Search
Topics
Related Scripts

Alphabet
Quick Facts
TypeAlphabetic
GenealogyProto-Sinaitic
LocationWest Asia, Europe
Time1800 BCE to Present
DirectionVariable

Contents: Introduction | Family tree of alphabets | Proto-Sinaitic | South-Arabian | Ugaritic and Letter Order | Phoenician | Aramaic | Greek and Latin branch

Believe it or not, the set of characters displayed before your eyes, the so-called Roman Alphabet, was the result of nearly 4000 years of transformation.

While we can claim that it was ultimately the cuneiform script which in one way or another caused the appearance of writing systems around the Mediterranean, in the Middle East and in India, we choose a particular script, the Proto-Sinaitic, as the first recognizable form of the alphabet for reasons that will become evident later on.

Also, notice that while we are most familiar with the Roman and Greek alphabets, there are many other alphabets and even "syllabaries" that belong in the same family of scripts. Therefore, I'll try to incorporate as much of these lesser known scripts as possible into this page.

Proto-Sinaitic

About 3700 years ago, West Semitic-speaking people of the Sinai became workers or slaves under the sway of Egyptian rule. The Egyptian hieroglyphic symbols these Semitic speakers saw made an impression on them, and encouraged the adoption of a limited number of hieroglyphics to write down sounds in their language. Because phonetic Egyptian hieroglyphs only recorded the consonants, and not the vowels, the Sinaitic script also adopted this convention. On the other hand, unlike hieroglyphs which had multi-consonant signs, the Sinaitic script only used single consonants letters.

The result is a strange system whose symbols were very similar to Egyptian hieroglyphs, but recorded a language related to Phoenician and Hebrew. The result was the Proto-Sinaitic, also known as Proto-Canaanite.

What made this the beginning of the alphabet, and not Egyptian hieroglyphs themselves? The result is simple as the Greek letter's name alpha. The word alpha in Greek does not mean anything at all, but in the original West Semitic form 'aleph it carried the meaning of "ox". In fact, it is not too hard to invert the letter A and imagine it as the head of an ox.

An ox-head is exactly the Egyptian hieroglyph Proto-Sinaitic adopted to represent the sound /'/ (glottal stop) as in 'aleph. However, the Proto-Sinaitics did not adopt the sound of the hieroglyphic. The "ox" sign did not represent the glottal stop /'/ in Egyptian. Instead, they chose the shape of the glyph (an ox) and give it the value of /'/ which is the first sound in 'aleph. This is called the acrophonic principle in case you're not familiar with linguistics.

Similarly, beth, which meant "house" and was written with sign of a house, was used to write the sound /b/. Another good example is the sound /m/, represented by the symbol of water and called mem or "water" in West Semitic. One can still visualize water's rippling in the letter M.

Click here for a comparison of Proto-Sinaitic, Phoenician, and Greek letters.

South Arabian Family

At around 1300 BC, a branch of the evolving Proto-Sinaitic broke off and spread into the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula. This Proto-Arabian script eventually evolved by the 5th century BC into the highly elegant South Arabian script.

The South Arabian script went out of fashion as Islam increased the popularity of the Arabic alphabet. However, before its complete disappearance it diffused across the Red Sea and into Ethiopia, where it became the predominant script, Ethiopic, which remains in use even today. The difference between Ethiopian and South Arabian is that Ethiopian writes vowels by adding ligatures to simple consonants, while South Arabian left the vowels out completely.

Ugaritic and Letter Order

There is one remarkable difference between the South Arabian tradition and West Semitic: the letter ordering. The South Arabian alphabet has the order h, l, h, m, etc..., while West Semitic has the order ', b, g, d, etc.

No one is sure why those particular sequences of letters were used. Maybe it is some mnemonic device that we no longer understand. We know for sure that by the 1300 BC or so these orders have already arisen. The evidence, though, is from a most unlikely source.

The earliest example of an abecedary (a list of the letters in an alphabet in the some kind of order) was found in the city of Ugarit. This abecedary shows a total of 30 symbols used in the Ugaritic script. However, instead of being written in some kind of linear West Semitic, Proto-Sinaitic-derived form, the clay tablet that recorded this abecedary was written in some kind of cuneiform. While the letters in this script were made up of wedges and strokes, the forms of the characters were unrelated to any other cuneiform like Sumerian or Akkadian. There is some similarity, though, between the Ugaritic signs and linear West Semitic letters.

To take a look at this cuneiform alphabet, you can go to my Ugaritic page.

Whether the Ugaritic influenced the letter ordering of later West Semitic scripts, or vice-versa, is still a question to be answered.

Phoenician

The Phoenician alphabet evolved from the more "naturalistic" sytle of Proto-Sinaitic into a more linear form during the 12th century BC or so. Most of the alphabets used today are descended from Phoenician.

The immediate offspring of Phoenician were the old Hebrew alphabet, and Aramaic, as well as Archaic Greek according to tradition (we'll explore Archaic Greek later). The Hebrew alphabet was also used by Moabites as well as Israelites. This alphabet, though, eventually disappeared from the mainstream, and survived as the Samaritan script. Aramaic, on the other hand, became extremely popular, and many people adopted it.

You can get more information at the Phoenician page.

Aramaic

Originally Aramaic was spoken (and written) only in the region whose modern name is Syria. However, during the late Assyrian empire, and subsequently during the Babylonian and Persian empires, Aramaic became an international language, written and spoken in Anatolia, the Levantine coast, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Persia. It was quickly adopted by many local groups. In Israel, it became the "Jewish" alphabet, the direct descendant of which is the modern Hebrew alphabet. It also became much more cursive as time goes on, such as the Nabatean alphabet, which eventually became Arabic.

For more information, you can go to the Aramaic page.

Greek and Latin branch

Traditionally the Greeks held that their alphabet was derived from the Phoenician alphabet, and many scholars agree with this as well. A quick look at the signs show the similarity between the two systems. However, the Greeks modified the set of signs they had received to suit the sounds in their language. They also changed some letters to systematically represent vowels.

The earliest Greek inscriptions actually recorded several slightly different scripts. Some seek to explain this diversity by separate instances of borrowing from Phoenician. However, the similarities between the different variants are extremely overwhelming, and imply the presence of a very early Greek script that later developed into the local variants. This theory is much more widely accepted than the multiple borrowing theory.

This confusion regarding the earliest Greek is due to the fact that no archaeological remains of this script have been found thus far. The earliest examples only date from the 8th century BCE, when different scripts are already in evidence. Many scholars place the time of the Greeks' adoption of the alphabet from the Phoenicians sometimes between 1200 BCE and 900 BCE. The older date would give a longer time for the proto-Greek alphabet to develop into its local forms, but there are no archaeological remains of any writing from this period. The later date would satisfy the lack of evidence, but gives less time for the script to diverge. Maybe something in the middle in a good compromise?

For information about the early Greek alphabet, please visit the Greek page.

It was the Euboean variant of the Greek alphabet that was transmitted to the Etruscans, and so on to Latin and most of the Western world. The Euboean script has, among its letters, the letter F, which actually stood for a [w] sound, and X which sounded like [ks], not an aspirated velar [kh] like in Ionian. For more information on Italic scripts, you can visit Etruscan, Oscan, and Latin pages.

Futhark and Ogham are both alphabetic systems used in Northern Europe before being replaced by the Latin alphabet. Their relations to the rest of alphabetical systems and to each other are still cloudy. Futhark might have come from some Northern Italic script such as Venetic. Ogham is even a bigger mystery. Some say it is a cryptic form of Futhark, while others hold that it is native to Ireland and Wales.

As for Greek itself, all but one of the variant scripts were replaced by the Ionian, which is what you see on Classic inscriptions, as well as modern texts. The Greek system also gave rise to two scripts used by Slavic speaking people, namely Cyrillic and Glagolitic alphabets.