The Development of the Western Alphabet Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Development of the Western Alphabet

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Writing has been invented in a few different places in the history of mankind, for example, in China, in Central America and in the Middle East. Some of these writing systems such as Chinese use ideograms, with one symbol for each word, while others such as the Indian 'Devanagari' system use one symbol for each syllable.

But it appears that the idea of an alphabet, with one symbol per sound (more or less), was invented only once in the history of mankind. The first alphabet was the direct ancestor of all the alphabets in use in the world today, including our familiar Roman one, the Greek, Cyrillic, Hebrew and Arabic alphabets. This entry shows how our Roman alphabet evolved in stages from the first alphabet.

Beginnings

The first alphabet was North Semitic, and it was invented some time in the Second Millennium BC somewhere in the Middle East. It is far from clear exactly how, when or even where this happened. It may have been in Byblos, a Phoenician city in what is now Lebanon; in the Sinai Peninsula; or even in the stone quarries of the Egyptian capital, Waset (now known as Luxor). Whatever the details, it is a fact that the North Semitic people had a working alphabet of 22 letters by about 1200 BC.

It seems likely that the alphabet was inspired by Egyptian hieroglyphs. The hieroglyphic system, which had already been used for two millennia, had 24 symbols for consonants, but they were never used on their own, always mixed in with hundreds of other symbols. As a result, the system was complex and difficult. By reducing the number of symbols to only 22, they could be made simpler to draw/write. In addition, the hieroglyphs were designed for the Egyptian and not the Semitic language. The new alphabet was custom made by the Semites for their own language, which is the ancestor of both Hebrew and Arabic.

Phoenician

By about 1100 BC, the North Semitic alphabet had settled down into a form known as Phoenician, because it was used by the Phoenicians, the great Semitic traders who lived in the land to the east of the Mediterranean.

The Phoenician Alphabet

The figure shows the Phoenician alphabet. There were 22 letters, each representing a single consonant. There were no symbols for vowels. Each letter had a name which was a word in Phoenician that started with the sound of the letter, and the symbol was a crude line drawing of that word.

Thus for example, symbol number 10 in the diagram represented the sound 'y' (as in the word 'yellow'). The Phoenician name for this letter was 'yód' which meant hand. The symbol is in fact a crude picture of a hand and forearm.

Unfortunately, we don't know enough Phoenician to be able to identify what all the symbols were meant to be. The names of the letters given here were never recorded, but they have been reconstructed by comparing the names of the Hebrew, Greek, Arabic and other letters which grew out of the Phoenician alphabet.

 NameSoundMeaning of name
1'Alfglottal stopox
2Bétbhouse
3Gamlgthrowing stick (boomerang!)
4Deltddoor
5h 
6Wauwpeg
7Zaizweapon
8Hétstrong hfence?
9Thétth 
10Yódyhand
11Kafkpalm of hand
12Lamdlox goad
13Mémmwater
14Núnnfish (eel?)
15Semksfish (bones?)
16'Ainpharyngeal fricativeeye
17pmouth
18Sádéstrong s 
19Qófsoft palate kmonkey
20Róshrhead
21Shínshtooth
22Tautmark

The sound of 'Alf has no corresponding letter in English. It is the glottal stop, the throat clicking sound that occurs in the middle of the exclamation 'oh-oh'. The sound of 'Ain does not occur in English at all. It is like an H made very deep in the throat. As well as the sh sound of Shin, the Phoenicians had two different s sounds, Semk and Sádé, which are generally indistinguishable to English speakers. The sound of Qóf is like a k but made further back in the mouth with the back of the tongue clicking against the soft palate. This is the sound at the end of the modern name Iraq.

If you look at the table in detail, you can see that the beginnings of today's alphabetic order are present. Notice that b, d, h, k, l, m, n, p, q, r, one of the s's and t are in the same order as in our Roman alphabet.

Phoenician was written from right to left.

Phoenician evolved into three major alphabets over time: the Hebrew, the Arabic and the Greek. It is the Greek alphabet that interests us here.

Western Greek

The earliest Greek alphabet was developed either directly from Phoenician itself or from a version of North Semitic almost identical to it. Greek is an Indo-European language which places much more emphasis on vowels than the Semitic languages (Phoenician, Arabic, Hebrew etc), so the Greeks adapted the alphabet. These changes were not carried out uniformly across the Greek speaking world; instead, two slightly different varieties of alphabet evolved, Western Greek, also known as Chalcidian (used in southern Italy and everywhere west of Athens) and Eastern Greek (used in what is now Turkey, and adopted by the Athenians and eventually all the Greek-speaking world). It is Western Greek which led to our alphabet, so it is discussed here. Anyone who has studied Classical or Modern Greek will notice some differences, since both Classical and Modern Greek use the Eastern Greek alphabet.

Symbols 1, 5, 10 and 16 represented sounds in Phoenician which did not exist in Greek, so they started to use these symbols for four of the Greek vowels. Symbol 6 had two distinct forms. One of these continued to be used for the sound 'w' and looked like an F. The other looked like a Y. They used this for the fifth Greek vowel and stuck it on the end of the alphabet.

 PhoenicianGreek NameGreek Sound
1'AlfAlphaa
5Epsilone
10YódIotai
16'AinOmicrono
6WauUpsilonu

It can be seen that 'Alf and Yód more or less kept their names, although the sound they represented changed. Hé, 'Ain and Wau, on the other hand, were given new names representing their new sounds.

All the other symbols were used as they were, more or less, although all the letters changed shape considerably. There still weren't enough to make up the full range of sounds in Greek, so they made up another three symbols, Φ, Χ and Ψ and put them at the end of the alphabet.

Most of the names of the letters were carried straight over from Phoenician into Greek, with slight changes to make them suit the language, even those letters whose sounds changed such as 'Alf.

 PhoenicianW Greek nameW Greek sound
1'AlfAlphaa
2BétBetab
3GamlGammag
4DeltDeltad
5Epsilone
6WauDigammaw
7ZaiZetazd
8HétHetah
9ThétThetath
10YódIotai
11KafKappak
12LamdLambdal
13MémMum
14NúnNun
15Semk  
16'AinOmicrono
17Pip
18SádéSans
19QófKoppak
20RóshRhor
21ShínSigmas
22TauTaut
 WauUpsilonu
  Phiph
  Ksiks
  Chich

There is some doubt and confusion over the letters S and Z. Phoenician had a Z (Zai), two S's (Semk and Sádé) and an SH (Shin). Western Greek adopted the shape and position in the alphabet of the letter Shin, but gave it the sound of Semk and the name Sigma, which probably comes from the name Semk. They adopted the shape, sound and position of Zai but gave it the name Zeta which probably comes from the name Sádé. They continued to use the letter Sádé but called it San, which sounds like Shin. Since its sound was the same as Sigma, they gave up using it after a while.

This resulted in an alphabet that looked like this:

The Right-to-left Greek Alphabet

This is very similar to the modern Greek alphabet, except that it is written from right to left.

The Greeks were not happy with writing from right to left, and experimented with an intermediate form called boustrophedon, which means literally 'as the ox turns'. This style matches an ox ploughing a field and turning at the end of each line. Alternate lines are in opposite directions so that when you get to the end of the line, you just go down onto the next line and change direction. When writing from left to right, the letters are mirror images of those used when writing from right to left.

Eventually, the Greeks settled on a left to right direction, and the alphabet looked something like this:

The Left-to-right Greek Alphabet

The Etruscans

The Etruscans were a people who lived in central Italy in the first millennium BC. They spoke a language which is not related to any known language and has never been deciphered. The Etruscans adopted the Western Greek alphabet and used it; there are over 10,000 Etruscan inscriptions still in existence. Although we don't know their language, we know the way it used the alphabet. This is important because some of the consequences are still with us today.

The Etruscan language did not distinguish between voiced consonants and unvoiced. For example, s and z were the same sound to them, as were t and d, p and b, k and g. While this sounds strange to us, we do the same ourselves with s's at the ends of words. Many people have never noticed that the s at the end of 'dogs' is actually a z sound. Similarly, in many American dialects, there is no distinction between the t in Patty and the d in Paddy.

The Etruscans couldn't distinguish between the k sound and the g sound, so they used the Greek Gamma (<) which should have represented a G, to mean a K sound. This meant that the Etruscan alphabet had three letters for the K sound: C, K and Q. We can assume that they pronounced each of these with a slightly different sound.

They adopted the Sigma, which was a zig-zag with four lines, to represent the s sound, but couldn't decide how many lines to put in the zig-zag. Etruscan Sigmas can have anything from 3 to 6 lines. This is important because it was the three-line zig-zag that later became our S.

The Romans

The Italian peninsula was inhabited not only by the Western Greeks and the Etruscans, but by another important tribe: the Latins. These people founded the city of Rome and became known as the Romans, although their language continued to be called Latin.

The Early Roman Alphabet

The Latins adopted writing from both the Etruscans and the Western Greeks in about the 5th Century. They had no use for the Z, Θ, Φ and Ψ characters of the Western Greek alphabet, so they dropped them from their alphabet.

The Romans needed a letter to represent the f sound in their language. The Etruscan language didn't have an f sound , and neither did Western Greek. (The Greek Φ was at that time pronounced ph, that is, a p with an h sound after it). They adapted the Etruscan letter F which was pronounced 'w' and gave it the sound 'f'.

They adopted an Etruscan three-lined zig-zag S and then curved it to make the modern curvy S. They used the Gamma < to represent both the Etruscan K sound and the Greek G sound. The early Roman alphabet looked like this:

A B C D E F H I K L M N O P Q R S T V X

There are a few differences from the modern alphabet:

  • C represented both the hard 'k' sound in 'cat' and the 'g' sound in 'garden'.
  • I represented both the vowel we call 'i' and the 'y' sound that we get at the start of the word 'yellow'.
  • V represented both the U sound of 'put' and a consonantal sound which was somewhere between our 'v' and 'w'.

The Letter G

The Romans had three letters in their alphabet for writing the k sound, C, K and Q. In addition, the C did double time as a g sound. The sensible thing to do would be to drop the Q completely and use C only for the g sound. Instead, the Romans continued to use Q in certain circumstances before U, and invented a new letter, G, by adding a bar across the C.

It's a mystery why, when they added G to the alphabet, they put it after F, rather than after C. Perhaps because Z had been removed from its position between F and H and discarded, they felt that there was a gap. Whatever the reason, G has been firmly ensconced after F ever since.

With this cleared up, they had no real need for K, but they held on to it in case it became useful later, while using mainly C and Q for the writing of Latin.

The Eastern Greek Influence

In the 3rd Century BC, the Greeks led by Alexander the Great conquered all of the Eastern Mediterranean and east as far as India. Over the next few centuries, knowledge also spread out from Greece in all directions and the Romans absorbed a lot of ideas from Greek culture. Greek words started to be used in Latin. There was a need to be able to write down these words. The Romans transliterated most of the letters, making do with such combinations as PH instead of Φ and TH instead of Θ.

But they had no way of writing two particular Greek sounds, so in about 100 AD, the Romans borrowed two letters from the Eastern Greek alphabet. One was Y, which was very much the same as the V they had already got from Western Greek. In Eastern Greek it had retained a long stem while in Western Greek it had lost it. The Eastern Greek pronunciation was by now slightly different as well. It is the slender U sound we get in the German word 'fünf' or the French 'tu'. The other letter the Romans borrowed was the Zeta Z for the z sound. Both the Y and the Z were only used for writing Greek words so the letters were placed at the end of the alphabet, although Z had centuries before been positioned after F.

So by the time the Roman Empire reached its peak, the alphabet looked like this:

A B C D E F G H I K L M N O P Q R S T V X Y Z

Due to the Roman dominance of Europe, the Roman alphabet became the standard alphabet throughout Western Europe, and eventually was spread throughout the Western World.

More New Letters

After the Norman invasion of Britain in the 11th Century, the Anglo-Saxon language was written down using Roman letters. There was no letter for the w sound of Anglo-Saxon, which didn't exist in Latin. At first, they used the Runic wen which looks like a narrow triangular p, but it was too easy to mix up with an actual p, so they started to write it using a double u, hence the name 'double u'. At that time, there was only one letter for both the vowel sound u and consonant sound v, and it looked like a V, so W looks like two V's. The W was placed in the alphabet beside the V to which it was related.

Another letter was introduced into English at that time, from the runic alphabet: Thorn Þ. This was used to represent the 'th' sound in English. Thorn died out later on, although it is still used in Iceland. The only place you'll see it now in English is in a corrupted form as a 'y' at the start of 'Ye Olde Tea Shoppe'.

The letter U started off as a written variation of the letter V. The V symbol represented mainly the 'u' sound but could also be used for the 'v' sound. In some forms of handwriting, V was written with a rounded bottom, but it still represented both the vowel u and the consonant v. Some time later, people started using the pointed V when they meant the consonant and the rounded U when they meant the vowel. Because these were considered to be variations of the same letter, they were put side by side in the alphabet.

The last letter to be added to the English alphabet was the letter J. Similarly to the evolution of U and V, I and J started out as variations of a single letter. Scribes might put a long tail on a final I if there were a few in a row. For example, Henry the Eighth could be written 'Henry viij'. It was up to the scribe to decide which version of the letter he wanted to use.

In Rome, I represented both the vowel i and the consonantal y sound at the start of the English word yellow. Gradually over the centuries, the consonant was changed: in Spain it became an h, in Germany it remained a y, in France it became a j sound. When the Normans invaded England in 1066, they brought the j sound with them, but continued to spell it with the letter I, which could be written I or J depending on which looked good.

In about the 15th Century, people started to fix on the I for the vowel and the J for the consonant, but this was not fully accepted until the mid 17th Century.

So from the 17th Century onward, our alphabet contained the same 26 letters as we now use. But even then, many scholars still treated it as having only 24: they still considered U and V as one letter, and I and J as one letter. For example, Samuel Johnson's dictionary, published in the mid-18th Century, had all the I and J words mixed together. It was only in the mid-19th Century that scholars fully accepted that these were separate letters and that there are 26 letters in the alphabet.

Conclusion

With the invention of J, the English alphabet now contained the 26 letters that we know so well. Other languages in Europe added accents to many letters to get extra sounds, for example á, Å and Ä but English has avoided this. There have also been attempts to revise the alphabet, introducing new letters to represent the ng sound, the ee sound and so on. All such attempts have so far been doomed to failure.

So it looks like we're stuck with A to Z.


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