes them useful for purposes of collation, specifically by allowing words to be sorted in alphabetical order. Knowing one’s ABCs”, in general, can be used as a metaphor for knowing the basics about anything. The history of the alphabet started in ancient Egypt.
In the Middle Bronze Age, an apparently “alphabetic” system known as the Proto-Sinaitic script appears in Egyptian turquoise mines in the Sinai peninsula dated to circa the 15th century BC, apparently left by Canaanite workers. The Proto-Sinaitic script eventually developed into the Phoenician alphabet, which is conventionally called “Proto-Canaanite” before ca. The oldest text in Phoenician script is an inscription on the sarcophagus of King Ahiram. The script was spread by the Phoenicians across the Mediterranean.
In Greece, the script was modified to add the vowels, giving rise to the ancestor of all alphabets in the West. The vowels have independent letter forms separate from the consonants, therefore it was the first true alphabet. The Greeks chose letters representing sounds that did not exist in Greek to represent the vowels. The Greek alphabet, in its Euboean form, was carried over by Greek colonists to the Italian peninsula, where it gave rise to a variety of alphabets used to write the Italic languages. Another notable script is Elder Futhark, which is believed to have evolved out of one of the Old Italic alphabets.
Elder Futhark gave rise to a variety of alphabets known collectively as the Runic alphabets. The Old Hungarian script is a contemporary writing system of the Hungarians. It was in use during the entire history of Hungary, albeit not as an official writing system. From the 19th century it once again became more and more popular. The Glagolitic alphabet was the initial script of the liturgical language Old Church Slavonic and became, together with the Greek uncial script, the basis of the Cyrillic script. The longest European alphabet is the Latin-derived Slovak alphabet which has 46 letters.
Beyond the logographic Chinese writing, many phonetic scripts are in existence in Asia. Most alphabetic scripts of India and Eastern Asia are descended from the Brahmi script, which is often believed to be a descendant of Aramaic. In Korea, the Hangul alphabet was created by Sejong the Great. Mandarin Chinese in the Republic of China. European alphabets, especially Latin and Cyrillic, have been adapted for many languages of Asia.
The term “alphabet” is used by linguists and paleographers in both a wide and a narrow sense. In the wider sense, an alphabet is a script that is segmental at the phoneme level—that is, it has separate glyphs for individual sounds and not for larger units such as syllables or words. All three types may be augmented with syllabic glyphs. These are the only time vowels are indicated. Devanagari is typically an abugida augmented with dedicated letters for initial vowels, though some traditions use अ as a zero consonant as the graphic base for such vowels.
The boundaries between the three types of segmental scripts are not always clear-cut. For example, Sorani Kurdish is written in the Arabic script, which is normally an abjad. However, in Kurdish, writing the vowels is mandatory, and full letters are used, so the script is a true alphabet. Thus the primary classification of alphabets reflects how they treat vowels. For tonal languages, further classification can be based on their treatment of tone, though names do not yet exist to distinguish the various types. The number of letters in an alphabet can be quite small. The Book Pahlavi script, an abjad, had only twelve letters at one point, and may have had even fewer later on.
Today the Rotokas alphabet has only twelve letters. The largest segmental script is probably an abugida, Devanagari. When written in Devanagari, Vedic Sanskrit has an alphabet of 53 letters, including the visarga mark for final aspiration and special letters for kš and jñ, though one of the letters is theoretical and not actually used. The largest known abjad is Sindhi, with 51 letters. It is the largest true alphabet where each letter is graphically independent with 33 letters. Original Georgian alphabet had 38 letters but 5 letters were removed in 19th century by Ilia Chavchavadze.
The Georgian alphabet is much closer to Greek than the other Caucasian alphabets. Syllabaries typically contain 50 to 400 glyphs, and the glyphs of logographic systems typically number from the many hundreds into the thousands. Thus a simple count of the number of distinct symbols is an important clue to the nature of an unknown script. It was introduced by Mesrob Mashdots around 405 AD, an Armenian linguist and ecclesiastical leader, and originally contained 36 letters.