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© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Alphabet: Selected full-text books and articles

A B C et Cetera: The Life & Times of the Roman Alphabet By Alexander Humez; Nicholas Humez David R. Godine, 1987
Writing: Theory and History of the Technology of Civilization By Barry B. Powell Wiley-Blackwell, 2012
Librarian's tip: Chap. 17 "The Greek Alphabet: A Writing That Changed the World"
Alpha to Omega: The Life & Times of the Greek Alphabet By Alexander Humez; Nicholas Humez David R. Godine, 1983
The Alphabet Abecedarium: Some Notes on Letters By Richard A. Firmage David R. Godine, 1993
A Is for Einstein: The Alphabet versus the Internet By Preston, Nancy R Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 91, No. 1, September 2009
How Things Got Better: Speech, Writing, Printing, and Cultural Change By Henry J. Perkinson Bergin & Garvey, 1995
Librarian's tip: Chap. Three "Alphabetic Writing"
A Study of Writing: The Foundations of Grammatology By I. J. Gelb University of Chicago Press, 1952
Librarian's tip: Chap. V "The Alphabet"
Symmetries of the Alphabet By Eckler, A. Ross Word Ways, Vol. 40, No. 3, August 2007
FREE! Ancient Times, a History of the Early World: An Introduction to the Study of Ancient History and the Career of Early Man By 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 By Lancelot Hogben Chanticleer Press, 1949
Librarian's tip: Chap. 3 "From Cave Paintings to Comic Strip: The Arrival of the Alphabet"
The Power of the Written Word: The Role of Literacy in the History of Western Civilization By Alfred Burns Peter Lang, 1989
Librarian's tip: Chap. 4 "Dark Ages and Rebirth"
The Handwriting of the Renaissance By Samuel A. Tannenbaum Columbia University Press, 1930
Librarian's tip: Chap. I "The Renaissance Script"
Looking for a topic idea? Use Questia's Topic Generator
Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.