alphabet [Gr. alpha-beta, like Eng. ABC], system of writing, theoretically having a one-for-one relation between character (or letter) and phoneme (see phonetics). Few alphabets have achieved the ideal exactness. A system of writing is called a syllabary when one character represents a syllable rather than a phoneme; such is the kana, used in Japanese to supplement the originally Chinese characters normally used. The precursors of the alphabet were the iconographic and ideographic writing of ancient man, such as wall paintings, cuneiform, and the hieroglyphic writing of the Egyptians. The alphabet of modern Western Europe is the Roman alphabet, the base of most alphabets used for the newly written languages of Africa and America, as well as for scientific alphabets. Russian, Serbian, Bulgarian, and many languages of the former Soviet Union are written in the Cyrillic alphabet, an augmented Greek alphabet. Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic all have their own alphabets. The most important writing of India is the Devanagari, an alphabet with syllabic features; this, invented probably for Sanskrit, is the source of a number of Asian scripts. The Roman is derived from the Greek, perhaps by way of Etruria, and the Greeks had imitated the Phoenician alphabet. The exact steps are unknown, but the Phoenician, Hebrew, Arabic, and Devanagari systems are based ultimately on signs of the Egyptian hieroglyphic writing. This writing was not alphabetic, but in the phonogram it bore the germ of phonemic writing; thus the sign "bear" might (to use an English analogy) mean also the sound b, and "dog" d. A similar development created the Persian cuneiform syllabary. Two European alphabets of the late Roman era were the runes and the ogham. An exotic modern system is the Cherokee syllabary created by Sequoyah, suggested by, but not based on, the Roman alphabet. Another was the short-lived Mormon Deseret alphabet.

See S. Mercer, The Origin of Writing and Our Alphabet (1959); D. Diringer, The Alphabet (2 vol., 3d ed. 1968); O. Ogg, The 26 Letters (rev. ed. 1971); C. Grafton, Historic Alphabets and Initials (1977); A. Gaur, A History of Writing (1984); D. Sacks, Language Visible (2003).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

A B C et Cetera: The Life & Times of the Roman Alphabet
Alexander Humez; Nicholas Humez.
David R. Godine, 1987
The Triumph of the Alphabet: A History of Writing
A. C. Moorhouse.
Henry Schuman, 1953
How Things Got Better: Speech, Writing, Printing, and Cultural Change
Henry J. Perkinson.
Bergin & Garvey, 1995
Librarian’s tip: Chap. Three "Alphabetic Writing"
Alpha to Omega: The Life & Times of the Greek Alphabet
Alexander Humez; Nicholas Humez.
David R. Godine, 1983
The Alphabet Abecedarium: Some Notes on Letters
Richard A. Firmage.
David R. Godine, 1993
Ancient Writing and Its Influence
B. L. Ullman.
Longmans, Green, 1932
David Diringer.
Frederick A. Praeger, 1962
Librarian’s tip: Chap. V "Phonetic Scripts and the Alphabet" and Chap. VI "Diffusion of the Alphabet"
A Study of Writing: The Foundations of Grammatology
I. J. Gelb.
University of Chicago Press, 1952
Librarian’s tip: Chap. V "The Alphabet"
FREE! Modern English: Its Growth and Present Use
George Philip Krapp.
Charles Scribner's Sons, 1909
Librarian’s tip: "A Phonetic Alphabet" begins on p. 113 and "Alphabet and Sounds" begins on p. 115
FREE! Ancient Times, a History of the Early World: An Introduction to the Study of Ancient History and the Career of Early Man
James Henry Breasted.
Ginn, 1916
Librarian’s tip: "The Phoenicians Bring the First Alphabet to Europe" begins on p. 270
From Cave Painting to Comic Strip: A Kaleidoscope of Human Communication
Lancelot Hogben.
Chanticleer Press, 1949
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 3 "From Cave Paintings to Comic Strip: The Arrival of the Alphabet"
Studies in Language and Literature
George R. Coffman.
University of North Carolina Press, 1945
Librarian’s tip: "The Date of the Hellenic Alphabet: Literary and Epigraphical Evidence" begins on p. 35
The Roman Letter: A Study of Notable Graven and Written Forms from Twenty Centuries in Which Our Latin Alphabet Moved toward Its High Destiny as the Basic Medium of Printed Communication throughout the Western World
James Hayes.
R. R. Donnelley & Sons Company, 1951
The Power of the Written Word: The Role of Literacy in the History of Western Civilization
Alfred Burns.
Peter Lang, 1989
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 4 "Dark Ages and Rebirth"
The Handwriting of the Renaissance
Samuel A. Tannenbaum.
Columbia University Press, 1930
Librarian’s tip: Chap. I "The Renaissance Script"
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