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Literature and Writing


word alphabet, Hawaiian language, Greek alphabet, Roman alphabet, Etruscans

Deeper web pages:

>  Before the Alphabet

>  The Earliest Alphabets

>  Alphabets for Unwritten Languages

>  The Changing Alphabet

>  Adoption of New Alphabets

Alphabet, set of letters or other symbols, each representing a distinctive sound of a language. These letters can be combined to write all the words of a language. The letters of an alphabet typically have names and a fixed order. Alphabets are the most common type of writing in the world today. Only a few languages, such as Chinese and Japanese, do not use an alphabet.

The first alphabet was probably developed at least 3,500 years ago by people who lived on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea and spoke a Semitic language. The earliest surviving alphabet is that of the Phoenicians. Around 3,000 years ago the Phoenician alphabet spread east to other Semitic peoples and west to the Greeks. The word alphabet comes from alpha and beta, the first two letters of the Greek alphabet. The Greeks helped spread alphabetic writing to the Etruscans and the Romans and through much of the rest of the ancient world.

There are about 50 individual alphabets in use today. They vary greatly in appearance, historical descent, and the degree to which they conform to the ideal of one letter for one sound. Like the Roman alphabet used for English, most alphabets have between 20 and 30 letters. Languages with comparatively few sounds require fewer letters. The sounds of the Hawaiian language, for example, are written using only 12 letters of the Roman alphabet, the fewest letters of any language. Other alphabets, such as Sinhalese, the alphabet of Sri Lanka, have 50 letters or more.


Fradkin, Robert A., Ph.D.

Adjunct Assistant Professor of Latin, University of Maryland.

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